by Neil H. Buchanan
It is difficult even to begin writing columns these days, because there is so much going wrong in the world. When the issue of systemic racism came to dominate our lives, however, it became even more of a challenge to try to engage in a helpful way. As a white Anglo-Saxon protestant man with a titled academic position, I have to ask myself what this aging liberal can say that does not run the danger of being presumptuous or possibly tone-deaf.
It then occurred to me that I can come at this by acknowledging my privilege. I am committed to engaging with others and to trying to understand and help (if I can) those who have reason to fear the police, but maybe it is also useful at least to try to describe what it is like not to fear the police.
That is, I can attempt to explain how the privileges of race, class, and gender play out in ways that are often all too easy to take for granted. Stopping to think about what I have almost never had to think about is enlightening, not only in terms of my own self-awareness but as a means of asking what a much better world would look like.
The short version is simple: Privilege is great. I am fortunate. Everyone should be able to enjoy the same privilege and take it for granted. Is that possible?
In 1971, the Supreme Court handed down Palmer v. Thompson, the primary holding of which is: "A city may choose not to operate desegregated facilities if its decision appears neutral on its face." The Jackson, Mississippi city council had decided to close public swimming pools rather than integrate them, which the Court by a 5-4 vote held did not violate equal protection.
The Palmer case has come to embody the concept of "leveling down or leveling up." That is, in order to make two unequal things equal, we can move the higher one down to the level of the lower one, or we can move the lower one up to the level of the higher one. "No one gets to swim in city pools" is equality, and so is "Everyone gets to swim in city pools." Level down or level up, either way you end up equal. But that hardly means that both approaches are right.
As I noted above, people in my position in society are on the higher level when it comes to our interactions with the police. It makes no sense to level down, making us as afraid of the police as everyone else is. This is a situation where expanding the group of people who have the privilege of not being afraid of the police is in principle quite straightforward, even though it has never been done in this country -- and even though there are powerful actors, including the current occupant of the White House and his lawless Attorney General, who want to keep things as they are.
Contrast this leveling up or down question with the issue of economic inequality. When Senator Bernie Sanders says that billionaires should not exist, he is of course not saying that any physical harm should come to billionaires but simply that there is something deeply unjust about a system that creates billionaires at the same time that children go hungry or people die because health care is not recognized as a human right. A just society would not have billionaires.
Although there are right-wing propagandists who would like us to say that we should all aspire to be billionaires rather than disparaging them, the fact is that there is a limit to how much leveling up we can do when it comes to income and wealth inequality. Billionaires, or people who think that they have a reasonable shot at being extremely wealthy, definitely have something to lose from progressive policies that would level things out a bit. To be clear, there is no defensible argument against Sanders- or Elizabeth Warren-style anti-inequality policies (which are quite mild), but saying that it is worth it to reduce the privileges of those at the top does not deny that we would be reducing the privileges of those at the top.
When it comes to dealing with the police, however, there is simply no reason that the privileges that the lucky minority to which I belong takes for granted could not become the norm for everyone. Fair treatment by law enforcers is not -- or at least need not and should not be -- a limited resource that only a few can enjoy.
What does this privilege look like? To be clear, I do worry when I have interactions with law enforcement officers, because I am aware that a motivated bad actor could do things to me and get away with them. Immunity is immunity, and my privilege is not absolute. (That is what Donald Trump thinks he has and deserves.) But this underlying fear is eased for people like me by two factors. First, if something bad happens, I have resources on which to draw (not just money but friends and acquaintances, including lawyers and judges) that would give me a decent chance of redress.
More importantly, second, I go about my daily life able to presume that nothing bad is likely to happen when it comes to the police and me. I will not be profiled and thus pulled over pretextually, and I will almost certainly not be treated harshly if there is an interaction with law enforcement. This is in part because the police are also aware that people like me are better able to respond to mistreatment, reinforcing the loop of privilege.
OK, but what does that look like in real life? Consider a remarkable example from several years ago, when I was living in Washington, D.C. -- remarkable mostly because of what did not happen to me in what could have become a very fraught situation.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in May 2008, I decided to walk from my office several blocks west of the White House to a movie theater several blocks east. As I approached the sidewalk in front of the White House (the section of Pennsylvania Avenue that is now behind multiple levels of fencing), the Secret Service suddenly came out and closed the sidewalk without explanation. I was told to take a different route, and (because I was unfamiliar with the area) I ended up walking around the South Lawn.
Because of some poorly placed metal barriers, I ended up walking on a driveway that was actually supposed to be closed to the public. I was not particularly close to the White House itself, but as I emerged from a grove of trees, I was surprised to see tourists gathered ahead and to my right, behind two knee-high fences. About one hundred yards ahead of me was a Secret Service squad car and some officers on bicycles leaning against the car and chatting.
I decided not to turn and walk away, because I worried that it would look like I was fleeing. I thought, "Well, they'll notice me at some point and tell me that I'm in the wrong place, and I'll follow their instructions." When they finally did see me, one officer got on his car's speaker and said, "Step over the fence." I thought, "OK, there are two fences here, but he said 'fence,' singular. I guess he wants me to step over the first fence and wait." Again, I did not want to appear to be fleeing, and it seemed important to obey orders precisely.
It took another few minutes for the officers even to notice me again, but I waited patiently. When they did finally realize what was happening, the officer shouted sarcastically: "Get over the fence. It's not that difficult!" I saw red, because I did not like being publicly mocked, especially because I had been careful to follow orders. Angered and annoyed, I then scowled at the officers as I walked on, not looking away for several minutes until I was too far away to see them. They watched me the entire time, and we were essentially engaged in a stare-down as I walked by.
It was only later that I realized just how insane it had been for me to be so brazen in my defiance. If I were not living in my privileged world, I would not have been able to assume that I could get away with such an attitude, and I suspect that a non-privileged person would never even consider doing what I did -- at least not without knowing that they risked much worse than a mere staring contest with a few Secret Service agents.
The most fascinating aspect of this, I think, is that everything I did was based on my unexamined presumption that I was quite safe in doing so. My father had never sat me down for a talk and said, "Neil, because you're privileged, you can be confrontational with police officers." Living when and where I lived and knowing how that world treated me, no one had to tell me that I could get away with things that others would never even consider doing. I have, in my life, rolled my eyes at police officers and argued with them, all the while considering it perfectly normal not to fear violent consequences.
Contrast my attitude with how Eric Garner or George Floyd conducted themselves before their murders. Consider that, if somehow an officer did appear to be killing someone like me with a choke hold or other excessive force, not only bystanders but other officers would be much more likely to intervene.
And it is not just in extreme situations that privilege arises. I recall when I was in my twenties, hearing a friend tell a story about when he was a student at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. It was actually a rather hilarious tale that involved my friend and his drunk/high buddies trying to steal a Big Boy statue from the front of a restaurant. The full-sized Big Boy statue! The story included their dealing with the police officers who arrived on the scene, with the perpetrators knowing that they would get away with merely a warning and advice to go home and sleep it off. Would a non-privileged kid have even considered doing something like that?
The nature of this kind of privilege is that it need never be seriously doubted. Yes, there are limits to what people like me can expect to get away with, but that is good. What I want, more than anything, is for the world to level up when it comes to police interactions with the public. Everyone should be able to assume that the police will not use excessive force, will not escalate, and will not treat any of their fellow citizens as the enemy.
What I have is precious, and it only looks precious when one looks at the alternative. This is an area in which the new normal is not some hard-to-imagine world of sweetness and light. All it has to entail is for the people to whom public safety is entrusted to treat all citizens in the same way that they currently treat our most privileged citizens. No one loses, and plenty of people win.