Five Notes on Guns and the Police

by Richard Kostelanetz (January 2014)


Having written before on this website about common misunderstandings about guns in America, may I comment upon two recent incidents that drew (too) much press attention at the time, but are now far enough behind us to be seen more objectively.

In late September, a gang of bikers attacked an Asian-American couple whose SUV had gotten in their way on the West Side Highway in my home town of New York City. Not only were their victims beaten with dangerous objects, but, in a development impossible only a few years ago, gruesome footage showed up on YouTube and televison news.

In late February, a black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot dead inside a gated community in Florida. (To more than one fellow New Yorker I needed to explain that a gated community is the provincial equivalent of a building with a doorman.)

Each episode must be understood in the context of different guns laws in each state. Since New York City forbids its citizens to have concealed weapons, the gang of violent bikers depended upon the likelihood that their victims could not retaliate with lethal force. They knew that even if they killed their victims no biker would die.

But Florida has different laws regarding guns; so does Texas, among other states. George Zimmerman, patrolling his own community, had legal right to a concealed weapon. If, as I understand correctly, young Martin threatened Zimmerman in some way, perhaps beating his head against pavement, Martin should have known in advance his victim might be armed. Though no footage exists of Martin thrashing Zimmerman, pictures of the latter’s wounds tell their own grim story.

If a white man had similarly attacked a black Floridian likely to carry a concealed gun, how would the victim be regarded? Or if a New Yorker got shot from fist-beating a Floridian entitled to carry a concealed gun, what would we call him? A hero? Or a jerk?

Precisely because guns are more fearsome than knives, (though less murderous than, say, Molotov cocktails or suicide-bombers’ explosives), gross misunderstandings of the legal uses of personal weapons has become, in my judgment, measures of culpable stupidity. Indeed, widespread thoughtlessness about guns also makes life in our country more dangerous than it should be.

Much as I hope again never to need to write about guns in America in the future, I suspect that, as long as misunderstandings persist, I’ll need to do so, dammit.

II

The recent New York City mayoral race was won by the candidate that promised to end “stop and frisk” by NYC police of likely perpetrators. For reasons mysterious to me, this promise gained some traction among NYC white voters, who had little to fear about such an affront to themselves but, may I guess, imagined it would offend them.

One truth is that New York City has become viscerally safer over the past two decades. How this happened isn’t obvious. While mayors Rudolph Guiliani and Michael Bloomberg would like to take credit for encouraging tougher preventive policing (epitomized by “stop and frisk”), my own opinion is that three other crucial factors should be considered: 1) Ubiquitous cell phones that permit people to call for help easily. 2) Surveillance photos that help capture perpetrators, especially after they are published in neighborhood newspapers or on websites. 3) The discovery among vulnerable young men that a slammer might not be the best place to spend their lives.

Ending stop-and-frisk means that some bad guys (yes, mostly guys) will have less fear about looking threatening on the street. Those most in jeopardy are not white people, who reside in neighborhoods far away with their own spies (e.g., doormen, block watchers), but law-abiding blacks and Latinos in poor neighborhoods and residents of marginal neighborhoods, such as mine (Ridgewood-Bushwick), that are now, by common consent, considerably safer than they were two decades ago. May I further suggest that, contrary to common opinion, the absence of visible police should be considered a measure of a safe neighborhood. In my own, I see them more often in a favorite Chinese take-out than in cars or on foot patrolling the streets.

(One curiosity of my own Latino ‘hood is that the only guys hanging out on my street corner are middle-aged Dominicans mostly selling fruit. I’d like to ask where younger men hang out, but they don’t speak English well enough and I don’t speak Spanish. For over a decade I’ve also patronized in the NYC Rockaways a predominantly black and brown family beach likewise devoid of obnoxious kids, who I assume go elsewhere.)

Once the truth about the perils of ending stop-and-frisk is recognized, may I predict that, though the new mayor has changed police commissioners, such preventive policing won’t end, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Someone in charge will discover that potential bad-guys haven’t vanished, that lessening the responsibilities of police on the street is a counter-productive idea, and that too great is the risk of blowing away NYC’s reputation as a safer city.

III

Some years ago, when Henry-Louis Gates, the Harvard professor, complained that white cops in Cambridge, MA, arrested him one night for disorderly conduct, I wrote in the monthly Liberty that the real problem the African-Americans, Latinos, and other poor peoples have with cops is not that they abuse prejudicially, as Gates suspects they did to him, but that they don’t show up. The nature of their essentially theatrical job encourages police to don a costume, appear publicly, take some bows, keep their noses clean, and count down their hours before they can return home. Since demands upon police attention can be various, being someplace else can become an acceptable excuse. Furthermore, responding seriously, such as even withdrawing a gun from its holster, might require spending hours, if not a whole day, writing a report. (That accounts for why many, if not most, will testify that they’ve never used their service revolver.) Since Professor Gates may have never lived among poor urban people, he may not have experienced this truth about police failure or even known it.

Consider that Gates should be impressed, after a neighbor reported two guys trying to enter a house officially owned by Harvard University, that the police showed up at all. These cops could have been someone else (and, in retrospect, no doubt wish they were). Why they should have arrested Gates personally mystifies me, notwithstanding myths of “racial profiling,” as he’s a short middle-aged man with a walking stick (to compensate for a short leg). Cops don’t arrest people, not even younger black men, for nothing. (Consider initially the discouraging requirement to write a report.) Indeed, try to think of another example of a middle-aged man purportedly sober arrested for disorderly conduct and you get a measure of someone’s extra effort.

Thinking about this Gates episode recently, I was reminded that some fifty years ago, while I graduate student at Columbia University, I lived with my then-wife in a low-rent public-housing project a few blocks down Amsterdam Avenue from the Columbia campus. At the time we took it for granted that the project should have its own uniformed “housing police” with their own headquarters inside one of the eleven buildings comprising the project with over 200 apartments and thus perhaps one thousand people. Most of these Housing Police were black and Puerto Rican, as were the residents of our project at that time. Perhaps because white people were few in the Grant Houses, I can recall that some of them knew me by sight, as I nodded to them.

I now suspect that some sixty years ago NYCHA police were instituted, probably with different criteria for admission, because someone smart realized that the principal NYC police force, then even more white than now, wouldn’t reliably show up for trouble in the NYCHA projects. Thanks, whomever.

Some forty years ago I taught one day a week at John Jay, which was a later branch of City University of New York. As it was founded in 1965 as a College of Criminal Justice to accommodate the changing work schedules of police and firemen, classes were taught in both the mornings and evenings. Even in 1972, most of the students were still policemen wanting to get a B.A. so that, when they retired, they could get jobs better than a security guard. (Later, police would become a minority at John Jay.) As these police students often fell asleep in classes, we professors learned about a Magic Word that infallibly awoke everyone. That word was RACISM. All were opposed, naturally, as NYC was “progressive” even then, but they could debate the subject passionately forever. The most distressing measure of this memory is that forty years later, it may still be the best poke at sleeping students. Will it work at well in 2054? On this level, progress we haven’t, dammit.

IV

Need I write again that a pistol not used is no less a toy than a fake gun. A little old lady brandishing either to repel someone threatening her won’t be arrested. She probably won’t even make the news. Most Americans owning real pistols have a defensive weapon that they rarely, if ever, use outside of firing ranges.

Guns are no less threatening to crooks than to innocent victims. About to move into a dicey neighborhood a decade ago, I thought of purchasing a gun, yes, but didn’t, mostly because getting a license in New York State can be arduous. I imagined, instead, making an audiotape with the sound of gunshots that would go off automatically if a stranger entered my property. My calculation that any nervous intruder would run away before waiting to discover if the sound of shots accompanied real bullets. And no one would arrest me for possessing an unlicensed weapon. (Re ingenious defensive weapons, I can recall a brainy elementary school classmate who around 1950 carried in his pocket a World War II surplus signal flare with the expectation that if anyone threatened him, especially at night, others would see a perpetrator shit in his pants.)

V

Why “liberals” want the state to take away people’s guns utterly mystifies me. Don’t they know that confiscation is what dictatorships do? Why? So that a state can kill its citizens with impunity, as evil states did over and over again in the 20th century. Never forget that the principal reason America has never suffered a military takeover, though some loonies here would like to generate one, is that too many Americans own personal weapons they know how to use. That has also been a principal reason why no alien country has ever invaded the American mainland (or Switzerland or Israel). Don’t they know that the true “conservative” would confine weapons ownership to the ruling class and its agents in the police and the military? By that measure, Michael Bloomberg with his dozen armed bodyguards is nothing other than a classic conservative, notwithstanding his public advocacies. So would be Senator Diane Feinstein, who reportedly has a license to carry.

Need I repeat that widespread thoughtlessness about weapons and the police also makes life in our country more dangerous than it should be?

 

_______________________

 

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

 

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