When I was in college, I was a lazy English major spending long afternoons and too much student loan money eating bon bons and reading indulgent novels. One of my classes on Shakespeare was taught by a woman who was encyclopedic in her knowledge and spellbinding in her delivery, Dr. Cunningham- a firebrand if ever there were one.
“In Shakespeare’s London, Fleet Street was full of filth- it was known as being the most disgusting place in the city. It was a teeming mess of putrid trash. It’s no coincidence that Fleet is now a brand of enema.”
“Shakespeare’s Globe Theater was right across the Thames from a mental institution, Bethlehem Hospital. On Sundays, you could tour the hospital for a penny and see all the syphilitics foaming at the mouth. The rural pronunciation of “Bethlehem” is where we get the term ‘bedlam,’ meaning “it’s totally crazy, as in, ‘it was pure bedlam in there.’ That, along with bear baiting, was the primary competition for Shakespeare’s plays.”
“There were almost 200,000 people in London during Shakespeare’s time. It was a huge metropolis, but it was considerably difficult to keep order. This was long before police forces existed. How do you have a metropolis without police?”
For some reason, for the last many years, it’s that last one that I keep thinking of. How do you have a –polis without police?
She’s right. It’s in the word. The police come from the idea of the city itself. More broadly, they come from the city itself, this civilian (as in non-military) force that watches over us and keeps us safe. We agreed that this would be a good thing. Someone to watch over us. To guard us and help us when our towns and cities started getting too big to rely on our neighbors. And it made sense to give these watchers permission to use force, to prevent the bad stuff from happening. And it made sense to give them some deference and respect, because they put their lives on the line to protect our families, our sleeping babes and lost grandparents, from the frightening things that happen in a city too big to know who all the bad guys are.
But, dear friends, fellow citizens, things have gone so horribly, horribly wrong.
I don’t know what it is about summer that makes the police brutality seem so much more flagrant and frequent. I don’t know if it’s the cycle of the news or the terrible heat, making beat cops all that more itchy, but I dread these months so much because of it. I see the outcries of the Black community, my friends and clients and fellow people in this world, and I just grieve.
I haven’t spoken out about these awful killings, the ones I won’t link to because we all KNOW what I’m talking about. I haven’t spoken out because I felt like anyone who knew me must know how I would feel about these things, must know the hours I have spent in mourning and frustration and anger because of these people who were gunned down like dogs by the people we put our collective trust in.
And I haven’t spoken out because, as a white, middle-class woman with a lot of advantages, I did not want to take anything- even a very small, small thing- away from the Black community who has so much more claim to this grief and frustration than I do, and deals with the absolute terror of living in a society where their sons and fathers are not safe to walk down the street in the middle of the day. I have no idea what that must be like. When I was growing up, I was taught that if you ever got lost, were in danger, were separated from your parents or the group, find a police officer and he will help you. I can only imagine that that must be unimaginable for many of my fellow Americans.
But as much as I don’t know what the experience of being Black in America is like, I can’t hold this inside me anymore, and without taking anything from those who are, by their birth, by their skin, voluntarily or not, on the front lines of this, I will stand next to you. I will devote my life to standing next to you. I am raw, and I am furious and I must speak. I am a part of this society. I am a part of this culture that put our trust in these police who are now out of control.
Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.” That is what this is. We can’t see these things on the news anymore and shake our heads and make a snide comment about stupid fucking cops and move on with our day. We can’t think that arguing with our racist uncle on Facebook about it is enough. We can’t talk about anything else- anything- until the people who are summarily executing our citizens on our street are stopped. This is all there is. Who will guard the guards themselves? It has to be us.
We are a nation under attack by people we have armed and who are militarizing against us. This is Fleet Street. This is bedlam. How do we have a –polis without police? Now is the time to figure out how to answer that question. That is the only question. Go.