"It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."
— Emiliano Zapata
"You have it backwards. It's better to live on your feet
than to die on your knees." — Catch 22
I'm literally a little old Jewish man: between 5' and 5'2" tall (say 1.55 m), depending on the condition of the collapsing discs in my spine, and 70 years old. Still, I have a strong feeling that if I ever get arrested in the USA, I'm going to get hurt, and a fair number of my fellow Americans would approve of my getting hurt.
To begin, let me tell you where I'm coming from, and "let me tell you where I'm coming from" is a good indication that part of "where" is 1968, and not just because I was alive in 1968.
The 1968 is relevant here in several ways.
First off, as a child of the 1960s, I grew up on movies and television and was more conscious than your average bear, or viewer, of the changes in movies and TV — and as unconscious as most on how deeply I was affected by TV and movies.
For the unconscious part, or semi-conscious, there is the appalling amount I know, or think I know, that comes from movies and TV. The worst case of this was, I eventually recognized, when I had to think about why I had "decided" — and I'm serious about the quotation marks with "decided" — why I chose a specialized college curriculum to become a biochemist. Hey, I'd seen movies on Madame Curie and Paul Ehrlich and Louis Pasteur, and being a scientist seemed a really neat thing to do. It was also a highly fashionable career choice for boys in the late 1960s, but I'd primarily decided on biochem because of biopics, and I was thinking about that decision because I'd discovered that biochemistry really wasn't a good field for me. Biochem rested on organic chemistry, and one of the issues not handled in the movies was that organic chemistry requires a good sense of spatial perception, which is largely heritable, and which I had not inherited.
Relevant here, movies and television — including TV news — were and remain the source of most of my knowledge on police procedures, and they may be no more accurate or complete on what cops generally do than old biopics were on the lives of scientists.
In the novel Inherent Vice (2009), Thomas Pynchon's protagonist, Larry "Doc" Sportello, a pothead private investigator ca. 1970, notes how in the old popular culture, P.I.'s were the heroes, and cops were the plodding bumblers who came in when the crime was solved to take credit for the great work of the P.I.'s. And, indeed, that's what I grew up on, from Sherlock Holmes and other British detective stories through Ellery Queen and 1940s noir to Mike Barnett: "Man Against Crime" and Frank Cannon: rotund detective — well, and so on. There were also defense attorneys of note, which in my memory were all played by Raymond Burr, and, reinforcing other of my ideas, ideal cops like Jack Webb's Detective Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet or the DA on Mr. District Attorney. I didn't particularly watch Mr. District Attorney on television — maybe not at all — but I do remember the radio version, and I am not the only one to have memorized the opening. To quote a comment on the IMDb site, "I loved the way the show began each week in front of that singular Los Angeles County Courthouse. The show's announcer would start off with this anthem: 'Mr. District Attorney...Champion of the People...Defender of Truth...Guardian of our fundamental right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Then the district attorney would respond: 'And it shall be my duty as district attorney not only to prosecute to the limit of the law all persons accused of crimes perpetrated within this county, but to defend with equal vigor the rights and privileges of all its citizens.'"
As Doc Sportello notes, the times they were a-changin' by the 1970s, and unto today the trend has been to tell stories from the point of view of cops and prosecutors, and cops and prosecutors very different from straight-arrow, by-the-book Joe Friday and DA's committed to civil rights and civil liberties. The turning point may've been the TV pilot movie, Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You in 1971, starring Kennedy ex-brother-in-law Peter Lawford as Ellery Queen and Joe Friday's recent ex-partner Harry Morgan as Inspector Richard Queen, Ellery's father. In my memory — which is what counts here — an important culture turning-point got turned when Lawford's Ellery Queen wants to get information from what I think was a doctor's — psychiatrist's? — office, and Morgan's daddy Queen says that the only way he knows how to get files is with a subpoena. Quick condescending look from Lawford and then a quicker cut to the Queens, father and son, flashlights deployed, going through files in what was clearly illegal entry.
I recall thinking later that that scene signaled a shift laying the groundwork for the Watergate scandal, with its breaking and entering confidential-file snatching committed by people representing authorities pledged to uphold law, order, and the bill of rights.
"Bad boys, bad boys / Whatcha gonna do …?" — Well, in some cases join the police force and behave very badly indeed.
As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was in Chicago summer of 1968, and got to see the riots, most closely the police riot at Michigan Avenue and Balbo during the Democratic National Convention; and I was in Champaign-Urbana Illinois in May of 1970 after the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State and got to encounter Illinois State Police with their name tags removed and riot batons out and ready. I can sympathize with the police in Chicago and Urbana, and even to some extent with the Ohio National Guard at Kent State: they were under a lot of pressure, and, at Kent State, possibly intentionally stressed out, with Governor James Rhodes wishing a confrontation: not a deadly confrontation, the rumor went, but a confrontation. The clubbing of demonstrators in Chicago had the net effect of increasing the popularity of Richard J. Daley, the Chicago mayor at the time. For sure there were people in Illinois in May of 1970 who expressed the wish that the Ohio National Guard had killed many more demonstrators — perhaps all the demonstrators — at Kent State.
In any event, during the "Troubles" of the Long 1960s (ca. 23 Nov. 1963-8 Aug. 1974), I didn't have much cause to identify with the forces of law and order that would be celebrated in the media in coming years as the thin blue line protecting good Americans from chaos and, as time went on, moving to the offensive in the War on Crime and the War on Drugs and, along with it, performing some mopping up operations in the counter-attack against dissent.
Which brings me from Chicago and Champaign-Urbana and the dying days of the 1960s to Butler County, Ohio, and more recent times.
I forget the occasion, but a group of us trouble-makers were at the office of our Representative in Congress from what is now Speaker John Boehner's Ohio 8th Congressional District. I remained outside the office, but a couple or three of my colleagues stayed inside after closing hours and submitted to arrest for trespassing.
Significant here — and significant, period — was that one of the two or three arrestees was a colleague of mine in the Miami University English Department, a man in his late 60's who'd grown up in the tradition of one of the Peace Churches: a non-threatening old guy committed to non-violence.
He was arrested, handcuffed, and shackled, and the local head law-enforcement official — Chief of Police of Hamilton, OH, or, more likely, the Butler County Sheriff — waited for the media to arrive and then brought him outside shackled, and paused for the photo-op. The head cop wanted that picture on the evening news: the local chief representative of Good Order and Obedience pictured holding prisoner a definite troublemaker in a jacket, tie, grey beard, and shackles.
The image has stuck with me.
I understand why cops no longer ask the old TV question, "Will you come along quietly, or do I have to cuff you?" The protocols call for the cuffs (etc.) because the bosses of the cops want to avoid lawsuits. The Powers That Be don't want cops hurt, and they don't want prisoners hurt. They don't want to be sued for racial discrimination. So they treat everyone as potentially armed and dangerous and, well, uppity — and in America of recent years, and increasingly, there's a fairly good chance that a lot of people they arrest will be, if not all that dangerous, at least well-armed.
Moreover the cultural norm nowadays is that it's manly — or at least not cowardly — for cops to cuff even old folks, women, and children, and even to shoot first rather than risk not getting off the first shot (but that's another topic, and one I've repeated). In that War on Crime, there are no real civilians: we're all potential insurgents, and all prisoners might be treated like POW's. Except there are Geneva Convention rules for handling POWs, so let's say we're all potential enemy combatants and should be treated as dangerous and not exactly innocent until proven guilty and sovereign citizens commanding respect.
Which gets me to why I might get hurt if arrested: probably not shot — I'm White-ish, though not Aryan — but tasered or Maced or clubbed behind the knees or at least roughed up.
I'm an unreconstructed reform, by God!, Reform Jew, and even on the Day of Atonement I don't bow or prostrate myself to God. I am a firm, small-r republican American, and I would nod my head respectfully to royalty, if I ever got in the presence of royalty, or perhaps execute a slight bow from the waist. When I came out west to do movies, I said my ambition was to whore myself to Hollywood but retained two taboos: I wouldn't do blowjobs or public relations.
If there were a firefight going on, I'd keep very low indeed, but if bullets weren't flying, I'd have trouble bringing myself to get down on my knees if ordered to by cops or, "Get down! Now! Flat on the ground!" as movies and TV sometimes show arrests. If my courage held — a big "if," but if my courage held — I'd raise my hands, say "I'm unarmed; I surrender!" and if told to kneel or prostrate myself, I'd hope I'd repeat, "I'm unarmed; I surrender to you; I'll come along quietly" and live on my feet, if possible, but stay on them and off my knees, and strongly decline to be chained. If I won't kneel or prostrate myself to God, I should refuse to kneel to the State or to some courage-and-courtesy challenged, bad-boy cop — or even to by-the-book cops following protocol. Although if by-the-book cops were really, really polite and apologized for the protocol and said that they themselves weren't wimps but I could cost them their jobs if they brought me in unrestrained — then I might reconsider (but I'd try to make them feel really bad as they put on the restraints).
Still, I strongly suspect that if arrested I might get tased or Maced or roughed up, and that few Americans would sympathize. The question, as one man on the street put it in the 1960s is "Who's in charge?", and most Americans, nowadays I think, think disobeying a cop a serious offense and it'd be only right if I got hurt for it.
Now it might be bad if a decent, patriotic Tea Party person go hurt by the horrible pigs of the US Park Service or DC Police; that would be different. But a stubborn old Jew from the 1960s who quotes Zapata? I think one or more cops could take me down at least to my knees without getting into too much trouble, and might instead be in trouble if they took my word for it that I'd come along peacefully and didn't put on the cuffs.