HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 23, 2007
From Liberty Street

Irrational or Shrewd?

John Turner


All week CBS had been advertising a segment for 60 Minutes that would provide a searching look at rap lyrics. In the aftermath of the Don Imus affair, it was suggested, the public -- both blacks and whites -- were getting fed up with raw, obscene vulgar sentiments being blasted over the air waves. I decided this was something I had to see.

It turned out to be not so much about nasty language as about the rule among many inner city youth that snitching is forbidden. And by "snitching" is meant providing the police with any information about criminal activity that might be going on in one's neighborhood.

The program itself and most of the guests -- aside from the black teenagers interviewed -- appeared to be aghast at this attitude. Over and again the question was asked why people wouldn't be eager to come forward and reveal the bad actors in their community. The implication was that failure to cooperate with law enforcement officials is perfectly irrational.

Not once was there a hint about the obvious truth of the situation. The inner city youth regard established society as their darkest enemy, and the cops are seen as the shock troops of that destructive force. Bad as criminals may be, they don't begin to present the threat that the police do. So, why should anyone cooperate with people who are working every minute to oppress them?

Some will say, of course, that this is a nonsensical view of the police. But that's not the point. The issue was why people won't tell the police anything. And if that was the issue why weren't CBS and, even the hard-driving 60 Minutes, avid to dig into it?

The reason is fairly clear. Though we have freedom of the press in this country, the main news outlets are constrained by a set of pieties which can never be questioned. And the most ardent of these is the faith that the ruling forces in the United States are good and are working for the benefit of the people. And at the very core of that goodness are the men and women who wear neat uniforms and carry big guns.

The difficulty is that greater and greater numbers of people are beginning to have doubts about that piety. Evidently, people in the inner cities have experiences every day which convince them that the police are not their friends but are, instead, their most ruthless enemies. From that perspective, it makes perfect sense never to give them any help under any circumstances. It doesn't matter how much you may dislike what some members of your community are doing. To turn them over to the cops is to go over to the enemy and to betray everything you feel deserves your loyalty.

If news organizations were behaving as they should, they would look into the reasons for that attitude and try to give the public a fair-minded assessment of how valid it is. If they did, they would find that in some instances it makes sense and in others it doesn't.

I recall several years ago attending a pro-football game in a big city. As the crowd was filing out of the stadium the public announcer warned people not to put their hands on the rails separating one section of the seats from another. The reason, presumably, was to prevent fans from jumping over the rails to attempt to get ahead of the crowd. There were numbers of policemen patrolling the aisles and whenever they saw anyone touch one of the rails they attempted to smash his fingers with their nightsticks. And they succeeded in a number of instances. In no case I saw was the person attempting to jump over the rail. It's a fairly natural thing when one is walking along beside a rail to rest a hand on it. But the motive didn't matter to the cops. They wanted to smash fingers and they did it whenever they got a chance. They were, in short, thugs, pure and simple. And I was convinced if they acted that way in a public setting, their actions would be even worse when they had someone in a back alley. A few encounters with men like that and I wouldn't tell them anything either.

There is no longer any reason -- if there ever was -- for the news agencies to assume that the forces who present themselves as defenders of law and order are always on the right side of an issue. If we got more looks at how they are actually behaving, the actions of so-called anti-social characters would become more explicable. I am not arguing that the latter are always right. That would be just as naive as always to believe the cops. But the press needs to stand for something higher than belief in the authority and beneficence of established society. The press needs to tell the truth. And that, the big press agencies are not doing very well in today's America.


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