The recent abuses of police power in Ferguson, Phoenix, and other cities are nothing new. Police officers, in spite of their extensive training, are all too human, reflecting the values of the communities they serve.
In his brilliant satire “What Have the Police Been Doing?” (1866), Mark Twain starts out praising the San Francisco police force of his time: “Ain’t they virtuous? Don’t they take good care of the city?” But then he goes on to say, “… isn’t it shown in the fact that although many offenders of importance go unpunished, they infallibly snaffle every Chinese chicken-thief that attempts to drive his trade.”
Twain gets to the heart of the matter in recounting the case of a man accused of stealing some flour sacks who, after being bashed in the skull, was locked up in a jail cell and allowed to die overnight unattended by a doctor. “Why shouldn’t the jailor do so? Why certainly—why shouldn’t he—the man was an infernal stranger. He had no vote. Besides, had not a gentleman just said he stole some flour sacks? Ah, and if he stole some flour sacks, did he not deliberately put himself outside the pale of humanity and Christian sympathy by that hellish act? I think so.”
Written almost 150 years ago, Twain’s words are still eerily relevant. When police react to a suspect as some infernal other, someone less than human, we lose something of ourselves.
All Twain quotes are from Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, published by Library of America in 1992.