Saturday, July 31, 2004

The Thing Itself is the Abuse

I have a lot of friends who are not fans of George Bush. To put it mildly. They wish him no harm, certainly not Nicholson Baker's dadaist fantasy of flying saws, but they think he is the worst President since...well, ever.

These same people, without exception, talk about how great and important the "state" is.

Me, I wonder what the "state" is. There is a guy, George Bush, who in many ways runs the state, but my statist friends hate him. The state must be something else. It could be Louis XIV, of course, because he said "l'Etat, c'est moi !". But my friends don't really think Louis XIV was the ideal form of government. What is the answer? What is the state?

I think I found it. The state is Cherrail Curry-Hagler, of the DC Transit Police.

The Washington Post ran a
story, and another, about a scientist who got arrested for taking three or four seconds too long to obey the state.

Here are the facts, which (remarkably) are not in dispute. Seriously, the arresting officer (Ms. C-H) agrees that these are the facts.

Stephanie Willett, EPA Scientist, 45
Cherrail Curry-Hagler, DC Transit Policewoman

About 6:30 p.m. July 16, Willett was riding the escalator from 11th Street NW (DC transit map) into the station, and eating a "PayDay" candy bar. Cherrail Curry-Hagler, D.C. transit policewoman, was riding up on the other escalator. Officer Curry-Hagler warned Willett to finish the candy before entering the station.

Willett nodded but kept chewing the peanut-and-caramel bar as she walked through the fare gates. Curry-Hagler, who had turned around and followed Willett, warned her again as she stuffed the last bit into her mouth before throwing the wrapper into the trash can near the station manager's kiosk, according to both Willett and the officer.

Curry-Hagler ordered Willett to stop and show ID, because she (Ms. C-H) intended to write a citation. Willett said she refused to stop and told the officer, "Why don't you go and take care of some real crime?" while still chewing the PayDay bar as she rode a second escalator to catch her Orange Line train.

At that point, Willett said, Curry-Hagler grabbed her and patted her down, running her hands around Willett's bust, under her bra and around her waist. She put Willett in a police cruiser and took her to the D.C. police 1st District headquarters, where she was locked in a cell. At 9:30 p.m., after she paid a $10 fee, Willett was released to her husband. She is scheduled to appear in court in October for a hearing.

Okay, now here's the thing:
1. Ms. Willett was on a DOWN ESCALATOR. She couldn't turn around.
2. She was already chewing the candy bar. She couldn't spit it out, without littering. Even I think you should be given a ticket if you spit chewed up food on a public escalator.
3. When Willett got to the bottom of the escalator, she put the last bit into her mouth, threw the wrapper into the trash can, and continued on toward her train.

There is no way that Ms. Willett could have obeyed the instruction not to eat in the station, unless she had run back up the escalator, or spit out candy bar.

The real reason that Ms. Willett (who, if it matters, is African-American, as is Ms. Curry-Hagler) got smacked down is that she brought out some attitude. She said, "Why don't you go and take care of some real crime?"

And here is the answer: given the law on the books, Ms. Willett had flagrantly committed "a real crime." You can't take food into a station, and you can't eat in the station. Ms. Curry-Hagler had not, in fact, committed an abuse of the system. Ms. Curry-Hagler, and all the other eager beaver Transit Gestapo in DC, are out there with their gimlet-eyed vigilance for EXACTLY offenses like these.

Which brings me to brilliant, but not nearly well-known enough, observation by Edmund Burke, in A Vindication of Natural Society.

In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse! Observe, my Lord, I pray you, that grand Error upon which all artificial legislative Power is founded. It was observed, that Men had ungovernable Passions, which made it necessary to guard against the Violence they might offer to each other. They appointed Governors over them for this Reason; but a worse and more perplexing Difficulty arises, how to be defended against the Governors? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

[The Latin bit at the end means, "Who will guard the guardians?" But you knew that.]

The U.S. has criminalized so much behavior, from eating a candy bar on an escalator while moving toward a Metro station to mild drug use to consensual sexual practices, that our prisons are full of people innocent of any real crime. The only reason that we are even talking about the case of Ms. Willett is that she was middle class and an employed professional. In poor areas all over the U.S., police harass and beat nameless citizens while trying to enforce unenforceable laws. Those cops, and those bureaucrats who try to enforce the tax laws and the regulations on transactions and safety standards and a thousand other things, may or may not be good people. I expect that Ms. Curry-Hagler took her tin Transit Cop badge, and herself, a little too seriously in handcuffing Ms. Willett. But we don't fall out only with the abuse. The state, the state itself, with its hydra-headed legal restrictions on liberty and its extraordinarily complex and expensive mechanisms of support and oppression....the thing itself is the abuse.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jesse says: I don't know why, but personally I find this segment fascinating and important; a need to discuss and think about the role of the state, the role of the individual, and the role of authority. I have a couple of comments that I believe are relevant, but I can't say if they support your feelings, counter them, or are just an interesting side dish.

A million years ago, I worked for a state highway department doing traffic control studies. There was an objective, engineering-based, decision model for deciding whether to put in various control devices such as 4way stops, speed limits, etc. It was fascinating the way the people would call and loudly complain how desperately their neighborhood intersection *needed* a 4 way stop. This despite our science based study that said "no." Rural towns would get their congressman involved to lower the highway speed limit in their town after we refused (again based on an objective method), and then we would sit back and watch previously law-abiding citizens become criminals - *not* by changing their speeds, but by driving the same way they always had. Conclusion: sometimes the state is *us*, to attempt to quote Pogo, "We have seen the enemy and he is us."

Another observation, this time regarding the metro cop: With aforementioned highway job, I drove around in an official car with a big, amber light bar across the roof. I wasn't a cop, the light only served to caution drivers as they went by me working, yet not a few times I would get my knickers in a twist by some perceived slight to my (fantasy) authority. I would feel slighted despite the fact that I had been thru college, taken sociology courses, thus suposedly had a college enlighted attitude towards mankind. Additionally, I had a 60's inspired, youthful, healthy disrespect for authority, especially cop authority. So why on earth would I take such umbrage? Imagine if I liked guns and wanted to be a cop? Cops have to deal with guns - so we train them; they have to use a radio and drive fast - so we train them; they have to know their law - so we train them; they have to be stoic, ignore attitude, deal with jerks, not let stuff get to them - so we...? What? I doubt cops are ever trained for this. Trained to take spit in the eye and turn the other way, not give a flip. My highway taught me this is hard to do - and important. Goofy as it sounds, it's actually important for cops to be emotional robots, but I doubt we train them for this. C-H certainly seems wound to tight.