Negating Oppression by Citing Privilege

An Update post (see original post on arrest for details of Skip’s arrest and contextualization within a larger framework of marginalization):

Police have dropped charges against Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. after news of his arrest spread across both the internet and the mainstream media. Comment makers on established news sites and blogs alike are using this fact to distract from the initial racialized way in which the police were called and the seemingly racist way in which they then arrested Skip and wrote up the report so as to appear victimized by him.

As a Harvard professor, represented by  another Harvard law professor, Skip’s privilege to strike back against a racist system is certainly greater than most people, some of whom who have ended up dead from injuries sustained during interrogation for daring to be “uppity” and others who have simply been forgotten by the system to languish in prison awaiting trials for trumped up offenses.

In a world where many different people are targeted by bigots within the police force or policies that uphold bigotry, we cannot forget those who have died or been assaulted for no other reason than being different. No one has forgotten footage of the police assault on Duana Johnson for refusing to respond to transphobic namecalling by the police in question, or that she was shot just before going to trial against the police in a case everyone assumed she would win. Nor hopefully, has anyone forgotten Tanveer Ahmed who was arrested for being undocumented after fending off a burglar at an oft-robbed gas station where he worked w/ the station’s unregistered gun and Hui Lui Ng who was detained after showing up for his green card interview, both men died in custody after their prison guards refused to provide repeatedly requested medical attention. Even Meghan Williams who was held captive, raped, forced to eat animal feces, and threatened with lynching ended up in jail moments after being released from hospital on a bad check charge; a charge that was in question b/c of diminished capacity due to mental disability. And while some of the people were in fact committing crimes for which they needed to be investigated, the fact that many of them ended up dead or re-traumatized can only be explained through the prism of difference.

The racism that unites Skip to these other people ensured that all of them would be caught up in a system of policing that not only protects against criminality but also polices seeming transgressions against established systems of power that privilege white, able-bodied, cis gendered, heterosexual, upper class, men. Their differences, ensured that once he survived the initial encounter (where he could have been easily shot and killed), his privilege ensured he would be exonerated and have legal recourse against police harassment and potential racial profiling, while they did not. Where their differences are immense, in this case between life and death, their similarities inform our understanding of state sanctioned violence and the nature of policing in this nation. Working from a model of similarity we can address the ways that policing threatens our society and the varying ways that policing is leveled against marginalized communities in order to seemingly protect the unearned privileges of the powerful. Working from a model of similarity and difference we can also deny people’s attempts at oppression olympics or worse at negating oppression all together.

As I suspected, stories of policing as disciplinary action against difference are starting to emerge. I find the story below, from a comment maker on an academic blog, particularly telling both for the way it underscores the argument I was making about mediated privilege on the margins of academe AND for its clear derail or subversion of the discussion of racism that the post to which it is responding was about, vs. my post about multiple oppressions:

a very senior colleague announced that ze was going on leave, divorcing, and going abroad for sex reassignment surgery. Ze would be back after a year’s leave, with a different name, etc. A week or so later ze was arrested at home by sheriff’s officers and I think the U. police, and committed to the U. hospital psychiatric ward, on the affadavit of hir sister. It happened again at a conference a few weeks later in a nearby big city, I understood, in front of a roomful of shocked attendees.

As in the examples I mentioned, the professor in question was a victim of the police through intentional targeted gender policing by a family member that trumped their status as a professor and also jeopardized it. At the same time, the specifics of this case, show how the state can uphold bigotry in intimate relationships (in this case the family) while the Gates example clearly shows how institutional oppression works to police “wrong bodies” in terms of the neighbor who not only failed to recognize her own neighbors but assumed a black man unlocking his own back door and then wedging the front with another black man were criminals, the police who arrested Gates for failing to be sufficiently docile upon insult and profiling, and the comment makers around the web minimizing or denying the racial aspects of the case.

UPDATE: Gates signed off on a joint statement saying that the arrest should in no way reflect negatively on Harvard, himself, or the police as part of an agreement to throw out the arrest. A press conference held by a police spokeswoman later however may have helped changed his mind about concluding the issue. During that press conference, the spokeswoman criticized Skip’s demeanor and stated out right that both he and the police were equally responsible for the incident. You can hear a person, who sounds like Skip, in the background exclaim “what?!” during her comments about him.

Shortly after the press conference Gates issues a statement saying that he wanted an apology from the arresting officer.

As expected, comment makers across the internet have acted as tho a request to be apologized to for being arrested for being upset that you were accused of burglarizing your own home is ridiculous and “entitled.” And many have suggested that Skip needs to say thank you to the police for investigating and apologize for being upset about it. I urge everyone tempted to think along those lines to ask themselves how they would feel if they were accused of breaking into their own home and then arrested for getting angry at an officer that Skip alleges would not give him his name and badge number when he said he wanted to file a complaint.

When I was held at gunpoint by police on my family’s property, I told my white appearing relatives what had happened when they got home. They too responded with comments like “well that’s horrible but I’m glad the police are doing their job” or “that’s bad, but if you had been a burglar . . .” I left completely demoralized and did not speak to them for a full year and a half. 1,5 years later, one of my relatives husband (a white male) set off the alarm and the police were dispatched before he could remember the code. Like me, he was instructed to have out his ID and that the alarm company would explain the situation to dispatch. When he opened the door to the police, ID in hand, the police did not draw their guns and threaten him, they explained they had had a report of a burglary. He explained that he had set off the alarm with a shrug, the cops called it in, got the info from the alarm company, and apologized for “disturbing” him. They left without checking his ID or searching the premises. He called and apologized to me personally saying “They didn’t even look around to see if I’d taken the real homeowner hostage! So I guess it really was racism last time.”  You can think this story is made up; you likely will. But I know first hand that in an instance where the events that brought the police to the door were exactly the same, involving the exact same alarm company, and the exact same police precinct (tho not same police as far as I know), if you switch the color (and the gender) of the person answering the door, you also switch the treatment you will receive. I’m lucky the police did not shoot me that night, as is Skip. If you do not have thank g-d you are still alive when the police leave your property, then you do not know what it is like to be policed to the extent that certain marginalized groups are in this country and you may want to temper your seemingly righteous anger at the “uppity black man” who dared to say enough is enough.

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