Saturday, December 05, 2009

It's a little too easy to dismiss this as Oh my God, it's a white boy discovering police prejudice!
A few months ago I had a run-in with the Jeff. Parish cops. I'll preface this story by saying I'm a white man, college educated, from California, and I generally have all the socioeconomic privileges that keep me from being a target of police profiling. When these JPSO cops stopped me though, I feared for my safety. I was simply riding my bike along the River levee and decided to cruise through Kennar (sic). Big mistake. The two JPSO deputies that followed me for three blocks and then pulled me over first physically threatened me when I asked, "is there a reason why you stopped me?" Then after searching me and running my ID, they informed me to leave the area or else: "this is a crack neighborhood." They said. "White people don't come back here." I was riding not four block off Kennar's main strip.

The message was, 'don't ride through black areas, white boy'; 'don't come into Jeff. Parish at all.' JPSO enforces segregation in order to further criminalize the black poor that live in Kennar and other parts of the mostly white Parish. I was outraged but powerless. Seeing Seagal playing police man to bolster JPSO's image upsets me deeply. That is a terribly troubled and violent police force that need a different kind of exposure.
I experienced Steven Seagal: Lawman vicariously through other folks tweets the other night and caught some of it through posted episodes on A&E's website (A&E, people. How the mighty have fallen there...but that's another post altogether). It's funny mainly because of Seagal's monster ego being fully on display in a Cops-like context, so stopping people for "existing while black", among the other terrible things the West Bank's Finest (ahem) may either create for themselves or have to deal with after the fact, are shot through with the action movie actor's constant emphasis on his martial arts background and punctuated by many, many zaps of multiple Tasers. It's so bad, it's almost badder than bad. Almost.

When one looks deeper into the entity that is the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, however, the comedy does fall away, hard and fast. The same show that will keep Seagal in the public eye will also subject the JPSO to greater scrutiny - you know, the department also cited in a lawsuit filed against the Gretna police department who turned back people trying to escape from a flood-ravaged New Orleans on the Crescent City Connection shortly after 8-29-05** - an action singled out for condemnation by Congress; the law enforcement entity once headed by now-deceased sheriff Harry Lee, who once proclaimed that blacks in white JP neighborhoods ought to be stopped by the police (check Carnival 1987-on in the timeline for that policy in action). It's crazy for a police force to be perpetuating such policies, but to be turning them around and applying them in the service of white supremacist idiocy: this is a crack neighborhood...white people don't come back here...well, who are they to perpetuate segregation?
Although white Americans often think we've had few first-hand experiences with race, because most of us are so isolated from people of color in our day-to-day lives, the reality is that this isolation is our experience with race. We are all experiencing race, because from the beginning of our lives we have been living in a racialized society, where the color of our skin means something socially, even when it remains largely a matter of biological and genetic irrelevance. Race may be a scientific fiction - and given the almost complete genetic overlap between the persons of the various so-called races, it appears to be just that - but it is a social fact that none of us can escape no matter how much or how little we may speak of it. just as there were no actual witches in Salem in 1692, and yet anti-witch persecution was frighteningly real, so too race can be a falsehood even as racism continues to destroy lives, to maim, kill, and, on the flipside, to advantage those who are rarely its targets.*
The JPSO has a terrible track record of perpetuating this thinking and imposing it on everyone...the imposition of its racism on everyone no matter what color they are is ironically the only equal right they afford to us all - the right to harass everybody.

And Seagal has bought into that with every episode of his show.

Just something to remember in the midst of all the Zen Taser madness.

*White Like Me, Tim Wise

** changed to correct factual errors; my bad.


swampwoman said...

I completely agree with your post. However in light of what the blogger said to the JP officer, 'is there a reason why you stopped me?' unfortunately this is not the kind of deferential rhetoric that folks should use in the face of any law enforcement entity in south Louisiana. This was obviously perceived as a "challenge" to authority by the officers and your friend nearly wound up underneath the jack boot.

I grew up down here knowing that when approached by a law enforcement officer to always be as humble and meek as possible, and to never, ever question someone with a badge. I read of people challenging cops and sheriffs all the time simply by asking questions who wind up getting the literal end of the stick. This is probably not the MO in other municipalities around the country, but it sure seems like taking the humble approach here could avert a boot to the back and cuffs on the wrists. Doesn't mean its right, but what else can you do when its between you and the badge?

Darwin BondGraham said...

Hey Leigh,

It'd be nice if you quoted my writing in the context of the entire blog post, but yeah, your point, which I share and made in the second half of my original post (yeah, the part you left out) is well taken. JPSO is messed up.

You also got some stuff factually wrong. For instance, it wasn't JPSO that stopped people from crossing the Crescent City Connection, it was Gretna PD. Also, among the lead plaintiffs in the civil rights case against the Gretna PD are some white folks. I guess they also discovered police prejudice, eh? I hope they read their Tim Wise like you.

I'm not sure I agree with you that Seagal's show "will also subject the JPSO to greater scrutiny."

One of my original points was that the show is serving as public relations for a screwed up force. Note the Gambit's coverage which is mostly about promoting their little viewing party.

Leigh C. said...

The lawsuit states that members of the JPSO were involved in the CCC turnaround. After all, when people were trying to get out of New Orleans, they were trying to get to the west bank in general to escape their plight, not just Gretna. Thanks for the heads up; I've altered my post a little to reflect that.

And I did link to your entire post.

If more people are going to be watching this show for its semicomic value, thus driving up some Nielsen ratings, some examination of the guys Seagal is running with will occur. Most of them he's with were around when Harry Lee was still the sheriff, so some things will probably be dug up. I wouldn't completely count out some further investigation on the part of some folks in the MSM.