Imagine this story. An unarmed man behaves erratically in the middle of the street, cars weaving around him and swerving to avoid each other. The flashing screens of 50 feet tall electrified billboards bounce blue and white and green light off the haze of sweat on his face, though its the middle of winter, a thin dust of snow coming off his coat in clouds as he waves his arms and spins around. Armed men arrive to enforce the law, which does not permit one to act erratically. These armed men wear the same uniforms; all approach with their guns drawn. The man reaches into his pocket for his identification card. The law enforcers, who later say they thought he was reaching for a gun, fire their weapons. They miss the man, who, as it turns out, was unarmed. The law enforcers’ bullets strike innocent bystanders, who are also unarmed. The man is arrested, and charged with assault–it was his fault that the bullets were shot in the first place, so he, not the law enforcers, is responsible for the shooting of the bystanders. Bureaucrats at the ministry of law enforcement also tell the bystanders that they have no legal basis to sue the ministry for their injuries.
To what genre does such a scene belong? Dystopia? Is it satire? Could it ever be considered realist, or is the police state’s logic too magical to be real? It isn’t a very good story, for it’s basically a reiteration of a story we’ve heard many times before, since the publication of Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984–an absolutely dominant police state and surveillance society, an individual who must conform or be confined or killed, a swirl of everyday people ignoring the injustice, absorbed in the same all-consuming light of the billboards that provides dramatic pyrotechnics for the shooting scene. There is only one way for this story to become somewhat interesting. It is too overdone and far-fetched as literature. It only becomes a compelling story as nonfiction, as news.
And that is precisely what it is. Glenn Broadnax, “the man who acted erratically,” has been charged with assault. The two officers who fired their weapons are on desk duty. Broadnax had drugs in his system. He faces up to 25 years in prison. According to the Assistant district attorney, Broadnax is responsible for the shootings because he “is the one that created the situation that injured the innocent bystanders.” This is amazing logic, not only because it is magical, but because it is parallel to the logic that revolutionaries and radicals use, a bit more reasonably, to indict the “system” and its bureaucratic functionaries, as these functionaries, often without carrying or firing guns, systematically “create situations” where children starve, poor people face a “choice” between endless, meaningless work for insufficient pay and crime, etc.
Perhaps this is deeply indicative of where we are, and where we have always been. This reasoning only makes sense if, as I believe, we are all, to some degree, responsible for everything that happens in our society. We are not equally responsible in the sense that we have an equal share in causing certain things to occur, but we all will have to contribute to the solutions that address violence and injustice. Our dominant form of response in this country is to funnel tax dollars into the already bulging coffers of Departments of Corrections and the CCA to imprison those who act, look, or even actually are violent (as long as they are not wearing a uniform). When we recognize our collective responsibility to each other, it changes the stories we tell, and it is very difficult to say that one man created such a situation where people were injured. He didn’t single-handedly create the situation any more than the cops did, but the way we tell the story makes all the difference between who will go to work and get a paycheck next week, and who will get on a bus for a trip from which he, as he is now, will never return.
The way we tell, read, hear, and interpret stories matters, with life or death consequences for some of us. The story above underwrites the devastating logic of for-profit imprisonment that already awaited Glenn Broadnax long before he had what appears to have been, based on news reports, a psychotic break (perhaps drug-induced), of which he has no recollection. Imagine the story differently: rather than saying “Broadnax faces up to 25 years in prison,” what if news reports said “Taxpayers stand to pay $_______ to imprison Broadnax for his crime”? How much did it cost to house inmates in prison in New York last year? $167,731 each, according to an Independent Budget Office report cited in the New York Times. Now I’m an English nerd, no mathematician, but I do have a calculator on my laptop, and it says that the punishment of Broadnax’s non-shooting of two innocent women will cost $4,193,275 if he receives the 25-year sentence, and that’s a minimum figure that assumes the annual cost will never go up in those 25 years (and it will). Yes, you read that right, protecting “us” from Broadnax will cost us $4,193,275.
In other news, Dick Cheney, a man who shot someone but was never punished, or even investigated for it, maintains that he does not regret his vote against the Anti-Apartheid Act in the 1980s, since the African National Congress was a “terrorist organization” and, therefore, the late Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, was a terrorist. I’ve stood in front of Mandela’s tiny cell on Robben Island, the prison where he cracked white rocks under the bright sun in a quarry and nearly went blind, which means I have a powerful memory and no more perspective than the average free person on what it means to spend 27 years, or 25, in a cage, not simply for a crime that I did not commit, but in order to flesh out the re-telling of a ghastly story my society compulsively tells itself: that crime is what threatens “order,” that punishment is what restores “order,” and that this “order” is to be protected above individual lives, above all. Because we tell ourselves the story this way, we miss the fact that crime and punishment do not simply protect the order–they are now themselves the order of the day, one that structures our language, our perceptions, and, for lack of a better word, our reality. In what other situation could the phrase “he got life” colloquially mean dying in prison?