And even Octavia Butler

I’ve been struggling to articulate anything useful about the recent events that started with the Grand Jury decision not to charge Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. Silence might make it appear that I have no opinion, and I do. In my opinion, it is not a good thing that American police seem to behave increasingly like an occupying force subduing a hostile foreign population, and that there is such an obvious racist component both to the original police misconduct, and to our collective societal reaction to it.

I do believe most police officers are basically decent people trying to do their best at a tough and dangerous job. The problem is that, when something goes wrong with law enforcement — when cops turn out to be trigger-happy racists, or abusers, or rapists, or even just make a deadly serious mistake — nothing happens. No accountability, no effort to fix anything, no acknowledgment that there’s even a problem.

So, we have cops who get in the habit of looking at all the ordinary citizens walking around out there, and see everyone as a potential criminal, and treat them accordingly. And you have the ordinary citizens looking back at the cops and seeing the exact same thing — a potential criminal. Except, what the citizens see is a potential criminal who is heavily armed and almost certain to get away with it.

So, the hostility and fear escalate on both sides.

In 1990, I flew to London for the first time, and ended up sitting next to a very nice English couple who gave me pointers about their homeland. One of the things they told me: “British cops aren’t like American cops, dear. British cops are your friends. You can go to them for help if you get into trouble.”

Think about that for a minute. Everybody’s white. Everybody’s wealthy enough to be on a plane. I’m female. And still, they expected that as an American, I would not see be inclined to see police officers as friendly and trustworthy people who would help me if I needed it. And they were correct.

Nowhere is the role of American police as a hostile occupying force more apparent than their response to protests. From Ferguson, to Occupy, to the WTO protests in Seattle, to Kent State, to the Civil Rights marches, we see a pattern of repression and brutality on the part of law enforcement in response to citizens attempting to exercise their Constitutional rights to freely assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Further, this pattern is highly partisan. Agitators for progressive causes get put down aggressively, injured and even killed, while teapartiers, frenzied bargain-hunters, or people getting a little out of hand celebrating a sports victory are tolerated. The police might be there as a presence, but nobody gets pepper-sprayed.

The message this sends to the American people is clear: we, the cops, will beat you down with impunity, and if you make a fuss or object in any obvious way, we’ll bet you down some more. Everybody should be outraged by that. Everybody should be joining in the call for greater police accountability. The police especially should be in favor of this — all that mutual hostility makes their job a lot harder.

But in the past couple of weeks I’ve seen a lot of pushback on the idea that there’s even a problem that needs fixing. Some of this is plain old-fashioned racism — people who more or less openly admit that they consider black Americans to be less human than other Americans, so as long as the cops are only killing black people or hippies, they’re okay with it. But there’s also a fair bit of “I just want to get on with my Christmas shopping” apathy, ignorance, and denial.

It can be hard to face full-on the injustices of the world — not only do they make us feel vulnerable, but if we have any conscience at all, we might start to feel burdened to actually do something about them. So people take refuge in the just-world fallacy: There’s nothing wrong here, and if anything bad happened to anybody, it was because they brought it on themselves through unwise behavior that I would never engage in, in fact, that no reasonable person would ever engage in, and if I just keep on the way I’ve been doing, surely I, and all the people I care about, will remain completely safe and prosperous in this best of all possible worlds where everything always works out for the best.

The just-world refuge isn’t available to everyone equally. You have to be able to convince yourself that the injustice doesn’t touch you, that the people it happens to are “other,” over there, not like you, not a part of your life, your tribe. And if you think racism doesn’t enhance people’s ability to do that — to convince themselves that black Americans are “other” — well. I have some Internet startup stock to sell you.

I know that some of you out there spouting egregiously racist nonsense are just attempting to put a thin veneer of “logical” justification on top of your sneering racism, and there’s probably no point arguing with you. But some of you probably fall into the ignorance/denial category, the just-world-fallacy category, and for your benefit I’m going to tell you a story about Octavia Butler.

(Apologies in advance for any details I might get wrong. Human memory, as you may know, is highly untrustworthy. Which is a good reason for things like lapel cameras.)

Octavia Butler was the guest of honor at the first Foolscap science fiction convention in 1999. I knew her as a highly respected name in science fiction literature before the convention, and at the convention met a person who was delightful in every possible way — wise, dignified, kind, funny, and smart. Her guest of honor speech remains one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen at a convention.

During that speech she told a story about attempting to spend a hundred dollar bill, a birthday present from her mother, at a Pasadena grocery store. But instead of accepting this cash as legal tender for all debts public and private, giving her change and moving on to the next customer, this grocery store reacted as if she were a thief or a drug dealer. They called out security to hustle her off to a back room where she was detained for hours. I believe she was never physically injured, although the threat of that hung over the detention. I think they might have kept the money, though. They certainly didn’t apologize.

One of the audience members, outraged on her behalf, spoke up about how they would never put up with such treatment. And Ms. Butler responded — with gentleness and patience, but also with a look of exasperated weariness in her eyes — “That’s because you’re white.”

She didn’t use the word “privilege,” but when I did encounter that word later, I already knew exactly what it meant. Some people resist the idea that there is such a thing as privilege, often because they think of it as extra cool stuff that you get, and not as a lack of having to put up with ridiculous and horrible stuff that nobody should ever in a million years have to put up with. They don’t think of the ability to stand up for your rights without fear of getting killed as a privilege, because it shouldn’t be. Everyone should be able to do that.

But they can’t. And that is a problem we need to deal with.

I’ve thought about her story a lot over the years, every time I read about a black Harvard Professor who gets thrown in jail for no obvious reason, or the many stories about law-abiding black citizens who get arrested, hurt, and even killed for doing innocuous things like driving a car or asking for help after a car accident.

The pattern is clear: security, law enforcement, and many ordinary white citizens see a black face and assume first that you’re a dangerous criminal. End of story.

Octavia Butler was, in any objective sense, the least likely criminal you could ask for. She was more like your favorite High School English teacher. There was no reason other than systematic racism that would cause a Pasadena grocery store to assume that she was a criminal who had obtained that hundred dollar bill through unlawful means.

The next time you’re inclined to think that the police must have had a good reason to assume that a particular young black man was a dangerous criminal who, though unarmed, posed such a serious threat that it was quite reasonable for the police to have subdued him with lethal force — think about how they treated Octavia Butler.

It shouldn’t look reasonable anymore. It should look like the actions of a deeply flawed, deeply racist system that needs serious reform.