Curfews Didn’t Work. Now What?

I remember once being in a car with my parents, and my aunt and uncle.  We were visiting my father’s sister, and her husband, and my cousins on Long Island, New York.  My Uncle John was a native New Yorker, and my Aunt Bess was originally from Alabama, as a member of my father’s family.  She and my Uncle John met in graduate school at Columbia.  

One of the benefits of having a sheltered childhood is that it is always fun to be a people watcher, and you feel quite secure, even when it may not be.  I sat there among the older generation of my family, and a couple of cousins, and watched in wonder as the adults played their level of social-family politics.  My Uncle John was driving, and Aunt Bess was sitting next to him in the front seat.  I was sitting behind Uncle John, so I could see the back of his head, and had a clear profile of my aunt as she faced forward, and the complete view of her face when she turned to the left.

My aunt was my father’s younger sister, and was kind of in the role of story teller and host.  We were always all glad to see one another, but my aunt and my dad were at the center of that circle of joy, having grown up together.  Aunt Bessie was a talker as well, so much of the attention was focused on her, certainly mine.  She had a fascinating accent which was part Southern, and part Long Island.  I found it endlessly amusing.  

On this particular day, riding in their station wagon on the Long Island Expressway, or one of the east-west freeways on the island, I watched my aunt’s face as she operated in the pivot of the conversations, and my uncle’s driving.  At one point, my aunt started with what was a subtle signal to my uncle.  She said something like, “New Yorkers drive with the absolute faith in their brakes…”, or something like that.  What she meant was, drivers there on the L.I. Expressway tend not to coast.  They go from acceleration to braking, and back.  The driving is very competitive, with little or no moderation.  It was all on, or all off.  On this particular trip, my aunt was hinting to my uncle to chill out a little bit on his driving.  It was hilarious to watch as the comedy and drama played out on her face.  

At one moment, she would be talking to the family with this pleasant, smiling affect.  She had a face like my father’s and mine, where thoughts and moods were reflected easily.  A friend of mine once described mine as a “scoreboard.”  Anyway, as my aunt spoke to the family, she had this slight smile.  Then she would turn back to face forward and the smile disappeared.  She’d have a look of concern and she’d look at my uncle and say, “John.”  Uncle John wouldn’t respond.  Picture Steve McQueen in “Bullitt”.  Not a lot of dialogue.  So, I was transfixed by this rapidly changing affect on my aunt’s face.  

Occasionally we would approach a bridge.  Here is where it got really good.  Let’s say there were four lanes on the expressway to pass under the bridge.  If my uncle John was one of the drivers, there would be five cars shoulder to shoulder aiming for the four spots, with a couple of the lanes separated by pillars.  So, with two families in the car, speeding toward a pillar on the bridge, none of the New Yorkers driving were going to give way.  As we approached, my aunt’s head would pivot from front, to left, to front, to left.  She’d start saying, “John…John…JOHN!”  Then, we’d pass under the bridge without hitting a pillar, and the process would start all over again.  “Billy, what position do you play in little league?”  “I always use real butter in cobbler, never margarine.”  “John…John…JOHN!”

Making it off of that L.I. Expressway alive depended on a great number of things.  A small breakdown in any one of the many things that we tend to take for granted  could have led to a disastrous outcome.  We were fortunate that there was not some unseen pothole, or baby deer causing one driver to swerve.  We were lucky that each competitor had a machine that did not fail in the moment, or that one the Steve McQueens didn’t have a heart attack.  Each driver seemed to have supreme confidence in their driving skill, and if it absolutely came down to it…the brakes.  

Today, I have that feeling again as I watch the social unrest in so many cities around the country.  This time, I am not the little leaguer finding amusement in it.  Now, I see nothing but the possible dangerous consequences.  

Right now, our brakes ain’t what they used to be.  Protesters are just not having it anymore.  These people seem more determined than I can recall in this country.  They are burning government buildings now.  Cops are giving way on the streets of the Twin Cities, and in my town of Columbus Ohio.  I wondered what they were up to at first, and then I realized, they’re undermanned right now.  The closest statistics I could find to this date are from April where police departments are having 17% of their deployments out sick with Covid-19.  One sixth is a serious loss, and by late May it could quite possibly be worse in many places.  

Now, in times of social unrest, law enforcement agencies employ a sort of all hands on deck deployment strategy.  On the LAPD it was called “tactical alert.”  During this deployment, we would divide the department in two shifts city wide.  Everyone was called back from vacations, and days off were canceled.  The entire city would be deployed 12 hours on and 12 hours off until stability returned.  It was exhausting, and we had a power advantage back then…for the most part.  Today is different.  Let’s say a department is down 25% in its workforce.  Protecting against a potential riot still requires coverage, so to compensate, you might need to work 25% more hours, so, 15 on and 9 off.  Or maybe you cover 25% more territory.  Now, I don’t think either of these would be attempted, but this is a way to show how a reduction in resources can strain an already difficult operation.  Something has got to give.

Then, add to that the possibility that the police may be adjusting how they engage with the public for concerns about their own health.  I am not saying this to engender pity for the officers, but rather to say that this is an additional strain on the machine that we depend on and have taken for granted.  The brake pads may be wearing thin.  

I saw news footage of a CNN reporter arrested yesterday.  We are not accustomed to seeing that in this country.  Then early this morning I saw police shooting pepper ball bullets at a local NBC affiliate in Louisville Ky.  The officer can plainly be seen aiming and firing at the camera recording the act, from just 15 or 20 feet away.  This is not normal for us.  I’m not saying that we are better than this.  We are just like anyone from anywhere in the world.  What I am saying is that we are used to these things blowing over and going back to some semblance of normal.  

Some of that “normal” never should have returned before, and it has over, and over.  The murder of George Floyd is part of our normal, and people are saying that they are just not having it this time.  A compromise has to be reached so that everyone can pass under the bridge that is coming at us.  This violence, while tragic, has always been inevitable.  I get it.  Too many people have been cut out of having any decent shot at a decent life.  Not to put this all on Donald Trump, but as one example of the insanity is the fact that this country is simultaneously removing itself from association with the World Health Organization, and suing to eliminate the Affordable Care Act…during a pandemic.  That’s not a drop in the bucket of all of the malfeasance, and that, all by itself is insane.  

In times like this they used to say, “this too shall pass.”  I suppose that still applies.  In the meantime, you might want to stay off of the expressway.  And if you must, remember that you also have a brake.  

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