The normal, rational reactions of productive, law-abiding people serve them well in almost all endeavors. Until they find themselves in contact with a system and its protectors that views the normal, rational reactions of productive, law-abiding people a threat. Peretz Partensky found out the hard way.
I live in a new gilded age in a golden city. But sometimes the cracks show, even here. The façade crumbles and you find yourself naked, in solitary confinement, in a wretched, feces-stained prison.
Even now, having written a lengthy and detailed description of his experience following his call to 911 to help two cyclists who took a bad fall, he’s not quite clear how he ended up at the bottom, below the good guy curve.
How? As a result of my efforts to help injured bicyclists by calling 911, I was, in short order: separated from my friend, violently tackled, arrested, taken to county jail, stripped and left in a solitary cell. I am writing this story because, if it could happen to me, it could happen to you, and I feel the need to do something to help prevent this brutality from propagating.
This isn’t the first story of its kind, although its depth, readability and color have caused it to go far more viral than most. This is good. It illuminates, and anything that illuminates is best spread as far as possible. But while descriptive, it lacks the understanding of the sub rosa confluence that eludes good guys in understanding how bad things, crazy things, happen when they’re left in the hands of those who they always believed to be good guys too.
Robert Fairbairn was the first to alert me to this post, and in his email, he expressed the duality that criminal defense lawyers typically feel when we watch from a distance as good people meet the system:
My response to it is a bit bi-polar. The article is laudable not only because it highlights the violence (actualized or threatened) that is endemic in many police encounters, but also gives voice to the shock those with no experience with the criminal justice system feel, or would feel, when confronted by LEOs in no mood to suffer fools. My other response is – a little shamefully – “welcome to the real world kid. It ain’t all sunshine, lolcats, Rainbows, Fair Trade Coffee and Roland Barthes.”
This isn’t snark, or insensitivity, though it might come off that way to the uninitiated. There is only one group of people in polite society that, as a matter of their day jobs, regularly confronts this display of cognitive dissonance. Yes, criminal defense lawyers.
We’ve heard this story a thousand times, a million times collectively, as a good person who has lived a proper life and acted in the way he had been told all his life was right, ended up in a Kafka novel. Their eyes plead. Sometimes, a tear is shed. How could this have happened? How could this be?
Among the lessons learned is that few believe or care unless and until it touches their life. This is why Partensky’s story spreading across the internet helps. It may not be the same as when it happens to them personally, but it’s enough to touch people.
The story has a number of obvious tipping points, where it might have ended and everyone gone home without suffering the pain of a needless knee to the head, breathing the air of a cell covered in feces, the indignity of naked segregation and the callousness of being treated as subhuman by the very people society is supposed to rely on to protect them. And in the side comments, these are pointed out by people who explain to Partensky that, had he only complied, had he only done as he was told by the police, these bad things wouldn’t have happened to him.
A more street-wise person would have known better than Partensky. They would have known that one doesn’t question a cop whose sour face reveals she’s in no mood to explain herself to another snot-nosed kid who is well-educated, articulate, upwardly-mobile and, to her, a pain in the ass.
After all, this happened in San Francisco, a gilded cage if ever there was one, where the adoration of progressive politics has seized control of a well-to-do, well-intended populace that believes with all its might in the ability of law to make a more perfect world. And these men and women in uniform are very much part of that dream, foot soldiers in the enforcement of the good and the protection of ideals.
At one point, a comment by a cop catches Partensky’s attention, and he sees it as a revelation:
We had a cordial conversation. They noticed I was shivering and propped me on the door of Radius restaurant. Then they asked me what I do for a living. I said that I write software that helps restaurants source food and indicated that the restaurant behind me uses our product.
What they said brought to light a fundamental rift between the residents of San Francisco and the police:
“Ah, you’re one of those billionaire wannabees in this neighborhood.”
The dream that they were all on the same team, good Samaritan and police who respond, law-abiding citizen and protectors of law-abiding citizens, was crushed. They were not his friends. They were not impressed by his aspirations and expectations. They held his type in disdain. Until that moment, it likely never dawned on Partensky that the police would not, at worst, realize that he was one of the good guys. Instead, they saw him as just another skel to be despised when the opportunity arose, as if working toward a bright future made him one of the bad guys.
It’s true, and relatively obvious, that most of the horrible treatment that followed could have been avoided had he just been more compliant with the cops’ needless domineering commands. The comments that he brought this on himself, however, miss a critical point. Good people shouldn’t have to learn the ways of the street-wise to survive an encounter with the police.
Good people who threaten no one, harm no one, do nothing more wrong than fail to jump as fast and as high as police command, aren’t criminals. They are normal. Normal, law-abiding people don’t realize, don’t understand, that those friendly faces on posters and television truly hate them and are just waiting for the opportunity to pound a knee into their skull, to strip them naked and, by doing so, steal a lifetime of dignity built and reduce them to something subhuman.
Sure, compliance avoids many problems, but it also enables and empowers those who confuse duty and lawful authority with the ability to use force and violence, to exert control over those they hate for their future expectations. It may avoid one instance of suffering at the hands of police, but bolsters the raw power to do harm to anyone at any time who annoys them.
One of the recurring themes in videos of police encounters is the officer telling a person, usually in command voice and with foul language, that their failure to do what they say is a crime. At times, it may be. Many times, it’s not. The police are taught to believe that the mere utterance of a command is in itself the law. Society must bend to their will or suffer the consequences of their wrath. Even when judges are on the wrong end of a command, they find it difficult to grasp its ramifications. Yet, they routinely endorse this fallacy on the bench, as the perceived odds dictate they support the cop at the expense of the beaten citizen.
Peretz Partensky never stood a chance in this encounter, as he was ill-prepared to deal with society’s protectors. He was a good guy put into a bad situation not of his making. Instead of a “thank you” for having called 911 to help someone in trouble, he learned that life on the streets was mean and dangerous. The solution isn’t to be more compliant, but to stop the meanness and danger. His story is another opportunity to do so by helping others to realize they are enabling this world to exist.