Amid the fury I felt when white police officers weren’t indicted for killing unarmed black men in New York City and Ferguson, Mo., I thought about scenes of law-enforcement violence in various novels. And yes, as in real life, those fictional “public safety” people rarely paid any legal price for their destructive acts.
Heck, even irrefutable proof of police aggression often doesn’t lead to trials — whether in literature or the actual world. As we all know, a grand jury last week decided not to indict NYC cop Daniel Pantaleo despite his fatal, unnecessary chokehold on Eric Garner being captured on video. In contrast, there was reportedly some conflicting testimony about why Ferguson cop Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in a not-filmed encounter, but the grand jury should have sent that case to trial, too.
In this post, I’ll discuss several fictional scenes of police violence, and also mention a few positive depictions of cops in the canons of various authors. My advance apologies for including some spoilers; please stop reading if you don’t want to see them. 🙂 If you do stop here, here’s my question of the week: Who are some of the law-enforcement characters, bad or good, you remember most in literature? (Detectives included!)
James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain contains a sickening flashback moment when white police officers arrest and brutally beat innocent black man Richard (boyfriend of Elizabeth, who’s pregnant at the time with the novel’s protagonist, John). A devastated Richard soon commits suicide.
Another innocent black man, Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, barely escapes being lynched while in jail (interesting that no police were there to protect him). Then, after he’s convicted by an all-white jury despite his innocence, Robinson dies in a hail of bullets shot by white prison guards who could have stopped his despairing escape attempt in a less lethal way.
A white man is the victim of law-enforcement violence in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath when compassionate ex-preacher Jim Casy is murdered for organizing migrant workers. (Ever notice that the police, in addition to targeting black people more than white people and the poor more than the rich, almost always crack down harder on liberals than conservatives? Look at the way the police forcibly dealt with the unarmed, economic-inequality-decrying Occupy movement while allowing Tea Party members to tote guns at public events denouncing the insuring of more Americans via “Obamacare.” Also, imagine what might have happened to Cliven Bundy this year if he had been a left-winger; the right-wing Nevada cattle rancher/tax cheat and his armed supporters were treated rather gently by the federal officers they confronted.)
Moving to novels that take place at least partly outside the U.S., we find violent Mexican police in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and violent Dominican Republic police in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Arundhati Roy’s India-set The God of Small Things includes the kindly “Untouchable” character Velutha who’s savagely beaten by police officers for alleged crimes of which he’s not guilty — and then left to die a slow, agonizing death. When the officers learn of Velutha’s innocence, they participate in something the police often do well — a cover-up.
Emile Zola’s Germinal features French coal miners who toil in horrible conditions that impel them to stage a strike later crushed by the police and army. There was also the 1928 “Banana Massacre,” fictionally recounted in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, that saw hundreds of striking workers at the American-owned United Fruit company murdered by Colombian troops playing a “law enforcement” role.
Dystopian novels, of course, are frequently set in totalitarian societies that use secret police and other security thugs to terrorize citizens with the aim of keeping them cowed. That’s the case with books such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.
Law-enforcement people do come off better in some novels. To name a few examples, there’s decent Sheriff Tate in To Kill a Mockingbird, cop-with-a-conscience Arevalo (who balks at killing a black man) in one of the radio serials within Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, police officers who find Novalee’s kidnapped daughter Americus in Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is, and friendly and competent cop Cynthia Cooper in Rita Mae Brown’s mystery Wish You Were Here. Plus all those justice-seeking sleuths in detective fiction!
The above paragraph illustrates that many police officers do what they’re supposed to do: try to protect all citizens, regardless of color. Unfortunately, a number of officers — in fiction and real life — have different policing standards for black people than white people.
This of course doesn’t just apply to killings. For instance, police disproportionately arrest African-Americans on drug charges despite statistics showing that whites use drugs at roughly the same rate. And don’t get me started on all the white-collar crimes committed by bankers, oil-company execs, and other wealthy Caucasian bigwigs who never see the inside of a jail.
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