As I was walking up Broadway to the nearest pharmacy, an elderly man, the sun shining down on him, came into view, walking towards me. He looked at a couple of men leaning against the wall and chatting. Stretching out his left arm, he pointed towards the two men, one-dollar bills between his fingers.
“Two dollars for a cigarette?” he asked. The two declined with the move of their heads. They were both non-smokers.
Two dollars per cigarette would make 40 bucks per pack. Why would anyone pay this kind of money if the pharmacy right next door is selling them for $12 per a pack, I asked myself. Since when are New Yorkers selling loose cigarettes on the streets?
The last time I saw something similar was in Kathmandu: sitting cross-legged, wrapped in a white robe, an old man was selling cigarettes and other small objects on a beautiful rug spread in front of his legs. He set his improvised store on the stairs of one of the temples in Durbar Square, probably destroyed by recent earthquake. But that was a scene from a distant time, and far from the urbanized West – a time when tobacco was a precious good, and in a poor land whose people could not afford to be chain smokers.
So why in New York? My man did not look poor. Smokers with no means and money will come and ask for a cigarette if they see you smoking on a street. My guy, instead, was trading. His question was snappy, he knew the language. He was just trying out the two younger guys leaning on the wall for a sale.
I was a smoker once, and I did something similar. I would buy a pack of cigarettes and give it to a person in my building who smoked the same brand so that, in a moment of crisis, I could come to him and ask for a cigarette without guilt. This way, I did not need to buy and smoke the whole pack every time I got into a crisis. It was a useful social transaction that benefitted each of us.
Last year, on July 17, 43-year-old Eric Garner was standing in front of a supermarket in Staten Island and selling loose cigarettes. Authorities, including the police, knew about his apparently illegal commerce. They also knew that he was jobless and that he had six children. They could have just warned Garner and told him to move on. Instead, the police decided to arrest him. Mr. Garner was not happy with it. He screamed at the police to stop persecuting him, asking them to leave him alone and let him earn some money. To the police, he was resisting arrest, so they called a backup and used physical force to get him on the ground while one of the officers applied a chokehold. Video footage clearly shows the police tactics. A friendly policeman engages him in a conversation while a couple of them attack the much taller Garner from behind. You can hear Garner screaming “I can’t breath” before he dies on the ground, pressed down by four policemen.
In this tragedy, the diabetic father of six got killed because he was trying to survive with a little trade, which, as with the elderly man I encountered, could be socially useful. The murder also suggests that American – or at least New York – police no longer operate under their slogan, “Protect and Serve.”
I recently read an incredible essay written by Mark Greif published in N+1 Magazine. With a rare skill of observation, Greif describes the pattern of behavior of American police, which he believes is based on the training they receive. “They touch you without consent and in both seemingly friendly and unfriendly ways,” the essay opens. “The friendly touch is the first surprise. A policeman allowing protesters to cross the street touches you on the arm or back as you cross. Face to face, police will put a hand on your shoulder, from the front, intimate as a dog putting his paw up. It is unnerving. … The unspoken rule is that the citizen must never return touch.” It only gets worse later on, when Greif describes what happens if you try to resist with even the tiniest move against the absolute power of manipulation embodied by the police. A policeman who, if you cross that line – if you step down from the curb, or simply hold onto a metal fence that divides his and your allocated space – keeps pushing you slowly back to the imaginary line that you crossed. By this time, you are already singled out for the arrest, and “the next escalation is to grab the citizen’s body at the neck or shoulders — attacking from the front, black-gloved fingers grip the face, while from behind, the palm shocks the base of the skull — pushing at the fulcrum of the neck to hurl the person down,” observes Greif. And this is exactly what happened to Eric Garner last July. Except that, as the video clearly shows, he was provoked by police to cross that line.
Passage to this violent arrest is never sudden, continues Greif. “The process of change in an officer who brings someone down is not oriented to the target, but seems interior, oriented to the self; in the expressions that pass over the face — usually in an instant of stepping back, at the end of an interaction or negotiation — you can detect a change of availability that prefaces the attack. It very often seems to surprise nearby officers, even astonish or trouble them, but they still know to capture whichever citizens wind up on the ground…”
The consequences and social implications of this kind of policing are enormous. Finding yourself in front of a policeman who will not accept any kind of dialogue deprives you of speech, and therefore of humanity. It puts you back in the world of animals, where you are the prey. An American policeman does not listen or talk. He yells at you, while carefully watching your body language. And if you cross the line, make a wrong move, step out of the car when you aren’t supposed to, you will be brought down, or even killed – especially if you are black. But the issue of racism and police violence after recent events has finally become a part of a broader discussion in American society, which I will not discuss further. My purpose here is to demonstrate something else.
I’d love to believe that the things were different before 9/11 in America, before the implementation of Patriot Act, which turned all American citizens into suspects and all foreign visitors into potential terrorists. The mental process of militarization of police after the attack – which is exactly the phenomenon that Greif describes – is killing not only individuals, but American society as a whole. This process can be compared to the way that the Chinese regime denies basic human and political rights to its citizens, something Europe has managed to avoid so far. It is, however, interesting that after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the debate over whether Europe will be forced to apply extreme security measures did appear. Luckily, the first attempts seem to have been thrown back.
In the meantime, I want to show you how ridiculous the American police force looks if one is not trained to fear the police:
Not long after I settled into my new job in New York, I wanted to experience the thrill of crossing the Washington Bridge by bike. On my first try, I got very close to the bridge, but failed to find bike access. The second time, I was more determined and excited. New York was still new to me, and I was pedaling enthusiastically toward the bridge, curious how it would feel to stand in the middle of this huge construction, high above the Hudson River. Instead of using the bike lane, as I did the first time, I took Riverside Drive, a big road that allows for shared traffic between cars and bikes. Without seeing any special indications for bikes, I followed the road, and found myself at the entrance to the bridge, but obviously on the wrong side of it. I was in the right direction of traffic, but the pedestrian and bike lane towards New Jersey was sealed off. The lane open to pedestrians and bikers was on the other side. To get there, I would have to cross six heavily trafficked car lanes. It would be a suicide. There was no way I could turn my bike back and ride against traffic. The cars were coming around the curve and already using the last millimeter of the space to rush out of the city. For me to continue towards New Jersey amidst the cars was risky too, but of all the options, I choose it. I felt miserable. I got off the bike, put it on my left side, and started to walk, pushing the bike.
“Sir, what are you doing here?” asked a policewoman sitting in a spacious Ford, its lights flashing. We were still at the beginning of the bridge. I explained that I had somehow missed the turn for the bike lane, found myself on the wrong side of the bridge and that under the circumstances going towards New Jersey with the flow of traffic seemed the safest thing to do.
“Sir, you have to get off this road, and you have two minutes to do it!”
“Can you tell me how can I do it? I cannot go against traffic, can I?”
“No you can’t, but if you don’t disappear from the road, I will have to call the back up and arrest you for trespassing,” came the answer. With my back against the wall, I thought of something that I hoped would make the policewoman realize the absurdity of the situation. I made a mistake, and I acknowledged it, but the only way I could imagine to “disappear” from that road would be to throw my bike – and myself – into the Hudson. Luckily, at that moment a large police transport van appeared and stopped behind us. With my European naivety, I asked the driver if she could perhaps transport my bike to the other side of the bridge, since she was going there any way. The two started yelling at me. I couldn’t tell them what would have happened in Europe, where people would have discussed the situation reasonably and tried to find a solution no matter what. The bike and pedestrian lane was locked. At a certain point, I considered dropping the bike and leaving, but I got scared. It was an absurd situation and traffic was wild, but the policewomen were wilder. I grabbed my bike, threw it over the fence, and pulled myself over. They left seconds after.
I got home many hours later, humiliated, exhausted and full of minor injuries that I got while climbing with the bike over and around fences and locked gates. It was my first serious encounter with harshness of American society. For me, this was a shock, but also a challenge to try to understand the reasoning behind this brutality – much in the same way that I tried to understand the totalitarian aspect of Chinese society when I first went there. Thankfully, brutality and totalitarianism are not the only, overriding aspects of either society.
But the problem becomes serious if you, a foreigner, are not quick enough to understand what kind of society you are biking in – that is, if you are not quick enough to switch the cultural register and adapt yourself to your new location. This is especially difficult if someone arrives in the U.S. from a country like Italy, where everything is negotiable and therefore resolvable.