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July 14, 2010

Am I my brother’s keeper?

It used to be that if I saw someone toss a Coke can or a cigarette butt out of their car, I’d pick it up off the ground, throw it back into their vehicle, and look at them wordlessly until one of us decided to leave.

This made for some uncomfortable silences, so on a few occasions, I’ve called 311 and reported the sumbitches to the city. In turn, the city would send off a disapproving form letter stapled to a small trash bag. A punishment roughly equivalent to the crime.

It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, and, frankly, it gives me the heebie-jeebies to consider that, with only a phone call, I have in some small way acted as an agent of the same surveillance culture that has so often been at the center of my own bad dreams.

Obviously minor in scope, but taken as a part of larger picture, this begs a few questions: When does your business become our business? At what point does honest concern segue into meddling? Perhaps more importantly, when does indifference become irresponsibility, or even culpability?

Last Friday at the Forecastle Festival, I saw the tail end of a drug bust (one of four we witnessed that evening) in which a cadre of undercover narcotics officers and Louisville Metro Police four-wheelers chased and apprehended a couple who were presumably in the possession of illegal drugs.

It went down about as smoothly as it does on “COPS,” replete with a foot chase and two very large policemen slamming a tiny, waifish hippy girl onto the ground and smashing her face into the dirt. Both of the officers proceeded to kneel on the girl whose arms were pinned behind her back in a typical restraint position, which probably hurt like hell and left no marks.

She had very likely broken the law, was resisting arrest, and there’s no telling what she was on that might have made her a danger to herself and others. All the same, I sensed a measure of near-excessive force was being used deliberately. A pocketful of amphetamines and a Red Bull couldn’t have helped that girl win a thumb wrestling match with one cop, let alone two.

I decided to stand nearby and watch, and, as a result, was asked two very relevant questions that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of days:

1) An officer, clearly frustrated by a citizen in a public space observing a police operation, asked impatiently, “Sir, are you involved in this engagement?”

2) Later, my companion asked me if I’d just been watching it all passively, like a television show, and what I had hoped to achieve.

Good questions both. It just seemed like watching was a better thing to do than not watching.

This week, an Oakland, Calif., police officer who drew his service weapon and shot a restrained and unarmed man in the back was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder. The shooting was caught on video by a train passenger who watched passively, unable to do anything else.

Last year, everyone on the planet was able to witness the blunt oppression of political dissidence in Iran when students with cell phone cameras surveilled their own government and posted it all on YouTube.

The chance that anything happening at the Forecastle Festival would end as explosively as either of these examples seems remote. Sometimes things go south in a hurry, though, and I think a measure of overt, unobtrusive public scrutiny is merited and healthy in such situations.

We are watching each other and being watched now more than ever. Next time you’re walking down Baxter Avenue checking your iPhone for the latest banal Tweet about what your friends ate for breakfast, take a second to look up and wink at the Metro-Cams.

Mostly we’d like to believe our own common sense and personal responsibility are enough to keep us out of harm’s way and allow us to be left alone in peace when we want to be, and for some this is still possible. More and more, though, it feels like we’ve all unwittingly gotten wrangled into a game in which everyone is a referee, and no one is sure what the rules are.

Next time you throw a Coke can out of your window, I swear I’ll tell you you’re an asshole myself.

Listening to: “Private Eyes” by Hall and Oates. Watching: “We Live in Public.” 

Tagged: Raised Relief |