On Friday I was almost arrested and "interrogated" (normally I expect dinner and a kiss first) by an NYPD tactical unit, in full regalia, guarding Christo & Jeanne-Claude for their signing at the Guggenheim. Seems I pointed a deadly weapon at the cops: my camera.
You surely know that only "terrorists" take pictures of NYPD units. Gee, Officer UnFriendly, when I see six humans so large they make football players look puny, armed with more firepower than an entire third-world nation's army and with trigger fingers at the ready, I tend to think, "hmmm, this is a somewhat unusual situation; might be a photo op".
The were guarding the Guggenheim against destruction by terrorists. (Personally, if the terrorists want to remove that piece of urban and art blight I'll send them fifty bucks to help cover their costs.) The idea that we live in a society so dangerous that anyone rich, famous, or powerful needs to be guarded against attack is a highly corrosive one. It teaches people to be fearful so they can be easily controlled.
Anyway, they gave me attitude about photographing them so I gave some back. I was polite, but I told them I had an absolute First Amendment right to photograph and they could call the editor of the news desk at the NY Times if they wanted someone to vouch for me. Yeah, I know. Whatever part of my brain is devoted to self-preservation — particularly when it comes to soldiers toting automatic weapons capable of turning me into something resembling bloody swiss cheese, in an eyeblink, no less — is clearly damaged beyond all hope of redemption. Either that or I've turned into a one of those lunatic photographers I keep reading about.
They blew a gasket at this point and told me that unless I could produce photo ID so I could prove I wasn't a "terrorist agent" who was "working for the other side" that they'd lock me up and interrogate me about my activities for four hours. Because I sooooo clearly look like a terrorist.
Their big issue is that by photographing them I allow terrorists to identify them, and then kill their entire families because that's what terrorists do. (Yeah, this is happening all the time in America, right?) Then one of them deluged me with a tirade about how liberals don't support troops in Iraq and are training schoolchildren to write letters to soldiers calling them baby-killers, and how this aids the terrorists, how I need to respect the police as human beings because they protect me from being blown up, and how right this VERY MINUTE terrorists are plotting to destroy my way of life. All of this was pretty offensive; I don't know a single American who doesn't support the troops and who doesn't want them back home alive ASAP, and I don't know anyone who supports attacks on Americans, other than Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky. I can understand that they're angry because they believe all the Fox News lies about American's lack of support for soldiers, but still, their response was way over the line. (Their job is to tote a gun and protect people, which means they have certain responsibilities and obligations to be rational. Or, at least they should have those responsibilities and obligations.)
Some of the gems were: "Look downtown! YOU SEE ANY TOWERS? That's because WE ARE AT WAR!". And "Don't lecture me about the constitution and the first amendment. You have the rights I say you have." Oh, and "You gonna call the New York Times next time there's a terrorist attack? You think they'll keep you safe?" Their favorite phrase was, "You don't realize that WE ARE AT WAR ", which was repeated a lot. Well, officer, technically not, because only congress can declare war... (No, I didn't say this. Even I have shreds of rationality, sometimes.) And, beyond that, the Bush administration knew about 9-11 and bin Laden but didn't care. (No, I didn't say that either.)
I eventually managed to calm them down and walked away, after a handshake, with my photos intact. How did I do it? Easy: I let my inner fascist come out and play for a while. As I'll tell anyone who'll listen — republican or democrat, deranged neocon or delusional bleeding heart — the war in the mideast isn't about fighting Islamic terrorism. If it were, the US would have arrested, tried, and executed the entire Saudi royal family for financing 9-11 and other attacks, including Madrid. I wouldn't have outsourced finding bin Laden to the Pakistanis who actually put the Taliban into power and supported them. Then I told them about how Bush doesn't support the troops because they don't get their combat pay, they get forced to reup, they don't get Humvee armor they desperately need, and they don't get rehab after suffering horrific injuries because of multiple failures in command beyond just failure to provide Humvee armor or secure confiscated explosives. And then I started in on about how our borders leak like sieves, and how real security starts at the ports. (Yeah, they just listened. Pretty respectfully, actually, given the circumstances. I guess the novelty of a citizen talking back to them was too much of a shock.) Anyway, after I told the NYPD my thoughts on terrorism and the war — all true, by the way — and they decided I was an American and not one of "them".
Afterwards, I was reminded of Chicago Mayor Richard Daly's observation waaaaaaay back in 1968 that, "The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder."
I think this is what's really wrong with America. The constitution isn't some toy that Americans get to take out of the box when we're good boys and girls, and it isn't something that presidents can suspend because the nation is allegedly "at war". Anyway, I got my shots and they look, well, terrible. Oh well. Shit happens. I was opened waaaaaaay up to burn out the sky and make the dark blue uniforms and guns show up, but it just needed a flash. Oh well. Better luck next time. (Except if I'd used a flash they woulda shot me, for sure.)
But, damn, it feels good to be a gangsta. Or a photographer. Or a terrorist... Whatever. All seems to be the same difference to the NYPD.