It is certainly a little weird when the old normal collides with the new normal.
That was the feeling I had when a video emerged of a New York City police officer delivering a beatdown on Manhattan’s Lower East Side last week, following efforts to enforce social distancing orders.
It is not the first time the actions of a big-city police officer have (to use Mayor Bill de Blasio’s phrase) “really disturbed” many people. It will not be the last.
But the acrimony over-policing has grown so intense that the worst of all possible conditions have been achieved. At the extremes on each side, both deny the humanity of the other.
And so, law enforcement officers and the people they are charged with policing are each seen as either innocent martyrs or evil monsters. Each of their lives “matter.” Which implies the others’ don’t.
And so, from Fox News world we get reports of benevolent, beset-upon cops, who could never possibly do anything wrong, and to suggest otherwise is immoral, unpatriotic, and socialistic.
Which is bad, of course. The problem is, the other side is hardly much better.
Police brutality was and is a very serious problem. But when every confrontation between the public and police is interpreted as nothing more than an inevitable show of brute force by bigoted oppressors, well, it kind of implies we’d be better off abolishing policing.
Which might solve a few problems. But might also create a few new ones.
Consider a recent, highly praised sci-fi book by Hugo-Award-winner N.K. Jemisin, called The City We Became. Hyped by Coraline author Neil Gaiman, praised by The New York Times as “a joyful shout...a call to arms,” The City We Became offers five characters who represent the five boroughs of New York City.
And representing Staten Island? An Irish American woman named Aislyn Houlihan, whose father is an unabashedly abusive and racist cop.
Which is not to say such people do not exist. I grew up in Staten Island, so I know whereof I speak. The fact that two of the highest-profile cops in New York City are named Dermot Shea and Terence Monahan adds a certain relevance to Jemisin’s characterization.
The fact that Ireland has such a tortured history with British police, and other security forces, only make this a more difficult and painful discussion.
Still, there is a fine line between interestingly challenging an existing power structure, and so insistently repeating a critique that you are merely swapping one conventional wisdom for another.
It’s profoundly difficult to ask people who’ve suffered indignities at the hands of police officers to see beyond the (if you will) black and white.
But the fact that the officer involved in the taped Lower East Side incident has a Hispanic name -- and the fact that New York and many other big-city police departments are now majority non-white -- suggests this is an increasingly murky issue.
I will give the last word to the great jazz musician and writer James McBride, whose memoir The Color of Water I have taught to many Brooklyn high schoolers, and who has a new novel out called Deacom King Kong, set in 1960s Brooklyn.
“There’s a good cop in my book, he’s an Irishman,” McBride said on NPR’s Fresh Air recently. “I think the narrative that dehumanizes policemen is dangerous. And it puts them as people and us as public in a bad place. Most cops are good people. They're not paid well enough. They're not respected enough.”
Thoughtful words from a guy who could score some easy points with high-minded readers simply by demonizing the police.
Now what would really be interesting is if we could also get some Fox News types to acknowledge certain persistent patterns of police misconduct, which has left some folks feeling justifiably bitter and alienated.
But that was unlikely during the old normal. Why should the new normal be any different?