Because I like to respond to difficult emotions by making light of them, my first reaction to the news that a six-year-old girl had been put in handcuffs by the police in Milledgeville, Georgia, was to be amused. It conjured images of a SWAT team bursting through the door to confront a the kid whose hand is in the cookie jar, or parents reaching for the phone when they are at their wit’s end with their toddler, saying, “If you don’t stop that, I am calling the police.”
As a parent you are constantly trying to enforce rules. You have to figure out how to express your authority to make the rules and, by extension, you have to figure out punishments for transgressions. Prescribing punishments is not enough, of course. You have to be prepared to act on them. The only thing worse than threats are empty threats that are perceived as such, and ignored.
I sometimes think I get mad at my daughter when she breaks a rule or, more often, simply throws my command in my face by ignoring it, not so much for having broken the rule itself or disrespecting me, but for having forced me into the authoritarian mode, which is not my default position. But I am strong, and strident, when I need to be, and then the struggle is not to enjoy it and get lost in that feeling. One sometimes gets the feeling that the police spend a lot of time lost in that feeling. School principals, too.
With the police, the question of who is in charge is always present. If you are one side of the line, the police are there to protect you and serve you. It’s nice to be on that side of the line. Emotionally, if not legally, I spent almost no time on that side of the line before I was a parent or, to be more accurate, before I got married. With marriage things began to shift. The cops were on my side. That doesn’t mean I had no positive encounters with the police previously. I just spent most of my time feeling I was guilty of something even if at any given moment I couldn’t name what it was.
If you are on the other side of the line, though, the police can be very difficult to deal with. Shortly after I moved to New Orleans, I was wandering down my street at night, convinced that I had driven my car with my wallet on the roof. I drove four blocks before this dawned on me. At the end of the night I found the wallet on the kitchen counter. I have never lost my wallet, but I am a superstar of the occasional but panic-inducing misplacement. In this case I wandered up and down the street, eyes glued to the ground, convinced I had lost my wallet. A cop pulled up behind me. He got out of his car and approached. I began to relay my tale of wallet woe. But I had hardly gotten a line out when he ordered me to the side of the road. He shouted, more or less. I shut up. He glared at me.
“You been drinking?”
It occurred to me that I must have been weaving up and down the block, head down, like some intoxicated person. I answered his questions calmly until the situation became clear to him. Then I crossed to the happy side of the line. Before the night was over, he was cruising those same four blocks in his car looking for the wallet with me. I was thanking him for his efforts. We were buddies. But for a second there it looked like he might punch me in the mouth for my having opened it.
I’ve had some ugly scenes with cops. I punched one, once, when I was fifteen. It was at the end of a Kinks Concert at Madison Square Garden. What happened after that was I was beaten up by a group of cops. It was a scary scene. It hurt but I was not hurt, a fact that speaks either to their mercy or their diabolical skill at distributing the maximum amount of grief with the minimum amount of physical evidence. I am not proud of that punch, which was obviously stupid, or rather I am proud in a bemused way at my dumbness, and equally proud at the lesson I sort of learned, which is you should never punch a cop. Which is not the same as never antagonize a cop. But it sort of is. I wrestle with this dichotomy. It speaks to my attempts to be a father to very lively five-year-old girl. It will speak to my efforts to be a father to a boy, too, who is soon to be year old and is just turning the corner into the realm of mischief, resistance, testing, adventure. I celebrate every tiny step, every pull, up, every new tooth, but also brace myself for the coming battles. The boy, like the girl, has force.
Which I meet with my own kind of force. Of will. Of reason. Physical force, too, but in measure and only in extreme cases. In some ways I feel I am trying to find the middle ground between imparting the lesson that you do not punch a cop, and that you should not cower before them, either.
Every parent will have their own way of calibrating the need for individuality with the need to respect authority. And though we will always be speaking, initially, of our authority the implication is: you better figure it out with us, you parents, now, before you are confronted with less charitable figures. Like the police. Which is why it is such a sad image to think of a six-year-old in handcuffs with a police officer beside her — the cops are the end of a long line. There is a whole circuit of infractions, punishments, threats, that most kids and young people run though before certain things dawn on them. This kid, due to some bizarre impulse by a school administrator, or perhaps to some draconian budget cut that has made social services in Milledgeville non-existent, had only begun her ride on that train when the cop showed up, as though to say, “Do not pass go. Go Directly to Jail.”
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