I conduct lethal-force certifications for law enforcement agencies, so I know lots of cops. Right now, I wouldn’t want to be a cop because for many of the people who are demonstrating against police violence, it’s payback time.
I just finished reading a new novel by Joyce Carol Oates, NIGHT. SLEEP. DEATH. The STARS, which is a stanza from a Whitman poem. I love her books. I read some of them again and again. I write non-fiction but I read fiction and her works are always at the top of my list.
This novel opens with John Earle ‘Whitey’ McLaren driving down the highway outside of Hammond, New York and passing two cops who are whomping the shit out of some Indian guy. Later we find out that the Indian guy is a doctor at the local hospital.
McLaren pulls over on the shoulder, starts walking towards the cops to find out what’s going on, and the cops start whomping the shit out of him too. They knock him down, hit him with multiple tasers, and the sixty-seven year-old former town Mayor who has just attended a meting of the Trustees of the Public Library, suffers a stroke from which he succumbs ten days’ later without ever regaining full consciousness.
He leaves behind a widow, Jessalyn, and five grown children, along with a successful business run by his eldest child, Thom. There are three daughters – Beverly, Lorene, Sofia, and another son named Virgil. The novel is another example of what makes Joyce Carol Oates such a remarkable storyteller, which is her uncanny ability to create a portrait of a family whose members are in some way or another adrift from each other and from themselves.
I am not a literary critic of any sort, so I’m going to leave an analysis of the book’s text to others who are much more versant in judging fiction than myself. What I want to talk about is the incident of police brutality which starts the book off, given how this issue has come to dominate so much of our public discussion today.
There is no question that much of the anger and public, mass demonstrations following the death of George Floyd was due to the response, or I should say, lack of response from Donald Trump. Even Rush Limbaugh came out he next day and expressed shock and concern about the video showing Black man on the ground with a White cop using his boot to crush the poor guy’s neck.
It took Trump almost a week to say anything about the event, no doubt he was waiting to hear the reaction from a couple of focus groups before saying anything about what took place. In fact, what he began doing almost immediately was going back to the usual racist playbook which included re-tweeting the most disgusting comments from Black conservatives like Candace Owens.
But now back to the novel by Oates. What happens is that the eldest son decides to go after the cops who killed his father and runs up against the usual resistance of local officials and the police union to redress the situation at all. I’m not going to go into details because the novel needs to be read word-for-word, but what happens in this instance is probably what happens in most instances of police brutality when the cops do something stupid or brutal in any town and nobody’s standing there with a video camera to record the details.
The strength of this novel lies in the endless twists and turns of family members whose lives all change when the individual around whom the family created and maintained its identity suddenly disappears. But the issue of police brutality is also handled in a deft and nuanced way because we need to remember that when something unnecessarily violent happens to anyone, the violence reverberates far beyond the immediate circle of family and friends.