My friend Terry and I were walking, contemplating tomfoolery and fifteen years old in the summer of sixty-eight. Our nominal destination was ‘downtown’ Louisiana, Missouri, a few quiet blocks of 19th Century cast iron mercantile buildings in various states of disrepair flanking a main street with one flashing red light.
The Summer of Love had passed, virginity intact, but the shock waves were only beginning. Cold War anxiety gave way to anticipation of big things on the horizon. Civil rights, music, fashion, moon shots, and sexuality were on a roll. Optimism was high among the young despite dread of death, our own or others, in Vietnam. Political assassinations, violent resistance to integration, riots against racism, and other ills would not keep us down. The drama kept us edgy though. Wherever one stood on an issue, there always seemed to be more arguing the other side. Plain disbelief at other peoples’ idiocy was widely shared. Incomprehension became a rare source of mutuality. Each day a new shock or two was brought to us in measured tones by Walter Cronkite from the tube, fuzzy dots leaving much to the imagination. The soundtrack for upheaval was polarizing. No one heard Jimi Hendrix for the first time without a visceral response one way or the other.
Terry and I had Beatles haircuts that day. After years of intense exposure, mop-tops were easily the least offensive long cuts in 1968. Long hair in back was considered feminine and so, of course, most objectionable for boys. Over the collar was ‘pushing your luck’. In the front, adults focused on maintaining a gap between boys’ eyebrows and the hair above. Terry’s bangs were aggressive, long enough to require frequent sweeps across the forehead to maintain clear vision. By comparison, my bangs were vanilla, two fingers above the brow.
Hair was so consequential that it is difficult to convey the emotions produced, like pandemic masks today. I saw my steady quiet father cry only once. What did him in, this reserved farm boy who left the horse and plow for a Liberator Bomber at eighteen and came home with a Distinguished Flying Cross? My older brother refused to cut his hair. Despite his status as a college scholar-athlete, hair length was the issue of the day. The argument ended with dad sobbing at dinner after my brother stormed out. “I don’t ask much”, he said to himself, stupefied. How could hair be so important? Long hair was associated with the rock-and-roll rebellion and resistance to an unjust war. Dad was far from a warmonger, but he was a veteran with a traditional, if dangerous, respect for state authority.
The day Terry and I took our hair for a walk was fantastic. A fall day so beautiful even the most bookish kids, like me, were drawn outside. We were carefree, aimless. Enjoying our patter, we walked a couple of miles from the far edge of town to the center.
Emerging from the long alley of trees vaulting Georgia Street we emerged into blue skies and a sunny downtown sloping east to the Mississippi. Our view was framed by the staid columns of the Masonic Temple on the left and a glorious vision of modernity on the right. There, the Mobil station gleamed white porcelain, chrome, glass, and neon. In solitary splendor high above, revolved the red winged horse, my favorite logo as a child. Aspirations to leave my backward, constitutionally conservative rural town were perfectly matched with the image of bold Pegasus flying away. There, under the sign, we walked unawares into a skirmish.
We came blinking out of our reverie to see Tom, the new town cop, blocking our way, looking suspiciously friendly. Tom plod a well-worn path to his position – high school bully, military policeman, town cop. He had long experience in the substance of his task, bending people to his will. Becoming a boxing champ in the navy cemented his tough-guy rep. To us, Tom was of small account, a well-known type going nowhere fast, a fact that no doubt bore into him. Bullies were comic-book villains, not Presidents, and bringing one down a notch or two earned respect. We would have given Tom no more than a nod, but he stopped us.
Our cops were dangerous. You could just tell by the way people acted around them, especially the more troublesome young people they were paid to intimidate. We knew the last Sheriff had been arrested by the FBI after his son was burned in a family arson-for-profit scheme. But that’s not unusual, right? A town cop’s job description was short and simple and unwritten: keep ‘them’ in their place. ‘Them’ being, of course, defined in the moment rather than by law. In truth, place-keeping and the law are entirely incompatible. The law defines rights and principles. Place-keeping is culture’s way of making rights and principles impotent and meaningless in everyday life. Place keeping is rights-taking, highlighted by today’s police riots in response to largely peaceful protests against police brutality. Tom was a stooge and minion of his time, most days a rights-taker, not a law-enforcer. ‘Southern’ towns are a parable of life where institutions are bent against their stated purpose. Southern culture values the short arc of oppression over the long arc of justice by a mile.
Resplendent in his new uniform, Tom opens, “How are you boys today?” “Very good sir, how are you?” Terry and I were creatures of upbringing, we knew to be respectful in the face of authority outside of home. When it became clear that Tom was intent on ‘a talk’, we became observant and still. We watched closely and responded carefully. We were youngsters of ‘good families’ with no prior trouble and out for none. What could be the problem? “He can’t touch us”, we thought. Still, we kept our cards close. One inane question followed another. “Yes, sir.” “No, sir.” “Not that I know, sir.” It’s a beautiful day, yes, sir.” On and on. One question was unpleasant. Two, miserable. Three, insufferable. Our minds did not stop. “What’s in that stupid smile?” “Why is Tom enjoying himself so much?” Finally, we sensed he was running out of questions. He had nothing to say. The questions were inane because the man was purposeless. He was just entertaining himself at our expense. We relaxed. We would be free soon enough.
“Well, boys”, Tom said in a tone portending departure. As relief swelled, Terry and I hazarded a glance, meeting eyes, daring the hint of a smile, acknowledging a small victory, anxious to be off and to enjoy the splendid afternoon. And then it happened. The boxer spun. Gaining momentum, Tom’s right hand reached behind, while his left hand darted, grabbing Terry’s bangs. The gleaming switch blade appeared fully extended and flashed across our eyes. Tom hacked a hunk of Terry’s hair off at the scalp, slowed his turn, and exited effortlessly into a walk, switchblade disappearing into his pants, confidently showing us his back. “Get a haircut!” Tom yelled triumphant, nonchalantly tossing Terry’s hair into the light breeze where it glistened momentarily as he sauntered away.
Jaws wide, stunned, awareness congealed slowly in our tricked and bullied brains. We saw what happened. We felt. We recorded. But the enormity of presumption, the lawlessness, the depth of cultural complicity, the evil that supported the assault would take decades to appreciate. Not before Ferguson did I realize how little had changed in fifty years. Not fundamentally, not to the point of no return, not in some places. Not in fifty years and not in two hundred.
I do not remember the walk home. I only remember being supremely angry, helpless, and humiliated. Terry split, to get a haircut. We didn’t tell our friends and families what happened. We didn’t tell Tommy, our classmate whose dad was Chief of Police. Why would we risk unleashing this monster on those we loved? Despite being from good families and well-regarded young men, we knew, or believed, that our friends and families might not match the power this two-bit rookie cop could muster. We knew, intuitively: culture was on his side. We knew he could hijack the respect we carelessly give our institutions. Respect institutions often fail to return.
Why, you might ask, did Tom hack off Terry’s hair? The culture of that place and time deemed a Beatles haircut a threat to the social order. Tom’s job was to keep people in their place, to suppress threats, and Tom was good at his job. Without stooges like Tom, all the slaves would have run away with the help of philosophical teenagers. Police origins in slave patrols echoes strongly in a small town whose mob of 75 to 100 people lynched Bill McDowell the year before Twain published Huckleberry Finn. In a county that saw five people lynched between 1877 and 1950, deep-South level violence. White people too often think that Jim Crow didn’t, or that The New Jim Crow doesn’t, impact them. But Jim Crow has a fixed place for everyone and not one of those places is truly free. Each person in a Jim Crow society feels trapped. Some traps are far more pleasant than others, but none is safe or secure except in relation to those made intentionally most unsafe: those not white and male and heterosexual and cis and Christian and in every other way profoundly normative. Black people had it unimaginably worse ‘then’, just as they do ‘today’. In 1968 we thought that was about to change. We were wrong.
What happened on Georgia Street? Tom was training us to fit into his order, exactly what Trump does when he talks about gunning someone down on Fifth Avenue. We are conditioned to behave like idiots, to acquiesce to pressures we comprehend only vaguely. We know in our bones what path is good for escaping short-term consequences. Such knowledge is learned young, stored deep and brought out for self-preservation. Such knowing might keep us from getting whooped today but kills our souls for the morrow. The order is the order. Whoever supports order receives benefits. Whoever tries to change the order is suppressed. Thus it comes to pass that order is often defended, in paranoid fashion, from the smallest threats by those with zero stake in its preservation.
The lower one’s status in the order the more one has seen the world go from bad to worse, the more one has felt fear, especially for children. One lesson for white people from To Kill a Mockingbird is that their children are never safe if they question society’s order. Most families do not have a hermit hero of divergent intelligence next door to save the day, and they know it. When society is criminal, police are reliably on the side of the dominant culture.
Black people don’t need movies for lessons on order. They know that society will “come for their children” if necessary, to preserve the order and power of white supremacy through fear. To Kill A Mockingbird wasn’t about to address how much repressive power the vulnerability of Black children gave society.
Ferguson was a company town in 2015, unusual in that the company store was a justice system set up to extract money from Black people. At the time of the DOJ’s investigation, the company store had 16,000 outstanding arrest warrants in a town of 21,000. Ninety-two percent of the warrants were for Black people. Tens of thousands of lives were ruined to make a buck, preserve white supremacy, and keep Black people in a state of dependency. We had Jim Crow, then New Jim Crow, and now Trump Jim Crow, the latest computer-enhanced, video-surveilled, institutionalized version of U.S. oppression. Artificial Intelligence’s arrival further enhances our sense of dystopia and Orwellian déjà vu. My hometown might have been another Ferguson if there were enough Black people to exploit profitably. For the small Black population, maybe Louisiana is and was as bad as Ferguson.
Tom may not have been a genius, but he was a cunning bully. He became the mayor of my little hometown, off and on for decades-reason enough for Louisiana’s continuous decline, even without the many forces pushing it down from without. Why? Many small towns are run for the benefit of the few. Conspiracy is a shortcut, not fundamental, when interests are aligned. Bullies are akin to the mob; they attain standing and wealth through dirty deeds of one kind and another. Intimidation is fear in the bank, good for use another day. Perhaps Tom didn’t make common cause with a Russian despot, but greed is monotonously similar. Like Tom, Trump is a manifestation of decline-even if ‘things’ are ‘better’ and never were ‘great’.
Years and years after Terry and I ran into Tom, my father, retired and elderly and frail, was on the city council during one of Tom’s stints as mayor. A land deal came before the council one day and Tom’s buddies were involved. Dad noticed the price was too high, or too low, from the city’s perspective, and said so. “Shut Up!” Tom shouted at my respected father, startling those present, making plain what was going on. Tom won the vote and, no doubt, became a little more powerful that day. Like Terry and I so many years earlier, dad did nothing beyond voting against the deal. For bullies like Tom, there is no day like the day you line your pocket with other people’s money. Except those days when they can also brag, “I showed those little shits who’s boss.” To Tom and to Trump we are all little shits, every one of us. The time to take the country back from the bullies at every level of society is long past. There is no reconciliation without truth. Bullies all and always lie. That’s the rub.
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This recollection of Louisiana, Missouri, from about 1968, is entirely from memory. Louisiana is a town of a few thousand people twenty miles south of Hannibal, Missouri, of Mark Twain fame. Physically, Louisiana is beautiful and retains many traces of Twain’s time. Culturally, less has changed between Twain’s time and that of my childhood than we have thought. Culture runs deep. Just when we thought the equality of our higher ideals was around the corner, the Fascist ideas and techniques that made institutionalized slavery possible roared back. The evil of enslaving people and the high ideals of our founding documents are two sides of the same coin.