This is my America
Friday September 09th 2005, 11:47 am


  See any white faces? No?

image: Associated Press

Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky are emergency medical services (EMS) workers from San Francisco. They were attending a conference in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina made landfall. Their experience with American style policing sounds all too familiar to me:

...Just as dusk set in, a sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces and screamed, "Get off the fucking freeway." A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.

Once again, at gunpoint, we were forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared threatened when we congregated into groups of 20 or more. In every congregation of "victims," they saw "mob" or "riot." We felt safety in numbers. Our "we must stay together" attitude was impossible because the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.

In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group of eight people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements, but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.

I left my middle class corner of the midwestern USA in 1996 for Sydney. My experience growing up in America with American cops, despite all my blonde & blue-eyed whiteness and educated, well-spoken demeanor, has always been that the cops make up their minds about what you are before they deal with you. If you are black, youthful or sport a counterculture type appearance, the cops are not your allies under any circumstances. No matter what kind of trouble you have, you don’t call the police if you’re a member of one of the groups they don’t like the looks of- ever. I’ve had cops level a firearm at me on more than one occasion, for no greater crime than being on a footpath when they didn’t want me to be there.

American cops prejudging the worth of people on sight is the norm. I pretty much accepted that over the years (as if I or anyone else have a choice), to the point where I find it difficult to write about it. Police abuse of authority is so common that you’d probably find more interest in an in-depth discussion of how to butter a slice of bread. However, the mere attitude of the cops takes on a totally new meaning when it’s your survival on the line.

Some of the biggest lies I was told as an American youth in the 1960s and 70s were ‘anyone can grow up to be President’ and ‘anyone can be a financial success if they only work hard enough.’ I grew up in mainly white, middle class areas of the north central USA and had few contacts with black people outside of those kids I knew from school. As a kid and a young adult, I honestly believed that po folk just didn’t work hard enough. After all, I always found it easy to attend uni, get OK-paying jobs and live in decent quality housing. I didn’t think my honkeyness had much to do with it.

I gained a new appreciation for being a blue-eyed white male in situations involving authority in America, but never more so than in my visits to the deep American South, notably Georgia, Nawlins and Foat Wuth. I always tucked my hair up in my helmet (or in my jacket in no-helmet states) when riding my motorcycle through any of the aforementioned areas. If I didn’t, I was sure to be stopped by police. Charlie Daniels‘ "Uneasy Rider" was actually fairly educational in that it was my first clue that you could be white and still be in a whole heap o’ trouble if you didn’t keep your wits about you when in the Sowf.

My best lesson in how important it is to be a white guy in America was when I was doing a temp job in Foat Wuth. In the mid 1980s, I was hired by a very large Fort Worth, Texas based company, along with about 20 other guys from around the USA. Three of these fellas were black. On my first payday, I went to a nearby bank to cash my paycheck. Though I was new in town, living in an apartment rented by the company and had no accounts with that bank, I didn’t have any trouble cashing my paycheck. I reckoned it was because the check was drawn on that bank and that I worked for the biggest company in town; the teller surely knew the check couldn’t possibly bounce.

However, all three of the black guys I worked with, who did the exact same job I was doing, were told they would have to open accounts and maintain a minimum balance of $250 for 60 days before the bank would cash their paychecks. Brash damyankee that I was (am!), I grabbed these guys and we marched back to the bank teller, whom I confronted with the notion that these men were all in the same position I was, yet the bank cashed my paycheck and not theirs. I pointedly asked the teller if the difference in treatment was because these men were black. The teller turned eight shades of purple, but cashed all three of these black guys’ checks on the spot. 

My daddy raised me to be ‘colorblind,’ even in the tumultuous race relations atmosphere of the 1960s. I have thus always been a staunch anti-racist, even in my childhood and young teens. However, the Foat Wuth bank event really was the catalyst for my politicisation and vociferous activism around the issue.

The stories filtering out of Nawlins are depressing confirmations of this king-of-the-world racist mindset that too many American authorities have. This prejudgement of the worth of a human on sight is deadset typical not only of large chunks of American law enforcement but of conservative American politicians. If your survival pivots on the discretion of American cops and wingnut politicians, you’d better become MacGyver in a great big hurry. 

Individual Americans do have a reputation outside of their homeland, not only for their effusive and brash manner, but for their resourcefulness and can-do attitude, as made familiar to non-yanks by the MacGyver character. That resourcefulness comes in no small part from the general life lessons we Americans are given. Since there’s very little in the way of social support programs and no national healthcare in the USA, you are pretty much on your own.

I’ll be very surprised if the US Government makes any exceptions to the 60 month lifetime limit for unemployment benefits even in the case of displaced Katrina survivors. Eleven conservative Republican senators have even voted against the US$51billion aid package to those affected by Katrina.

Gore Vidal reckons that the US will implode, becoming an irrelevant, mediocre world power in the next 20 years.  Katrina makes it obvious it’s already there.


Tip-o-the-hat to 12th Harmonic for this item.

12 Comments so far
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What an interesting read! Sometimes I really take Australia and Australian culture forgranted. Racism is on the rise here but from what I seem to be hearing, it is no where near the levels in the States and some parts of Euroupe.

I have always wanted to spend a year in NYc, I am still young so I still intend to. Any comments abot NYc, or am I looking at it the wrong way? should I be naming suburbs? I would just feel like a country boy in a NYc, it would be amazing.

Comment by Apollyon 09.09.05 @ 2:40 pm

If you visit NYC, try not to look too brown, ‘foreign’ and don’t take photos of major landmarks.

NYC is overwhelming to outsiders on first visit. For the most part, it’s just a big city a lot like any other. You’ll recognise a few famous buildings and landmarks that feature in TV shows, but frankly, you get the same effect in Sydney without having to fly 27 hours to get there. You just might be better off staying in Australia.

If you just gotta go to a big foreign city somewhere, Hong Kong & Tokyo would be fascinating and closer to you by about 15-17 hours flying time.

I really don’t understand many Australians’ attraction to travelling to cities in the USA. Most don’t have any idea how good they have it here. However, if I had to recommend places to visit in the US, I’d probably suggest the geographic features of the American west, like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park as well as places with a lot of native American history like Sante Fe, New Mexico. If you want to meet ordinary average Americans, go to St Louis or even Chicago.

If you want an American Sydney, try San Francisco. If you rather like Brisbane, try LA. You might drive into Mexico for a day trip. The contrast between Southern Cowlifornia and Tijuana is amazing.

Comment by weezil 09.09.05 @ 4:22 pm

Interesting read Weezil. I first realised how different US society was to Australia when I made my first trip to Detroit city… what a contrast. The city centre was just dead — shuffling old black people amongst the skyrise buildings, armed guards at the parking stations, the expensive cars of the welathy whisking them home to Grosse Isle after work… it was an eye-opener to my 18 year old self.

Though I was blown away by NYC, I have to admit — the art galleries, the crowds, the whole thing was pretty amazing, so I can understand why people want to go there. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Comment by Kate 09.09.05 @ 6:56 pm

Kate, in terms of the relative comfort and safety, I like to compare Sydney to a small midwestern American city. Sydney just does not have the avaricious character one might expect in the most populous city on a continent.

Detroit is Detroit because of the rampant poverty after much of the American auto industry moved to Mexico after NAFTA. The American government makes it very difficult for anyone (but blacks in particular) to get an education and hence a good job outside of the old smokestack industries. ‘Course, po boys are always free to join the US military. It’s not just an adventure, it’s a job.

NYC has art galleries, but so do many other cities. There’s nothing in NYC (not even the Met) that could hold a dim candle to the Louvre.

Comment by weezil 09.09.05 @ 7:45 pm

Detroit is Detroit because…“:

Actually Detroit was in pretty bad shape in the 70s and 80s. Whole streets where the buildings where falling down. I used to think that the best section of Metro Detroit was Windsor, Ont. 🙂 But I’m sure that NAFTA has not improved the situation at all.

Speaking of Detroit – now there’s a police department! The problem is that a lot of US police depts. have a siege mentality. They have no basis in the community.

Wrt places to go can I put in a plug for Alaska?

Comment by Peter F Bradshaw 09.09.05 @ 10:49 pm

Here’s another link that has a report which is in agreement with the Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky article.

Comment by Peter F Bradshaw 09.09.05 @ 11:01 pm

Good stuff weez!

Comment by Guy 09.10.05 @ 9:14 am

Haven’t got much to say. Pretty disgusting.

Comment by Ray 09.10.05 @ 10:28 pm

Detroit 1990, Bloomfield Hills, Australian teenage girl and her mother photographing chipmunks on log in what they thought was public land; police arrived to ‘move us on’. We were apparently in somebody’s yard. No fence and nearest house in the DISTANCE. they called the cops on 2 white females. Later we saw the Detroit CBD and it looked like a burned out warzone. Should any bloggers reading this ever get near the Motor City – do not miss the Henry Ford Museum – it was fabulous.

Comment by brownie 09.12.05 @ 11:19 am

BE WORRIED Australia! I have been living in the U.S. for 10 yrs working as an RN. I am currently spearheading health care reform to adopt a universal – single payor health care system in Wisconsin. As someone commented before the US is about to implode – no doubt! I keep up on Aussie news via internet and see that the current PM ‘howard’ is following in bush’s footsteps – DANGER DANGER DANGER! Hold on to your universal health care and DON’T privatise. it is the great American and now Australian LIE that privatisation brings competition and keeps premiums low! it hasn’t worked in the US and it WON’T work in Aussie. howard is only looking after his own wealth interests and has exactly the same agenda as bush does. AUSTRALIA be very worried and act now before it is too late! Jane

Comment by Jane P. Truscott 09.13.05 @ 2:30 am

Jane, there has been private health insurance available in Aus for as long as I have been here, which remarkably was about the same time Howard took office. I have never been able to figure out why in a country where you have national healthcare you would ever need private insurance.

There’s more than one way HoWARd is following Shrub. The most worrisome puppydogging is the revocation of civil liberties under the false pretense that curtailing protest will make us safe from terrorism.

Comment by weezil 09.13.05 @ 11:04 pm

Spot on Weez, and I did visit all the places you suggested an Aussi visit and more, and totally agree with you. love to have you visit us at you would be really welcome Kangaroo Brisbane

Comment by rossiann 09.17.05 @ 4:05 pm

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