Bill’s Book Blog, 4/24/2021

I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the ones I read over the last week!

I finished two books last week. First up, I continued one of my Completionist Projects by reading The Ecstatic, by Victor LaValle (2002). This is LaValle’s first novel, and although it also left me a little cold, I liked it a great deal more than the short story collection I read a few weeks back, and I’m excited to see where he goes from here.

The Ecstatic is about Anthony James, who was also the main character of several of the stories in Slapboxing With Jesus. Now in his early 20s, Anthony has grown into more than a bit of a mess (the back-of-the-book copy reads “Anthony James weighs 315 pounds, is possibly schizophrenic, and he’s just been kicked out of college.”) Anthony’s struggles with his untreated mental illness form the background to the entire novel, which is otherwise about him trying to figure out how to live with his mother, grandmother, and sister, all of whom are also avoiding dealing with their own mental illnesses.

A lot happens in this book, though the largest subplot probably involves Anthony driving his family down from New York to Virginia so that his sister can compete in a beauty pageant for young women who are still virgins. While there, his grandmother is badly injured, his mother has something like a psychotic break, and Anthony himself gets tangled up with a group of thinly sketched protesters who have come to crash the event.

The book as a whole is thus something like a cross between Little Miss Sunshine (which it predates) and A Confederacy of Dunces. I’m not sure it always works, and I finished the book a little bit uncertain about its ultimate coherence. What I will say is that, as in Slapboxing with Jesus, LaValle uses dashes instead of quotation marks in order to delineate when a character is speaking, like this:

“—I have a family, I said, as an excuse to go. We still had two hours of driving till Virginia. It was 9:00 PM. Why’d they hold the rally so late?”

Whereas in Slapboxing I found this mostly annoying, here it works, because the confusion it creates as to when a character has finished speaking is used to great effect as a portrayal of Anthony’s illness. Throughout the book, lines which appear to be narration are then responded to by the people around Anthony, making it clear that he’s actually speaking out loud when he’s trying to think about something. These moments of confusion work very well, and are much more effective at communicating the pervasive sense of unreality Anthony lives with than the more cliched ostentatious hallucinations or imaginary friends.

Second, I finally read Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko (2013), which I’ve been meaning to get around to for years but have been avoiding because I was pretty sure it would make me angry. I was right in that respect: this book was not good for my blood pressure.

Balko traces the increasing militarization of American policing over the last sixty or so years, and he particularly focuses on the connections between changes in policing (both culture and materiel) and the drug war. Modern day police have access to tremendous amounts of military equipment (up to and including APCs, grenade launchers, drones, helicopters, and the occasional honest-to-god tank, complete with .50 caliber machine gun). SWAT teams exist not only in massive cities like New York, but in many small communities around the country, including towns which rarely see more than one or two murders a decade. Police are trained to believe they are fighting a war, rather than protecting or policing their communities. Civil asset forfeiture allows drug cops to fund their operations by taking money, property, and land that is in some way suspected of being connected, however tenuously, to drug dealing.

Balko’s primary point of reference is the use of no-knock warrants, which cropped up about 60 years ago and are used more and more every year. Whereas before, a police officer would be expected to knock and clearly announce himself before entering somebody’s house, and he was expected not to kick the door down without some very good reason to do so, increasingly judges grant “no-knock warrants,” allowing SWAT teams to break into peoples’ houses without any warning, often throwing flashbang grenades and pointing guns at anybody and anything that moves in the house. As one might expect, the constant deployment of such a risky strategy, that should presumably be saved only for very unusual circumstances, results in a lot of injuries and casualties.

I knew the broad strokes of the story before I read the book, but it helped me fill in a lot of details about exactly how SWAT teams came to be and proliferated around the country, or about how no-knock warrants were normalized. I also found it interesting to compare what he wrote about in 2013 versus what we talk about today with regard to police violence: there’s little to no mention of traffic stops in Rise of the Warrior Cop, for instance.

But what the book mostly did was make me angry enough to consider joining a militia. The worst thing is not just that these mistaken raids happen. It is, of course, inexcusable that every day, heavily armed men who have been taught to think of themselves as warriors break down doors and point guns at people all in pursuit of drugs. (Imagine explaining this practice to John Adams). It is even worse that these raids happen to people who aren’t even involved in drug activity, since these raids are so often based on flimsy information. But even worse than the existence of these raids is the fact that the police departments involved never seem to express even the slightest amount of remorse. Heavily armed men will break into a house, seeking nothing more than marijuana plants, terrifying the people who live within it, shooting their dogs, burning them with flashbangs, destroying their property, and then, upon discovering they aren’t even in the right house, will leave without a hint of apology or any offer to pay for the damage.

I can’t see any fix for a police culture which believes that the security, rights, and lives of its citizens are acceptable collateral damage in a never-ending war against drugs, a war which by its very nature cannot ever be won with guns and body armor. We must end the drug war. We must stop giving the police military weaponry for which there is almost no legitimate use. We must end no-knock warrants, must forbid the use of SWAT teams for all but the most legitimately dangerous circumstances. We must radically change how our police are trained to deal with the citizenry they are sworn to protect. We must do these and many more things. Whatever we have when we are done — whatever a just system of law enforcement looks like — it will bear no resemblance to our current system. We must, in other words, abolish the police.

Current Progress: 32/104, or 30.77%.

Current average pagecount: 287.66

*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.

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