WORKING, by Studs Terkel (Book Three, Part Three – Watching)

But don’t you feel safer?

Oh boy. This is going to be quite an entry.

We’ve got two interviews with police officers.

So that’s going to be a thing.

But first, something a little more laid back.

Fritz Ritter (Doorman)

The doorman as an occupation is (surprisingly enough) still alive. I still see doormen (usually not women) in the front of hotels in Boston or somewhere else they have big hotels. But otherwise I almost never see them, probably because of the rise in automation and technology with regards to customer service making them unnecessary.

Ritter’s interview is mostly concerned with differences between when he started and the 70s:

The neighborhood’s not so good any more like it used to be. Used to be very nice, one of the best neighborhoods in the city—Nice restaurants, nice movies, and nice people. You know what I mean? I mean very high class. … There’s still some good ones in this building, very nice ones. Mostly middle class, I would say. and some hippies too. But I think it will go down a little bit more. (p. 126)

Notice that “not good any more” is conflated with more poor folks coming around. The issue of class would likely be felt in a big hotel and especially one where you mostly have upper class customers. The biases from the upper class folks might transfer over time to the doorman or the doorman may have it to begin with, which is why they applied.

Ritter also talks about how it isn’t just the people but also the rise of burglaries. He notices it’s gone up since he got back from the war in 1945. This made me think about the after-effects of war and how war can continue to affect the economy in small (and big) ways long after it is done. I’m not sure what demographic the robbers meet or if any of them were vets but it’s not unfair to say the wars can cause violence back home.

He says having a union means things like a vacation and 40 hours a week as well as 5 days. He’s been at it for around 40 years so it’s safe to say he’s seen many changes. Ritter considers the change with unions a positive one.

Work is inherently controlling in many ways and Ritter’s interview highlights that point here:

You had to wear hats always. I had a problem one time with the boss. I didn’t want to wear a cap. I don’t know why. I always take it off. He comes by, I put it on. He goes away, I take it off. Off and on, off and on.

But that’s the way it is.

If tenants came by, you had to stand up. If you were sitting down, you’d stand up. as a doorman then, you couldn’t sit like this. When I was first hired, I sat down with my legs crossed. The manager came over and he said, “No, sit down like this” —-arms folded, legs stiff. If tenants came in, you had to stand up quick, stand there like a soldier. You only spoke when they spoke to you. Otherwise, you don’t say nothin’.

(p. 127)

“That’s just the way it is” and similar refrains are the long-standing tradition of the resigned. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to notice wrong and accept it inasmuch as you are forced to (or else not be able to pay rent). But usually “that’s just the way it is” is referring to the fact that it’s Status Quo and often Status Quo is God (figuratively).

More to the matter at hand (at head? chest? foot?) the control over the worker isn’t just about how they speak but the ways in which they move. The ways in which they dress is also regulated as Ritter mentions (though not with the same sort of treatment I would give) and even your disposition towards everyone.

Through the mechanic of work, human bodies and brains alike are controlled. The preferences of the work is, of course, disregarded. And their preferences are constantly either overridden or pushed down as much as possible by the boss.

Interestingly enough Ritter talks about his own experiences with classism (he doesn’t call it that) against himself:

When the house was high class, the tenants look down on me. When they used to see me on the street they’d make believe they didn’t know me. There was a restaurant in here. I used to go there once in a while, they’d make believe they didn’t see you. (p. 127)

But Ritter doesn’t care and perhaps because it doesn’t bother him he might not imagine the bother it may create for others that he has some biases of his own underneath.

Such as:

But I would like to see the house the way it was. If a stranger come in today, I stop him. I ask where he’s going. Some of ’em give me a little trouble, especially the Democrats, the black ones. I call ’em Democrats. I don’t want to say colored or white or anybody—just Democrats. (p. 128)

I’ve seen some weird ways us white people try to talk ourselves out of feeling racist, but just calling people of color democrats has gotta be one of the stranger methods I’ve seen recently.

Lastly, here’s one of Ritter’s final bits in the interview:

I hope God is good to me, that I have my health. so long as I feel good, I work, because I have a nice job and I don’t kill myself. I wouldn’t like to take off now and sit on the bench here, with the older men here. I wouldn’t like it every day, like friends of mine. I’m active, I like to do something. (p. 129)

Why does “doing something” always have to equate to “doing work?” Can’t playing with friends, reading books, going for walks, trying to get to know new people, travel and so on can’t be “doing something” as well? None of these activities are necessarily meaningless just because they’re not the job you’ve had for 40 years.

Vincent Maher (Policeman)

Okay, here we go. I don’t usually make these interviews a point-by-point response (and that’s not literally the case here, for what it’s worth) but Maher’s attitude is so despicable and arguable that I feel compelled to.

First off, “policeman” is a glorified title, he may as well be a traffic cop:

He presently directs traffic in Chicago’s Loop. He had previously been a member of the Tactical Unit. Due to a personal grievance, he had resigned from the force. For a time, he worked as a bartender—disconsolately. “I had a deputy chief come in and a commander. They said, ‘Vince, you’re a cop. Get your fanny back on the job. I came back on the job and I’m happy.” (p. 129)


Given what he says towards the end of the interview, that’s debatable:

I’m in this Loop traffic. I don’t even consider this a job. It’s like R&R, rest and recreation. My day today is like—- (whistles) it’s a no-no. It’s nothing. I get up, I eat, and I blow the whistle. It’s not very exciting.

(p. 137)

Only a page earlier Maher says:

I love risk and challenge. Driving a semi down the road is challenging. You never know what’s going to happen. (Laughs.) Some guy passes you, cuts you off, you’re jack-knifed. You blow a tire, you’re gone.

I don’t like a boring life. (p. 136)

So it seems pretty clear that:

  • Maher doesn’t like boring things
  • He appreciates a challenge
  • But isn’t getting either with the traffic job
  • And thus likely doesn’t care for his job

Like I said, point-by-point.

The victim complex starts early and often with Maher:

I make an arrest on someone who commits a crime of violence. I have to resort to a physical type of arrest to subdue him, I might have to shoot the person. I’m chastised for being brutal. It’s all right for him to do what he wants to do against myself or legitimate people, but in no way I can touch him.

I don’t see the justice. (p. 129-30)

First off, who in their right mind actually chastise police when they’re fighting for their life? Even me, an anarchist, isn’t going to blame a cop for shooting back against someone whose shooting at them. Unless they instigated the incident to begin with maybe, but even then I’d understand shooting back and not wanting to die on a basic level.

Second, who says it’s okay for the robber or whoever is committing a violent crime to attack other people? I am guessing there’s even less people who are not only saying, “A cop defending themselves is always brutal and hence wrong.” but also saying something like, “Also it’s totally fine for the violent person to attack other people. Whatever.”

This is a classic example of a police officer turning completely dissimilar situations (situations that involve cops provoking a shootout or a violent confrontation) and trying to act like some straw man is what’s being criticized. You can only play the victim as a cop if you’re completely strawmanning what other people are actually saying about your job.

Third, and last, yes to some extent cops should probably (if they are to exist at all) be more restrained than the criminals they are trying to catch. Yes, you may have to shoot a violent person but make sure there’s as little collateral damage as possible and make sure you shoot their leg or some non-lethal option if at all possible.

I’ve been accused of being a bigot, a hypocrite, and a few other niceties. I’m a human being with a job.

(p. 130)

You don’t deserve respect just because you’re a human being. Do people who have committed various crimes, expressed little to no remorse and constantly try to harm others after deserve respect? Many people would argue no. They don’t get a pass on their brutal and uncaring behavior just because they’re a human being.

Also, I’m pretty sure some serial killers see themselves as “human being with a job” so that’s not a very compelling statement. And more to the point, human beings with jobs are…human beings with jobs. Even excluding everything I’ve just said, humans are fallible and can thus fuck up at their jobs. And when you fuck up a job that involves protecting the lives of others then that deserves a bit more scrutiny than being a janitor, for instance.

This is just more of the “poor me, I don’t get any respect because now people are criticizing my position!”

There’s some comments about how white neighborhoods don’t need him as much as black ones do. Mostly because black folks are involved in “actual crime”. But as you might expect there’s no real criticism or investigation on Maher’s part about why that may be the case (even presuming that’s true). Gosh, maybe systematic racism and slavery had a negative effect on people of color and their tolerance for us white people’s bullshit. Can you blame them?

I mean, yes, you can. And you should obviously treat people equally with regards to crimes. But at the same time, the reasons why people commit crimes can vary wildly and that’s always important to keep in mind. People of color, because of white supremacy, systematic racism and years of disadvantages tend to have less access to material needs.

This lack of access can lead to, for some, to commit crime out of desperation. But the same can be said of poor white folks (which Maher admits, “I don’t mean blacks alone. There are Southern whites that come up here, they live in jungles. So do the Puerto Ricans.” Ignoring the architectural racism there (not sure what else to call it), that’s good to recognize.

In those early days nobody knew the word ni***er. There was no hate. You came and went as you pleased. I’ve seen kids come out of a bad neighborhood, some become priests, some become policeman … I don’t believe what some judges say: because of environment … I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I never finished high school. I finished the hard way … (p. 130)

Gosh. Where to start?

There’s this thing y’all may have heard of (Maher obviously hasn’t) called white privilege. Now, I know the term wasn’t around back then but the concept wasn’t exactly unknown. It shouldn’t be hard to discern at practically any time in the US’s history that as white people we have different experiences, sometimes very different ones, than people of color.

There’s a big difference being poor and white and being a person of color and being poor. Having issues of class is definitely a trying experience (take it from a poor white person) but having that and race is an issue I won’t even pretend to know with regards to the tribulations one may go through.

I don’t know what “early days” Maher is talking about but hate has always been around. Poor folks and especially poor folks who don’t look like the “normal” population have never been free to come and go as they please. And people have been using the N-word way back in the slavery days I’m fairly sure. So what is Maher talking about?

In the sea of garbage that is this interview, here’s one good thing:

I don’t believe in entrapping. To entrap is to induce someone to commit a crime. … I’d rather have a prostitute working the street. This is her trade and it’s been going on since Adam and Eve. If I were President, I’d legalize it. … They render a service as long as they’re clean and don’t hurt people.

(p. 130)

Much of this is perfectly sensible…which is why it makes so many other sections of this interview suck even more. If Maher can be so sensible about prostitution then what stops him from applying that logic to his job?

I used to call the girls at two in the morning and say, “I need four or five for the nigh.” And they’d say, “Okay Vince, we’ll be here. …” They’d all be lined up and I’d lock ’em up. I’d grab one of the broads off the street and I’d say, “Charlene, you’d better hustle because I’m coming back later and if I catch youse around—-boom—-you’re gonna get nailed. The beef is on.”

First, I just want to point out that Wendy’s was founded in 1969.

But more(?) importantly this completely contradicts what Maher just said. If he’d rather a given situation then why doesn’t he actually work towards it? The problem with cops is self-evident. They can’t actually go with their conscience and instead have to let the law override their conscience most of the time.

Which is why people call them robots.

I’m human. I make mistakes like everybody else. If you want a robot, build machines. … I’m an honest cop. I don’t think any person doing my job could face the stuff I face without losing your temper at one time or another. I’ve used the word ni**er … (p. 131)

Look. Plenty of things can be frustrating in life. Getting your life threatened can be an awful experience and it’s not one I think any of us should have to go through. That being said, if your first reaction (or even second or third) is to start yelling racial slurs at people then maybe you have a much bigger problem than just your temper.

I understand that these interviews took place in the early 70s. People were still trying to accept that Jim Crow had been ended and that the Civil Rights Movement…you know, happened. White people anyways. And for a cop, I’m sure when they’re being interviewed and they’re white, they’re going to have lots of issues with race.

But still, fuck this.

You can also work on the [black neighborhoods], where you can talk your fool head off and get nothing. They don’t understand this nicety-type guy. So you walk with a big stick. Like the adage of a mule: He’s a very intelligent animal, but in order to get his attention you have to hit him on the head with a stick.

Same thing applies on the street. (p. 131)

Comparing black people to mules to justify your brutality against them is all kinds of y i k e s.

Has it ever occurred to Maher that maybe they don’t appreciate the “niceties” of white folks who see them as animals and comparable to a mule? Just a thought.

The term “brutality” is smothered and stripped of all definition throughout this interview:

You walk up to some of these people and they’ll spit in your face. … So I have to get physical sometimes. It isn’t done in a brutal sense. I call it a corrective measure. You get these derelicts on the street. I’ve dealt with these people for years. You wack ’em on the sole of the foot. It isn’t brutal but it strings and he gets the message: he’s not suppose to be sleeping on the street. “Get up!” You get him on his feet and say, “Now go back to junk heaven that you live in and get some sleep.” Someone coming down the street sees me use the stick on the sole of his foot is gonna scream that I’m brutal. (p. 132)

Hey, you know what’s probably existed for about as long as prostitution? Homelessness. And maybe there’s a bit of an inherent brutality to taking people off of the streets when they’re not harming anyone. Who is the homeless person hurting as they lay on the street, out of people’s way (most of the time I see them) and sleep? Who are they harming?

How is this much different than the non-violent offense that you’ve admitted prostitution can be? Is it not brutal to tell people to go to a “junk heaven” and hit them at all when they’ve not aggressed against you at all? I think it is and I think it’s brutal to not only do all of these things but to then downplay it, as if everyone else is just overreacting.

I’m not going to keep rehashing Maher’s obvious racism so let’s skip ahead a bit:

I’d love to go out on the college campus and grab some of these radicals. It’s more or less a minority. when you apply logic and truth and philosophy, they cannot come back at you. You cannot fight truth. Who’s being brutal? Before I make an arrest, I’ll tell the guy, “You have a choice. you could be nice and we’ll walk. If you become combative. I’m going to have to use physical force against you to compensate. In fact, I’m gonna have to break some bones. You forced the issue.” (p.133)

Really? You’re going to have to break some bones? How is it not brutal to want to grab people just for their political ideologies? And if you’re just arresting them (you know, threatening them with restraint and confinement) just for being radicals then how is that not brutal?

Maher compares the Black Panthers to the SS, of Nazi Germany.

So that’s a thing that happens.

I’m not even going to go over how wrong that is but I just wanted to denote he sees himself as the allied forces and black militants as equivalent to the task force who helped Hitler kill millions.

But no, he’s just a human being who makes mistakes. Please.

The cop on the corner took you across the street, right? Now, ten o’clock at night, he’s still there on the corner, and he tells you to get your fanny home. He’s not being nice. The next time he tells you, he’s gonna wack you with the stick. In the old days, if you went home and told your dad the cop on the corner whacked you with a stick, you know what your father did? He whacked you twice as had. (p. 134)

Nope. No brutality here. Just advocating of children being beaten for disagreeing with someone in a uniform and then having them beaten harder at home by someone they can quite possibly challenge even less: Their parent.

The old, “If you don’t want the law and you don’t like my country, get out.” is invoked on the same page and I can’t help but denote the irony of someone who is a cop and hates entrapment and wants prostitution to be legalized. To be fair, I guess Maher does act consistently in that he still throws sex workers in jail, so, yay consistency?

The only remaining good part of the interview is here:

There is a double standard, let’s face it. You can stop John Does’ average son for smoking pot and he’ll go to jail. But if I stop Johnny Q on the street and his daddy happens to be the president of the bank or he’s very heavy in politics or knows someone, you look like a jerk. …I could care less who he is.

If he breaks the law, go. (p. 134)

This is the upside(?) of equitable distribution of the law, despite whatever the law actually is or you disagree with it. At least through that system you’d still find double standards and injustices between application in reality when it meets your favored idealism of everyone having to “go” (to jail).

Maher tells a story of how he helped other cops raid a beach that had hippies who were having “sex orgies and pot and everything” they were causing property damage (“puncturing tires, breaking antennas off cars, throwing bottle …”). But when Maher was locking them up for hitchhiking the public felt they were getting out of hand.

This is Maher’s response:

I did the job the citizens wanted me to do, right? All of a sudden, “Hey dummy, lay off!” (p. 135)

It’s almost like the public can’t change their mind or may have limits on what they think is acceptable. Maybe all they really wanted was to have the disturbances late at night stop, the property damage cease and for them to have sex and do drugs somewhere else. Hitchhiking seems pretty irrelevant to all of those things to me, even if it was also happening.

At this point in the interview and my writing about it I’m losing my patience with Maher. But hopefully you get the point, he’s a completely brutal robot who I’m glad doesn’t work in the police when Terkel interviewed him.

Hopefully he enjoyed long long years of directing traffic.

He barely deserves that much.

Renault Robinson (Policeman, founder of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League)

To be honest, much of what I have to say about police also applies to Robinson. He gives a much better interview that doesn’t make cops look like out and out monsters. He criticizes much of the (white) police force, the racist double standards within the force and society as well. He speaks well and doesn’t seem like he’d be an awful cop.

That said, he’s still a cop.

I watched the double standard at work, blacks being treated one way and whites the other. I learned one things: whites control the vice and gambling in this city. They make most of the money out of it and very few are arrested. The people being arrested are blacks. (p. 137)

Passages like the above one permeate the interview. Robinson isn’t afraid to call out the hypocrisy of white folks and especially the cops around him. He talks about the working conditions of having to spend 8 hours with a co-worker who doesn’t want to talk to him, much less acknowledge him in any way.

The hypocrisy within the police force goes deep:

You arrest a narcotics peddler three or four times, you know what he’s doing. There’s a way of putting him out of business if you wanted to. If you think about the people operating policy, bookies, narcotics—hundreds and hundreds are employed in these illegal trades. It’s full-time work.

A lot of people would be out of business if the broke these things up.

What the police do is just enough to let the public know they’re out there. there’s no fight between the professional criminals ad the police. There’s no police brutality here. They know the police, they got the bond money in their pocket or a lawyer who’ll be down there. We maintain an image, that’s all. To look as though we actively pursue organized crime. It’s a farce.

The fight is with the normal citizen who goes astray once in a while. (p. 138)

Though I’ll quibble here with Robinson that putting narcotics deals out of business is a much harder task than he makes it out to be. The illegality of drugs is what drives their profits and so someone will be there to replace them and with likely better tactics to keep them safe than the person who got caught before them.

This is why the war on drugs won’t ever end. You can’t fight an easily accessible and marketable good on the market and expect to beat it by making it illegal or busting up those who sell it. Maybe it has some sort of effect on the people who are on the margins. So if that’s the target audience then OK. But that doesn’t accomplish much.

Robinson also talks about the ease of which it is to convict dealers in court or to simply let them off the hook to make a spectacle of them. He discusses how it’s much easier to get people in trouble under the pretense of checking their car for a routine traffic light stop than trying to look for drugs by themselves. But that’s no surprise.

And while people of color are targeted, Robinson also mentions folks with long hair, out radicals (ones with PEACE IN VIETNAM bumper stickers for instance) and white women who are with black folks. All of these groups (and others I can only imagine) were targeted around the time Robinson gave his interview.

Robinson inadvertently puts Maher in his place:

The young black is the big police hang-up because his tolerance of police brutality has grown short. They say, “The new ni**ers don’t respect us any more the way the old ni**ers used to. We used to holler at ’em and shout at ’em and kick ’em and they went along with it.”

Young ni**ers ain’t going along with it and that’s what bugs them more than anything in the world. That’s why more young kids are being killed by police than ever before. They won’t accept dehumanizing treatment. (p. 139)

Come to think of it, I really appreciate this contrast between Maher and Robinson.

We can see the different experiences of a white cop and a black cop. It seems pretty clear to me just from what I’ve said and quoted so far that Robinson is a good guy whose trying to make an immoral job…be less immoral.

The average young white cop is in bad shape. I think he can be saved if a change came from the top. If it could be for just eight hours a day. They may still hate ni**ers when they got off duty. They may still belong to the John Birch Society or the Klu Klux Klan.

So what? they could be forced to perform better during the eight hours of work. (p. 140)

Which, you know, probably isn’t going to go well for him.

In fact, he’s in fact thousands of dollars in debt to the state thanks to racist cops who hate him and is likely to be fired soon after the interview takes place. Maybe working within the system just isn’t going to cut it, especially not when you can’t really force the racism out of people.

Robinson’s co-worker sure doesn’t love him and he’s working with him for 8 hours because the force wants to pretend that segregation has ended in some meaningful way. And so this kind of top-down force doesn’t seem to be going so well. So why should Robinson expect much different from a top-down executive order within HQ?

I’m guessing Robinson buys into the “right people and right policy” liberal mindset. But it’s impractical for a whole host of reasons. The “right people” can’t act “right” if the word “right” actually translates to “do whatever the law says” when the law is often immoral and the right policy can’t be”right” for similar reasons.

Again, Robinson may be a “better” cop than Maher (by leaps and bounds even) but he’s still a cop.

This passage blew my mind, not necessarily in a good way:

“I don’t like your people, but I can work around you. Maybe I’m wrong in feeling that way, but that’s how I was brought up. I got basic feelings about my kids going to school with blacks and it can’t be talked away. You can’t talk me out of my fears.” I respected him for his opinion and he respected mine.

We got along. (p. 140-41)

Just…how? I can’t even imagine working with someone who resents your very existence and then excuses it on the ridiculous notion that it’s fear and fears can’t be reasoned with (untrue). Or that he grew up with the idea that people of color shouldn’t mingle with white folks and therefore he can’t change (also untrue).

But then, I suppose that was life for many folks of color back then.

I’m sure it still is to some extent.

I am running out of steam so let’s finish with this great quote:

You could take a tender white boy, give him a badge and a gun, and man! he becomes George Wallace over night. (p. 141)

Robinson thinks if we change “the rationale by which they work” things would be better but doesn’t seem to get that this also means challenging white supremacy on a lot of grounds.

Or who knows, maybe he does get this and just isn’t spelling that part out for whatever reason.

At the end of the interview Robinson states that he feels there’s now a “tremendous difference” in the attitude of the black police within Chicago now that the League of Afro-American Patrolmen has been created.

And I can’t deny that that may have been true at the time. But I think it’s worth pointing out that now, in 2018, it looks like the police have done anything but progress in many ways and that’s worth keeping in mind too.

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