This morning an article by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times took a different approach to the Garner grand jury decision. In it he tells of a chance meeting on an “A” train in Harlem with a fellow passenger, Galvin Harris. Harris noticed that Dwyer had a print out of a 1936 George Orwell Essay entitled “Shooting An Elephant”. The conversation continued because Harris had read it in college. He observed, “It’s a good analogy.”
Written in first person, Orwell’s description of how it felt to be a “sub-divisional police officer of the town”, a white man in Burma, clearly expressed both his fear and loathing of his position. “All this was perplexing and upsetting.” “As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.” I have often heard my police buddies say that many days being on the job were like “looking up the asshole of NY.”
Orwell’s policeman says,
“All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.”
Clearly the British Raj is a far cry from NYC. However his turn of the eloquent phrase, “evil-spirited little beasts” isn’t that far removed from what I have often heard police mutter when they think they are out of earshot or criticism, “fukn N….rs.” I have also heard a few choice phrases uttered about a couple of Harlem “priests,” especially one known for his activism.
In Orwell’s story, a suspect domesticated elephant had been “looting” local areas and had “apparently” killed a local man. The protagonist had gone after it, first with just an idea to scare it with a weapon inadequate to use for deadly force. But after seeing the dead man, he switched to a weapon designed to inflict deadly force.
Next comes the crux of the actual story.
“The elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd’s approach. He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.”
“As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout (his handler and owner) came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.”
But his focus changes.
“But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.”
This next two comment resonate greatly.
“I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib: A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things.”
“For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened.”
“Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. [L] egally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided…. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant.”
The officer in Orwell’s essay never intended to kill the elephant, yet he did. He felt pressure to. There is no way to discover the intent of Officer Daniel Pantaleo. His lawyer claims, ” His client told the Staten Island grand jury that he never intended to injure or harm anyone.”
Clearly though he, as was Orwell’s protagonist, a product of the “empire” and his prejudices about the “local natives”. He was also a product of psychological pressures to perform what he felt was an expected duty and maybe he felt, as did Orwell’s man,
“I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”