This Week in Books: We’ve All Been Briefed

MANHATTAN, NY - JUNE 14: Hundreds of people pack into Columbus Circle to hear speeches of protest against police violence with one protester holding a painted portrait of Floyd George. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

“Every Chicagoan is financing torture, every day,” writes Laurence Ralph in an excerpt from his book The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. The excerpt is written in the form of a letter to any and all future mayors of Chicago, endeavoring to explain to the mayor—to really explain—police torture in Chicago. “You likely have been briefed about police torture,” Ralph writes to the future mayor, a statement that could just as easily apply to you, or to me. We’ve all been briefed.

“Perhaps you have gotten assurances from the superintendent of the police department. You might have even met with survivors of police torture. But what I have found in studying this issue for more than a decade is that…a strict historical approach, or a policy-oriented approach, doesn’t actually clarify the full extent of the problem. To do that, we need not facts but a metaphor.

“The first thing you must know is that the torture tree is firmly planted in your city. Its roots are deep, its trunk sturdy, its branches spread wide, its leaves casting dark shadows. The torture tree is rooted in an enduring idea of threat that is foundational to life in the United States.”

Ralph goes on to give the mayor the raw numbers; numbers like this have been circulating since the protests began, and they have not lost their power to startle me.

“Police misconduct payouts related to incidents of excessive force have increased substantially since 2004. From 2004 to 2016, Chicago has paid out $662 million in police misconduct settlements, according to city records. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that these figures will decrease. Hundreds of Chicago Police Department misconduct lawsuit settlements were filed between 2011 and 2016, and they have cost Chicago taxpayers roughly $280 million. When I was writing this letter in July 2018, the city had paid more than $45 million in misconduct settlements thus far, in that year alone. Keep in mind that misconduct payouts are only a fraction of what the city spends on policing. Chicago allocates $1.46 billion annually to policing, or 40 percent of its budget—that’s the second-highest share of a city budget that goes to policing in the nation. It trails only Oakland, which allocates 41 percent.”

Every Chicagoan is financing torture, every day. Or as New Yorker Molly Crabapple puts it in her dispatch from the protests, “we, the broke and beaten residents and taxpayers, will be paying for their abuse of us.” In between her accounts of beatings and pepper sprayings and arrests, she recounts similar numbers, nearly the same numbers: “Last year, the city paid out nearly $70 million to settle police misconduct cases, up $30 million on the previous year; that number will swell beyond comprehension in 2020. Yet none of this comes out of the police budget.” These numbers are so malevolent to me; they have a sorcerous energy; when things are unbalanced, it is unnatural and disturbing.

“In the end,” poet Cameron Awkward-Rich writes in his account of a protest he joined up with in Massachusetts, at which chants of “Black Trans Lives Matter!” rang out, “the Northampton cops pepper-sprayed a group of demonstrators who got too close to the station’s doors.”

“The station’s been cleaned. The Black Lives Matter flag no longer flies from its post. The demonstration will recur and this time the station will be barricaded hours in advance. A video has circulated online that depicts the brutal beating of black trans woman Iyanna Dior by a group of black cis women and men. Intracommunity calls to defend black trans life have been met with affirmation, yes, but also derision and accusations of unduly diverting attention away from the present struggle. We only get so much access to the feeling of freedom.

“It’s impossible to know what the other side of this will look like, how this unfolding situation will crystallize into a narratable event. Whether a stretched-out moment of insisting that black trans life matters will, in the end, matter. Whether ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ will ever occupy the simple present tense. In the meanwhile, the Okra Project has begun and funded an enormously ambitious project to connect struggling black trans people with life-sustaining care. In the meanwhile, Dee Dee Watters of Black Transwomen Inc has raised nearly $10,000 to support Iyanna Dior. In the meanwhile, strangers and intimates alike have given Tony McDade’s family more than enough to put him to rest.

“In the meanwhile, the crowd is assembling again outside my window, louder this time, gathering force.”

1. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” by Cameron Awkward-Rich, The Paris Review

Poet Cameron Awkward-Rich, author of Dispatch, reflects on the intersection of blackness and transness while he protests outside a police station in Northampton, Massachusetts: “…transness, at minimum, is the insistence on the human capacity for once unimaginable change.”

2. “Letter From Brooklyn: Finding Justice in the Streets” by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Lit Hub

Novelist Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain, wonders just how much the now ubiquitous low-flying police helicopters of Brooklyn are recording; but once he joins a protest, it no longer seems to him like the helicopters are the ones doing the watching. “The rebellion…refuses obfuscation. Too many cameras to count—like the one Darnella Frazier tapped on her phone to record Floyd’s last moments—now point at the true sources of violence and brutality. It’s our turn to shoot.”

3. “In New York, Protesters’ Pride Beats Police Brutality” by Molly Crabapple, The New York Review of Books

Artist and journalist Molly Crabapple, co-author of Brothers of the Gun, observes the protests in New York, drawing what she witnesses, and recounting stories others have told. “In the Bronx, while boxed in and waiting to be cuffed, former congressional candidate Andom Ghebreghiorgis witnessed a woman going into labor. Another convulsed in seizures. Blood dripped from the baton wounds police left in protesters’ skulls. Ghebregiorghis himself spent at least six hours with his hands agonizingly zip-tied behind his back. On another night, Jason Rosenberg, a programmer for the 92Y, emerged from jail covered in blood, with a broken arm and a head wound that required six staples to close. A source familiar with the situation in the holding cells told me of a woman who had miscarried after being arrested. Another pregnant woman was beaten, left handcuffed, and denied water.”

4. “An Open Letter to All the Future Mayors of Chicago” by Laurence Ralph, The Paris Review

An excerpt from Laurence Ralph’s The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. Police torture, he writes, is best understood as a metaphor; a torture tree. And the nourishing roots of the tree are “this country’s enduring logic of threat.” Ralphs writes: “Frontier logic…is foundational…to modern-day policing. We can see it at work when one court after another acquits cops who gun down African Americans under the pretext that those cops felt threatened. In such cases, the violence enacted against Black people works to turn the police officers who actually committed the violence into the victims of those Black people. This is how the tangled and twisted logic of fear became rooted in the security apparatus of the United States.”

5. “On Charles Dickens’ Devious, Hypocritical ‘Nice Guy’ Cop” by Olivia Rutigliano, Lit Hub

Oliva Rutigliano writes that Charles Dickens, despite having little regard for authority or social elites, fell into the narrative trap, common in all sorts of media for decades, that transforms fascination with police detectives and undercover cops into admiration. Rutigliano calls Dickens’ “strangely giddy” account of a police ride-along, called “On Duty with Inspector Field,” shockingly hypocritical because, by his own account, most of what he witnessed was the intimidation of the poor. Rutigliano is echoing George Orwell, who wrote that “the only officials whom Dickens handles with any kind of friendliness are, significantly enough, policemen.” As Rutigliano puts it, “Dickens runs into what may be the biggest recurring hypocrisy in his career, as well as the history of popular entertainment: the insistence that police officers fighting crime provides exciting content, while avoiding that the vast majority of ‘crime-fighting’ is ultimately the continued oppression and convenient scapegoating of society’s most vulnerable people.” Rutigliano show how the multi-layered, formally complex book Bleak House finally allows Dickens to excavate his own misperceptions; many of the novel’s dizzying number of plotlines are touched by the same undercover agent, and only by gathering together the threads, and seeing the work of the police across many narratives, can one begin to glimpse the faulty machinations of justice.

6. “Look Who’s Watching,” Tracy O’Neill interviewed by Robert Lopez, Bookforum

Robert Lopez talks with Tracy O’Neill about how her new novel Quotients, which is structured around themes of surveillance and communication, relates to the pandemic and police brutality. “In the book I include several real events, one of which is the police slaying of Mark Duggan, a black man. After Duggan’s death, the Tottenham protests lit through social media. More protesters were caught using social media photos than CCTV, supposedly, and BlackBerry’s parent company gave the police information. So on the one hand, we can see how videos of police brutality have helped us in efforts to document police brutality and anti-blackness, yet the same devices that help hold law enforcement to account may be what provides the police with tools to identify and in some cases arrest protesters.”


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7. “‘The Down Days’ Is an Eerily Prescient Pandemic Novel” by Jennifer Wilson, The New Republic

Jennifer Wilson writes that Ilze Hugo’s novel The Down Days is so eerily predictive of even the tiniest aspects of the pandemic—down to funerals taking place on Facebook—that “one can’t help but wonder—if these times are really as unprecedented as the government leaders and insurance companies tell us they are, why was this moment so easy for Hugo to imagine?” Wilson goes on to say that The Down Days has implications for the much-feared inevitable “onslaught of Covid-based fiction”; she writes, “It is a strange thing to have a dystopian work of science fiction suddenly read like a realist novel in the vein of Balzac, but that is what makes The Down Days such a bizarre (but wildly addictive) book. It has the telltale formal qualities of genre fiction…But its content could hardly be called dystopian—since its publication date has rendered it familiar, mundane…It promises an opportunity to see what our response to this moment might have been like if we had never seen it coming, and yet ultimately refuses to give us that satisfaction. Any fiction that accurately captures our so-called new normal, this novel shows, will have to grapple with the old one.”

8. “Hervé Guibert: Living Without a Vaccine” by Andrew Durbin, The New York Review of Books

Andrew Durbin writes about novelist and photographer Hervé Guibert, author of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, “a stark autobiographical book about his desperate effort to gain access to an experimental ‘AIDS vaccine.’”

To the Friend made Guibert both wealthy and famous, especially after an appearance on the French TV show Apostrophes. Posters of his handsome face went up around Paris, transforming him into a symbol of the intense suffering of seropositive men and women at the time. Though he promises in the opening section of his book to become “one of the first people on earth to survive this deadly malady,” he would die the following year, on December 27, 1991, only a few days after his thirty-sixth birthday, author of an additional five extraordinary books, all of which would be published posthumously.”

9. “DREAMer memoirs have their purpose. But that’s not what I set out to write.,” Karla Cornejo Villavicencio interviewed by Lucas Iberico Lozada, Guernica

Lucas Iberico Lozada speaks with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio about her book The Undocumented Americans, “a series of dispatches from what we might call undocumented America: a country within a country, one that overlaps and undergirds the other.” Cornejo says she was looking to rebut the DREAMer memoir:

“…I felt like… a crazy person who was able to articulate what her experiences had been would be a pretty good canary in the coal mine to talk about the American Dream. The way I define crazy is not just ‘mentally ill.’ It’s a radical term…When this Administration started comparing us to animals, it coincided with a moment when I started undergoing intravenous ketamine treatment for depression. For the first time in my life, I started noticing my surroundings. I noticed—in a purely unsentimental way—certain plants around me. I developed a relationship with this group of crows that lived in my neighborhood, and I began feeding them. I learned that my brain had had a lot of damage because of the traumas related to migration.

“In my interviews and research, I realized that the stories that came out and had become sort of popular about immigrants, undocumented or not, were stories from people who were pretty grateful to America. It seemed like the point in a lot of these narratives was to change racist white people’s minds about us. And that didn’t feel right with me, so I thought, what would it look like if a crazy person wrote this?”

Cornejo also talks about the insidious “memoirization” of women’s writing, especially women of color’s writing, that came up in the newsletter a few weeks ago. “My book is a serious work of literature. When I’ve done interviews, people don’t ask me about literary things, people don’t ask me about formal things, people don’t often ask me about my influences or whether I have any training in writing or who I studied under or things like that. People just ask me about my parents leaving me in Ecuador, or what I do for self-care, things like that. It’s very clear that I’m being seen through a sociological lens.”

There’s a lot more that’s worth pull-quoting from this interview but I suppose I should stop. Wait, there’s this: “I’ve always felt a telepathic connection to Stephen Miller. I wrote an article once in the New York Times, and immediately afterward I became aware that he became aware of me.”

10. “A Different Civil War in the Southwest” by Sam Kleiner, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Sam Kleiner reviews Megan Kate Nelson’s The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West, which “explore[s] the undertold story of the war in the deserts and mountains of the New Mexico territory (modern-day Arizona and New Mexico). The evocative title of her book comes from a soldier’s observation that what was playing out in New Mexico was, in fact, a ‘three-cornered war’ between Union, Confederacy, and Native peoples.” Nelson draws on diaries, letters, and other first-person accounts to resurrect the despicable reality of the conflict: that the antislavery forces were also genocidal exterminators.

11. “How Yusuf Idris’s Stories Upended Respectability Politics in Egypt” by Ezzedine C. Fishere, Lit Hub

In his forward to a new Penguin Classics collection of Yusuf Idris’s short stories, The Cheapest Nights, novelist Ezzedine C. Fishere writes that as young reader, his first encounter with a story by Idris “showed me what probably every good story can show: things fall apart for no particular fault of individuals who are just trying—and failing—to keep it together.”

12. “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry” by Jericho Brown, The New York Times

A new poem from Jericho Brown, author of The Tradition. “It is early. It is late. They have washed their hands. / They have washed their hands for you. / And they take the bus home.”

Stay safe out there,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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