Monday, November 24, 2014

The New Cheyenne Autumn

Recently I read the book The New Jim Crow as part of an online book group. Aside from recommending that everyone should read it, I don't really know what to say about it. Why does America, "the land of the free," have more people in prison than any other country? Why do police have free rein to confiscate the property of citizens who haven't been charged - let alone convicted - of any crime?

Supposedly this is caused by the war on drugs. But when we learn that black people and white people sell and use illegal drugs at equal rates - and yet black people are much more likely to go to jail for drug offenses - then it appears that there is something else going on.

Around the time I finished the book, I happened to watch most of the movie Cheyenne Autumn, which is about a group of Native Americans pursued by government troops around the year 1878. It's a flawed film. None of the lead actors were Native American. Apparently the extras were all Navajo, not Cheyenne. And there's a weird farcical interlude that detracts from the seriousness of the film for no apparent reason. However, most of it appears to be based on fact. The Fort Robinson massacre is depicted. (When I saw it I thought it was Wounded Knee, but it's another wintertime massacre.)

The movie and the book go together in my mind because of a scene at the end of the film, when the soldiers have cornered the surviving Native Americans and one government man (played by Edward G. Robinson, of all people) tries to save their lives. He asks the commanding officer "Do you enjoy killing Indians?"

And I thought, did he enjoy killing Indians? Which is worse, to enjoy killing Indians or to be forced to kill them against your will? Do the cops who shoot unarmed black people* (or dogs) enjoy shooting unarmed black people? Or dogs? Do the people who work in prisons enjoy working in prisons? They often suffer from PTSD. And yet they need jobs.

 We could build schools instead of prisons. We could build drug addiction treatment centers instead of prisons. We could build homeless shelters instead of prisons. All of those projects would create jobs. But we would rather build prisons.

I put the book and the movie together and I think that in order for this country to exist some people need to be massacred, some people need to be enslaved, some people need to be ghettoized, some people need to be imprisoned. That is our history. It didn't happen any other way. It's still happening now.

*Update: on the same day I posted this, a grand jury decided that killing unarmed black teenagers is a normal part of a policeman's job. It does not count as murder.

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