In Ben Taub’s report, The Spy Who Came Home, published in the May 7, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, subtitled Why an expert in counterterrorism became a beat cop, the story is told of Patrick Skinner—a seasoned CIA counterterrorist expert, with extensive experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Jordan—who gives it all up in favor of a cop on the beat job in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
Skinner is not burned out, or bitter. His skills haven’t eroded or obsolesced. He isn’t forced out.
It is a strength of Taub’s reporting that the reader doesn’t gain a fixed idea of who Skinner is, even after touring the third precinct several times with the two of them in Skinner’s cruiser. You like him, you respect him, you admire him, you wish there were more like him. But, you’re not quite sure who he is or what exactly he’s doing.
Skinner’s demeanor may contribute to the imprecision; he exudes subtle humor, quiet confidence, a liking of people, creative cursing, and humility. He merges nicely into the scenery and the precinct. He doesn’t brag. Most colleagues don’t know his past. He likes the work and is good at it. If we are supposed to be meeting an original thinker and an important reformer, and Taub invites us to assume just that, Skinner asserts no such claim himself. He seems to be focused on doing his job. Maybe he will write a book someday on his Savannah policing experiences.
In recounting Skinner’s motivation to return home, Taub says only: “In time, he came to believe that the most meaningful application of his training and expertise—the only way to exemplify his beliefs about American security, at home and abroad—was to become a community police officer in Savannah, where he grew up.” Okay.
Let me see if I understand. He made a good career choice. He wanted to serve the country following September 11. He’s experienced, well regarded, and skilled. He remains committed to the cause, the mission against terror. Security, he knows, is fundamental to both nation and citizen, locally and abroad. But then, an insight occurs, an idea burst forth, a negative epiphany occurs: the same dumb, over-simplistic, stereotypical ideas that have failed so miserably, year after year, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in places like Fallujah, are guiding inner city policing back home, and failing there too. Since it’s the people back home who really count, because it is their security he cares about, why not work directly for and with them drawing upon better assumptions and strategies; it’s cheaper, and he has positive ideas to test.
That’s about it; that’s my basic take on the article. Sure, there are specific nuggets worthy of considerable cogitation: local police are using the same militarized approaches in American cities as the ones that have produced such explosive reaction and unnecessary insurgencies aboard! Ferguson, Missouri comes to mind. Asking an officer in a large city to locate and interrogate a presumed single leader of a collective ethnicity is stupid; tactics are useless without strategy. Making personal connection with a detainee outperforms harsh interrogation every time in gaining actionable intelligence.
There is also professional craft to observe and admire: research techniques, memory retention schema, district mapping practices, route measurement, situation and risk assessment. Skinner is good at this. Also, he can read license plate numbers backwards using only his side view mirrors! All of this detail invites a fuller read of Taub’s story. It’s a good story and inspiring. But yet, something tangential captured my interest and ran away with my imagination. That’s what I would like to riff more about in the remainder of this blog essay.
Skinner seems to be saying that individual citizens in distress in inner-city neighborhoods are as alien and remote to police, public officials, tourists, and themselves as are denizens monitored by the CIA in foreign places like Fallujah. When police look beyond their own stereotypes and profiling schemes, they find themselves running blind before a blank citizenry; they are dealing mainly with strangers, transients, passersby.
This claim about cities is truly astonishing. In a recent blog, I reported that ninety million eligible American citizens failed to vote in the 2016 election, 27 million more citizens than voted for either Clinton or Trump! Perhaps these non-voting millions are among the unknown millions of strangers wandering the maze of deteriorating urban neighborhoods in America.
If sensible assumptions are added on top of the basic insight to flush out the portrait—for example, the inexorable passage of time, and the stranger’s possible participation in important events—it dawns on us that the stranger’s history and literature disappear from community view along with his vanished body. Suddenly the life of the unknown urban denizen connects, or fails to connect, to wars, battles, migrations, disasters, and rebellions, and to happy times, large achievements, and celebrations. Shadows elongate, millennia merge, texture thins, and context disappears.
Here’s a collective example pertaining to an African American community. David Blight of Yale, the celebrated Civil War historian, describes how the nation managed to forget that the emancipated black people of Charleston, up the road from Savannah, invented and convened the first Memorial Day holiday celebrating Union victory. This fact disappeared from collective memory for decades as black people were buried back into Jim Crow segregation. The fact is not widely known or celebrated today. History, culture, citizen, and personality disappears in discrimination.
Here’s a related surprising example of urban forgetfulness, having to do with Georgetown University’s efforts to redeem its corporate soul for the offense of selling 272 slaves in 1838, 91 to Louisiana plantation owners. Their aim had been to offset university debt and fund its building program. It turns out, much to everyone’s surprise, that the majority of descendants of the Louisiana assigned slaves still reside in the Washington-Maryland area. Over three thousand descendants of the forsaken slaves are neighbors of the slave masters they served, their forbears apparently never having made it to the Louisiana plantations. Now, and going forward, names and addresses and stories will be richly attached to these rediscovered Americans, much in the way that the name of Sally Hemming eventually reappears and rejoins the names of the white kin of Thomas Jefferson.
Yes, I’m suggesting that Officer Skinner knows this kind of thing. He reimagines the unknown denizens of his precinct this way—as uncelebrated people with full personalities, complex histories, and important stories to tell.
A metaphor might be instructive. They usually are! Did you know that the photons that fill your eyes at this very moment, left the surface of the sun precisely eight minutes ago. Yet, and here is the kicker, those very same photons took many thousands to a few million years to get from the center of the Sun to its surface before taking the eight minute trip to your eyeballs. Suppose a person is reduced to a stranger in an urban maze and personal daze and has forgotten his heritage and identity, thereby losing his personality and distinct contribution to a community. How long would it take to recover one’s light, vital stories, and unique community contribution after being rediscovered by Officer Skinner one evening in Savannah? Our forgotten citizens are from this perspective ‘lights-to-yet-shine,’ not problems to control. No one knows for sure that the lost colony of Roanoke disappeared forever without a trace!
I invite the reader to consider the possibility that he too, like myself, has diminished himself somewhat by lax work into a sorry soul, thus diminishing a unique personality and educational story teller. But stop! All is not lost—for you, for me, or for anyone. There are clergy and teachers and counselors and loved ones and social workers and friends and co-workers and police who are working to serve as beacons for wayward strangers, giving them voice, and a chance to contribute to national narratives in redemption.
Take this test. Listen to cadenced characterizations of black communities in American cities by white politicians. For example, consider President Trump’s stump speech of September 20, 2016, in Kenansville, North Carolina. Trump asserts “Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever. You take a look at the inner cities. You’ve got no education. You’ve got no jobs. You get shot walking down the street.” Maybe the President got his eras and problems conflated and got some of his facts wrong, but let’s say for sake of communal argument: okay, good enough, Answer accepted. If there are such problems as these in inner cities, the questions follow: Who caused them? Who is to blame? Who-must solve them? These are three iterations of the test question I am raising. When the question of blame is raised, are you able to come up with the preferred answer? The consensus answer in American history, then and now, is: ‘Black people caused the problem.’ ‘Black people are the problem.’
But no, “blacks” are neither “the” problem or “a” problem. What is required to consistently produce wrong answers? You know that the photon’s millions-of-years long problem of journeying from the center of the sun to it’s edge is not the fault of the photon! Nor are black people the source of the problems black people experience. It takes an imaginative white author armed with clever maps of racial geography, Texas Board of Education approved history books, advanced bluster, and raw, sustained, naked power to produce popular, “they” blaming, self exonerating rationalizations. That’s how “the negro problem” was fashioned. Such an outcome is the achievement of generations of white authors spinning tall tales in the webs of white supremacy.
As I write this, I am mindful of the special relationship communities of free blacks have had in American history. Numbers of free blacks, abiding in small communities, always existed in America, all over, from colonial times, through slavery, to the present. If there are books celebrating these communities, and there must be, I do not know them. The existence of such communities could have been represented as shining beacons of freedom and gestating crucibles of democracy, harbingers of hope for enslaved, incarcerated, unfree people. But no, this story could not be sold. Whites told themselves a different story. Whites reviled free blacks and used their existence as justification for returning them to Africa, to Liberia and other planned colonies, while retaining slavery in the states. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was established in 1816 out of a fear of free blacks. State legislatures imposed “black codes” denying citizenship and civil rights to free blacks long before the same types of codes were used to roll back Reconstruction in the South following the Civil War. In other words, black people get a shiny permanent courtesy stigma wherever they go, and whatever they do. As is seen daily, white people grant themselves the universal right to report unfamiliar blacks whenever curiosity and mystery make them uncomfortable!
Some of Officer Skinner’s clientele might by now, deeply experienced in the cauldron of American race making, be careening close to the turbulent sun, and remote from mental health, when encountered on patrol. Throw in some danger, rote profiling formats, and vague threat, and the coroner will probably be needed way more than anyone would think necessary or conscionable.
In this context, what is most promising and hopeful about Patrick Skinner is his clear sight lines through cultural smokescreens. He is a sophisticated and knowledgeable officer in a vital, supra-important profession. He knows the lore, dangers, pitfalls, and traps, and has mastery of the technologies, techniques, and tricks. But the really big deal, the one that interests him and should us as he traverses the third district of Savannah tonight: he anticipates meeting original Americans whose voices may not have been heard from in years. Many an American has gone missing, and he looks forward to meeting them, if ever so briefly, and offering a helping hand.
Taub’s piece describes several such unexpected greetings and meetings, resonant with meaning. They are a small step in America’s redemption from its racist past and recovery of community and citizenship. Such progress beats hands down, and every time, the unleashing of dogs and the bringing in of troops. Patrick Skinner is an inspiration, and a hope. If the “great white hope” must remain a viable cultural icon, i hope it is filled with as many Skinners as possible in the police forces of America.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
May 18, 2018
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good