Life is filled with indignities, some based on class, some based on race, some on culture, some on religion and each indignity seems relatively harmless when taken alone but when indignity is piled upon indignity it becomes too much to bear and can and does lead to crippling and sometimes deadly results. Some call these indignities “micro aggressions” but that minimizes the insult, these are “macro aggressions” to anyone experiencing them and the consequence is nothing short of having gasoline poured on burning embers, causing an explosion.
Anyone who is incarcerated experiences the worst indignities and is the most powerless to respond. Prisoners are at the mercy of guards and other prisoners in a world essentially insulated from the norms of civil life. Indignities may be a toilet that doesn’t flush and the smell permeates the cell block or a television in a recreation area that is on the fritz, cutting off the prisoners’ only source of entertainment. Complaints can lead to even more loss of privileges and the threat of removal to solitary confinement. The officials will claim that prison is not a country club and being subjected to indignity and harsh punishment is necessary as a deterrent. It is predictable that when an unacceptable level of indignities has been reached, the result is a riot with the prison always winning.
But incarceration is really about inhumanity and largely a license to treat people of color without a shred of decency. It is about getting people to capitulate, to give up any sense of power. But prison is a deterrent simply because people fear having their freedoms snatched away, and that is why they rear imprisonment, not because they couldn’t watch television or their toilets won’t flush.
There’s a scene in the Amazon Prime Video documentary, “Time,” when Sibil receives a monthly collect call from her husband, Rob, who is serving 20 years for armed robbery in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. A cold, inanimate recording announces a collect call from a penal institution and that the caller has 10 minutes.
Sibil is sobbing to Rob about how much she misses her husband when at exactly 10 minutes, the phone goes dead, no warning, no advance word, just a dial tone and Rob is gone and there is nothing that Sibil can do about it except wait for the next month’s collect call and curse the inhumanity of the system.
I am visiting a prisoner in the state prison at Rahway and am led to a room with a bank of telephones separated by a large, bullet proof window when the prisoner is escorted in and picks up the phone on his side only to find it is broken and there goes his conversation as he is quickly escorted back to his cell with no explanation required and no explanation given.
Indignity in the workplace stems from the class system pitting employee against employer and often the employer is motivated by nothing other than cruelty and the opportunity to show his position of power. My supervisor decides to rip me up and down for a relatively insignificant error as he reminds me that the next time, I will be suspended and the next time, I will be fired. I just sit there and grit my teeth not wanting to further anger the supervisor and to have him heap even more unwarranted abuse on me.
There is the indignity that is shielded by false pretense as with two African American teenagers who are shopping at Kohls, while two white store security employees follow their every moves until the teens have left the store, all in the name of making sure the teens don’t shoplift, a fear that is based on racism and only racism and the lesson is not lost on the two teenagers.
Indignity when served up by the police is insidious because the victim has no recourse but to be compliant. Police follow a car driven by a young black man along a main thoroughfare in an upscale, predominantly white town and after two miles the police lights begin to flash and the motorist is pulled over. The stone faced officer refuses to answer why he stopped the car and after a seemingly infinite and tortuous amount of time in his patrol car, the officer emerges and issues a summons for a broken tail light. The motorist insists the tail light is not broken and in a moment, he is forced up against the car, handcuffed and charged with resisting arrest.
A car passes a police car parked off the road and in short shrift the officer flicks on his overhead lights, the universal sign that orders the car to stop and once stopped, the African American driver is notified that the officer detected the scent of marijuana as the car passed. It is an act that would require the sense of smell of an African Giant Pouched Rat, but never mind, it is just a smokescreen, a profiling. The motorist is required to exit the vehicle and is escorted to the patrol car while a second police unit arrives to begin searching the car for drugs, a painstaking probe that lasts two hours and turns up nothing illegal.
And then there are the indignities that have fatal results.
In a scene in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” the white record producer tells the band’s brash trumpeter, African American Levee Greene, that he will only buy his songs for a pittance, insisting there is no market for Greene’s songs. It is the proverbial last straw as Greene suffers a breakdown and misplaces his rage when he stabs his bandmate in the back for having stepped on his new shoes.
Twenty-year old Daunte Wright is stopped by police because he is driving with an obstructed view, allegedly caused by a small, green car freshener that is shaped like a small Christmas tree, hanging from his rear view mirror. It is of no consequence that the ubiquitous air freshener is way too small to obstruct any view and really it is only an excuse to stop the African American motorist. Wright is ordered out of the car and in minutes, the young man is shot dead as he tries to return to his car.
Indignities are like death from a thousand cuts, they may seem inconsequential when taken individually but cumulatively they have the power of a cannon.