Fiction by Terence Cannon
Fiction by Terence Cannon
IS IT A WALLET, IS IT A GUN?
A Critique of Hume : 1968
By Terence Cannon
DC drove, talked rapidly — Cathy listening through the dark and the panel light glow — forgot to look around him or would never have turned south on Union Street, never ended up under a broken streetlight among green metal walls, wasteland weeds, corrogated sheds, around the corner from the dessicated houses where the Oakland cops poured bullets into L’il Bobby Hutton’s back. Before he could think What am I doing? What brought this on? or even the proto-thought Shit! the whirling red lights hit the rearview mirror and his face.
“If I can make it another block, there’s more houses,” he said.
“Don’t,” said Cathy, “they’ll take it as flight. Pull over.”
“Bad as any.”
The patrol car eased behind them. Cathy pushed down the door handle, clicked the door unlocked.
“Don’t get out,” said DC.
“If they see I’m white.”
“No. Let em come to us. Don’t break protocol.” He rolled down his window. “Don’t reach for anything. Look back in casual curiosity.”
“Two in the front. I think that’s all.”
“They’re checking the plates.” Even with the window open on the night, there seemed not enough air in the car.
“You’re not armed are you,” she asked.
I will watch every detail, she thought, where each person is, what they say, what motions they make. And the terrible underlying reason, for the trial, the inquest.
The driver approached the car with care. The other cop stayed inside.
“Only one,” she said.
“Huh,” said DC, meaning odd.
The officer was black, not that it mattered. His flashlight broke up the car’s interior, lingered on Cathy’s face.
“Your license and registration, please.”
“They’re in my wallet,” said DC, “which I am taking from my jacket pocket.”
“I’m watching,” said the cop, whose nameplate Cathy could not read.
DC held the documents out, the cop studied them.
“Step out of the car, please, Mr. Baines.”
Cathy opened her door as DC did.
“You’ll have to stay inside the car, Miss.”
“With the car door fully closed.”
She pulled till it clicked, swiveled to watch them.
“Step behind the car, please, sir.”
They walked into the field of patrol car headlights. Cathy counted the steps, memorized the positions of the two men, craned to see the officer sitting in the black & white.
The cop’s nameplate read TODES. He was about the same build as DC, wore glasses.
“You are familiar with the writings of David Hume,” asked Todes.
“Can’t say as I am.”
“British philosopher, 1711-1776. He could find no justification for the concept that the course of nature, or more particularly, experience, is uniform.”
“Experience is,” said DC, “full of surprises.”
“True, but we cannot even have experiences without a stable world in which events are in some way, if not predictable, at least capable of being anticipated. To use a concrete example, Mr. Baines, suppose you could never be sure that your next step was not into oblivion, that with one foot planted on the sidewalk there, your next step would hurl you into nothingness.”
“It would be hard to walk,” said DC.
“Or, if I were to turn my head, I could never be sure there would still be a patrol car, with my partner seated in it, where it was a second ago.”
“I understand the problem.”
“Then you would agree with the Oakland Police Department’s critique of Hume’s Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume could find no proof that our next experience would be in any way in keeping with our last. Radical scepticism, to say the least.”
“One must be able to anticipate.”
“Or go mad. The human mind requires constant proof that our immediate future conforms to our immediate past. Without that proof one loses one’s sense of self. Particularly a policeman.”
“Imagine the fate of the officer who fails to anticipate, and therefore perceive, the glint of a gun barrel, the bulge in a pocket, the sliver of light from a knife. Mortally wounded. Dead.”
“And what this has to do with me? Besides enlightenment.”
“Are you armed?”
“But I’d set a bad example for my partner if I didn’t check. Hands over your head.” Pat pat pat. “Lower your arms.”
“So you did not anticipate my having a gun.”
“Quite the opposite. I anticipated you not having a gun. Others, my partner for example, would differ.”
“Are you saying that his anticipation of the immediate future differs from yours?”
“A good point, Mr. Baines, and relevant. The continuity we are discussing has a beginning and an end. It begins, in our case, with a concept of D.C. Baines. My partner, Officer Cockerell, would begin his encounter with you by taking as his immediate past his knowledge of you as a scowling, hostile black radical and mischief-maker. His immediate future would conform to that. Perhaps because I’m black, went to school with your cousin Fred, now Malik, and watched you play basketball at McClymonds High, I, Officer Todes, possess a different immediate past as relates to any encounter with you, one reason I did not immediately pat you down. But both Officer Cockerell and I require the stabilization of experience in order to make perceptual sense.
“Consider this hypothetical. A driver is stopped by a car of Oakland police officers. It is night and he is alone. Two officers approach his car from either side. The officer on the driver’s side exclaims, ah it’s the famous DC Baines. They ask him to step away from the car. They have in their minds an initially determined ‘atom of experience,’ as Hume would say, which defines DC Baines in their perceptual world: he is a black, criminal, radical mischief-maker, known to have a white girlfriend, Cathy Cohen, the interraciality of which enrages them to bitter heat. She is not present during this hypothetical encounter; that would change things.
“DC Baines, the Baines of their perceptual world, reaches into his jacket, quickly, slowly, open to subjective interpretation. He has or has not been asked to take anything from his jacket. The police must, to exist in the world, assume a poise, if you will, based on meeting their anticipations, which in turn are based on past impressions, and they must act on those assumptions quickly. What are those assumptions? That mischief-makers do not reach for their wallets. That known consorters with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense do not reach for their driver’s license prior to or even after being asked.
“To await the result of his action would be to assume lack of continuity with the past, to agree with Hume, to transform themselves into radical sceptics, which policemen are not. They critique Hume by NOT waiting to see if their DC Baines is reaching for his ID, or a Holy Cross to ward off evil spirits, or a banana to share with them. They see in his hand something black, shiny, and rectangular. It must be a gun. It cannot be other. Were it to be other, for example, a banana, they could not perceive it as such and remain who they are, humans with a determined perceptual field of their own. An Oakland police officer capable of seeing the banana as a banana would have to in principle anticipate a banana. That would be insane.
“To remain sane, he must narrow his anticipations down to a workable number, say two: wallet, gun. Gun, wallet. If DC Baines were a middleaged white man, perhaps a wider range. But you are not that man. You are a radical black man in a time of great turmoil. Gun only.”
“What could I do,” asked DC, “to alter their perceptions in that moment?”
“Nothing. Nothing you do in the several-second-long period of continuity under question would change in any way the perceptual universe of the police. If you cry out, “BANANA!” in a loud, clear voice, they can make no sense of it. They will hear ‘Back off!’ or ‘Beware!’ or even ‘Beretta,’ a brand of gun. That is what makes their experience endurable, moment to moment. They feel safe, their expectations have been met, they can live with it. Their perceptual world, the world, is unfractured.”
“And I’m shot down like a dog.”
“Officer Todes thinks that’s a shame. But Officer Todes will not be present that night, sometime in the future, when this clash of perceptions occurs. The officers will be white. They will say something: ‘hey nigger,’ or ‘you there boy,’ or ‘oh the famous DC Baines,’ which might cause you to scowl or act abruptly or indicate by your behavior that they, the police, have correctly categorized you as a scowling, nervous, hostile, black radical and mischief-maker. This will shrink their anticipations to include only one of the number of possible objects you might reach for in your jacket. And they will have to shoot you.
“Now in order to justify this lengthy conversation I will write you out a ticket for a broken tail light.” Todes extracted his ticket book.
“In terms of anticipation,” said DC, “during what time-frame might I expect this philosophical-perceptual misunderstanding with a carload of white racist cops to take place?”
“A month. If you’re still in town.” Officer Todes ripped off the manila form, held it out. “Y’all enjoy yourselves at the club.”
Cathy’s breath might have been held since DC left the car.
“What was that about?”
“He said the pigs’ll kill me if I don’t leave town.”
The prowl car swept around them, turned at the next block.
She leaned into him and they sat there for a while.