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The Stories We Tell Ourselves To Live

Hundreds of people gather in streets in freezing temperatures Monday evening to protest the killing of Tyre Nichols, in Chicago, United States on January 30, 2023. (Photo by Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In 1955, soon before he would return to Hollywood after a years-long sojourn in Europe, Orson Welles put together a BBC television show called Orson Welles’ Sketch Book. By this time, Welles was 40 years old. Many of his most recognizable works had already passed–his landmark stage adaptation of Macbeth featuring an all-black cast; his long career in radio, which included the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, his turn as Lamont Crane in The Shadow, alongside various wartime programs; starring roles in Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and Touch of Evil, among other films. Welles was a boisterous man and in this case, I mean that mostly as a compliment. He was outspoken, prone to exaggeration, his flights of fancy delivered with his incomparable baritone and no shortage of sly wit. 

Sketch Book, only about 15 minutes per episode, took the format of a monologue, loosely following an umbrella topic under which Welles spoke about any number of personal anecdotes. Watching the program now is like watching a highly-produced vlog. Welles talks directly to the camera, unaccompanied by music, with brief shots of his sketches interspersed throughout. Sometimes, it’s apparent Welles is working from a script. At other times, it genuinely seems as if he’s making it up on the spot, scratching the back of his neck, making a face, staring away into the distance, squinting his eyes, a brief “as a matter of fact” uttered quietly after revealing some errant idea. Of the six episodes he filmed, five of them cover topics related to show business, or his journey as an actor. Episode 3 is titled simply “The Police.” 

At the beginning of the episode, following a shot over his shoulder as he sketches himself speaking at a microphone, Welles tells the story of the “Negro soldier,” whose real name was Isaac Woodard—though Welles doesn’t say this—a black WWII veteran who, on a bus ride home in Batesburg, S.C., was arrested and beaten by police until he was blind. The gravity in Welles’s voice makes apparent the seriousness with which he hopes the viewer will take it. Welles continues, saying, “I had the satisfaction of being instrumental in bringing that particular policeman to justice. The case was brought to my attention and I brought it to the attention of the radio public and we did finally manage to locate this man and bring him into a court of law.” 

Welles’s first sentence is a lie. There was not just one officer involved in beating Woodard, but a whole group, led by Batesburg chief of police Lyndwood Shull. Welles first spoke of the ills of “race hate” and Woodard back in 1946 on his weekly radio show, Commentaries, for ABC. He spent four weeks talking about the case, vowing to unmask the person (never more than just the one) behind the beating. Though Welles may have put otherwise reticent public scrutiny on the case, when Shull finally stood trial, even admitting to his crimes, he was acquitted by an all-white jury, who deliberated for less than an hour and applauded him after the verdict was read. It’s possible to search for inklings of this lackluster truth in Welles’s statement on Sketch Book, some overly analytic fixation on a quiver in his voice or hesitation when choosing his words. It seems a bit of a stretch, and the fact of Woodard’s injustice lingers uncomfortably because of it. Welles quickly moves on to another topic.

“Nowadays we’re treated like demented or delinquent children. We all suffer at the hands of good policemen,” Welles says. “Decent policemen, policemen doing their duty. These are all little petty annoyances that don’t seem very important but add up to an invasion on our privacy and an assault against our dignity as human beings.” The remainder of Welles’s 15 minutes follows this thought, the liberal’s double-bind of projecting lawful citizenry, defending the police as a worthwhile profession, while illustrating and emphatically criticizing their fascistic tendencies, inching ever so close to imagining a world without them, before acquiescing to the idea that they are immutable. 

Though he does his due diligence to stop short of condemning the entire profession, Welles can’t help himself; he laughs at the police, prodding closer and closer to a true indictment. In the space of a few minutes, he breaks the cast of that sneaky suspicion that grows when one watches something on TV and feels they’re being sold a statement or a product or a limp political stance approved by a committee. There is the feeling that Welles could, for his own amusement, say something he can’t take back. 

Welles comes to mind for many reasons lately. On Jan. 27, police footage was publicly released documenting the beating of Tyre Nichols. Nichols, a 29-year-old black photographer in Memphis, had been stopped in his vehicle on his way home and fled from the officers. They beat, shocked, and pepper-sprayed Nicholas for three minutes, and, three days later, Nichols died in the hospital. Outrage over his murder stirred an equal vehemence against the viewing of the released videos, one in a long line of public executions at the hands of the police. Coming on the heels of nationwide fearmongering over rising crime was the weakened specter of police reform. Papers like The Washington Post lauded the Memphis Police Department’s glorified PR campaign (Black History Month events, various de-escalation requirements, all under the command of the MPD’s first black woman police chief) to portray themselves as community-oriented and friendly. Additionally, some pointed to the race of the officers: Four of the five are black, a detail that skeptical liberals and gleeful right-wing reactionaries latched onto as kryptonite against the shibboleth of identity politics and the police/prison abolition movement.

Prior to and concurrent with Nichols’s death are the Cop City protests in Atlanta, where acres of forest are being bulldozed to make way for a $90 million police training center. Activists with Defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City have successfully prevented further construction at the facility utilizing, as Natasha Lennard at The Intercept reports, “a range of tactics: encampments, tree-sits, peaceful protest marches, carefully targeted property damage, local community events, investigative research, and, at times, direct confrontation with police forces attempting to evict protestors from the forest.” Police response has resulted in the killing of an activist, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, and the unlawful arrest of over a dozen protestors charged with, among other dubious infractions, domestic terrorism. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, has invoked a state of emergency. 

There are multiple possible bands with which to wrap these events, though the one I keep returning to is the subject of commentary. Welles is one example. New York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul, who frequently takes on the tenor of a distressed shopper frantically searching for her car in a mall parking garage, serves as a counterexample. A charitable reading of Paul’s position would be old standard-bearing, openly skeptical of changing mores and the manifold societal indignities voiced by younger generations. A less charitable reading is that her work sometimes verges on fascistic. Whether concerning identity (“What we are effectively saying here — without ever, heaven forbid, saying it out loud — is that it’s OK for actors from groups considered to be marginalized — whether gay, Indigenous, Latino or any other number of identities — to play straight white characters. But it’s not OK for the reverse.”) or trans people (“today, a number of academics, uber-progressives, transgender activists, civil liberties organizations and medical organizations are working toward an opposite end: to deny women their humanity, reducing them to a mix of body parts and gender stereotypes”), Paul’s stance begins with obstinate confusion, often spiraling into outrage. 

What’s galling about Paul’s perspective isn’t that it’s ill-informed, though that doesn’t do her any favors, nor the fact that she quickly dismisses the views of those who disagree with her without even trying to imagine that they might have something worthwhile to say, nor, really, the fact that she’s annoying. All of these are possible with an opinion column, to say nothing of one from the increasingly conservative New York Times. Rather, it’s the way in which her intellectualism, so deeply tied to a blinkered idea that old norms should get the benefit of the doubt, masks a lack of moral and ethical fervor. Paul inhabits a world where finger-wagging about the threat of the new is somehow triumphant over what she sees as abstracted debates rather than materially meaningful issues. It’s clear she believes in something, but wading through her cringe invective, it’s difficult to suss out what that is, other than a sop to traditional institutions and hierarchies. 

Unfortunately, this type of thing is familiar to anyone with a Twitter account. Take the internet’s smartest boy, Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer who fancies himself an anti-identitarian intellectual and free speech defender unable to decide whether or not his biracial background, which he loves to invoke and trivialize, should grant him authority in matters of race and culture. Following the release of the Nichols footage, Williams tweeted his reaction, one of those excessively formal tweets that fans of Jordan Peterson and Elon Musk salivate over. “Twitter is an amazing prism because you can watch fringe epistemologies congeal into orthodoxy in real time,” Williams said. “A view that still strikes most as an enormous stretch– that white supremacist racism explains bad actions of non-whites even where no whites are present– is one example.” Chase this with Red Scare member Dasha Nekrasova tweeting about how protests are cringe, and you have a well-rounded meal of anti-thought bullshit. 

It goes without saying that this crop of people are stupid, brain-dead, vacuous, sometimes hilarious in their ignorance and baffling attempts to be important. It’s harder to square the fact that, to a not insignificant number of people, they are important. Harder still to square the fact that, in February, March, and May, respectively, it will be three years since the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, seven since Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, eight since Sandra Bland, nine since Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, 11 since Trayvon Martin, 31 since Rodney King, and on and on. This is an incomplete timeline. Yet it speaks to what glib critics of protest, abolition, anti-establishment activism of any kind, do not grasp, or care about. To them, the adrenaline rush of debate and intellectual righteousness of “free thinking” trump the maudlin topics of human rights, social justice, a life lived with dignity. To them, anger is an amusement that exposes the weakness of those without the good sense to appreciate how superior life is under an increasingly autocratic state. To them, none of this has anything to do with anything. Insularity is one symptom of note here, though it’s tempting to blanket the entirety of modern society with other tidy illnesses. Suffice it to say, there are rarely any surprises when taking America’s temperature. 

As Tobi Haslett wrote in his essay “Magic Actions,” “nonviolence, once a tool, today glows with the power of fetish. And, unlike [Martin Luther] King, many marchers seemed to believe that good manners would be repaid with gentler policing.” It’s a trope by now to reclaim King from the nail file of conservatives and centrists interested in extolling their narrow understanding of his creed of nonviolence. That this misunderstanding can’t even be curbed by these people reading the full text of King’s speeches and essays points to the simple fact that understanding isn’t actually the goal, but distortion. 

Meanwhile, following brief optimistic calls for police eradication in the wake of the George Floyd uprisings, followed by halfhearted attempts at “reform,” law enforcement has only grown in size, permissiveness, and institutional support. Recently in The Guardian, social movement lawyer Derecka Purnell wrote, “The response that I often receive is that police will stop killing Black people once cops start getting arrested more easily, prosecuted more vigorously, convicted more swiftly, sentenced more harshly, and sued for damages more directly. Not only will this never happen, the hope that it might happen one day requires police to keep killing people in order for us to find out.” 

Which brings me back to Welles and commentary and the long arc of brutality. Though I have seen his name pop up in relation to soft-pedaled feel-good narratives about his outspoken broadcasts concerning Isaac Woodard, which themselves are worth listening to, I keep returning to Welles’s failure. To actually bring Lynwood Shull or his officers to justice, to offer recompense to Woodard though he did speak admirably in favor of him and against racism, to marshal his own vanity as a kind of hero of the people, and, most importantly, to wrench himself fully away from the problem that police pose to everyone. 

For one thing, Welles goes to great lengths over the course of his 15 minutes in Sketch Book to talk about his personal dealings with the police, which amount to some of the least dangerous one could face. And yet, pampered and healthy, he arrives at conclusions that even the most ardent defenders of law enforcement refuse to concede. “It’s the essence of our society that the policeman’s job should be hard,” he says. “They’re there to protect the free citizen, not to chase criminals; that’s an incidental part of the job. The free citizen is always more of a nuisance than the criminal. He knows what to do about the criminal.” That Welles keeps interrupting himself with asides about the reform of the policeman quickly becomes secondary to the fact that, as he goes on, he only goes into a deeper polemic about why they shouldn’t exist. The “bad apples” dodge makes its appearance, only for him to speak generally about the entire profession, as if he can’t help but put forth the suggestion that, even in the hands of the supposedly good officer, such power is uniformly dangerous. 

I have been writing, in some way or another, about police killings for years now. The sleight-of-hand has always been that my father is a black corrections officer and that, for the majority of my life, black officers were an exception, a reason for optimism. I preferred to view law enforcement as a racist institution by dint of its most hateful racist non-black individuals and not because of its very function. Now, it is impossible for me to understand what is to be gained by debating the race of any police officer when the fundamental issue is their very existence. Simply put, there can only be one reasonable acknowledgment: that the police are irredeemable and the only reform to accept is one that fundamentally alters their punitive, deadly, racist function until it is no longer recognizable as policing. 

These are not matters of theoretical abstraction, nor have they ever been. The commentary these subjects inspire is not free-floating, harmless until looked at directly, even if the various discourses on the internet aren’t always meaningful in real life. As trivial as it can sometimes seem, the way writers, so-called thinkers, podcast hosts and online shit-stirrers frame these conversations is consequential. It is the anvil where ambivalence is shaped, whether in decisive strokes or the accretion of small notions, allowing people to see themselves as divorced from the issue, powerless to change the status quo, or unwilling to criticize the few stable beliefs they have. It’s a scarier world to consider, where one’s rights, like health or income or happiness, are mutable, easily explained away as unimportant or in need of severe limitation. Joan Didion’s famous line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” has become a bleak joke amongst my friends for what it says about the way such pat excuses can be so successfully volunteered without question. 

Welles closes his Sketch Book monologue by drifting far afield of abolition. Instead, he suggests the creation of an international organization for the rights and protections of the individual against the police. As ever, Welles mixes a desire for a kind of resistance against bureaucracy with a capitulation to bureaucracy. He fantasizes about a card, to go along with one’s passport (“as official-looking as possible, with a lot of seals and things like that” he says with a chuckle), that shows proof of membership to this organization. This organization is called, of course, the Human Race. The theatrics here, like all milquetoast paeans to a vague humanism, are embarrassing but, in his case, notable for the specificity that Welles ventures just before this closing passage. “Now, what are we going to do about it?” he asks. “Obviously if we go on giving in to this thing … Well, you say, for example, ‘Why shouldn’t we give in? Why should we make trouble for the policeman?’ Well, the truth is, why should the policeman make trouble for us?”

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