Police comes into being to answer a single question: who owns what. The docks are an unruly place where goods belonging to people and entities increasingly removed from the actual location of these goods are being transferred to other owners equally distant. Goods belonging to one factory or farm are commingled with goods from others that are destined for the same port, and this commingling and reordering is done by impoverished dock workers whose interest in the goods they handle is not always abstract. A tear in a bag of flour can become a family’s bread that night. A bit off the end of a bolt of cloth might yield a child something to wear to her job at the factory the next day.
The question of who is stealing what from whom can sometimes be answered by visual clues, as when one actually witnesses a worker pocketing a bit of grain or opening a box he is supposed to be merely transporting. But the workers are clever. Sometimes they transfer the goods with stealth rather than clumsy force. A frugal worker might actually accumulate enough wealth to acquire by legal means a watch or a new pair of breeches. So increasingly Police must rely on less concrete evidence of ownership. They must be literate and mathematically proficient. They must be able to check inventories and read bills of lading. They must be able, at least to a limited degree, to write similar documents themselves. The night officer must make a record of the evening’s movements of people and goods to hand to the day officer in the morning, and these records must be formalized and consistent, so that if one officer misses a shift due to illness or drunkenness or some other necessity, another can assume that position with no loss of continuity.
Likewise, the Police must know who they are policing. They must know the workers from the bosses and the bosses from the owners. They must know who is actually a worker and who is a thief merely posing as a worker. Hundreds of people come and go on the busy docks; no officer can determine their roles from memory or appearance alone. The way to solve this problem is to assume illegitimacy, to pass this aspect of policing on to the worker himself. Each worker must prove that he is indeed a worker. A boss must vouch for him, and since the bosses cannot be everywhere at once, each worker must carry a token or sign of the boss’s approval.
Police created the modern concept of Identity through this assumption of universal guilt among the working class. One is a thief unless one can prove otherwise. Thievery is not merely punished; it is prevented by this pragmatic measure. Have your identity card or go to gaol.
The TV Police is tired, haggard, an emotional and physical wreck. His or her spouse or partner or child has left or been killed by a criminal or abducted or abused or is in imminent danger of being so. The TV Police is in London or New York or Paris or Toronto or Sydney or Amsterdam. The skyscrapers or slums or brownstones or docks of the City are the backdrop of his or her anguished search for the source of the Crime. His or her desk is awash in file folders or, later, secret databases on a computer screen.
S/he has a drug or alcohol problem, is a recovering addict, sees visions or ghosts, hears haunting echoes of the Crime in memory or in hallucination, carries problematic personal interests into the investigation, is in constant danger of suspension or death or extortion or some other compromise, must constantly vie with unethical forces within the Police or the Polis as well as the citizenry.
S/he walks through rooms of the police station or the house or apartment, laden with secret desires and anxieties, but then his or her gaze is suddenly drawn to a photograph on the wall. The photo is on the corkboard in the station or on the wall of a suspect’s house or, in the event that s/he has been suspended or fired or is otherwise alienated from the normal comradery of the force, on the wall or coffee table of his or her own apartment or house or condo. The photo reveals to the Police something not at first apparent to the viewer or to the other characters in the drama, some small hint, a facial expression or previously unnoticed contiguity of space and time, revealing an alibi to be questionable or an outright lie, turning a friendly witness into a suspect or vice versa. S/he stares at the photo, suddenly entranced, leaning in to study it in minute detail. The depth of field shortens, and the image of the office or apartment in the background blurs. The sounds of the culture begin to fade and an ominous music rises. S/he takes out the tack and looks at it even more closely.
La Police is a chapbook produced by Locofo chaps as part of its project to create 100 chapbooks in the first 100 days of the Trump administration and send them to the White House.
Bill Lavender is a poet, novelist, musician, carpenter and publisher living in New Orleans. He founded Lavender Ink, a small press devoted mainly to poetry, in 1995, and he founded Diálogos, an imprint devoted to cross-cultural literatures (mostly in translation) in 2011. His poems, stories and essays have appeared in dozens of print and web journals and anthologies, with theoretical writings appearing in Contemporary Literature and Poetics Today, among others.
His books include Memory Wing (Black Widow, 2011), Q (Trembling Pillow, 2013), and a chapbook, surrealism (Lavender Ink, 2016). He is the co-founder, with Megan Burns of Trembling Pillow Press, of the New Orleans Poetry Festival.