"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Crime and Punishment

Let me tell you a story. My mother and father married at the end of World War II, like so many of their generation, but unlike many, they left the city life for the family farm. Mother had been raised on her own family farm but moved to the city to be with her city cousins and attend college. Then war broke out. She worked for DeSoto, making B-29s, and Dad joined the Air Force as a mechanic and was stationed in China and India. When the war ended, he could have had a job with Detroit Edison but decided he wanted to farm instead, and they both thought it’d be a better place to bring up the children they hoped to have. They moved into my grandparent’s big house because they planned to have lots of babies, and Grandma and Grandpa bought a place down the road. Dad took up farming and Mother promptly became pregnant. She kept her doctor in Detroit because a young woman can’t change everything in her life at once. You’ve heard the story . . . the race to the hospital . . . water breaking . . . but bear with me. Yes, they waited too long to start on the sixty mile drive, but everyone knows that a first-time mother sometimes miscalculates the speed with which her baby can slide down the birth canal and poke its head out into the world.

My dad has always had a heavy foot; he taught me how to plow through snowdrifts and skid around potholes. He can weave in and out of traffic with one hand on the wheel and point out the St. Louis Arch to you with the other. You will never miss a single sunset or astounding view or the first smudge of the Rocky Mountain foothills on the distant horizon if you’re in his backseat. He won’t let you miss a thing, even if you only want to bury your face in a book. He once had us sitting all day at a lake he’d heard was a stopover for flocks of migrating Canadian geese. We had to be very quiet and sit still and wait . . . all . . . day. They never came, but somehow we didn’t feel like we’d wasted our time. It was okay to sit and look at nature and wait for something to happen. It was okay to daydream. That early memory has stuck with me, even though the geese never came.

But back to his heavy foot . . . mother is about to have my eldest sister and dad is determined that it won’t be in his '45 Chevy, expertly navigating city traffic when a cop pulls him over. Dad quickly explains the situation and the cop says—

“Follow me.”

One of Detroit’s finest turned on his flashers and led them the rest of the way, right to the doorstep of St. Mary's Hospital in downtown Detroit.

Thanks to that policeman, my mother arrived at the hospital in time for her own doctor to deliver my sister minutes later.

I’m thinking of this story because of all the things that have happened recently due to poor judgment on the part of law enforcement officials. Last week there was the sad story about the man who was rushing his dying mother-in-law to a hospital in Texas when a cop pulled him over in the parking lot. He wouldn’t let the man go into the hospital with his wife and mother-in-law. He insisted on writing the guy a ticket. One of the nurses even came out and told the cop that the woman was dying and wouldn’t he please let him come in and see her before she died. He wouldn’t. He had to stubbornly finish writing the son-in-law a speeding ticket.

This morning there was a news story about a man in Florida who was rushing his wife to the hospital because she was about to have a baby. A cop pulled him over and the man explained their situation, and wouldn’t it have been nice if this police officer had said—

“Follow me.”

He doggedly wrote him a ticket for nine miles over the speed limit.

If my dad had been doing his twenty miles over the speed limit in a similar culture of “crime and punishment”, distraught and talking back, they probably would’ve tased him and thrown him in jail, my sister would’ve been delivered on the curb, and our entire family history would have been rewritten. None of us would be where we are now, because this is how lives are ruined, through the overreach and bad judgment of one person in power.

Now some may say they were only protecting the public from speeders. Some would say they saved lives. Maybe so. But this much I know—there is a pervasive mindset in today’s law enforcement and judiciary to follow the rules, to not think outside the box. Independent thinking is neither encouraged nor rewarded. There is no training on how to step back from a situation and weigh the circumstances unique to the matter at hand and take action accordingly. Is it really any different from a combat zone where a good leader squats down and lights up a cigarette and says— “Let’s think this over for a minute.”?

There is enough corruption in police departments around the country to afford every college graduate ample material for their thesis. With the choking economy, there is easy money to be made writing tickets and I have no doubt that cops are under pressure to bring it in, but an even greater problem today is our drug forfeiture laws. With the way the law is written, drugs busts are big business with all property being rewarded to the arresting agency. The wealthier the county, the more corrupt. This is the main reason law enforcement rails against any change to our antiquated drug laws. This is why the Sheriff’s Department has expensive sports cars and SUVs in the county garage; it’s why the Sheriff always drives a new vehicle and has all those toys and can run a high-profile campaign with an eye on the governorship and beyond. This is why they will use all their resources to fight medicinal marijuana.

I will probably never see the day when we can grow hemp again, that wondrous, natural fabric, and I certainly don't expect to ever be able to grow marijuana for medicinal use. I mean . . . can you imagine the paperwork and the record-keeping and the cops poking around your fields and sticking their noses in your harvesting methods and in your granary and your silos? What a nightmare that would be. In spite of the fact that the voters passed a bill overwhelmingly last November (I wrote about this in an earlier post), I expect the guidelines that come out of Lansing will be so convoluted and exasperating few farmers will take it on. I expect the process will make our annual OCIA inspection (our organic certifier) seem simple.

But there are other crops to grow for organic markets if the Senate doesn’t bow to pressure from Dow and Monsanto to regulate small family farmers out of business. But that is another subject.

And my mother? Well, she had her first two babies in Detroit and then found a doctor she could trust closer to home, and there were no more mad rushes to the hospital. My dad has slowed down, but he still loves to get behind the wheel and drive the gravel roads of home where you very seldom see the red and blues.

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