Image Consciousness

A bad thing about tyrants is that they tend to do relatively innocuous things in very over-the-top ways, which history then makes iconic and forever associates with them. Don’t get me wrong; it’s good that we don’t forget the human capacity for being a complete and utter bastard… it’s just that we kind of need to accept that the same tools and tactics can be used for both good and evil.

Specifically, I’m thinking of trains and fire hoses.

When you look at large-scale disaster preparation, one of the things that frequently gets overlooked is the logistics of evacuation. Even in Florida and elsewhere along the Gulf coast, where they have decades of experience with hurricanes, there’s a pretty substantial system in place for, basically, letting people evacuate themselves. People without cars are pretty much left to their own devices. Sometimes there are charter buses, if you’re really lucky. Sometimes they press fleets of school buses into service. Mostly they don’t do anything.

It wouldn’t be especially comfortable, but you could put 100 people into a 70′ boxcar without too much difficulty – or fifty people and one suitcase each. As a temporary measure to evacuate people in the face of a disaster, it’s not the greatest plan, but it’d work, and it’d be cheap – you could haul people from, say, Miami, to, say, Philadelphia, for about $4000 / boxcar. $40-80/person. Give ’em an MRE to eat along the way, arrange a potty break somewhere along the way (porta-potties along the side of the tracks), and you’re still looking at $50-100/person. And if you think making people spend six hours sitting on the floor of a boxcar is inhumane, I’m sure FEMA could come up with seating kits designed to fit inside a boxcar on short notice and provide removable benches along the walls, and make things no worse than a school bus, in terms of creature discomforts.

Thing is, this would never, ever happen, because no government agency in this day and age, no matter how stupid, would ever do such a thing. Not because it’s inefficient or inhumane or whatever, but because it happens to look a little bit like what the Nazis did to “undesirables” during WWII. Citizens + boxcars = political suicide.

Similarly, if you watch footage of riots or protests taking place outside the United States, you’ll notice that fire hoses (and water cannons) get used fairly often as a way to dissuade people from being places and doing things that the local government would prefer they weren’t. There’s a reason for this – the technology is cheap, robust, and extremely effective. You need O levels in badassery to stand up to a water cannon. Very, very few people have O levels in badassery.

It’s something that gets largely overlooked amid the public narrative of the 2008 RNC protests here in Saint Paul, but the veiled – and ostensibly unintentional – threat of fire hoses is one of the major reasons that there were no protests, demonstrations, riots, or “direct actions” anywhere near the convention site on the fourth and final day of the event. (The official story I heard is that, after a pair of firebombing attempts were broken up by police, the fire department suddenly realized they’d never checked the hydrants and water pressure outside the Xcel Energy Center, so they hauled out the pumpers and hoses and did just that. Activists saw this, misunderstood it, and by and large said – and Tweeted – you know, fuck it, I don’t feel like getting blasted with a fire hose today. Gonna go try something near the perimeter? Bring a towel. I’ll be at the concert…)

They assumed that the fire hoses were to be used on protesters, and decided they didn’t want to be on the receiving end. (The one protest on the Fourth wandered aimlessly around the Capitol area late at night after the convention was over, and eventually wound up being arrested en masse after participants chose not to disperse.) Would the city actually have used the hoses on protesters?

No. It never happens in this country anymore, and it’s basically unthinkable, because firehoses have, for better or worse, become synonymous with some fairly ugly events from the 1960s civil rights movement. (Decades later, the collapsible police baton was introduced – it’s neither cheaper, lighter, more effective, or more versatile than the old wooden baton, but it doesn’t look like a “billy club”, that much-loved tool of bad-seed abusive police forces the world over, problem solved.)

Image consciousness triumphs practicality, effectiveness… everything. Maybe it’s not entirely a bad thing, but I can’t help thinking it’s not the way it should be…

Published in: 'D' for 'Dumb', General, History | on June 4th, 2010| Comments Off on Image Consciousness

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