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James Baldwin, Lisbeth Salander and the Rise of the Police State in Some Children’s Schools

P.L. Thomas discusses the fiction and reality of fear and power in the middle class cocoon.

On August 2, 2012, I wore my James Baldwin t-shirt to celebrate his birthday. The back of this black shirt is emblazoned with Baldwin’s face in gold print and this saying:

“The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.” — James Baldwin. The Nation. July 11, 1966.

This small act on my part to recognize a brilliant and marginalized radical intersected with two other coincidences of my life—completing Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (popularly known in the U.S. as The Girl series, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and beginning Kathleen Nolan’s ethnography on zero tolerance policies in urban schools, Police in the Hallways.

While the mesmerizing narrative of Larsson’s novels, specifically the character Lisbeth Salander, can be discounted as mere fiction, the life and career of Baldwin and the lives of the urban youth chronicled by Nolan must not be ignored. It is at this intersection that I ask, Whose justice?

The Other and the Middle-Class Cocoon

I must confess that my journey to the three hefty volumes dedicated to Lisbeth Salander was delayed because of my knee-jerk literary snobbery. When the novels and then U.S. film were popular, I was recalcitrant to read or watch. Then I happened to watch the U.S. film on cable, and was instantly intrigued by the themes of violence toward women I discovered in the story and more directly in Salander. Once others and my own research on the web revealed that the trilogy, in fact, was an important and serious venture into how cultures identify and marginalize the Other, I dove into the novels.

Lisbeth Salander is a case study in social norms creating contexts that distort perception. Throughout the three novels, Salander’s history and behavior are carefully assembled for the reader against how Salander is manipulated and judged from many different perspectives throughout her life.

In the context of a police state and social norms of justice and authority, Salander’s behavior is either incomprehensible or evidence of mental deficiency or derangement.

For those having read the novels, of course, the truth about Salander is that she is neither randomly violent nor unethical; in fact, Salander is compulsively ethical. She has developed stringent guidelines for what is just and unjust, and she has taken it upon herself to serve as judge, jury, and executioner (of sorts). In the climactic court case of the trilogy, Palmgren explains the context of Salander’s behavior:

“‘Our client on principle does not speak to the police or to other persons of authority, and least of all to psychiatrists. The reason is simple. From the time she was a child she tried time and again to talk to police and social workers to explain that her mother was being abused by Alexander Zalachenko. The result in every instance was that she was punished [emphasis added] because government civil servants had decided that Zalachenko was more important than she was.'” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, p. 733)

What drew me to Salander most directly is her embodiment of the power of institutions to impose onto humans the shackles of justice in the name of justice. Salander, like journalist Mikael Blomkvist, must work above and around the law in order to maintain her ethical groundings.

Once the enormous weight of evidence unmasks the corruption of agents of social institutions (secret police, lawyers, psychiatrists) and justifies Salander’s distrust and refusal to cooperate with official authority, Michel Foucault’s examination of the power of surveillance offers a powerful and disturbing question:

“The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

Through mere observation, Salander is cast as deviant, an Other, due to her looks (doubly damning since she appears different than most people and then different than the expectations for women), and her behavior is repeatedly throughout her life associated with her own agency, without regard to the contexts that provoke that behavior.

Here, Salander becomes more than a fictional character for me as I read Nolan’s ethnography of a high-poverty urban high school that has incorporated pervasive surveillance techniques, including metal detectors and police in the hallways.

Nolan details and then concludes that the nearly seamless blending of school and justice system has created not a school-to-prison pipeline, but something far more disturbing:

“These findings highlight that, although the oft-used metaphor of the school-to-prison pipeline is helpful (and real), the lived experience of many students at UPHS can be better understood through a nuanced description of daily life rather than the pipeline metaphor. Despite a valuable body of scholarly literature on the subject, not all students in these schools are going to prison. In fact, the majority will not likely spend significant time behind bars. To gain sufficient understanding of the everyday life experience of students at the school, it is useful to highlight a more mundane but pervasive phenomenon: how the lives of impoverished urban students are managed by a complex interpenetration of systems. The school, where they are by law required to spend most of their day, becomes an auxiliary to the criminal-justice system. These findings show that urban youth get subjected to levels of surveillance and repression that are not the same as long-term incarceration, but nonetheless, as the school merges with an ideology of street policing, the courts, and even the prison, a particular culture of penal control becomes an aspect of everyday life at school and beyond.” [Kathleen Nolan. Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School (Kindle Edition)]

The urban youth learn, like Salander, that the exact agents of power who surround them—administrators, teachers, police, judges—are not to be trusted, and the result is that student after student experiences not just school discipline but criminal discipline due to how they react to the circumstances that are created for them and around them. Nolan explains:

“Despite the trouble it caused students, there was an important ideological dimension to their refusal to comply with law enforcement. Their contestations during interactions with police and agents contained within them a decisive critique of disciplinary practices. Policing practices, especially the demand to see ID, conflicted with students’ sense of justice and fairness and their imagined ideal of schooling.” [Kathleen Nolan. Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School (Kindle Edition)]

The culture of control Nolan recognizes and catalogues in this urban high school is an intensified version of the larger culture of control that typifies America, or at least the American middle-class that both accepts and perpetuates the nearly perpetual social surveillance that allows their idealized middle-class cocoon to exist—a cocoon of safety and the freedom to amass and protect possessions.

In Margaret Atwood’s sobering The Handmaid’s Tale, some selected women become agents of the state in order to control the handmaids. One message of state propaganda told to the handmaid’s is that the former society (the U.S. before the fall of the government and the rise of the dystopian theocracy of Gilead) was sick from too much freedom, freedom to. The new society offered them a new freedom, freedom from.

Possibly one of the most chilling examples of that culture-of-control logic is that the handmaids are told they are being guaranteed a freedom from rape—perversely, of course, so that they are available for state-endorsed rape by the Commanders.

This freedom from in Atwood’s novel, as in the story of Lisbeth Salander, is a powerful tale of the dangers of perpetual surveillance in the pursuit of the middle-class cocoon, the quest to identify the Other, to marginalize the Other, to punish the Other—as sole agents of their own behavior.

The coincidences of Baldwin’s birthday and my completing the Millennium trilogy and beginning Nolan’s ethnography of zero tolerance urban schools also coincided with Chick-fil-a generating market success out of hate and marginalizing a convenient Other.

The day before Baldwin’s birthday, the middle-class swarmed the Chick-fil-a restaurants surrounding where I live, a grotesque parade of the middle-class cocoon celebrating their abdication of freedom to for freedom from.

It is at these intersections that a free people must consider whose justice and why.

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