Sketchy Is As Sketchy Does

I did a lot of heavy lifting as head of C.E. (Continuing Education) at the Corcoran. Technically an old guy with a bad back, I was out the door in a flash to buy drinks, ice, and plastic cups for open houses. Whole Foods delivered the fruit and cheese platters.

The Lü Xiaojun* of Summer Pre-College, I rolled dollies stacked with hundreds of cans of soda (and a few of juice and tea) to the supply closet and, with my equally motivated, much younger assistant, lugged dozens of plastic bags, each with a giant newsprint pad and a heavy can of spray fixative, up the Beaux-Arts back staircase the Sunday before each program started.

The individualized bags of art supplies were assembled and delivered to the Corcoran, at 17th Street and New York Avenue, by our friends at Utrecht (now Blick), on 13th Street just north of New York Avenue. Simple subtraction would lead you to believe it’s a four-block walk to pick up, say, 50 or 60 sketchpads.

The only problem is that New York Avenue ceases to exist for two of those blocks. In its place, someone has put…the White House.

The north lawn of the White House faces the two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue (as in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) that border Lafayette Park. On May 21, 1995, a month after the Oklahoma City bombing, these blocks were closed to vehicular traffic. Under cover of darkness, bollards—magic bollards, because they go up and down—were installed. The bollardizing of the capital had begun. (Cartoonist Richard Thompson in Richard’s Poor Almanac (p. 19): Everybody loves bollards! We could become the “City of Bollards.”)

With the street a pedestrian mall, what was once a fairly popular White House fence photo op has evolved into a colorful “Here I am in Washington” scene for tourists, conventioneers, people visiting on government business (broadly defined), and school and youth groups.

It is something of a Protesters’ Plaza, since the First Family can read your signs if they squint, the press corps hangs out nearby, there’s a steady flow of would-be sympathizers, and the granddaddy of protests, the White House Peace Vigil against nuclear weapons, has been doing their thing all day and all night since June 3, 1981 (except for a few hours on September 12, 2013, when someone missed a shift and the tent was dismantled by U.S. Park Police).

Okay, the stage is set. It’s a sunny afternoon in late winter or early spring, unusually warm, about six years after 9/11. The Charles Atlas of 17th Street is slowly making his way back from Utrecht, perspiring in a down vest. His arms ache. He stops and lowers his two bulky shopping bags to the sidewalk…

Out of nowhere, some kind of bike-riding policeman appears: “Hi there, what have you got in the bags?” Two (or was it three?) more officers roll up. All six (or eight) eyes upon him, he responds: “Sketchpads.” Trying not to grimace, glare, or look desperate, he explains that he has picked them up at Utrecht and is bringing them to the Corcoran for a workshop. “You work at the Corcoran?”

They ride off into the sunshine then, one saying, “You looked like you needed some help.” Oh, sure, he thinks to himself. The down vest on a hot day was what clinched it.

When I told this tale to a drawing teacher, he said he used to be stopped all the time when he was sketching in D.C., but now the cops know who he is.

He and I are both white. This is a long way from DWB and stop-and-frisk, but, yes, this is about Ferguson.

Lately, I’ve been writing about cities. Ferguson (pop. 21,000 or so) isn’t a city, but—less than 10 miles from St. Louis—it’s part of the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area, the 19th largest in the country, just ahead of Baltimore’s.

Even without Ferguson, this has been one of the most anguish-filled weeks in recent memory, but the clashes between protesters and police following the August 9 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American, by a police officer in Brown’s hometown is dominating the news.

The early images of police dogs made people think of Birmingham, 1963. Then, despite the efforts to restrict coverage, we saw (mostly white) police in riot gear and camouflage clothing pointing automatic weapons at (mostly black) citizens.

In an article from November 7, 2011, in the Atlantic, “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police,” Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartman wrote:

Before 9/11, the usual heavy weaponry available to a small-town police officer consisted of a standard pump-action shot gun, perhaps a high power rifle, and possibly a surplus M-16, which would usually have been kept in the trunk of the supervising officer’s vehicle. Now, police officers routinely walk the beat armed with assault rifles and garbed in black full-battle uniforms.

Yesterday, a Newsweek article, “How America’s Police Became an Army: The 1033 Program,” by Taylor Wofford, described how surplus military equipment has been made available to local police departments since 1990. (From the Defense Logistics Agency’s FAQ: What are some ways in which law enforcement agencies use the equipment they acquire? Answer: Law enforcement agencies use the equipment in a variety of ways. For instance, four-wheel drive vehicles are used to interrupt drug harvesting, haul away marijuana, patrol streets and conduct surveillance. The 1033 Program also helps with the agencies’ general equipment needs, such as file cabinets, copiers, and fax machines that they need but perhaps are unable to afford.)

The book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State by Charlottesville civil-liberties lawyer John W. Whitehead, published last year, has become very timely.

It bothers me that police in Baltimore’s Penn Station wear body armor. When I first moved to the city from Washington, I thought there would be fewer helicopters overhead. But it seems like one of the four EC120Bs in the Baltimore Police Department’s Foxtrot fleet—not to be confused with those flown by the University of Maryland Medical Center’s R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center—is hovering over me all the time. (When I asked Peabody’s head of campus police about this, he said, “Turn yourself in, Richard.”)

This is, after all, Wiretown. Crime is down from the bad old days, but in recent years Baltimore has had more than double the number of homicides as Washington, murder capital of the early 1990s (235 in 2013 vs. 103, including the 12 murdered by the Navy Yard shooter on September 16).

Attention Millennials: In D.C., you can now choose your neighborhood wisely using the crowdsourced navigation app SketchFactor: “Sometimes you ask yourself why everything seems sketchy. Why is there a pile of dead rats on the street? Why are there no lights on this block? Where did everyone go?”

(Last Saturday, a crew from WUSA Channel 9, the Washington CBS affiliate, was doing a story on SketchFactor in the up-and-coming Petworth neighborhood and their van was burglarized. Way to make news!)

Attacked as a means for white people to avoid black neighborhoods, SketchFactor has gone into defensive mode, but the controversy reflects current tensions. Race, as Ferguson is proving, remains an open wound.

The Gulf War, Oklahoma City, 9/11, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Global War on Terrorism have all contributed to the militarization of the police in America, but this phenomenon is largely a result of the War on Drugs. And the War on Drugs, like so much else, is rooted in racial divisions that play out in where we live, work, send our kids to school, and go to be entertained.

Though the arts can survive without cities and vice versa, I don’t believe that either can reach their highest potential without the other. Their futures are bound up together. But if we cannot improve the social and economic health of our cities—do the real heavy lifting—far more than the arts will suffer.

Thanks for bearing with me. Next week: Bunkers and desti-tractions.

* Middleweight Gold Medalist in weightlifting, 2012 Olympics.

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3 thoughts on “Sketchy Is As Sketchy Does

  1. Well said, Richard. I suggest you submit this as an Op-Ed to a major national paper. It needs to be read by more people than you know.

  2. Ah yes, the proximity to the House of White… Once, back in my Corcoran days I had a disaster on my hands (well, as Director of IT, almost every day I had a disaster on my hands) as no one from IT had shown up at the Georgetown Campus… Students were clamoring for printers and ink and cameras and computer support… So I stormed out of our E Street door, pissed ay my over-sleeping staff, and headed out to the parking lot to drive over to Georgetown from 17th St. I was cursing. Loudly. And frequently.

    Within moments a cop on a bicycle had pulled up in front of me, and two on foot were coming up behind me, as I would soon learn. I was asked what I was so upset about.

    To understand what happens next you have to have an at least vague understanding of what I look like (or at least looked like back then)… Mid 40s, 5’10, 200 pounds +/-, of European descent… just one more white guy… except that I had a mass of brown to blond to grey to white hair bundled up in a half-assed pony tail, some beat up yet bright colored sweater, jeans and tennis shoes. Note how my hair and clothes move me from one list to another in your own mind as you read that. Director of It in his mid 40s, normal height and weight suddenly becomes something very different when you have homeless-guy hair and dress like you’re still 17…

    So I said that my gawddamn staff had gawddamn overslept and that I needed to go NOW to deal with a student uprising of unbridled proportions. The officer looked at me and said, with a just barely concealed sarcastic tone ‘Oh, your STAFF overslept… well we need to talk to you for a minute is that ok?’

    I was now in full agitation mode. Now understand, I largely respect police because to some level I acknowledge that while the thin blue line often does things I think are wrong that is more often than not the fault of the laws that they enforce. I think this largely because I grew up in the 1960s. And didn’t have long hair. Then.

    There is a point to all this. I promise.

    So it was easily 20 minutes of conversation, including producing my Corcoran ID card (it did not help that I was good friends with the security staff and that they had given me, at my request, an ID card that had as the job title ‘Supreme Overlord of the Universe’), and for much of that time with one officer having his hand on my shoulder, before they finally let me go about my business. Asking me all kinds of question, including ‘how do you about President Bush’ (which I managed to answer by saying ‘oh, I like him. He’s always on vacation so he never causes any traffic jams’), ‘where did you say you were going’, and my favorite – ‘what’s in your backpack’…

    Ok, Kurt, you promised us that there was a point.

    Everything in this world has gotten more extreme. There are a variety of reasons for this. Personally I hold overpopulation and wealth distribution as the two biggest ones… We have had, in the past month or so, two African American deaths because of a police force with some officers that have stopped seeing anyone as anything but a criminal. They choke hold or shoot, not because it is necessary, but because they hate whatever it is that they aren’t. The color of your skin, the length of your hair, your accent, the way that you dress. None of us see ourselves as criminals, as targets.

    We are wrong.

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