It was only last year in that same city of Houston, physical and metaphorical miles from the languid cul-de-sacs of Scenes, that burglary suspect Chad Holley was nearly run down by a police car and after an attempt at surrender, suffered a beating by more than half a dozen officers. Houston's DA and Mayor first hoped to suppress a video of the assault before later paying bureaucratic lip service to seeing justice done and punishing the officers in question.
Perhaps, Holley should feel lucky he wasn't shot. Oscar Grant, an unarmed Oakland man, was pulled off a BART train, held down by three BART officers and fatally shot in the back on the first day of 2009. Or John T. Williams, the Seattle resident, deaf in one ear and mentally ill, shot four times last fall for refusing to put down the knife with which he was carving small figurines. Debate about the officer's guilt centered largely around whether or not Williams was facing forward or backwards, not that Williams was holding a three-inch carving knife (maybe closed) and the officer a loaded gun or that there were only 10-seconds between the officer getting out of the car and opening fire. These are the unsexy, unmetaphors of real American cities.
This says nothing of even more famous instances of urban police violence, Amadou Diallo's shooting in 1999 where at least one of the four NYPD officers at the scene had to reload in shooting the unarmed Diallo 41 times. Or the Sean Bell shooting in 2006, where the NYPD loosed 50 bullets, killing the unarmed Bell on his wedding day and wounding two others in the bachelor party. The officers were acquitted of any wrong doing in 2008. Just since 1999 the NYPD spent 964 million dollars to resolve lawsuits against the department.
Perhaps these incidents are unsurprising in a country where between 1980 and 2005, police shot and killed 9,500 people, or just under an average of one per day. And, we can hardly expect Win Butler, even as an astute social critic to speak with authority on these issues. They affect places he (and this writer) did not grow up and police oppression rarely seen, let alone experienced. But they are owed more than a line in a verse on Lupe Fiasco's latest single about kids in the ghetto who don't want to be there.
What about the kids in New York City who increasingly have their civil liberties violated in a policy of "stop and frisk," a direct affront to the Fourth Amendment and one that manages to fill New York's prisons with a disproportionate number of non-white youth? What do we say to Jonze and Butler's scenes of white suburban Houstonians smoking weed and getting harassed by the cops when we know white youth on average use drugs more often, while 90% of New York City's arrests for pot are black and Latino? Two fictional stoned kids turning on each other in Houston or thousands of New York teens going to jail in real life. The juxtaposition is, at the very least, striking.
The consequences of this urban police state for many Americans are not metaphor; they are cold reality. By 2008, the United States crossed the threshold of one out every 100 adults being imprisoned. Prison populations pushed even higher still to a population of 2.3 million men and women in jail or prison at the end of 2009, which, were they all counted together as their own, "prison city" would be the fourth largest urban area in the United States, larger than Atlanta, Las Vegas, Boston and Baltimore combined. This, perhaps, is not "The Sprawl" that Butler intended to address but it is the uncomfortable reality that exists outside his symbolism.
American inner city teens face an aggressive, extremely well-funded, and very real police presence and this revelation risks being awfully high and unnecessarily mighty. Far more versed and talented people have pointed out the obvious, unambiant truths of American poverty, and Bulter and Jonze's Suburbs and Scenes should hardly be lampooned for not addressing these realities. They purport to only be personal reflections of a sepia-toned youth in Houston. But, Butler won the Grammy and Jonze made the movie to go with it, and it was about white teens living in a metaphorical police state while millions of other real kids live in an actual one. These things are unavoidable.
The question is why Butler and Jonze are so willing to create such powerful images when such real ones already persist. Maybe they don't feel like it is their place or platform. I can feel their reticence to reflect on justice without appropriate context. Personally, my white friends and I spent most of high school complaining about the cops, how they were looking for a reason to harass kids like us, how unjust they were. The truth was, like Butler's teens on their bikes, like Butler himself, the cops were never really after any of us. Our problems were purely symbolic - no matter how real and immediate they felt - while others struggled against our imaginary enemies, only for real and for keeps.