Tonight, while sitting at a Starbucks, scrolling through job postings, looking for something I’m even remotely qualified for, something I never could have imagined happened.
I looked up from my computer and found myself gazing directly at an old man. For a few seconds I wondered why he looked familiar before realizing I had seen his face before. It was Raymond Kelly, New York City’s longest serving Police Commissioner.
Raymond “Ray” Kelly is without a doubt a monster. This is the man who oversaw the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy. At it’s height over half a million people, most of them people of color, were arbitrarily detained by police. This is the man who oversaw the proliferation of mass incarceration and murder of poor, black, and brown people in all five boroughs. A man who said “he wanted to instill fear in black and Latino men” that “every time they left their homes they could be targeted by police.” The man who ordered the brutal beatings and gassing of Occupiers at Zuccotti Park. The man who administered the surveillance of every mosque in the city. A man responsible for inflicting mass terror and brutality on the working class of New York.
Before tonight I had read about, written about, and screamed at monsters like this from my couch, but I had never been in the same room with one. I had never been able to reach out and touch one.
He was wearing a suit and a coat, holding a red coffee cup and speaking with the local bookstore owner. He looked frail and much shorter than the memory of the man I had seen on television. Standing near the doorway of my local Starbucks he didn’t look capable of inflicting destruction and misery upon millions of people. He appeared to be an old man, not a devil.
I followed him out the door. He walked past a giant poster of his face advertising his new book “Vigilance” and into the bookstore. It was packed with dozens of people. It was a book signing.
When I sat back down in front of my computer I couldn’t finish my work. All I could do was think about Ray Kelly giving a talk and autographing books. Every bone in my body wanted to walk next door and smash his face with a brick. This isn’t a compulsion I feel often.
He was right here in my hometown, two hundred feet away. He has a big pension and a book deal and a room full of people waiting to hear him speak. He was making small talk, content and proud of himself. At night he sleeps peacefully in what I imagine is a million dollar home. At that moment he was surrounded by suburban families that admired him. Thirty miles away countless numbers of families had been forever destroyed by him.
I could harm him, scream at him, spit on him, write protests on a piece of cardboard and tape it onto the bookstore window, meet him and attempt to debate him; I thought of buying his book and asking him to sign it “communism will win” or something equally as silly and stupid. Each of these things were within my power to do. And while I sat there thinking over scenarios I was overwhelmed by a feeling of total helplessness. There was nothing I could do to fix the harm he had inflicted; nothing I could do to make him answer for the things he had done. I felt the need to do something but I could do nothing that would matter. He had already committed his crimes and gotten away with it. There was nothing anyone one person could do, especially not that night, especially not me. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I thought of my powerlessness.
That there was nothing I could do by myself was true, but I was ultimately mistaken. Shock had confined my political and moral vision to individualism. It was only later that I remembered this simple truth from Victor Serge, reflecting on his life in the pages of his memoirs:
It has been observed that I show hardly any interest in talking about myself. It is hard for me to disentangle my own person from the social processes, the ideas and activities in which it has shared, which matter more than it does and which give it value. I do not think of myself as at all an individualist: rather as a “personalist,” in that I view human personality as a supreme value, only integrated in society and in history. The experience and thought of one man have no significance that deserves to last, except in this sense. Nevertheless, no one should read into these words any yearning for self-effacement: I am sure that one must be oneself, simply and fully, neither abdicating responsibility nor wishing to diminish others. To sum up, nothing of us is truly our own unless it be our sincere desire to share in the common life of mankind.”
Every individual is part of the larger socioeconomic system that we live under- capitalism. Every aspect of our lives is shaped by it. We, as individuals, make decisions every day, but every choice we are given is a product of the society we live in. Ray Kelly is a product of this system too.
If we want to destroy this system and create one that works for everyone, a system that provides for an individual’s dignity, livelihood, and autonomy, then it will take millions of individuals working together towards emancipation. It will take the collective will of the working masses, including myself, for the Ray Kelly’s of the world to face justice.
In the end, being in the same room with Ray Kelly, breathing the same air, has left me feeling far from helpless. It has reaffirmed my belief that, in fact, people like me have the power to create a world where monsters like him cease to exist- their function will no longer be necessary in the social system to come.