What is a Citizen, Anyway?

I’ve recently realized there’s a large gap in my education: I don’t know how to be a citizen.

I know how to be a worker. Long hours spent in school forced to sit still and be quiet at a desk while taking orders from an authority figure prepared me for life in the 21st century economy. Years spent working for minimum wage — as a fast-food cook — or less than minimum wage — as a server — taught me crucial survival skills like Smiling at the Asshole and Let the Boss Be Right. Not to mention first-hand experience with the inherent conflict between workers and owners that lies at the heart of capitalism.

I know how to be a husband. Not always a good one, to be sure, but a husband all the same. Popular culture, family examples, and years of church gave me a plethora of role-models to choose from. There’s the drunken layabout coupled with teary-eyed professions of love (my dad’s preferred mode). There’s the stalwart family patriarch, holding everything — and everyone — in no matter what. There’s the queer model of radical equality, or the jealous hawk, or the laissez-faire bro. Lots of choices, an entire industry of self-help books, all geared around making sure I know how to play that role.

But what about being a citizen?

There was no class for that in my schooling. There’s no section of the bookstore on citizenship to read up on. No MasterClass. I can get courses on being a better cook or learning to play the cello or the exact right way to pose so my Instagram posts go viral. But nothing on how to be a better citizen. There, I’m on my own.

Is it enough to vote? I mean, I do vote, every chance I get. I scour election materials and try to sniff out which candidate is actually going to do some good. But I hear now that “just showing up on Election Day” is not enough, that we need to involved citizens.

Is it voting and protesting, then? I protested the Second Gulf War, Bush’s candidacy in 2004, and Trump’s Inauguration. I’ve marched for Women’s Day, and I’ll march for Black Lives Matter. But that too feels hollow, in a way. Not just because the Second Gulf War went ahead as (not really) planned, or that Bush got re-elected, or that Trump never got removed from office. Participating in those marches felt…good, cathartic, even. But also ephemeral. Nothing was really at risk, for me, in those marches. And nothing permanent came out of it. I came, I marched, I went back to work the next day. So when I hear terms like “performative ally-ship,” they hit very close to home, for me.

Is it being an activist? But — assuming no one can be an activist for every cause, so we should all pick one to pursue — if we all become activists, what distinguishes us from just another series of lobbies or interest groups?

So seriously, now: What does being a citizen (not just a consumer, not just worker) mean?

I suppose it used to mean, and may still mean, participating in civil society. But what’s that? There’s no Chamber of Commerce for me to join, because I work for an international company, not my own business. There’s no union, either, for the same reason. There’s no PTA, because I don’t have kids. The City Council meets behind semi-closed doors in the middle of the afternoon on a week-day, when absolutely no one that works for a living can attend.

I guess that leaves volunteer organizations. Habitat for Humanity. A food bank. The local chapter of a political party, even. Some kind of group with a concrete mission, some change they make in people’s lives, on a daily basis.

Is that it? And, maybe more importantly: Is that enough?

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been afraid of the police.

Not that I have any negative experience to make me afraid. No, I grew up White and privileged, shielded from the things they did to others.

Yet I was afraid. And I was right to be.

Because if the police can pull you over for a broken taillight, insist on a search of your car, and choke you to death when you resist said illegal search, you never want to be pulled over.

If the police can raid your house on an anonymous tip and kill your dog when it tries to protect you from the armed intruders violating your home, then leave without even an apology when they learn it’s the wrong home, you never want to have them pay you a visit.

And if they have the power to insist that the only way you’re going to get help with your heroin addiction is to plead guilty to a crime that hurt no one but yourself, you never want to ask them for help.

But that’s where we are, in the United States. We’ve expanded the role and powers of police so much, that the often the only hand being held out for those who are homeless, or addicts, or mentally disturbed, is the one holding a gun.

As we re-examine the place of police in our society, Vitale’s book is essential reading. It’s not a screed, and not wishful thinking about how everything would be peaceful if the police went away.

Instead, it takes a hard look at what the police are for, and then dares to ask the question: Are they successful at it?

As it turns out, they’re not. They’re not any good at solving homelessness, or making sex work safe, or getting addicts into recovery, or reducing gang violence, or helping the mentally ill get treatment, or disciplining school children, or even something as mundane as actually preventing crime.

Police, in a word, are a failure. They’re an experiment that we need to end.

Because the problems we’ve asked them to address can be, just by different means.

We can get the homeless into homes, and use that as a foundation to get them standing on their own again.

We can invest in businesses in and around gang-troubled neighborhoods, to give the people who might join those gangs the opportunity to do something better.

We can find other ways to discipline children than having them handcuffed and marched out of school.

The End of Police is both a passionate plea for us to find a better way, and a dispassionate look at how badly our approaches to these problems have gone wrong.

It’s not too late to try something else. We just need to make the choice.