Friday, April 27, 2007

Who will guard the guards? Quid custodiet ipsos custodiores?

Amendment IV:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Today, as usual (although that will change again as it does triannually when I begin next Wednesday to teach again thirty students plus in my assigned eight-week once-weekly compressed hybrid accelerated night class) I took Metro Rail. There I saw signs all about warning of a six-hour drill tomorrow (at least it's Saturday) in which "law enforcement" will search carry-on bags of passengers. "Expect five-minute delays." Yeah, right.

So, is this the next "rapid transit" innovation? X-rays? Screeners? Hand wands? Metal detectors. If the bad guys are one step ahead, they will not be toting handguns and Exacto knives. Or Colgate in one hand and a t-Mobile in the other. Still, we innocents bear the burden, submitting to increasing inspection for the already obsolete weapons the bad guys supposedly would use once again. so, we carry no unapproved liquid, we suffer, and the bad guys invent some other household product applied to mayhem.

Is it worth this shell game, this bait and switch? No convert to Mike Davis' apocalyptic rants-- I hope he likes tenure wherever he wound up with his fifth or so wife-- but the earnest Marxist agitator who spent some of the 80s in Belfast getting in touch with his born-in-Fontana prole roots before hitting the bestseller list a year before the last riots (which timing boosted him beyond the Verso-Pluto Pressish lefty bookstore niche) with City of Quartz has a point. Note to Mr. Davis: Hey, I grew up not far from where you did, similar class stratification, and look where I wound up, academic yearnings and all. Sigh. I never wrote for the LA Weekly a piece something like "I actually drove a truck and was in a union unlike all you trust-fund radicals and Westside limousine liberals reading this."

The model of the securocrat state, Davis hazarded, was Parker Center-- where the "civil unrest" downtown truly flared up as night fell the first day of the "people's uprising." But, since 1994, we have more comparisons to make downtown to Bentham's Panopticon. This total surveillance circular "carceral" (favorite adjective of Davis) construction may have been only a model despite attempts at Kilmainham, Wicklow Jail (Leo and I visited there and he happily submitted to the actors' harangue as we were locked up), or Pelican Bay. Yet, who needs a direct line of sight and a peephole when we have the Clark Kent see-through technology? The booming military-industrial complex-- almost exactly ten years later-- found its post-Berlin Wall End of History Cold War dividend, what will we do now that we have no more enemy, profit line.

We can always refuse, like a drug test, and walk away from the aircraft, subway, or bus. Just as we can keep our constitutional right, object to the drug test, and walk out the door. No harm done. Civil liberties intact. Free to be you and me. No hassle from the Man. Live free or die. Jobless.

The war on drugs I suppose gets a boost from these "reasonable searches and seizures," and I know the rate of pilfering and theft by those entrusted with rifling through our loot is soaring. As the Romans said: who will watch the guards themselves? We already have the guard's attack dogs leashed and ready for action on the platforms once in a while, but I doubt if they'll make their minders any more honest. The sheriffs in their intermittent displays of municipal crowd control at Union Station stand about and generally talk sotto voce in pairs, steadily, constantly, day or night. Not much patrolling. Must be a sought-after gig. Better than the LASD rookies stuck their first two years in running the jail a few blocks away.

Meanwhile at this Patsosauras Transit Center pleasure dome of crystal that towers over that Vignes Street Detention Facility we indentured servants-- to mortgage, to children's lifes, to our own cars, to our credit cards, to our own livelihood and all the books, music, and trinkets we all love, we dash out, like, well, inmates out of prison. But we cannot see north towards the carceral hub. No windows, only up, not out can we gaze. Solid subterranean corridors channel our steps, despite the con of the glass dome rising above us towards sunny skies. Shell game. Which pea are we?

We rush below the dome into the depths of the old Station. Suitable that "Blade Runner" captured the cathedral light as it angles across the dust of the lobby. But, I rarely glance that way on my head-down, lemming-like path from Gold to Red Line. The future of Los Angeles: half-Depression era Art Deco, half concrete monstrosity. They meet here. This tall headquarters of MTA can be seen for miles, standing alone, ribbed for your pleasure, aesthetically towering, eagerly trying to look like the New Federalism, as if dignified amidst rail yards and empty lots around the jail. That growth industry creates jobs. Today's news: California doles out $8.2 billion for new prisons. The prison guards: long many a pol's major supporter; along with longshoremen the jailers stand as one stalwart union that cannot be outsourced. They say hands-on jobs are the only ones safe from being shipped off to Poland if not Bangladesh.

Thanks to our taxes, not only prisons expanded in that riot-torn, quake-ripped, recession-plagued past decade. Next to the Spanish style grace of Union Station under the palms was erected MTA headquarters at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, aping City Hall itself in its noir- meets- Dragnet style. Marble floors, too. Welcome to a notorious pork barrel project by the same MTA who now puts on an béal bocht, the poor mouth. Sure, this "for your own protection" cordon sanitaire campaign combined with spartan seating, the huddled masses, and a fare hike-- how can this combination fail?

The MTA board chief in today's LA Times smarmily harangues us riders for freeloading. We only pay 86 cents a ride, Roger Snoble sniffs, despite many dollars stuffed into fare boxes each day in my case. (I don't ride enough a month to justify the cost of the pass, so he's getting his money's worth from my patronage.) He rationalizes that the fare increases will still only have us paying about the same few pennies, averaged in with all the other 10 million Angelenos who don't use the system but who pay for it too. What's wrong with this logic? Why should we the users get hit hardest with fare hikes? Last time I rode, uh, yesterday, there weren't many affluent passengers from my p-o-v, unless they were slumming.

(Update: my wife's pal's husband has been promoted to the CFO of MTA. I ask him three people removed to keep the fares down, barring that to give me a monthly pass at a discount rate.)

By the way, the MTA has other ideas once they get the TAPs running. Charge more the farther you go to hit, they reason, the "wealthier" riders from farther-flung locales. Charge more if you ride at rush hour. Charge more, it can one day soon be extrapolated, by your occupation or lack. By biometric scans of your retina to trace your abuse of race privilege. From each according to his ability, to each according to his means. Mike Davis and I might recognize this Marxist tenet, but most of our fellow citizens think it's from the Declaration of Independence, pollsters chortle.

Don't worry, the head of the MTA reasons: most of you million daily freeloaders get passes anyway, and it's your fault your discounts come out of the MTA's pockets. Captive audiences? Wish my expenses were subsidized by my employer. MTA can raise daily rates as high as the $8 or $9 in Boston or Atlanta, he boasts, with no ill effects. Passes from $58 to 90 to $120. No problem, as long as service and quality persist. After all, it's not as though all the million riders a day have alternatives. They're trapped.

Or else, sneers Snoble, we'll be sorry and have to wait even longer for the MTA to shuffle by our sidewalk stance. Then we'll wish we paid more like those other hapless passengers in Boston or Atlanta do. These two cities are notoriously trafficked burbs with nightmare commutes. Of course there's no cause-and-effect.

Another snazzy ad campaign will convince millions more to leave their Tundras or Ford 150s in the driveway and double their commute time as I do. Our fare hikes will teach us not to commute on the largess of fellow taxpayers disdaining to share themselves with we dogged train and bus riders. Oh well. Today the NY Times tells us that 4% of those polled blame the end of the world Biblical prophecies for global warming; 2% blame "space junk." Maybe my diminished "footprint" of emissions balances some ozone damage wrought by the forty-second in a row diminutive Starbucks-sipping, BlackBerry texting, darting and halting Fourunner lurching past me as I stand at the bus stop.

Am I jealous? Do I sound like Mike Davis? One of the Trotskyite organizers of the Bus Riders Union? Is this merely another cockeyed populist rant akin to those about those damned surveyors next door who on cue popped up just now planning how to raze half-century old shade trees and put up another McMansion? Good fences make good neighbors, and a wall to maximum height or instant foliage appear to be two options for our northern-facing near future.

Well, at least I study my Irish, forcing myself into a bus-Ghaeltacht rather than a breac or broken-Irish one. It allows me too to escape my pacing about underground or muttering on top of it. I sit and think. There's a sense of using one's prison cell to liberate yourself. I figure that via the limited options for entertainment or education offered by my habitual public transportation confines that I will be able to get listening and reading time in if I limit my stimuli as Béarla.

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