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Essay

The Obdurate

By April 23, 2021 22 Comments
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Perhaps it was more typical than not–that night, I mean. The guy worked a high-crime district, West Palm Beach, where being a cop meant hot nights, especially in December or January, when, by day, the streets were full of people looking to warm their lives in balmy Florida. People think of retirees as “snowbirds,” he told me, but the citrus and the palms attracted thousands and thousands of others too, low-life men and women who thought nothing of shrugging off the law.

He was the law. He was an elder in the CRC, a fifteen-year veteran of the West Palm Beach police force, an immigrant himself, who, as a kid, spent three WWII years in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia, where he once stood at attention and watched a commander kill a man with his bare hands. By the time he came to Florida, he was no stranger to the darkness, and I was in his squad car that night to experience whatever it might be he would experience, riding along, doing a story on him and his life for the Banner, the denominational magazine.

That night, I was struck by how little I knew of his world. He drove the Dodge with “Supervisor” printed on the hood, an assignment he was given because the captain knew there was a civilian–me–along to witness, a journalist. I was doing a story on a CRC cop in crime-ridden South Florida. The “Supervisor” had discretion; he could pick and choose the action. That night, he told me, I made his job easier.

At the outset of the story I wrote, I quoted from the Canons of Dort because I loved the sound of the word I knew so little of–obdurate. The Canons define us by running through the blessings of creation before the fall. Then, by way of our Edenic forbearers, we departed from godliness and “became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his afflictions.”

I’ll give you a minute to catch your breath.

By the time the morning came, I had witnessed very little of the obdurate, only the bloody after-effects of a brawl between people who did business with each other, all of them drunk. They got into it after one of them broke into the other’s late-night bar and stole a couple bottles of hooch. There was blood. The perp cut his hand when he busted out a window.

But that was it. When the light of morning dawned, I felt relieved, although a bit cheated. The super’s world offered no picnics–that much I knew; but that night was pretty easy.

What I remember best is not some third-degree burglary, but the fashion by which the night had begun, the way Hill Street Blues used to begin every episode, the captain up front outlining the concerns in an entertaining monologue that ends with a finger pointing in the air–“Hey, and be careful out there.”

My supervisor had taken me along to hear the agenda that night, a room where maybe 30 white guys listened in but were rowdy in the way boys can be while the boss is running through the business at hand.

What I’ve never forgotten was the running score of racial commentary. I don’t remember anyone using the n-word, but you can avoid the usage and still make the point; and the point was made, time and time again, in jokes that made no attempt to dodge racism.

That was forty years ago. I have no doubt that were I to attend the evening’s agenda with the West Palm Beach Police tonight, the room would include men and women of color. The atmosphere now cannot possibly be what it was 40 years ago.

Still, what stays with me most formidably is the first shocking twenty minutes, when a room full of white guys did their best to make jokes about the obdurate they were sure to find that night roaming the streets of the city.

People intend some different meanings when they talk about “systemic racism,” but my understanding has much to do with what I saw and heard in that meeting at the station. That level of racism takes years, decades to mitigate.

You can read the story for yourself, if you’d like–I’ll send you a copy. But nowhere in what is there in black and white on the page–in the book or in the Banner— will you find a word about what I witnessed before that night’s supervisor and his civilian ride-along . I didn’t write any of that.

That’s why I can’t help believing this morning, the morning after Derrick Chauvin heard a jury’s three guilty verdicts, that my not writing anything about what I saw and heard that night in the meeting is also what people mean when they talk about “systemic racism.”

And who might be the obdurate.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

22 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Very helpful.

  • mstair says:

    “ … is also what people mean when they talk about “systemic racism.”
    And who might be the obdurate.”

    Love the beautiful way you brought that around …

    “ … way NYPD Blue used to begin every episode, the captain … ”

    (close, same executive producer [Steven Bochco], but show was actually Hill Street Blues and the trademark line was delivered by duty sergeant played by Michael Conrad )

    Still a good example!

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Thanks, Jim. Thankfully, we have become better educated on racism. Silence is acceptance so I applaud you for remembering and telling this story now. I am ever grateful for the racism training I experienced while working for Faith Alive and the Office of Social Justice. Still learning.

  • Robert Otte says:

    Thanks, Jim, for your thoughtful piece.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Penetrating, poignant, powerful, important—Schaap getting to us where we need to be gotten to. Thanks, Jim.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    Wow. This is deft and devastating. Thank you

  • Wow. Amazing writing and an amazing story. Thank you for this. It makes me think.

  • Charles says:

    Thank you Jim

  • Mary Greydanus says:

    Interesting to see names I recognize among the 6 commenters above. I met the author Mr Schaap at a Dordt College event in the early 1980s, and I knew the pastor Mr Kiekover in Nigeria. Mr Schaap’s sister helped her late husband, principal in the 1980s of Lake Worth Christian High School in Lantana FL, take care of the administration duties they had there. My husband and I took our very young daughters to live in Florida and to teach at LWCHS at about the same time Mr Schaap “got a ticket to ride” with the CRC West Palm Beach cop. Maybe, just maybe, during the day of that night he got to ride and take notes, perhaps maybe that was the day we were driving the perimeter of the section of Palm Beach county where our new house was located, west of the school’s location which backed up to Interstate 95. We wanted to get a feel of the land, know where we were, know where others were, know our way around. Our experience that day was one of systemic racism, for on the then one dangling traffic light intersection of Lake Worth Road and Jog Road, out of the driver side of our “rust bucket” van, we encountered a large marching group of Ku Klux Klan people, all hooded and robed, all passing out literature. And here is where I’ll repeat Mr Schaap’s essay words, for they are our words too, upon seeing what we’d only ever read about: “What I’ve never forgotten was the running score of racial commentary. I don’t remember anyone using the n-word, but you can avoid the usage and still make the point; and the point was made, time and time again, in jokes that made no attempt to dodge racism.” I think we laugh and make jokes when we do not know what to do, what to say or when we do know what’s right yet want to appear “cool and obliging” to those we live with, those we work with, those we are social with: we foist on one another our systemic hatred of Them and cling to one another as Us.

  • Andrew Rienstra says:

    Great piece Jim!

  • Karl J Westerhof says:

    Thank you. A perceptive insight, poignantly presented. And, importantly, a public confession about personal racism as well as systemic racism. You’re teaching us. JS, you rock.

  • David E Stravers says:

    This is helpful reflection. I hope you are right about the meaning of “systemic racism” but I fear that the political establishment has other things in mind.

  • KEN BOONSTRA says:

    Humbling. Thank you.

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    Mr. Schaap, 40 years ago I was four years into my own law enforcement career. Unfortunately, I can relate to your experience. Albeit not quite so stark, what I at times witnessed was uncomfortable to say the least. Thank you for exposing the actual truth minus all the needless conjecture.

  • Delianne Greydanus Koops says:

    Thank you Jim. Subtle and powerful. We all are part of this history.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Is there any material difference with racist remarks by cops as they prepare for the night shift, and bigoted condemnation of a high school kid who bravely stood his ground as a dishonest con man tried to goad him?

    Can’t we just all get along?

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      I would say, yes, there is a material difference (though I don’t know the story about the high school kid), and that is the uniform, the badge, the oath, all representing the office. They are officers. I hold to a high view of office (for pastors too) with higher expectations of self-control and self-discipline. But there’s also the history. I don’t know about Florida, but I do know that in New York City, the control and suppression of black people, with violence allowed, was one of the stated jobs of the very first police force in the City.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        The kid I was referring to is Nick Sandmann. For about 21 hours, the whole world, including some people around here (ahem) didn’t hesitate to throw the kid under the bus for all the sins they attributed to people just like young Nick. White, male, Trumpian, Toxically masculine. In other words, not enlightened like us Good People around here. And the pastor / professor types, which you hold to a higher standard, trashed the kid. Until the truth , which the media tried to hide, caught up with the lies.

        So, that’s why I asked the question above.

      • Mary Greydanus says:

        Are you watching or have you watched the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s 2021 documentary, Exterminate All the Brutes? We finished viewing it this morning. When you write “I don’t know about Florida but I do know…”, Mr Peck presents knowledge beyond Florida, beyond NYC.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, Another excellent take on our racism.

  • Karen (Van Steenwyk) Bolluyt says:

    Writing that pierces the heart and brain. Thank you.

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