On Greyhound, Guards and Gestapo: Abusing Power Isn’t Just For Cops Anymore

Posted: September 30, 2011 in Culture, Random Thoughts
Tags: , , , , , , ,

First, let me get something out-of-the-way. I put the word “Gestapo” up in the title, and that kind of thing tends to make people cranky. Any comparison between what a couple of immature, power-mad security guards can get up to, and the evils perpetrated by that noxious stain on human history would be demented at best, insensitive and ignorant at worst. But I’m not being hyperbolic, I promise.

The idea of Gestapo, the Platonic ideal (if something that horrific can be said to have such a thing) has become synonymous in our culture with a kind of institutionalized corruption. The word defines (in our current context and removed by decades from the men who birthed the term) any person who, with a measure of authority granted to them by a higher body, uses that power to impose their will on those who have none. Kids think of their parents and teachers in these terms; adults their employers. One day, the memory of where the word comes from will be purely academic, but the use of it will mean, fundamentally, the exact same thing; Gestapo are those who prey on the weak and whom the weak are afforded no protection from.

I’m not, in general, stupid. I understand that bus stations aren’t the most savory places to spend one’s time, free or otherwise. Especially not at midnight, in the murder capital of Canada. I can see how working there might incline one to a bit of terseness perhaps; a certain degree of tension.

What I can’t understand, ever, is the idea that working in a bus station could ever translate in a person’s mind into a justification for abusing the people they’re meant to protect.

Tonight I witnessed something small; a microscopic shred of corruption in a world where corruption is quickly becoming blasé. It seems lately like you can’t open a newspaper or turn on the TV without seeing captured footage of police officers beating, mentally abusing or otherwise castigating people who simply don’t have it coming. I don’t know if we’re seeing it more often now because of the sheer number of cameras out in the world or if it’s symptomatic of the fraying our society seems to be growing around our edges, but either way it’s getting worse.

Tonight wasn’t the first time I’d seen one of the guards at the Edmonton Greyhound go outside acceptable boundaries when dealing with a belligerent customer. A few months back I had the dubious pleasure of catching a six a.m. bus to Hinton, AB and, waiting for the bus to start loading up passengers, I watched the morning guard absolutely lose it on a drunk. There was no physical violence, but the behavior and mannerisms of the guard were completely disproportionate to the offense of the woman in question, which was, by the way, sitting while intoxicated and speaking loudly.

She was dragged out by the arm and handed over to police. The guard mocked and taunted her openly, right up until the moment when she was cuffed and put in the back of the police car.

It didn’t really bother me at the time, mostly because we condemn, as a society, the idea of public drunkenness (except on Friday and Saturday nights when the idiots in question are, mostly, Caucasian college kids out for a good time; that magically makes the behavior alright) and tend to react with little sympathy towards those that break that rule.

But I also gave the guard a pass that I’m not, in hindsight, sure he deserved. It was early in the morning, downtown, in a city not known for the civility of its more colorful denizens. He’s probably just stressed and lashing out, I thought to myself.

Who am I to judge?

Tonight was different. Within five minutes of arriving at the station, I saw two men barred for twenty-four hours from the premises. Not because they were being loud or disorderly, but because the guards didn’t like their “attitude.” I didn’t hear the whole conversation (which indicates to me that the paying and subsequently ejected would be passengers weren’t really up to enough bad to warrant a banishment) but I did hear the two guards mention, at length and repeatedly, that they really didn’t like their attitudes.

About ten minutes later, a man about ten seats down from me was asked to move closer to where the line for his bus would eventually be. He pointed out, rightly, that since they weren’t closing off the section and everyone else was sitting at various points along the same row of seats, it seemed like kind of an arbitrary request.

He didn’t swear, or raise his voice. He simply questioned their request.

One of the guards got loud at that point; talking to his partner about how, “he didn’t like this guy’s attitude” and that maybe he “shouldn’t be let on the bus.” The passenger got a bit more belligerent and said, simply but firmly, “I’m getting on my bus.”

This is what he was told.

“You’ll get on the bus if we let you on the bus. You don’t have a right to be here; you can get on if we say you can get on.”

The passenger didn’t respond (making him a better man than I think I would have been) and was then treated to this little nugget of civility;

“What, you don’t have anything to say now? Don’t want to tell us anything, now?”

Then, one guard to the other, “Nah, he doesn’t want to say anything anymore, he wants to get on his bus.”

They both laughed as they walked away and loudly started (again) talking about his attitude and how everyone was giving them a hard time tonight, and how it was sad.

At that point another passenger, a woman in her very late teens or early twenties, showed the kind of character that every single one of us should have and said, “Why don’t you just leave it alone?”

I’d love to tell you that having someone outside the conflict point out that their behavior was less than stellar snapped the two men out of whatever fit of immaturity had momentarily possessed them. But I can’t.

They both turned on her and one of them said, “What’s the matter? Do you want to get barred too? What’s wrong with your attitude?” Then, in what had become their theme of the evening, they told her to sit down or she wouldn’t be allowed on the bus.

For the next fifteen minutes there was a tension between all of us. Some of us talked about the guards in hushed tones; others went back to reading or napping, refusing to make eye contact with either set of combatants. No one wanted to run the risk of being denied travel.

It didn’t end there; there was another mini altercation between the guards and both passengers right before they boarded, and it looked like the man they’d asked to move wasn’t going to be allowed on. But he made it and, once out of earshot of their tormentors, he, the girl and everyone within earshot started loudly complaining.

Once it was safe.

It might not seem like a big deal to you. It’s not like anyone was physically hurt, or denied passage (except for the first two). But a line was crossed, and it’s one that’s getting crossed a lot more often, in a lot more places.

The people who take the Greyhound, the bus people, a group of people that I occasionally call fellow travellers; they’re depending on that trip. They obviously have somewhere they have to be, or they probably wouldn’t be sitting in a bus station at midnight. And, when the providers of the services we need are bullies, that need makes us vulnerable. Our agency can be hijacked; we can be robbed of our voices and our will. Not because we’re doing something wrong, but because someone doesn’t like our attitude.

Police carry guns to protect themselves and others from worse people with guns. But those guns and the handcuffs on their belts and their authority to enforce discipline make us very cautious when expressing ourselves in their presence. We’ve all seen the footage and we’re starting to learn what happens when someone goes off script. We’re citizens of a free and open society; we shouldn’t have to be afraid that the people who are paid to protect us might turn on us instead.

It’s been a long decade; we’ve given up a lot in the name of safety and security. The people we’ve ceded power to have consistently shown us, on macro levels like government and micro levels like the security guard who didn’t have a job until some nut snuck a machete on a bus, that they shouldn’t be trusted to wield that power.

I think it’s time we started speaking up again. There’s no reason that a person, doing nothing more sinister than sitting quietly in a chair, should ever run the risk of being denied service or possibly arrested for being “disorderly.”

Nowhere is it written that, just because some punk with no qualifications other than a high school diploma has been given a stick and told to protect us from ourselves, we have to let him.

After tonight, I’m of the opinion that we probably shouldn’t.

  1. My father, before becoming a farmer had been trained as a mounted policeman in the first World War.
    I think although scantily educated he was not dim or violent by nature, but carried simple ‘authority’ (and a sword perhaps) to do his job. As a father he rarely indulged in conversation – very rarely – but was honest and single-minded. Honor and integrity meant something to him.

    Your guards were probably simple-minded bullies satisfied enough by upsetting people, either too weak or admirably self-controlled enough to hold down a job around people. However, or should that be HOWEVER, ‘freedom’ has come to mean the right to express greed and violence if it’s in an individual’s nature – more so in the US than in Canada I believe.

    Rural England 60 years ago, and Greece now, are examples of the least violent societies that may ever exist. Why? Perhaps because the greed and violence inherent in human nature has been deliberately fostered over centuries by leaders with interests in war and (personal) wealth.

    Your guards would have been rounded on by Greeks here, but without a fist being raised, nor any fear of missing the bus. However, small-mindedness from officials is also tolerated to levels you might not believe.

    Lazy and unambitious, the average Greek? Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

    • The Walrus says:

      No doubt, sir. I’m coming to believe that there is something going very wrong in the West. We, as a people (Canada and US, as US culture is inextricably buried in ours now) are losing our grounding. We’re like Rome before it imploded…interesting times.

  2. I quote this regularly in the face of the abuses of power in the field of security:

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”.
    ~Benjamin Franklin, 1775

    As human beings it is our duty to not give up our ability to self govern over to the fear of the dark, to allow that fear to make us let the thugs, minions and the psychotic become the layer between us and those perceived fears. It behooves us to be brave in the face of uncertainty, and take the responsibility to simply look out for ourselves and those people immediately around us. That might be a rather anarchistic idea, but its a just one.

    I think the root of this problem resides in the lap of the institutions, services and businesses we have created, or by omission of observance of our own self regulation allowed to be created, which disregard the need for the dignity of others (through which comes self regulation) to be honored. Canada has long been a place where human dignity was at least a useful option, only in the last decade to see an excessive sweeping aside of in order to again fall in line with the paranoid kook we live north of. I think we can do so much better, and must as a group resolve to change this sort of thing before we end up just as paranoid, at the end of our rope and violence oriented as authoritarians would have us be.

    Without dignity, we have no culture, nor for that matter, civilization. Trust requires bravery, and I would like to think that we can be brave enough to show the next generation not to wind up like this. It is important to teach them self respect, self reliance, trust, bravery, and most of all dignity, lest they become the next generation of pro authoritarian proles that elect more of this kind of stupidity into the world. That is, if the democratic process survives long enough for them to even have an opinion.

    • The Walrus says:

      Without dignity, we have no culture, nor for that matter, civilization. Trust requires bravery, and I would like to think that we can be brave enough to show the next generation not to wind up like this. It is important to teach them self respect, self reliance, trust, bravery, and most of all dignity, lest they become the next generation of pro authoritarian proles that elect more of this kind of stupidity into the world. That is, if the democratic process survives long enough for them to even have an opinion.

      First, well said.

      Second, it (democracy) is probably not going to survive. I’ve said this before, but the only truly successful -ism that the world has ever known was feudalism. I’m pretty sure we’re heading back to a state that closely resembles that.

      Third, I’m growing relatively certain that dignity and pride and moral certainty are going to be, quite soon, things we look back upon with a sense of nostalgia. The non-western world is imploding; how much longer before the West does too?

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