"Yes, yes, pour it away! It's a bye-law...No alcohol!"
New York City Deputy Police Commissioner watches as Prohibition agents pour illegal liquor into a sewer in 1921.
On the seafront today I happened upon a man I know who was begging outside a Brighton hotel. As I approached from afar it was clear the hotel security were talking with him. As I got closer I noticed an unmarked, black car pull up and two fully uniformed policemen get out and walk over to him. The policemen and I arrived on the scene at the exact same time. It was odd timing. He had a beer in his hand and was begging. He was not causing a 'scene', just sat on the ground.
What next took place was not a surprise really, because all of the homeless and hostel chaps who beg near anywhere in Brighton come in for close attention from the police and the not-actual-police police, otherwise known as CSPOs. Obviously they were going to pour away his drink and ask him to move on.
The policeman who poured his drink away, I found particularly Goliath-like. He was tall, handsome, clean cut and strong, bolstered by his protective gear. I suppose he sees himself as some kind of 'Batman' figure. He looked like someone who would make a good 'protector' in the community. Unfortunately, he was far from it. The look of sheer contempt for the beggar on his face was cutting and severe. The beggar made no noise which would contradict what the policeman was asking, namely to move and was saying, "Just give me a minute." The policeman snatched his can of beer from his hand and poured some away on the floor before rather violently shaking the remains of the can near him, as if, in some way he was dealing with the worst criminal in the World. I was stunned not by his action but by his arrogance.
I understand the bye-law - I don't necessarily agree with it - but I understand that police and CSPOs do the job because the Council are worried about the appearance of Brighton and that is what they are employed to do. What I found disgraceful was the disregard the Officer had for just the mere fact that they beggar had bought that beer out of his pocket. Granted, he may have begged to get it, but it belonged to him. The beggar was still on the floor. The policeman towered over him like Goliath did David. The beggar was meek and the policemen walked away angrily and with great arrogance.
As I say I know the beggar, so I gave him a lift back to London Road. There are some good police and CSPOs, who, on arriving on a scene where public street-drinking is taking place give the 'offender' some time to drink up. Others are more genial but ask politely for the can and say, 'I'm sorry but I am going to have to remove that from you because it is the bye law.' But this policeman was different...I was reminded of the words of King David in the Psalm.
'The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.'
War is in their hearts, some of the police. Not compassion, not a desire to protect or defend human dignity, not even a just response to a public 'offence' measured with a desire not to offend the hotel owner. It just appeared as an act of violence or an act of war against a helpless and defenseless victim. My reaction...Well, these were real policemen, rather than CSPOs so I myself was intimidated by the officer. I wanted to say, 'This really is not on,' but out of cowardice did not. He appeared to be the type who would be quick to arrest facing challenge and I do not trust myself in that situation to remain calm. The man and I slagged off the officers for their loathsome injustice in the car on the way back instead.
It is, of course, instructive of a society that punishes the weak and elevates the proud and strong, the mighty and those in authority. It is the spirit of pride that motivates the policeman who is so blind to his own sin, his own weakness, that he wants to inflict humiliation and shame upon the poor man, who displays publicly some weakness. As Catholics we understand that this desire is a part of our fallen human nature - but it must be condemned always because it is a grave evil and injustice when perpetrated against the Poor, in whom Christ dwells in a special way.
Our Lord did not punish human weakness, nor those who offended polite society with public vices. Instead He, 'ate and drank with sinners'. He loved all sinners, indeed loved us sinners all unto death. It was this that offended the religious people of His time. It was with the poor, the despised and the abandoned that His message of forgiveness and mercy fell upon fertile soil. His message was, so often, lost on the powerful and strong and those who thought themselves virtuous. He said, 'It is not the healthy who need the physician, but the sick, and I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance'.
Without doubt, this is going on in every town in the land and I am sure many police see themselves as doing society a favour and perhaps polite society agrees. But even if nearly all society agreed, it would not make it any less shameful to abuse a poor man of Christ. Because after all, when it comes to David and Goliath, we all know who won that contest...
...in the end!