Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Busted, battered, but I love you USA





For a few hours I belonged to the underclass. I made my first friend among Atlanta’s jailbirds while I was sitting in the cramped, fetid paddy wagon. Ronnie — a gangly, frizzy-haired black guy who claimed, rather improbably, to be a pure-blood Apache — blinked curiously at me through the cage wire that separated us. He was bleary with dope, but I looked worse.
The policemen who assaulted me had left me bruised, with a bleeding temple. They had ripped my venerable charcoal-grey suit. I was traumatised and bewildered. “What dey do to you, man?” Ronnie asked. “Why dey git you?” Almost before I’d had a chance to express my own bafflement, Chico intervened. He was neatly jacketed, dome-headed, dejected and black. He was handcuffed to me. “Don’ let dat guy know none of yo’ business,” was his kind advice. My fellow suspects treated me with politeness and respect I had not got from the police....

Most of the prisoners I met were miserable rather than malign. All but two of my fellow inmates were black. None was obese: these guys could not even afford to be fat. Some were deranged, some drunk, some drugged, some just down and out. Typically they began by asking: “Do you mind if I ask you, sir, why you’re in jail?” Ricky — who, if his acne could be treated, would have Hollywood good looks — was picked up for occupying an abandoned building. He had entered, without breaking in, to sleep. Don was a father of four with a cannabis habit who stepped outside so that his children wouldn’t see him smoke.

Stacey — one of only two women brought in while I was there — was arrested because she had no money or ID when stopped for jumping a traffic light. Mac was frank about being an addict who worked for a dealer. He introduced me to another suspect: “Dis guy’s British,” he explained, “so he don’ speak English so good.”

To my shame they talked to me because they pitied me. I guess I looked out of place. Even with my suit torn I looked like a swell, with my Jermyn Street neckwear and a hanky in my sleeve. To my comrades I was a tragic figure — the mighty fallen, a victim of hubris or fate....

Thanks to the guys I met in jail, the kindness of the detention centre staff and the compassion of the judge, my faith in America survives. I detest the present US government. And I acknowledge all the nightmare episodes that warp the American dream: the skewed values, the failures of compassion, the darkness of death row, the poverty of popular culture, the arrogance abroad.

I was brought up, moreover, to be anti-American. Spaniards in my childhood — especially those who belonged to my mother’s circle of liberal exiles — tended, not altogether justly, to blame Eisenhower for Franco. Almost all European intellectuals in the 1950s hated hamburgers and Hollywood, and seemed both fascinated and repelled by Elvis Presley’s pelvic gyrations.

It took me a long time and various visits to America to overcome the effects of my upbringing and to begin to perceive the nation’s virtues. Despite all the individualist rhetoric it is a land of remarkable social solidarity, where people make sacrifices for neighbourly feeling and civic pride.

As the Union took shape, for every gunslinger on Main Street or maverick in the corral, there were always thousands of solid citizens in the wagon trains and stockades. Nowadays well over half the population has some kind of further or higher education. Outside the Atlanta police force, I meet — with very few exceptions — decent, kindly people who, if they vote for Mr Bush, do so out of honest delusion.

After my misfortune I remain lucky to be in America, in a gloriously liberal university with wonderful students and colleagues. So it grieves me to see the anti-Americanism with which I grew up renewed around the world....


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