Outlaw Heroes

Bob Dylan says somewhere, “You’ve got to be an honest man to live outside the law.” As the tide of out-of-towners for Trumansburg’s Grassroots festival runs out, leaving a fairgrounds full of discarded coolers, lost clothes, empty cans, and the detritus of one huge party for locals to clean up, the sheriffs, state troopers, and village police must all be breathing a collective sigh of relief. Not only is the overtime budget for these agencies stretched by the demands of keeping up with the festival-goers, but the public’s goodwill, or lack thereof, toward police is displayed. Our society has an ambivalent relationship with law enforcement, as illustrated by our outlaw heroes as well as by the yearly conflict between welcoming the Grassroots visitors and containing the misbehavior of some of them. We look the other way for a certain amount of lawbreaking: there will be potsmoking and illegal camping, underage patrons mingling where they shouldn’t, and people without tickets sneaking in to the festival. Many people consider these things an inevitable part of the festival; with over 30,000 visitors in a single weekend, it would be a miracle if no one broke the rules.
For law enforcement, however, looking the other way isn’t their job. It’s their task to uphold the law and pursue those who break it without favoritism and without exception. Further, the law they are committed to uphold comes from us, the citizens; citizens who choose not to participate in the tedious work of maintaining a democracy are giving their tacit approval to the way things are—including laws they might, themselves, be in the habit of breaking.
It is, of course, not necessary to disagree with a law in order to break it. This is the point Henry David Thoreau was trying to make when he was jailed for not paying his taxes. The writer of “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” resisted contributing his tax dollars to the war against Mexico, and was ungraciously annoyed when a friend paid the tax for him to get him out of the Concord jail. Thoreau insisted that, as a citizen, he was obligated to break a law his conscience resisted. Thousands of people every year, as in Thoreau’s day, fail to pay their taxes. When they are caught they submit to the legal penalties without resorting to the many avenues of resistance open to them, such as legal appeals and public protest. Their conscience accords with the law even if their actions do not. Because Thoreau’s conscience did not accord with the law, he resisted: publicly and civilly (and yes, I mean that both ways.)
Herein lies a great deal of the tension and difficulty for people in law enforcement: they never know, whether they are making a traffic stop for a blown headlight, searching a crowd for a lost teenager, or arresting a murder suspect, where on that continuum from the privacy of conscience to acquiescence to public law they will find their subject. A three-time felon may surrender with good grace, while a parent speeding to the daycare center may be verbally abusive and threatening. Seasoned cops often begin to feel they have more in common with career criminals, who at least play by the same rules as they do, than with the “law-abiding” folks who put up a stink when they’re caught for minor infractions, like illegal parking at Grassroots.
However, it is in that space outside the fences of law where conscience develops, and it is that relationship between conscience and law that so fascinates us in our outlaw superheroes. Hellboy, Batman, and Jesse James are all depicted as honest men outside the law. Thoreau’s fame derives from his morality: “I desire to be a good neighbor as much as I desire to be a bad subject,” he writes. What makes our outlaw superheroes so fascinating is not that they break the law, but that they do so within the strictures of their own morality. They are constantly tested with the temptation to cross over into real criminality and the true tension in each new movie is not whether they will win or lose their cataclysmic fistfights, but how they will handle that temptation to deafen themselves to the inner voice this time.
Thus in reflecting on Grassroots, as the last of the stragglers putter away, it is worth noting how really decent people were given the circumstances. After that, give a round of thanks to our sheriffs, police, troopers, and emergency services personnel, who deserve our appreciation most when they are not needed.

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