Disgraceful Persecution of a Man
Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy.
By Mark Twain.
In San Francisco, the other day, “a well-dressed boy, on his way to Sunday school, was arrested and thrown into the city prison for stoning Chinamen.” What a commentary is this upon human justice! What sad prominence it gives to our human disposition to tyrannize over the weak! San Francisco has little right to take credit to herself for her treatment of this poor boy. What had the child’s education been? How should he suppose it was wrong to stone a Chinaman? Before we side against him, along with outraged San Francisco, let us give him a chance–let us hear the testimony for the defence. He was a “well-dressed” boy, and a Sunday-school scholar, and, therefore, the chances are that his parents were intelligent, well-to-do people, with just enough natural villany in their compositions to make them yearn after the daily papers, and enjoy them; and so this boy had opportunities to learn all through the week how to do right, as well as on Sunday. It was in this way that he found out that the great commonwealth of California imposes an unlawful mining tax upon John the foreigner, and allows Patrick the foreigner to dig gold for nothing–probably because the degraded Mongol is at no expense for whiskey, and the refined Celt cannot exist without it. It was in this way that he found out that a respectable number of the tax-gatherers–it would be unkind to say all of them–collect the tax twice, instead of once; and that, inasmuch as they do it solely to discourage Chinese immigration into the mines, it is a thing that is much applauded, and likewise regarded as being singularly facetious. It was in this way that he found out that when a white man robs a sluice-box (by the term white man is meant Spaniards, Mexicans, Portuguese, Irish, Hondurans, Peruvians, Chileans, etc., etc.), they make him leave the camp; and when a Chinaman does that thing, they hang him. It was in this way that he found out that in many districts of the vast Pacific coast, so strong is the wild, free love of justice in the hearts of the people, that whenever any secret and mysterious crime is committed, they say, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall,” and go straightway and swing a Chinaman. It was in this way that he found out that by studying one half of each day’s “local items” it would appear that the police of San Francisco were either asleep or dead, and by studying the other half it would seem that the reporters were gone mad with admiration of the energy, the virtue, the high effectiveness, and the dare-devil intrepidity of that very police making exultant mention of how “the Argus-eyed officer So and-so” captured a wretched knave of a Chinaman who was stealing chickens, and brought him gloriously to the city prison; and how “the gallant officer Such-and-such-a-one” quietly kept an eye on the movements of an “unsuspecting almond-eyed son of Confucius” (your reporter is nothing if not facetious), following him around with that far-off look of vacancy and unconsciousness always so finely affected by that inscrutable being, the forty-dollar policeman, during a waking interval, and captured him at last in the very act of placing his hands in a suspicious manner upon a paper of tacks left by the owner in an exposed situation; and how one officer performed this prodigious thing, and another officer that, and another the other–and pretty much every one of these performances having for a dazzling central incident a Chinaman guilty of a shilling’s worth of crime, an unfortunate whose misdemeanor must be hurrahed into something enormous in order to keep the public from noticing how many really important rascals went uncaptured in the mean time, and how overrated those glorified policemen actually are. It was in this way that the boy found out that the Legislature, being aware that the Constitution has made America an asylum for the poor and the oppressed of all nations, and that therefore the poor and oppressed who fly to our shelter must not be charged a disabling admission fee, made a law that every Chinaman, upon landing, must be vaccinated upon the wharf, and pay to the State’s appointed officer ten dollars for the service, when there are plenty of doctors in San Francisco who would be glad enough to do it for him for fifty cents. It was in this way that the boy found out that a Chinaman had no rights that any man was bound to respect; that he had no sorrows that any man was bound to pity; that neither his life nor his liberty was worth the purchase of a penny when a white man needed a scapegoat; that nobody loved Chinamen, nobody befriended them, nobody spared them suffering when it was convenient to inflict it; everybody, individuals, communities, the majesty of the State itself, joined in hating, abusing, and persecuting these humble strangers. And, therefore, what could have been more natural than for this sunny-hearted boy, tripping along to Sunday school, with his mind teeming with freshly-learned incentives to high and virtuous action, to say to himself:
“Ah, there goes a Chinaman! God will not love me if I do not stone him.”
And for this he was arrested and put in the city jail. Everything conspired to teach him that it was a high and holy thing to stone a Chinaman, and yet he no sooner attempts to do his duty than he is punished for it–he, poor chap, who has been aware all his life that one of the principal recreations of the police, out toward the Gold Refinery, was to look on with tranquil enjoyment while the butchers of Brannan street set their dogs on unoffending Chinamen, and make them flee for their lives.*
Keeping in mind the tuition in the humanities which the entire “Pacific coast” gives its youth, there is a very sublimity of grotesqueness in the virtuous flourish with which the good city fathers of San Francisco proclaim (as they have lately done) that “The police are positively ordered to arrest all boys, of every description and wherever found, who engage in assaulting Chinamen.”
Still, let us be truly glad they have made the order, notwithstanding its prominent inconsistency; and let us rest perfectly confident the police are glad, too. Because there is no personal peril in arresting boys, provided they be of the small kind, and the reporters will have to laud their performances just as loyally as ever, or go without items. The new form for local items in San Francisco will now be: “The ever vigilant and efficient officer So-and-So succeeded, yesterday afternoon, in arresting Master Tommy Jones, after a determined resistance,” etc., etc., followed by the customary statistics and final hurrah, with its unconscious sarcasm: “We are happy in being able to state that this is the forty-seventh boy arrested by this gallant officer since the new ordinance went into effect. The most extraordinary activity prevails in the police department. Nothing like it has been seen since we can remember.”
* I have many such memories in my mind, but am thinking just at present of one particular one, where the Brannan street butchers set their dogs on a Chinaman who was quietly passing with a basket of clothes on his head; and while the dogs mutilated his flesh, a butcher increased the hilarity of the occasion by knocking some of the Chinaman’s teeth down his throat with half a brick. This incident sticks in my memory with a more malevolent tenacity, perhaps, on account of the fact that I was in the employ of a San Francisco journal at the time, and was not allowed to publish it because it might offend some of the peculiar element that subscribed for the paper.
Similarly, when a man pulls out a gun and shoots an unarmed boy, and rather than being punished for it, is proclaimed a hero by many of his countrymen, who not only praise him but in addition send him monies amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars as reward for having killed that boy, how can we then chastise him for merely pointing a gun at a woman? Does this not show an admirable leniency and moderation on his part? “Yes, I could kill her,” he must have said to himself. “I have done that before, and while there was some inconvenience attached, in the end I was vindicated. And this woman has ignored my orders and shown me disrespect, much as the boy did.” What could be more natural than to follow the path for which he was lauded and favored in the past? Yet he mercifully allowed the woman to live if only she would cease to trouble him further. And for this kindness, this generosity of spirit, he is now being persecuted.
Let this be a lesson to us all: the public is fickle, and the State cannot be trusted to abstain from using its vast and tyrannical powers in an unjustifiable, indeed capricious, fashion. Moreover, one should tread cautiously in situations where witnesses will be left alive.