Saturday, July 6, 2013

Living In a Police State

I’ve written about how my feelings about God have changed. I believe I’ve written about how I no longer feel respectful toward politicians and judges. But I can’t remember if I’ve written about the evolution of my attitude toward the police.

I don’t like ‘em anymore.

I struggled for some time, unknowingly and then knowingly, to maintain respect and admiration for the men and women in blue. The heroism displayed daily by some in law enforcement – as exemplified by the 23 New York Police Department officers and 37 New York Port Authority officers who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 – is truly moving and commendable. It takes a special individual to run toward gunfire, chase bad guys with weapons, check out dark alleys and abandoned buildings and put themselves in harm’s way.

Ready for the but?

Rodney King
But more and more, I see and hear about instances when cops have gone too far. The big stories stand out – Rodney King, Malice Green, Amadou Diallo – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve written about seven-year-old Aiyana Jones, who was shot and killed by Detroit SWAT officers while sleeping on the couch in a home they raided on May 16, 2010. (See “Who’s turning their porch lights on for Aiyana Jones?, July 6, 2011, and “Justice for Aiyana?,” October 5, 2011.) I still lose sleep over this case – the first trial for the police officer who ended her life resulted in a hung jury; a new one’s been scheduled for July 25. (Click here to read a Nation piece entitled, “Why Aiyana Jones Matters,” June 13, 2013.)

The latest travesty to foster my insomnia involves not a human being but a Rottweiler named Max.

You’ve probably seen the gruesome and widely-circulated video of uniformed police in Hawthorne, California, shooting Max four times, the dog’s jerks and spasms causing witnesses to cry out in horror. (The video is reposted below and you have been warned.) Some say Leon Rosby’s dog lunged at the officers while they were arresting his master; my repeated viewing of the video found that the officers’ use of deadly force was excessive and unjustified. I understand that stress levels were high and that dogs are sometimes indeed threats to police but Max began to retreat after the first shot; it didn’t deserve to be shot three more times. (The officers involved have received several death threats since the clip went viral. Click here for more.)

Scott Olsen, the 24-year-old Iraq War veteran whose skull was fractured by a police projectile during a demonstration in Oakland, California, in October of 2011, also comes to mind. Olsen, critically injured, had to be rushed to the hospital by other demonstrators who were themselves fired upon by police while trying to help him. And who can forget Lt. John Pike pepper-spraying non-violent students during a sit-in on the UC Davis campus in November of 2011? I still see memes about that one on my Facebook newsfeed.

To protect and serve banks?
Closer to home, I’ve run into incredibly rude – even demeaning – police officers who’ve seemed to go out of their way to ensure a disconcerting experience. In January of 2011, someone close to me was pulled over for failing to use her turn signal in a right-turn lane and then arrested for driving with a suspended license. (She never saw the notification that her license had been suspended for not having proof of insurance during an earlier stop.) The insensitivity and arrogance of the several officers who insisted on handcuffing my friend and hauling her off to jail were infuriating. This person’s young children were there, witnessed everything, and were of course distressed. I’m no expert on police protocols but this just didn’t have to go down the way it did. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge at this point how much worse it must be for people of color.)

Let’s not forget the horrible abuses during the Civil Rights Era and the anti-war demonstrations of decades ago.

There are several websites and indexes devoted to instances of police brutality. (Click here and here and here and here and here.) How do law-abiding citizens make the case that police agencies are supposed to protect all of us and not just the homes, businesses and institutions of well-off white people?

A young factory worker in Bangladesh
who had the nerve to protest
deplorable working conditions
This is of course not just an American problem. Police have been accused of brutality all over the place. But since my travel these days is pretty much limited to the mid-Michigan area (with the exception of the occasional 12-hour drive to Georgia to visit my parents), I’m taking a parochial view.

Anita pointed out recently that I’m sometimes long on complaining and short on suggesting solutions. In this case I’m not sure what the solutions are. Sensitivity training? Longer probation periods for new hires? Psychological evaluations? Anger management classes? Letters to our legislators? All I know is that from now on, I’m assuming every cop I see is a dick unless he or she proves otherwise. It used to be the other way around.

Of course most cops are good and things would be a lot worse if no one patrolled the streets or enforced the rules. But isolated incidents became patterns a long time ago. And in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., no stranger to police brutality himself, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

P.S. After writing this I signed into Facebook and instantly saw a story on my newsfeed about 35-year-old Douglass Zerby of Long Beach, California, who was shot and killed by police as he watered a neighbor’s lawn back in December of 2010. (Police mistook the water nozzle for a handgun.) A jury just awarded the dead man’s family $6.5 million and found two Long Beach police officers negligent and liable for his death. Tip of the iceberg.

Sources: The New Yorker,,,,, The Nation,,, KABC-TV.

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