Thursday, September 26, 2013

Who Protects Us from the Protectors?

This past week, two events reported by the local news have managed to shake even this bleary eyed hopeful cynic. As a result, I find myself wondering how long the current state of realities in an America I no longer recognize can hold.

Even Ham Sandwiches Can Be Indicted

The first occurred in nearby Deland. Last week a grand jury returned a decision not to prosecute a police officer who ran down a suspect fleeing on foot and killed him. Upon seeing the camcorder video of that event it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have come to a conclusion that  the perpetrator of this killing should not be charged with a crime. New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler was once quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities that "a grand jury would 'indict a ham sandwich” if that was what the prosecutor wanted.

One wonders how much the prosecutor wanted to pursue a murderous cop. Perhaps more troubling, one wonders how much the life of a black male victim is worth in this culture that seems intent upon setting their killers free, particularly when his killer is white.

The family of the decedent released the cop’s videocam recording this week. Here is what the public finally saw this past week.


I’m not sure what disturbs me most about the Ocala Post’s presentation of this video online. The opening of a recorded execution of a human being with an ad for a fast food restaurant turned my stomach. The association of food with death is not one I would want to make were I a businessman but I guess paid sponsors must get their money’s worth, even for providing recordings of the killing of human beings to the public.

The other aspect which troubled me was the warning on the screen before the actual video began: “May be disturbing to some.” Some? I don’t think I want to spend much time around anyone who was NOT disturbed by what followed in that video. And yet, I suspect that given the circumstances of this event, its perpetrator and its victim, the number who would not only not be disturbed but who would loudly defend the perpetrator of this atrocity could well be significant.

Execution in a Vegetable Garden

The video features an African-American suspect who fled a police traffic stop and was pursued by two police vehicles. The man was driving on a suspended license but who knows what else might have prompted him to flee. Perhaps a well-founded fear of what happened next.

With two cars hot in pursuit, the man turned down a side street, left his car and began to flee on foot. The officer in the car in which the video cam was installed pursued the man, leaving the paved road, driving onto private property, crashing through a fence and ultimately running down the fleeing suspect who had tripped and fallen. The last scene before the vehicle smashes into the man is the face of a black man full of the horror of his impending death.

The next thing one hears is the sound of the car smashing into the man's body and coming to rest on top of him. He ultimately died of suffocation in the mud of a vegetable garden. The lawyer hired by the family who helped insure the release of the camcorder video called the killing “an execution in a vegetable garden."

The officer has been fired from his job on the Deland Police Department. But he will not be held criminally liable for what is clearly a homicide. The Volusia County Grand Jury saw to that by voting not to indict the officer. Yet another black man has been killed and his killer has gotten away with murder. Literally.

Would the Designated Adult Please Identify Themselves Now?

The second event occurred much closer to home, on the UCF campus where I teach three days a week. On the six o’clock news, this video of an encounter between university police and a young woman, presumably a student, was broadcast:


The exchange between these two actors is disturbing. As I watched, the phrase I continually find myself saying these days came to mind: Would the designated adult please identify themselves now. 

Of course, that never happened.

The young woman is clearly argumentative and would try the patience of a saint. She is asked repeatedly to roll the window down so that the citation for improper equipment can be handed in for signing. She does roll the window down half-way which clearly provided enough room for the officer to hand in the clipboard with the citation and for her to hand back the signed citation.

But the officer continues to demand she roll it all the way down and the young woman continues to ask why that is necessary. He says it is for his safety but there is nothing to suggest that his safety is in jeopardy with a half-rolled down window citation exchange. My guess is that he wanted to look inside the car for any evidence of drugs. The university cops are a bit obsessive about that.

The officer then loses patience and begins to demand the woman get out of the car completely. When he sticks his hands inside the window to open the door (clearly his safety was not in too much jeopardy or he would not have done that) she makes the mistake of rolling the window up and nearly pinching his fingers in the process. He begins to shout that she either roll the window down or he would break it. When she says she’s recording the event on her camera, he takes his baton and smashes her window, opens her door, throws the woman to the pavement and arrests her.

The time counter on the bottom of the video records that this entire incident took place in 3:41 time. 

Neither Imprudence nor Impatience Create an Imperative

In all fairness, the impudence of this uncooperative young woman was astounding. Her demeanor was extremely trying at the very least. While she was within her rights to question the stop (it is a common law right to resist an unlawful stop and without knowing why she’d been stopped, she had no way of knowing why the stop had been made) she is obligated by the motor vehicle code to sign citations when stopped by police officers.

Moreover, as I have often counseled my clients and my students, if you are stopped by a police officer, if you insist upon giving up your right to silence, begin whatever you say with Sir or Ma’am depending upon the gender identification of the officer. As a friend said, she could have prevented the whole thing by being more cooperative.

Prudence suggests that she exercised poor judgment in this incident at the very least. But a failure in prudence is not a crime. And neither impudence nor impatience justifies an abuse of authority and the exercise of excessive force by a police officer, much less $250 worth of damages to an automobile.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibilities

Society entrusts law enforcement with the authority to detain people, to exercise force when necessary and to carry weapons to assist them in their job duties in the last resort. These are major entrustments. And with them come major responsibilities. In this, the campus officer was a miserable failure.

There was nothing in this situation that suggested that the officer’s life was in danger. Thus, the use of force was not justified from the beginning. As noted above, this entire incident occurred in just over three and a half minutes. What was the rush? The young woman was clearly not going anywhere. A few minutes sitting in a car whose engine was turned off absorbing the hot Florida sun would no doubt have soon prompted a desire to complete the ticket transaction and move on. Moreover, the citation could easily have been executed through the half open window. Indeed, it happens all the time. And questioning an officer about a detention is hardly the stuff of resisting and opposing. It’s everyday life.

If the woman made any mistake legally it was attempting to roll the window up on the officer’s fingers. Not only was it rude but she could have injured the officer. But, again, this came after the officer refused to execute the citation through the space in the half-opened window when he had the opportunity to do so with absolutely no danger to his person. His refusal to simply execute the citation suggests he was not simply interested in a routine traffic stop. And his demands that the woman roll the window all the way down to do so ultimately served to escalate the confrontation.

Is it unfair to ask police to deal with uncooperative motorists? Hardly. Is it unreasonable to insist that they exercise patience in these exchanges? Hardly. The demand for instant gratification may be tolerable in small children. But we expect more of adults, particularly those we authorize to carry weapons in our names. That is especially true of those adults who would deign to assume a parent/child role with their fellow citizens.

A Troubling Context

These events arise in a a troubling context. They come in the wake of a seriously flawed trial in which the killer of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin ultimately got away with murder. That was a gift from a nearly all-white jury which refused to hold his killer responsible for the ultimate results of his use of a gun allegedly in the name of Neighborhood Watch. 

They come at the end of a week in which a new Miss America of Indian ancestry became the instant target of a slew of racist and xenophobic tweets within seconds of her crowning. Accused of everything from being a foreigner (she was born in New York, the state which sent her to the pageant) to being a terrorist, the  vitriol which exploded throughout the Twitosphere revealed a mean-spirited racism which ought to make all Americans more than a little uncomfortable.

They also occur within two years of a similar event on our campus involving a former colleague, J.L. Vest. In her stop she was humiliated by this same campus police force on the major highway in front of the university, detained for two hours while enduring racial epithets and charges of being a drug addict and bodily searched twice as students and fellow faculty passed by in their car. All of this was triggered by a supposed “routine traffic stop” for a taillight and escalated when her half used heart medicine in a medicine vial was found in her car. Little wonder people stopped by this police force are reluctant to roll down their windows or get out of their cars.

At the grievance hearing the university was required to convene, the university denied any wrong doing and said its officer had simply failed to exercise common courtesy. Dr. Vest has since left the university, the state and academia entirely. It is our loss.

Finally, these events occur in the context of a concerted effort in Republican led legislatures across the country to disenfranchise working poor voters, many of them people of color. Having recognized the bankruptcy of their policies, Republicans know they cannot win elections by simply offering their ideas to the voters for approval. So now they seek to stack the deck in the elections shutting the working poor and people of color out of the process. The sadism of this strategy is astounding: the working poor and people of color are targeted by policies and practices serving the interests of the largely white middle and upper classes and then prevented from participating in the elections in which their grievances could be redressed.

¡Impunidad! - When Does Krakatoa Finally Erupt?

This pattern is hardly unfamiliar to me. All across Latin America I have seen the word “Impunidad!” (impunity) spray painted on walls and structures, a feeble protest against atrocities committed by government agents during the day and paramilitaries during the night, often involving the same persons. The genocidal atrocities in places like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala are horrific. But the refusal of the state to take any responsibility for those atrocities  (often because the judges fear reprisals themselves with good reason) leads to the spray painted outcries against impunity – the commission of abuses against human beings by those who know they will walk away with no consequences.

The pattern of atrocities committed with impunity I observed in a Latin America in which the poor have been routinely excluded from the governing and judicial processes was unjust and intolerable. But I was a visitor in those countries with no right to pass judgments while there. I do expect more from my own country where I am a citizen. And I do expect the Constitution to actually be followed.

Two questions linger in my mind as I consider all these events. The first is where the line will finally be drawn by the working poor and people of color in our society who refuse to accept any more injustice with impunity. I ride the city bus to work each day, partly to avoid having to deal with university police, and I sense there is a low level of class and racial tension among its riders of color daily. When will the unforeseen straw that breaks the camel’s back appear prompting an angry pushback against injustice with impunity across our nation?

When does our Krakatoa finally erupt?

This status quo is not sustainable. As Yeats would say, its center cannot hold. I fear the depth and breadth of that eruption should the coercive force that currently holds it in check waver even for a second. The tidal wave of blind rage pent up for so many years and untold tears may be quite devastating.

Indeed, America may not be able to recover from it.

In the meantime, another question comes to mind as I remember why I was so angry for most of the five years I worked in juvenile defense law first as public defender and later as private attorney. When those sworn to protect us become liabilities to our safety and well being, to whom can we turn for protection?

Who protects us from the protectors?

 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)

Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies, Humanities, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Regional Campus
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.


Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

2 comments:

Jennifer Lisa Vest said...

Thanks for your post, Harry.

Jennifer Lisa Vest said...

Thanks for the post, Harry