Bad apples, rotten orchard

Latest adventures in America’s police state

Loved ones mourn the loss of Kenneth Chamberlain

As George Zimmerman was finally charged in the murder of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last month, I couldn’t bring myself to call it “justice.” Not because Zimmerman doesn’t deserve to be tried, but because that case’s singular popularity reminded me how rare it was for a victim of American racism to get such extensive national spotlight.

It brought to mind, for instance, the little-known killing of 68-year-old Kenneth Chamberlain, a black man murdered in his pajamas by White Plains police when he mistakenly set off his medical aid alarm. After an internal investigation, the white officers who killed him with a Taser, beanbag gun, and finally live rounds were – surprise, surprise – not indicted.

But I’m happy to find positives in the Trayvon case as well, few and far between as they are. For one thing, Zimmerman’s killing and the police inaction seem to have spawned an uptick in publicity for both American racist injustice and the violence of its paramilitary gatekeepers.

In New York, race-based stop-and-frisks continue apace, with dangerous results. Just the other day, NYPD cops seem to have completely fabricated illegal-drug evidence for which they stopped 19-year-old Jateik Reed. When Reed resisted, as he had no reason to think he was breaking the law, they beat him bloody, with one cop coming in to kick Reed when he was fully subdued, just for good measure.

But American injustice is not just racist – it persecutes the poor, too. Watch, if you can, the horrific and vicious murder of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man in California. Listen closely for this noble rhetoric from Fullerton’s finest, after giving Thomas conflicting instructions:

“Now you see my fists?” Fullerton police officer Manny Ramos asked Thomas while slipping on a pair of latex gloves.

“Yeah, what about them?” Thomas responded.

“They are getting ready to fuck you up,” said Ramos, a burly cop who appears to outweigh Thomas by 100 pounds.

Listen even more closely for Thomas’ unanswered pleas for help, his desperate last breaths.

How do we stop police? It feels especially difficult when those privileged enough to avoid the bloody edges of America’s injustice system consistently hail cops as the bravest among us, or thank them for providing constant security. And police certainly aren’t going to curtail themselves, or even the worst among each other:

“They teach us to lie about stopping people. They teach us to lie about tickets, and ruin lives,” said Officer Polanco, who after about a decade on the force is suspended with pay. “I’ve never been a disciplinary problem. The only problem came when I decided to open my mouth.”

For now, it seems, our best weapons of resistance are cameras, documenting and publicizing police aggression. Without cameras, we may never have known the true horrors of Thomas’s and Chamberlain’s killings. Beyond everyday citizens filming protests on their smartphones, look to Cop Block, Reason Magazine, or this fledgling doctoral research on cops on cameras. But even catching Thomas’s and Chamberlain’s uniformed killers on camera didn’t bring them to justice.

Furthermore, holding individual cops accountable for particularly egregious offenses can give a thin veneer of justice to a systemic problem. As there are no mere “bad apples” in the military, American police uphold a racist and classist system through and through. The whole orchard’s rotten.

(The drug war is routinely among the best examples of the heinous system cops uphold. On May 1, DEA agents raided the house of 24-year-old student Daniel Chong, suspecting he had marijuana. Chong was detained and then abandoned in his cell for five days, forced to drink his own urine to survive. No charges were brought against him, and needless to say, none will be brought against those who neglected him.)

We should understand that this is their job. Police are paid to aggressively defend the status quo, no matter how clearly it needs protest and change. Some among Occupy Wall Street’s more charitable (or privileged?) protesters call on police to join them – for they too are among the 99%, with pensions, jobs, and futures on the line. But these calls fall on deaf ears, as cops continue to kettle, entrap, infiltrate, beat, pepper spray, and tear gas peaceful demonstrators. Maybe we can think about police as part of the “99%” when they resign in public protest of the system they perpetuate.

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Bad apples, rotten orchard

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