Archive for category: Policy & Law

Ain’t no justice. It’s just us.

18 Dec
December 18, 2015

March 1992 Twigg Simon Bal Sun Article

In light of the frustration that many feel in the wake of this week’s mistrial in the first Freddy Gray prosecution, I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper clip. Written by veteran police reporter Roger Twigg and myself, it is an account of another Baltimorean who died in the back of a police wagon, and the early stages of an investigation that went nowhere once prosecutors, a city grand jury and police union lawyers did their business.

In this instance, now nearly a quarter century old, the sustained injuries were not to the victim’s spinal cord, but to his spleen and his ribs. In this instance, the prisoner was also clearly in distress and ignored.  In this case, the wagon man rode the victim around Baltimore not for 45 minutes without medical assistance, but for a full hour. In this instance, the wagon man actually told other prisoners not to step on the prone victim, because, he said, the man had AIDS. And in this case, too, as with Mr. Gray, there was considerable discussion about the criminality of the victim, as if by diminishing his human worth and highlighting his failings, a police-wagon death was somehow deserved.

Robert Eugene Privett, 29, died in Baltimore police custody in March 1992. There was no uprising and no riot. Coverage of the death produced no civic outrage. And a Baltimore State’s Attorney also took the matter to a grand jury and emerged with no indictments — not for depraved-heart second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Not even for reckless endangerment.

It was death that just slipped quietly below the waves.

A police reporter for nearly a decade by then, I was certain it would.  I knew it once I heard prosecutors and union lawyers both mitigating the outcome with talk of the victim’s enlarged spleen, his drug use, his HIV status, effectively constructing a legal hole so large that a truck could be run through the center of the case.

The greater truth is that Freddy Gray is in no way unique or remarkable. Not in Baltimore, and not anywhere else in urban America. He comes to us amid a policing culture debased by thirty years of open warfare on the city poor — a conflict that has allowed, if not actually required, officers to see a large share of the men, women and children they are policing as the enemy, as arrest stats, as very much less than human.

Mr. Privett was white, by the way.  The desire to construct the Freddy Gray narrative along purely racial lines is understandable — Baltimore is a majority black city, and further, people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, who are the specific, targeted cohort in the drug war — but it is nonetheless not an entirely honest construction.

Anyone who has watched drug prohibition applied in my city’s poor white or mixed neighborhoods — in O’Donnell Heights or Morrell Park, Pigtown or pre-gentrifying Remington — understands fully that the battle claimed against dangerous narcotics long ago morphed into a full-blown war on our most vulnerable and disempowered citizens, regardless of race.  I recently happened to find myself the only white fellow on a New Yorker festival panel on race and I tried to make this point gently — to acknowledge that while people of color suffer police violence disproportionately, they are not alone.  And that class warfare, as much as racism, now underlies our savage, repetitive reliance on law-and-order brutalities.

“Then how is it that we never hear about white people being victims?” asked a fellow panelist.

I told her I had covered cases in Baltimore, that I had seen the war on drugs play itself out against poor whites and blacks alike. She looked at me with disbelief and disappointment, as if I had obliviously blurted that all lives matter.

Make no mistake: racism is still good fuel for much of the brutality. Moreover, I understand the natural inclination to view the whole of the nightmare of institutionalized police violence through the prism of race. From that perspective, poor white victims are indeed less useful as martyrs for a movement that begins by affirming for black life. But America’s misuse of the drug war to overpolice and beat down its poor is simply bigger, and more complicated, than race alone. The hue of the six defendants in the Gray prosecutions suggests this.  And the fact that the Robert Eugene Privetts of the world were going to their deaths in the back of Baltimore police wagons decades ago affirms as much.

I waited for a verdict in the first Freddy Gray prosecution before posting this.  I didn’t want to add to pretrial foment or mangle the specifics of the present case with those of the distant past.  But I’m writing now, in light of a jury’s inability to find any guilt whatsoever in the death of Mr. Gray in police custody.

Fair-minded people can argue about whether sufficient intent was proven to justify a manslaughter conviction, or whether this particular officer was more or less complicit in what happened to Mr. Gray.  But if, over the ensuing trials, our justice system determines that a prone, unresponsive human being can be legally ignored for nearly an hour by the authorities who have taken custody of him, well then, what exactly is the law saying to us as citizens? In a civilized republic, a law officer, in taking custodial responsibility of a fellow citizen, must do all he or she can to transport that citizen safely and attentively. If the law in the Freddy Gray cases allows otherwise, without sanctioning those who so abjectly fail that test, then our police wagons and jail cells will continue to be bodied for another couple decades.

Baltimore failed Robert Privett entirely.  Again, there were no indictments for reckless endangerment as he rolled around Southeast Baltimore for over an hour, pleading for medical help and dying of a ruptured spleen. The wagon man made his HIV-status into a bad joke. The state’s attorney then failed him and the city grand jury failed him.  His fellow citizens failed him as well, in that in 1992, the hue and cry against overpolicing, the drug war and mass incarceration wasn’t yet on the horizon. A series of articles covered the case in The Sun, but produced little reaction from any quarter.  Privett was The Other.  Some dope fiend. With AIDS.  Fuck him.

And now Mr. Gray.

If Baltimore today can’t figure out how to legally hold accountable the law officers who failed for nearly an hour to secure medical assistance for a man in their custodial care — at least to the point of declaring that they failed in their duty and recklessly endangered a fellow citizen — then we will have stayed the course. And twenty years from now, amid some other wagon or jail death, someone else will be posting old Freddy Gray stories and explaining that there is nothing new under the sun.

 

American torture

10 Dec
December 10, 2014

Here’s the sad fucking truth:

Our democracy, our republic, is very much weaker than we imagine if this report can only see the light of day after our government first issued preemptory promises not to prosecute the persons that did these things to other human beings in our names, or ordered that these things be done to other human beings in our names.

That there are elements of the American government still arguing against this cold blast of truth, offering up the craven fear that the rest of the world might see us as we actually are, or that our enemies will perhaps use the evidence of our sadism to justify violent retribution or political maneuver — this further cowardice only adds to the national humiliation.

This is not one of the world’s great powers behaving as such, and it is certainly no force for good in the world.  This might as well be the Spanish national amnesia following the death of Franco, or a post-war West Germany without the stomach for the necessary self-reflection. Shit, even the fragile, post-apartheid democracy of South Africa managed to openly conduct hearings and attempt some measure of apology and reconciliation in the wake of the previous regime’s brutalities.  Not us. Not the United States. We’re too weak to endure any such moral reflection without the attempt itself descending into moronic partisan banter. That’s right. Here, in America, we are — today — actually torturing other human beings with exacting cruelty in secret and then arguing about whether we can dare discuss it in public.

Fuck writing reports. Fuck arguing about reports. For the very soul of the country, some people must go to prison for these crimes against humanity, and for ordering crimes against humanity in my name, in your name, in our names. They were working not to save our country, as claimed. They were working to destroy this republic.

Who has the courage to begin?  Is there a single American political leader? No. Not a one.

The endgame for American civic responsibility Pt. III

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

Note:  These essays were, of course, written before St. Louis County prosecutors and Ferguson police relented and revealed the identity of the officer sho shot and killed Mr. Brown.  Both the cost to their credibility in the delay inherent in their delay and to the civil peace of that town remains relevant, however.  Moreover, the problem with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies nationally trying to maintain anonymity in such incidents is on the rise. So the essays stand as argument,  regardless.  – DS

 

August 14, 2014

Mr. Thomas Jackson

Chief of Police

Ferguson, Missouri

 

Chief Jackson:

Regard this as an open letter in light of your department’s unwillingness to properly identify the officer involved in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in your jurisdiction this last week.

Understand that I am someone with a high regard for good police work.  I covered a large municipal department for a dozen years and spent that time writing in detail on extraordinary efforts by professional detectives and officers, and, too, on systemic and individual failures within that same agency.  I am not unsympathetic to the complex truths of practical policing.

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The endgame for American civic responsibility Pt. II

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

Seven years later, from the Baltimore City Paper of February 12, 2009, as the militarization of American police work continued apace, infecting not merely the federal agencies so much less accountible to individual jurisdictions, but municipal police departments that claimed to be directly in the service of specific communities:

Police work, it is said, is only easy in a police state.  So welcome to the city of Baltimore, where a police officer who uses lethal force and takes human life is no longer required to stand behind his or her actions and suffer the scrutiny of the public he or she serves, where the identity of those officers who use lethal force will no longer be known, where our communities are now asked to trust in the judgment of those who clearly don’t trust us.

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Lost in a symptom: The Nation on marijuana reform

01 Nov
November 1, 2013

The surest way to ensure the continued abuse of people of color under the auspices of the drug war is to reduce or eliminate any corresponding threat to white Americans.  This seems to me to be such a fundamental of realpolitik in the United States that I’m still a little bit astonished that The Nation, in a recent assessment of marijuana reform efforts and racial bias, can’t see any forest from the trees.

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