By Charles Pierce, Esquire
One of the sad and curious consequences of the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut a couple of years back was the fact that, rather than being chastened by the savagery and encouraged by it to help seek solutions to the country’s insane devotion to its firearms, the radical gun-rights community, abetted by the gun industry’s front group and primary sales organization, the National Rifle Association, intensified its efforts to roll back even the weak regulations currently in place. It was an effective and brutal demonstration of the American right’s political devotion to the orders Stalin gave the Red Army when the Germans attacked. “Ni shagu nazad.” Not one step backwards. And by and large, especially at the federal level, it worked. The “teachable moment” was as evanescent as the morning dew. It’s happening again, in a roughly similar context.
Obscured by events in the Levant, there has been a spate of police-on-citizen violence over the past few weeks. In South Carolina, a state trooper shot an unarmed man at a gas station who was simply going for his driver’s license, which the officer himself had ordered him to do. In Ohio, the case of John Crawford III, the man gunned down in a WalMart because he was holding a BB gun, intensified with the release of a video of the shooting. (In Crawford’s case, a woman who witnessed the events had a heart attack and died. Collateral damage.) In Utah, there are two shootings that have roiled two communities. In one, a 22-year old was shot and killed while in costume as a Japanese anime character and carrying a sword. (Like the Ohio WalMart shooting, this episode began when a nervous citizen called the cops.) In the other, an unarmed man was shot outside a 7-11. All of this, of course, comes in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, by Officer Darren Wilson, and the subsequent protests. This was supposed to lead to a national conversation about the militarization and training of local police departments. To be fair, that conversation is going on. But unarmed citizens are still being shot. Ni shagu nazad. Not one step backwards.
(And things in Ferguson are heating up again. Somebody torched an improvised memorial to Brown, and local police officers have taken to wearing wristbands that say, “I Am Darren Wilson.” If this keeps up, any trial of Wilson in connection with Brown’s death is going to have to be held on Jupiter.)
Something has gone badly wrong in the relationship between local police and the citizens they are supposed to serve. It has taken a long time to get to this point. It probably began during the early days of the “war” on drugs, in which local police were encouraged to believe that almost anything was permissable because they were facing a well-armed and well-financed “enemy” in the streets. This introduced the “Powell Doctrine” of overwhelming force to local law-enforcement, with all that entailed, including arming local sheriff’s departments as though they were heavy-weapon platoons advancing on Bastogne. This attitude, and the equipment available to act it out, naturally bled over from drug busts to local police work in general.
As should be sadly obvious, black folks were the first to notice what was going on. In 1990, in Boston, when Carol DiMaiti Stuart was murdered by her husband, Charles, the murderer threw out a fairy tale about a black perpetrator that sent the Boston police on an absolute rampage through the neighborhood where the shooting occurred. It didn’t stop until Stuart confessed by throwing himself off the Tobin Bridge.
Boston Mayor Ray Flynn was on television vowing to “get the animals responsible” for the shooting. Police stepped up their “Stop and Frisk” program. Mothers in the Mission Hill neighborhood complained of their sons being targeted, stopped on the street and forced to drop their pants as police searched for a suspect.
Four years later, acting on a bad tip from a possibly drunken informant, the Boston cops stormed an apartment expecting to find a heavily armed drug gang, only to discover a 75-year old minister named Accelyne Williams.
Mr. Williams spent 40 years preaching throughout the Caribbean. The last moments of his life are described in graphic detail in the two reports. After a team of police officers wearing helmets, fatigues and boots sledgehammered through his front door brandishing shotguns and 9-millimeter Glock pistols, Mr. Williams ran into a bedroom and locked the door behind him. The police broke through the bedroom door and tried to put him in handcuffs, shouting, “Boston police!” and “Get down on the floor!” It took three police officers to handcuff the preacher, who was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall and weighed 155 pounds. “He was flailing his hands,” one officer told the District Attorney’s investigators. “As he was being laid down on the floor, he was still struggling.” With two officers holding his arms and a third pinning his legs, the police bound Mr. Williams’s hands behind his back with plastic handcuffs. After going through the rest of the apartment to see if it was secure, the police noticed that Mr. Williams was vomiting. They called for an ambulance, which is routinely a block and a half away from raid sites, and then cut the cuffs from his wrists and rolled him onto his side. One officer “observed a loud exhale of air and the fluttering of his cheeks and lips,” the police report says.
Williams died of a heart attack. His family eventually won a $1 million settlement from the city.
Then 9/11 happened, and it threw all of these existing phenomena into hyperdrive. More military-style equipment became available, and local police departments gobbled it up. (The police in West Springfield up here have two grenade launchers, possibly in case the Second Westfield Armored Division gets frisky.) Militarized equipment begat militarized training which begat militarized attitudes. Constitutional safeguards were torn up and thrown to the four winds. And we are where we are today.
Sean Williams and his colleagues in Beavercreek, a suburb of Dayton, were shown a slideshow invoking their loved ones and the massacres at Sandy Hook, Columbine and Virginia Tech while being trained on 23-24 July on confronting “active shooter situations”. “If not you, then who?” officers were asked by the presentation, alongside a photograph of young students being led out of Sandy Hook elementary school in December 2012. A caption reminded the trainees that 20 children and five adults were killed before police arrived…”We should be saying ‘This is the day I took my oath, trained and prepared for my entire career,'” said one of the slides, which were prepared by the Ohio police officer training association and based on FBI protocol, according to Piepmeier. Another slide told officers to consider that such an “active threat” was “in a building with the person I love the most” and then decide whether they would want police to wait outside for backup or “enter the building and find the threat as fast as possible”.
It’s going to take years — and, I fear, more lives — to untangle this mess. It involves more than simply cutting off the sale of military weapons to civilian law enforcement. It involves more than obvious racial politics, although those are certainly an element of it. It is going to require a major effort, both locally and nationally, to recover the proper relationship between police and the citizens they serve. Right now, in too many places, too many people are justifiably afraid of their local police, all strapped up and armored and ready for action. Intimidation and deadly force don’t have to be the first clubs out of the bag.
In February of last year, two Muslim men were sentenced in a London court for butchering a British soldier named Lee Rigby to death in broad daylight on a public street. The two demanded that onlookers take videos of their barbarity as the two of them literally dripped with blood. When the London police arrived on the scene, the two killers charged them. They were shot. But they were only wounded. They were alive to stand trial, to be convicted, and to be sentenced. They were not killed in the street next to their victim. They were shot by police but they were alive today, which is more than can be said for Michael Brown, killed for being big and black, or John Crawford III, killed for holding a BB gun while black. Something has gone badly wrong in this country.