Without such videotapes, the beating of Rodney King may never have come to light, and we would have had to take police word that the shooting of young father Oscar Grant was both justified and merited.
Increasingly, as more and more such videotapes emerge, I am concerned that we are indeed living in a police state, or nearly so.
King and Grant isolated incidents, right?
It might be easy for those of us generally out of the line of violence to think that incidents like the Rodney King beating and the New Year's 2009 shooting in the back of Oscar Grant are isolated--rare exceptions by rogue cops--that just happened to be caught on camera.
Despite damning videotaped evidence that would convict any other member of society, the police officers who beat King were acquitted. Later, two were found guilty in federal court and sentenced to a whopping 30 months. The other two were again acquitted.
Grant's shooting, caught entirely on videotape, shows two police officers, including his shooter Johannes Mehserle, manhandling an unresisting, peaceful, kneeling Grant, shoving him to the floor on his stomach. Grant reportedly pleads with them not to taser or shoot him, telling the officers he has a five year old daughter. The second officer puts a knee to Grant's neck, then backs away as Mehslerle draws his gun and shoots the unarmed father in the back at point blank range. Mehserle was tried, convicted and sentenced to two years for involuntary manslaughter, then released on parole after serving only six months.
These are not, however, isolated incidents years apart. All over the country, incidents like this continue to rise and spark outrage. Only when officers are caught on unconfiscated videotapes that go viral on the web, do their actions make it into mainstream media and yours and my consciousness.
To outlaw such recordings is to give police even more opportunity to lie and cover up abuses of power.
Outlawing the recording of police actions threatens all our safety
Consider this. I remember very well the first news reports of the Oscar Grant shooting. BART spokespersons stood on camera and told us that Mr. Grant had been shot while resisting arrest. They said that the surveillance camera that could have given the most clear images of the shooting was not operative at the time, or the tape had been unaccountably erased. Only when the unconfiscated video (BART police reportedly confiscated bystander cell phones after the shooting) was posted on YouTube a day or two later, did we learn that the official version of the shooting was a flat-out lie.
Is it possible the officer who killed Grant would have gone to trial had that cell phone video not come to light? What do you think?
Under-trained or out of control, full police accountability is critical to public safety
Increasingly, as we see more and more videotapes of police using excessive force and violence against unarmed, peaceful citizens, we realize that many of our police officers are at best under-trained, and sometimes tragically out of control. Whatever the case, it is critical that we seek full accountability from those paid to protect and serve the public.
Before we go any further with this, let me explain that I have great respect for the individual men and women who kiss their families goodbye in the morning, never knowing whether they will return to them intact that night. I admire and give gratitude for the police officers who courageously put their lives on the line every day, especially those who do so with honor and integrity.
I am gladdened when I see battalions of police officers upholding order during protests and demonstrations while maintaining and showing respect for the rights of individuals and groups of people to do so.
I am, on the other hand, appalled at the number of their brethren who seem to think nothing of beating, harassing and unlawfully detaining peaceful individuals going about their business and/or exercising their right to assemble peacefully.
Recent images of brutal police behavior mimic those we see in totalitarian governments overseas
In the last few weeks, people around the world have been horrified by repeated images of police officers in U.S. city after city beating and pepper spraying peaceful Occupy protesters at close range. You may have seen this article a few weeks ago honoring 84 year old Dorli Rainey, who was pepper sprayed at Occupy Seattle. You'll see the full image of her, head and face dripping with pepper spray, in Joshua Holland's AlterNet piece, Caught on Camera: Ten shockingly violent police assaults on occupy protesters (page 3). The other nine images, some of which include videos, are equally compelling.
We must not shrink from making ourselves aware of the problem.
We could say that the police are doing their duty, and that some of the students and protesters provoked them. For the most part, the occupiers have been peaceful to a fault. Some within the camps believe that many of the provocateurs are just that, intending to incite violence, possibly as a means to discredit and disrupt the movement.
I wasn't there, I cannot say, but I can see. While it's true we see many videos of police responding in an orderly, respectful manner to their orders to clear the camps or the streets, too often in these images and videos, it is clear that a number of officers and their superiors abuse their authority and use excessive violence.
The restraint of many does not excuse or condone the violence of others. They must be held accountable.
The problem is more widespread throughout the system than we may want to believe
Such incidents of overreaching abuse of power are not isolated to demonstrations and demonstrators. On Saturday, after our stand for peace at city hall, I caught up on a few podcasts from the evocative, provactive and frequently entertaining This American Life radio show. I don't know why these two podcasts were in my queue at the same time, since one is over a year old, but there they were.
The first, This American Life: Old Boys Network (June 3, 2011, Episode #437), tells the story of a small town Texas sheriff, a prosecutor who is also the private attorney for the sheriff and for the hospital in question, and the nurses who stood up to them. When the nurses would not keep quiet about a doctor whose actions endangered the health and possibly the lives of his patients, the sheriff arrested one of the nurses, a "Yankee" who had lived in the town only twenty years. She stood trial for harassing the doctor. Her tale is chilling.
Small town. Country sheriff. Couldn't happen in your town, right? Listen to the harrowing story of New York City police officer Adrian Schoolcraft in Act II of the September 10, 2010, This American Life: Right to Remain Silent, (Episode #414). Like so many of our police officers around the country, Officer Schoolcraft is one of the good guys. He laid it all on the line, trying to do the right thing in a police department that, to hear the secret recordings he made, is filled with corruption from the near-top to the bottom. Imprisoned in a mental hospital without recourse in an apparent attempt to silence him, his family denied knowledge of his whereabouts, he endured and continues to tell his story.
But wait, there's more: Cue the military
As if municipal police corruption, abuse of power and vicious assault on peaceful citizens exercising their right to assemble were not enough, the U.S. Senate voted yesterday to mandate military arrest and confinement of U.S. citizens right here on our own soil, as well as anywhere in the world at any time, for as long as they want to keep us locked up, without a trial.
Let me put it that another way.
Yesterday, the U.S. Senate voted to let the US military--Army, Navy, Marines--patrol our streets.
They can pick us off one by one at any time.
Lock us up.
Throw away the key.
No due process.
No trial required.
Send us to Guantanamo Bay.
Send us anywhere they please.
Don't have to tell us why.
Don't have to let us get an attorney.
Do anything they want with us.
Here's what two senators, both supporters of the bill, had to say about it last week.
In support of this harmful bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) explained that the bill will “basically say in law for the first time that the homeland is part of the battlefield” and people can be imprisoned without charge or trial “American citizen or not.” Another supporter, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also declared that the bill is needed because “America is part of the battlefield.”
Senators Demand the Military Lock Up of American Citizens
in a “Battlefield” They Define as Being Right Outside Your Window
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
The White House reportedly threatens a veto, should it pass the House, not because it threatens to detain American citizens without due process, but because the commander in chief sees it as somehow limiting presidential powers. The kicker is, it just may well pass the house, because it's one of those nasty little portions of a much larger bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. Now that's a good read, let me tell you.
Perhaps you agreed with me yesterday, but if you still think "police state" is too strong a term, tell me this: Just how much more freedom are you willing to give up in order to feel safe from terrorists? Me, I'm beginning to wonder just who are the real terrorists. How can we build a peaceful world in the face of institutionalized violence?
That's not just a rhetorical question. I'd very much appreciate your thoughts.
We make peace in a million small ways every day.
All text and images, unless otherwise noted, copyright L. Kathryn Grace. All rights reserved.