Proud If Delusional Police: An Incredible Amount of Restraint

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Long Beach, CA. Getty Image. Front photo in New York City by Scott Heins

This week marks the sixth anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown, whose body lay for over four hours in the streets of Ferguson "like a dog" before anyone thought to attend to it; after him, of course, came many others, most recently George Floyd. It's also been a week since federal goons gave up on terrorizing Portlanders protesting those and too many other acts of racial injustice; Oregon's governor had called the unwanted, Pinochet-flavored incursion of anonymous troops "political theater (that) has nothing to do with public safety," even as acting head goon raved about "violent anarchists" like every authoritarian government official ever. The thugs left Portland only after one last fling of  viciously teargassing peaceful lines of moms in bike helmets, a trademark act of excessive force they committed so often that Oregon environmental regulators told the city they must test downtown stormwater for toxic metals and chemicals due to the invading army's “unprecedented amount of tear gas.” They also left behind much bad P.R. and at least two lawsuits facing them: From the ACLU for using livestreaming of protests as a means of surveillance - "Oregon is not a surveillance state" - and from the groups Wall of Moms and Don't Shoot Portland for using violence to "stamp out peaceful and Constitutionally protected protests," thus betraying "a foundational principle of American Democracy." 

That betrayal has been appallingly widespread in the two months of protests since the murder of George Floyd, when social media featured daily grisly videos - thank you Steve Jobs et al - of police beating, gassing and otherwise abusing peaceful protesters. Last month, the New York Times published a devastating analysis of 60 videos of police violence in the city; using its careful both-sides rhetoric, it found "many of the attacks, often led by high-ranking officers, were not warranted." As they go into detail - accompanied by stomach-churning video - things get real: Police "attacked people who had their hands up" and "were walking away from them"; they "repeatedly pummeled people who were already on the ground," "beat a cyclist trying to cross the street," "responded to words with punches and pepper spray," "charged into peaceful crowds," "appeared to thrash out at random." The police commissioner argued "officers used an incredible amount of restraint," and declared himself "proud of their performance (in) upholding the rule of law." But advocates with the Bronx Defenders "saw violations of Constitutional rights in almost all the videos" - despite, noted one public defender, being constantly filmed. That police were "willing to perform such brazen violence (when) the whole world was watching," he said, underscores that police know "they will never be held to account in any meaningful way even for the most egregious acts of violence.”

Last week, ProPublica re-enforced that hard truth, also using videos. Citing the same social media deluge of police violence, they undertook "to find out what happens after moments are caught on tape." They culled hundreds of videos with the most flagrant force against protesters, chose 68, and asked 40 police departments, who were the officers, were they under investigation, have they been disciplined? Shocker: Most declined to answer. They learned only that cops in 8 videos had been disciplined, and those in 8 others had not, for what one expert called clearly "a violation of policy, state and city ordinance, and common decency." Obviously, those violations reach new levels when they prove deadly - when they're aimed not at often white middle-class protesters, but at people of color, one on one. And those acts are ongoing. They range from an ICE guard driving his knee into a detainee's neck - "George Floyd all over again" - to a report from Vallejo, CA., home to one of the  country's most violent small police forces, that cops are bending their badges in a ritual celebration of on-duty killings. Vallejo police have killed 19 people in the last decade, including Willie McCoy, shot to death in 2019 for falling asleep in his car at a Taco Bell drive-through, but none has been charged. Their victims also include Sean Monterrosa, killed in June as he kneeled in a parking lot. The cop who shot him - five times through his windshield - has been involved in four shootings in five years. He's one of 14 Vallejo cops dubbed "The Fatal 14” – police who've repeatedly shot and killed residents, and never faced consequences.

Add to that list Darren Wilson, the former Ferguson cop who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown almost exactly six years ago. Last week, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, who won the job promising criminal justice reform, announced he would not charge Wilson after quietly re-opening the case five months ago. Calling the decision "one of the most difficult things I've had to do as an elected official," Bell said it didn't exonerate Wilson, but, “The question of whether we can prove a case at trial is different than clearing him of any and all wrongdoing.” The news prompted protests and fury - “Five months. Six years. People out on the street—nothing?” - with one activist fuming that with Bell, the first black man to hold the job, "All it is is injustice dressed up in Blackface." Other critics blasted "the hierarchy of human value" the lack of action exposes. “In a moment during which many thousands of people are taking to the streets to demand we build a society in which Black lives matter, we are reminded yet again that all too often, in the eyes of our criminal legal system, they do not,” said the St. Louis advocacy group ArchCity Defenders, who began working on municipal court reform but, after Brown's murder, shifted their focus to police brutality and broader criminal justice reform. After Bell's announcement, they vowed to continue working to replace the "longstanding oppressive systems of power" that led to it. "Audre Lorde taught us long ago that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,'” they said. "And yet, the pain remains."

Update: Amnesty chimes in. And another one, Aurora again. Beefy cops handcuff an entire family, including a sobbing six-year-old, laid out on their faces in a parking lot, for...nothing. The master's house remains, for now.

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New York's finest. Photo by Scott Heins/Gothamist

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Portland, Oregon. Getty Image

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