A woman walking down the street in West Hollywood saw a police officer roughing up and handcuffing a man, whom he accused of jaywalking. Appalled, she challenged the officer. “Take off his handcuffs!” she demanded.
Noticing the commotion, more passersby approached. Soon a small crowd of people had gathered around. Some people shouted at the officer to stop. Others mocked his aggressiveness, sarcastically suggesting that his unfulfilled sexual desires explained his behavior. Surrounded by pissed-off citizens, the cop replied with a smirk: “I’m SO scared.” Others stood and watched, witnessing.
This happened 14 years ago. The man was me.
None of us knew that the cop, Officer Will Durr, was secretly capturing the audio of my arrest on a tape recorder — some of it, anyway.
Last week, a LAPD dub of Durr’s tape savaged my career in journalism, which can never be the same. But then that woman’s angry voice — “Take off his handcuffs!” — vindicated me. It was a kind of time travel. This woman, yelling on Melrose Boulevard on October 3, 2001, changed my life on July 30, 2015.
I wish I could go back in time so I could kiss her.
Or do her laundry. Whatever she wants.
About two weeks ago, someone at the LAPD and/or LAPPL (the LAPD police union) gave the dub of Durr’s tape to some unknown person at The Los Angeles Times. Despite obvious gaps in their credibilityand logic, the Times used the tape as its justification, not to merely fire me, but to internationally shame me with a “Note to Readers,” signed by editorial page editor Nick Goldberg, that accused me of having lied about the cop’s actions during my 2001 jaywalking bust. In journalism, that’s a career death sentence, and Goldberg knew it.
What Goldberg didn’t know was that the real liars were the LAPD. And what Goldberg didn’t learn was one of the first rules of journalism: check it out.
If I brought a tape to any editor worth a damn, she’d say: have it analyzed and checked for signs of tampering. Not Goldberg, or Times reporter Paul Pringle, who was assigned to investigate me. They “authenticated” the tape by — get this — asking the cops whether their own tape was legit.
The answer to that question turned out to be: Not so much.
Thank god for technology. Despite Officer Durr’s apparent attempts to cover up those unpleasant remarks from the angry crowd by whistling into his mic, and covering it up, audio technicians were able to clean it up enough to reveal the truth.
“Take off his handcuffs!” That line, and many others, proved that I’d been cuffed, and that there had been an angry crowd — two crucial bones of contention. In the court of public opinion, I’d been vindicated.
The truth: which I’d been telling. The truth: which the cops did not. The truth: which the LA Times doesn’t care about — I’m still fired. The now-discredited “Note to Readers” is still up, with no mention of the secrets revealed by the enhanced audio tape.
But the truth is out. I have a fight ahead of me, sure. But I couldn’t defend myself without it.
There’s no way that woman could have known, or knows now, that her declarative statement — “Take off his handcuffs!” — was or ever would do any good. She, and the other witnesses, probably felt angry and impotent and helpless in the face of obvious injustice by an agent of the state.
If the woman on Melrose, whom I would kiss if I could, remembers this incident, it’s likely as just another time where she got involved but accomplished nothing.
But she’d be wrong.
My case serves as yet another example of the importance of stepping forward to witness, document and interfere with unfairness and state violence whenever you can. If, for example, you see a cop hassling someone, document the stop with your cellphone camera (don’t comment or talk because it blocks other sounds). If you dare, speak truth to power by demanding the officer’s badge information and name, and asking that he stop what he’s doing. Even if you just stand and watch, you greatly reduce the chances of another brutal police killing or maiming.
As a white man, I’m lucky. I suffer only a small fraction of the disgusting greed and brutality of corrupt police officers experienced by black and other people of color every day. I’m grateful.
One small way I can show my appreciation for my privileged status in American society is to speak out, like here, about my own experiences with bad cops. Because if it’s happening to white guys like me, you know it’s even worse for people of color.
In this case, however, I couldn’t have done it without that voice from the past, that beautiful angry ghost from 2001. So: witness. Document. Fight back.
It really does count.