Is “Black Lives Matter” Aiding And Abetting Criminals?

This is a very serious question and deserves a serious answer. It is so serious that the New York Times has asked: Is “police reticence in the face of such protests, some led by groups like Black Lives Matter causing crime to rise in some cities”? The first answers are in. Those honorable folk, “the heads of the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration said they believed that this so-called Ferguson Effect seemed to be real.” (The Ferguson Effect, which sounds like an atmospheric condition that produces high winds and heavy rain, is capable of creating law and order crises.)

In general, whenever black folk get uppity, crime increases. See, for instance, the wave of crime that spread through the American Deep South after the Civil War during the Reconstruction Era when freed slaves went on a rampage, killing, raping, and looting. Some folks blame that on white racists worried about the imbalance in the old power equations of the American South, but we should remind ourselves that the folks conducting those terrorist campaigns were riding around on horses while wearing white robes and hoods, so we will never, I mean never, know whether they were white or not.

We need not debate this question for too long. The FBI and the DEA–fine, upstanding defenders of civil liberties, and really, the first folks we should check in with when it’s time to evaluate political protest conducted by minorities–would never speak falsely on such matters. Besides, they have better things to do–like entrapping young Muslims in terrorist plots, arresting folks smoking that dangerous chemical, marijuana, and listening to the phone conversations, and reading the emails of, American citizens. (Some pedant will say I should be talking about the NSA but in this post 9/11 intelligence-sharing era, what’s the difference?)

We should be curious though about what such “police reticence” amounts to. Perhaps it means the following. Police officers will not be able to: fire sixteen bullets–known as ’emptying a clip’, I’m told–at black teenagers walking on a highway even ones with knives; come scrambling out of a car and begin firing, assaulting-a-Pacific-Beach style, at a twelve-year old playing with a toy gun in a children’s playground; shoot black men in wheelchairs; drive around a city with a ‘suspect’ in a paddy wagon, and then beat him to death; place sellers of illicit cigarettes in fatal strangleholds; shoot black men in the back, whether during an undercover drug sting or after a traffic stop; shoot black men who have knocked on doors seeking help; search, randomly and roughly, hundreds and thousands of young black men and women in their neighborhoods for looking suspicious.

The ultimate ramifications of such handicapping of our armed forces–sorry, police–are as yet, only poorly understood, but the contours of the resultant landscape are perhaps visible. Black folks will once again walk the streets; they will stay out late at night; they will go into white neighborhoods and mingle with the populace there. Of all the chilling effects of this new police caution, the last one, surely, is the most chilling. Black folks will be set free among us. The horror.

The ‘Trivial’ Roots Of Resentment

Some three decades ago, I went to buy tickets for a major sports event. I was a teenager, eager to see top-class athletes in action; I woke early, caught a bus to the ticket box-office and joined the long queues that had already formed by the time I arrived. The lines grew and grew; tickets were sold slowly and inefficiently; the pushing and shoving began. There were policemen in charge of this mass of disorderly humanity; they decided to restore order by a series of pushes and shoves of their own.

I complied with orders: I moved, keeping my position in the queue. But clearly, I had not moved quickly enough. Suddenly, I received a hard blow to the back of my head. Stunned, my head spinning, I looked around to see what had happened. A policeman stood there, glaring at me, “What are you looking at! Move!” (This translated version sounds considerably milder than the original.) He was bigger than me; he carried a hefty baton that I knew could easily crack my skull open.

I moved.

I hadn’t done anything wrong as far as I could tell; I had complied with instructions; I had been in the wrong time and in the wrong place, in the firing line for an officer of the law, one easily inclined to descend to violence when things didn’t go right, when his easily exhausted patience ran out.  In the space of a few seconds, I had been physically chastised and humiliated; I had been put in my place; I had been reminded I had very little power when it came to confronting these guardians of the peace.

So I smarted and glowered and fumed. For days and weeks and afterwards, every policeman I saw reminded me of that day when I had been abruptly slapped upside the head and told to get my ass in gear. Later, in my university days, I heard a story of how a policeman had made the mistake of harassing two young men–out for a late night smoke and a stroll–who had decided to fight back. He didn’t have backup, and he had thought he could simply bully them the way he usually bullied his usual victims: the homeless, the initerant poor, the cabdrivers on a night-shift. They had grabbed his baton, thrown it away, and then delivered a series of quick blows to his head before running away into the night. When I heard this tale, I grinned and snickered. “Fuck that motherfucker. Serves him right. That’ll teach him a fucking lesson. He’ll think twice before he messes with some kids again.”

I was not a juvenile delinquent. I was not someone was repeatedly accosted by the police (though I had several more edgy encounters with them in my university days, all of them reminders of their ability to swiftly, crudely, bring blunt power to bear.) So I often wonder: if I could, thanks to one violent and disempowering encounter with the police, a humiliating and reductive one, develop such a chip on my shoulder, just how angry and resentful would someone get if such interactions were a daily or weekly occurrence?

I know, I know. I should have moved on. I should have brushed off that chip. I should have matured. But I wasn’t old enough to know better.  And again, I know, that the cop who got beaten by those youngsters probably cracked down a little harder the next time he saw a couple of ‘punks’, and made sure he took some buddies with him to crack heads.

But pushing folks around, rendering them weak and vulnerable, reminding their of their helplessness in the face of those who enjoy a monopoly on coercion and the exercise of state power remains a deadly recipe for the generation of resentment and anger.

Machine Gun Men: Not Your Grandfather’s Police

It was a common sight in New York City: soldiers, paramilitary or regular in origin, wearing battle fatigues and carrying assault rifles and machine guns, standing guard in various bustling points of urban interaction–train stations and bus terminals most commonly. Typically, these were deployed after some mysterious, unspecified warning would be made public by the Department of Homeland Security: threat levels had escalated to red or yellow or blue or orange (the precise spectral arrangement of this rainbow of danger always remained a little intractable to me.) As I would walk by these armed gentlemen, their guns locked and loaded–ok, perhaps not locked–looking suitably menacing to all and any evildoers, I would often wonder about the nature of the threat they were supposed to be guarding us from.

Did the Homeland Security folks imagine that an armed commando raid was going to be carried out in the heart of New York City, that a platoon of miscreants would alight from the 10:17 coming in from Hempstead, and open fire indiscriminately, scattering hand grenades as they went, and that our brave machine gun toting protectors would respond, responding with a spray of bullets their own, in these enclosed, hermetic spaces? That seemed unlikely, given the inevitable collateral damage that would result, and the known methodology of those who had thus far committed acts of terror in and against the US. (Unless, of course, you are counting the various gun-toting serial killers who go on periodic rampages in the US. But those folks aren’t terrorists, surely? Just misguided patriots.)

What did seem more likely, as I speculated about random searches in the New York subways, was that this kind of policing, complete with machine-guns and the soldiers was designed to accustom us to the presence of a militarized force as peacekeeper, protector and enforcer in our daily lives. It can search, and it can intimidate. You might engage in conversation with a beat cop, and you might even enter into a verbal dispute; you almost certainly will not do so with a black-clad figure with one hand perennially on the trigger of a high-powered munition.

We should keep these considerations in mind when we look at photographs of machine gun toting police in Ferguson, brought out to maintain ‘order’ in the wake of protests and unrest following the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown. Under what circumstances are these guns to be deployed? Bear in mind machine-guns are classic anti-personnel weaponry, intended to set up killing fields of fire to stop an armed assault by heavily armed soldiers in its tracks. They are intended to pump hundreds and thousands of bullets quickly into a space of combat, rendering it deadly  to those caught in its crossfire. Did the police envisage a situation in which a group of protesters ransacking and damaging a store, or throwing rocks at the police, would need to be treated thus? If such a situation was not envisaged, then presumably, the machine-guns were there for show: to let us know the police have them, to intimidate and suppress, and to condition us to the increasing militarization of our law and order enforcement mechanisms.

But it won’t end there, of course. Just like shootings of unarmed men by the police are now passé so too can become the use of machine guns by the police. If they are always available, always at hand, it will not take too long before some policeman, used to the idea that he is this society’s bulwark against the forces of darkness–literally-will open fire, comfortable in the knowledge that only administrative leave awaits him.

When those killings will be protested, an even greater number of machine guns will be used to police them. And so it will go.

As I noted yesterday:

One can only speculate about the future contours of such a charged relationship. Perhaps the citizenry will be stunned and beaten down into cowering submission, or perhaps, someday, realizing the forces arrayed against them are only bored and amused by the conventional street protest and the filed judicial complaint, those famed gigantic arsenals of privately owned weaponry in America will be deployed to refuse and resist.

PS: At various points in writing this post, I committed a Freudian typing slip, one made easier by the location of letters on my keyboard: I persistently typed in ‘machine funs’ instead of ‘machine guns.’

The Police Precinct as Augean Stable

Over the past few years, I have met some–very personable and intelligent–young men who seemed possessed by the same passion: they wished to join the police, to “serve their community”, to “give something back”. They knew the police forces they wished to become members of were dysfunctional and corrupt, but that was precisely why their service was called for; they would work “with” their fellow policemen to reform it “from the inside.” These young men were not lacking in sincerity, not one bit.

I knew these young men with varying degrees of familiarity. To those that I felt comfortable enough with to be blunt and plain-spoken, I offered the following response: give up the ghost; run, not walk, away from police work; hang on to your humanity. To the others, I merely said “Good luck,” shook hands, and kept walking.

The eager would-be internal reformer is not cognizant, I think, of just how endemic police dysfunction is, how widespread the anomie among its forces’ members. A fresh-faced aspirant who joins the police will be first routed through the police academy, where he will be exposed to its particular brand of indoctrination into the language and methodologies of policing, now made ever more confrontational and violent. But the academy is mild fare compared to what awaits him at the precinct.

In the precinct, our budding hero will meet the embittered veteran, bitter and caustic, survivor of brushes with angry residents of urban neighborhoods, pesky city administrators, hypocritical, officious, autocratic Internal Affairs’ investigators, ignorant, nosy media persons; his is a world populated by opponents of all stripes; the criminal is only distinguished from this cast by his overt and explicit commitment to resisting the police. The rest are nuisances. And so, tragically, is the community the veteran has been policing.

The veteran will provide our naif with his first serious education in the realities of police life; he will come to see, over a period of time, like the rest of his “brothers” do, that the police are alone in their task, that the world “outside” is not made up of folks like them who need protection but instead is just one indiscriminate mass, perhaps only distinguished by their relative obedience in complying with police directives to shut up, speak when spoken to, open doors, close windows, recite the alphabet backwards, empty their pockets, lie on the ground, or get out of the car.  He will come to view himself as a beleaguered hero, desperately in need of empathetic understanding; he will resent, and be angered by, those who do not talk to him in accordance with this self-image; he might repress this sensation for a short while, but it will soon  manifest itself, perhaps in his over-enthusiastic handcuffing or subduing a “suspect”, perhaps in his brusque speech, perhaps in his willingness to understand his work as soldier patrolling hostile territory, as entailing inevitable casualties and collateral damage.

Our apprentice will be all too soon disabused of his innocence; he will soon be auditioning for the role of grizzled precinct veteran.





Random Searches on the New York Subway: A User’s Story

Today’s post will simply make note of an interesting (and alarming) email I’ve received from a reader. Please do share this widely.

Some time ago I was researching the random bag check policy for the NYC subway system and stumbled across your blog posting [on random searches on the New York subway].

Until today I had never been singled out for a random bag check nor had I ever been arrested.  When I entered the subway on 58th street/Columbus Circle today at around 1pm a police officer approached me and asked to search my backpack.  I thought about it for a moment and then declined.  He told me that since I declined I would not be allowed to enter the subway.  I told him that that was fine with me and that I would simply exit and take a taxi.  I exited and began to make my way down eight avenue on foot to flag a taxi.  Along the way, instead of researching the matter on my phone more extensively as I should have done, I pondered the logic and fairness of the situation.

Even though I had nothing to hide, for some reason I did not feel like having my privacy invaded.  I also questioned the efficacy of the search strategy.  I wondered what exactly the officer meant when he told me I could not enter the subway.  Did he mean I could not enter at the exact spot where he was conducting the search?  Did he mean I could not enter that particular line at any other entrance?  Did he mean that since I had declined the search I could never ride the subway ever again on any other day and on any other line?  The vagueness of his statement puzzled me.  Surely as a metro card carrying resident of NYC I would not be required to suspend all access to this vital means of public transportation simply because I had declined this one bag check.  Following this train of thought I figured that if I entered at another station where no bag searches were being conducted I might be able to lawfully enter since I would be doing so without declining a bag check.

Remembering your story and some other information I had recently read about the legality of declining bag searches in public spaces I felt compelled to put my theory to the test.  I proceeded to head back a block north to 54th street and entered the subway from a different station.  When I made it to the turnstiles there was no bag search being conducted.  I swiped my card and entered the station.  Roughly thirty seconds after I entered the station I was approached by a different officer.  It immediately became clear that the original officer had put out an A.P.B. on me.   I was arrested and taken to the 58th street/Columbus circle subway police station.  The arresting officer instructed me to stand and face the entry counter where a duty officer and his sergeant were sitting.  As I waited there patiently and silently the sergeant and duty officer began discussing a strange smell that they detected in the air.  They continued by directing sarcasm my way and eventually asked me if I had been smoking Marijuana.  I said no and told them that the reason I had declined the search was not because I had anything to hide but rather that I did not feel like having my privacy invaded.  They laughed and suggested that I was lying.  I was then put in a cell with Steve, a man of multiple prior arrests who had decided earlier this morning to enter the station without paying.  I spent the next four hours learning all about Steve’s life story while waiting to be processed.  Finally, after having my mug shot and finger prints taken I was released.  I had a brief courteous discussion with the booking officer about the charges and my court date.  He informed me that because the NYC subway station is owned by a private company and because I had entered the station after declining the search I was being charged with trespassing (in fact, the subway is a publicly owned system that is leased to the New York City Transit Authority).  Furthermore, because I had entered the station after having been told not to I was also being charged with disobeying a lawful order.  He further stated that both charges are violations, lesser than misdemeanors.

That said, I am baffled by the vagueness of this law.  Why did the arresting officer arrest me rather than simply insisting on searching my bag?  Even though I was located it stands to reason that the ease with which I could have entered elsewhere renders the system contradictory and innefectual.  Your personal experience is a testament to this very idea.  The fact that I was arrested does not support the theory that the system works.  It simply seems to illustrate that much time was wasted and that I was arrested without probable cause.  I was not arrested because I was suspected of being a terrorist.  Instead I was arrested because I declined to have my privacy invaded.

I’m not totally sure what compelled me to enter the subway so quickly and so near to where I had declined the search.  For sure curiosity played a major role.  Before I decided on that course of action I did consider the wisdom of waiting a little longer, walking a little further, or simply taking a taxi as I had originally intended.  On the one hand, I am glad that the police force exists and that they are actively trying to avert another disaster.  On the other hand, if I was a terrorist or a drug trafficker or anything else unsavory I certainly would not have been so stupid as to enter the train so close and so quickly after my initial brush with the law.  I am simply a law abiding resident of this great city who was trying to make my way home.

Just some food for thought as you ponder entering the subway system so soon after and so near to your next declined bag search.

From: Matthew Akers

Stop and Frisk, Jersey City Style

This horrifying story of TSA overreach prompts my post today. It has nothing to do with the TSA but everything to do with the abuse of power.

Almost twenty-five years ago, while attending graduate school in Newark, I visited Jersey City to meet a good friend of mine. I was accompanied by two other friends of mine. They–J__ and R__–were Cuban-American and brothers; J__ was an undergraduate at my graduate school, and R__, his handyman brother. We arrived at my friend’s apartment building and found him not present. On asking around, we were told he might have gone to a nearby bar–on Monticello Avenue– for a drink.  We walked over, looked for him, didn’t find him and decided to walk back to our car and head home.

As we walked back in the fading light, a dozen or so men came running at us, shouting at us to stop and show IDs. Suddenly, we were surrounded; it’s no exaggeration to say that ‘we were jumped. I think I might have seen a badge or two flashed at us. Presumably, these were plainclothes cops. I had no idea why we were being so accosted. But my guess is that because Monticello Ave often featured drug sales, we were regarded as potential customers, returning from a deal.

I produced my college ID and driving license, hoping that the sight of the former would help. I was searched, quickly and roughly. Unfortunately, R__ carried no ID. As the cops shouted at him to produce one and pushed him,  J__ said, “He doesn’t have ID, let him be.’ The policeman rounded on J__ , told him to shut up, and said they would take R__ to the precinct for questioning. J__ protested again. Both brothers were then summarily shoved–perhaps handcuffed, I cannot remember–into the back of a car and driven off.  As they did so, I told them to sit tight, that I would come get them.

I stared at the receding car, stunned, by the turn of events. What had we done wrong?

I quickly ran to my friend’s apartment and checked to see if he had returned. M__ had.  I told him what had happened and asked him if he would accompany me to check in on J__ and R__. We drove to the nearest precinct and asked to see our friends We were told they had been taken to another station for fingerprinting. Fingerprinting? For what? Had they been arrested and charged with a crime? No one seemed to know.

We drove to the station we had been directed to. They were not there. When we inquired further, we were told they had left. I then asked how they could have left when they didn’t have a car, and when I had told them that I would pick them up. This query was met with a shrugged shoulder or two.

M__ and I left, and drove around on the surrounding streets, looking for the two brothers. There was no sign of them. We drove back to M__’s apartment building, hoping they might have somehow found their way back there. No luck. Finally, M__ and I gave up; he went home and I drove back to Elizabeth, New Jersey.

The next morning I received a call from J__; after their fingerprinting had been completed, the two brothers had been placed in separate cars, driven out to a dark, deserted stretches of highways–for R__it was the Belleville Turnpike–and dropped off with an admonition to never return to Jersey City.  They were left to walk home–to Arlington–from there.  It was the final twist of the blade, a little reminder of just who the bosses were.

Presumably, J__ and R__ were busted for ‘disturbing the peace.’ They were, however, never charged with any crime. I suppose the war on drugs made it all worthwhile.

S.2402 Makes The Thin Blue Line Just A Little Meaner

You might have thought that with laws prohibiting assault already in the books, there would be no need for S.2402, the bill passed by the New York State Senate on June 5th that ‘creates the crime of aggravated harassment of a police or peace officer.’ Sponsored by Senator Joe Griffo, S. 2402 ‘would make it a felony to physically attack a police officer while on duty.’

But you would be mistaken.

Senator Griffo’s justification says it all:

At a time when shocking incidents of disrespect and outright confrontation are at an all-time high, the men and women who patrol the streets of our cities deserve every possible protection we can offer them….My bill would make it a crime to take any type of physical action to try to intimidate a police officer. This is a necessary action because we can see from the rise in incidents that too many people in our society have lost the respect they need to have for a police officer. We need to make it very clear that when a police officer is performing his duty, every citizen needs to comply and that refusal to comply carries a penalty. [emphasis added]

I was going to write something about how this bill would, in effect, make it impossible to ever, ever argue with police officers, to ask them to explain their actions, that this bill endangers all those who come into contact with police officers, who routinely arrest and harass anyone that dares question their right to search, question and arrest. But I thought it might be better to just reproduce a comment on S.402 by someone who frequently encounters the police:

As an attorney and as a resident of Crown Heights Brooklyn I do not support Bill (S.2402), which would make it a felony to harass, annoy, or threaten a police officer while on duty.

During arrests the police routinely add on unfounded charges of Obstruction of Government Administration (OGA), Disorderly Conduct (Dis-Con), and Resisting Arrest.

With this Bill if an individual objected to a policeman’s actions that could annoy the police officer or be considered harassment or even a threat. For example one Friday evening on the way home from synagogue, when walking by a parked police car an officer in the passenger side said hi to my 9 year old son. I told my son to go back to the car and say hi to the police officer. However, when my son approached the car the driver told my son “get away from the car kid” whereupon my son returned to me in tears. I went to talk with the driver of the vehicle about the situation. However, rather than answering me (which he refused) he became visibly annoyed that I had questioned his rude behavior. He then menacingly got out of the vehicle and began yelling at me to stand back and accusing me of threatening him because I was standing near his vehicle. Under this proposed statute I could have been arrested for an E felony.

If an officer is not competent enough to handle the streets then they should get another career. Statutes regarding attempted assault, Dis-Con, (OGA) among other laws already protect police officers from non-violent offenders. The mere appearance of a potential threat and words should not be turned into felonies and a tool of impatient law enforcement officers to further burden the public and our court systems.

The writer of that comment is apparently a middle-aged Jewish gentleman. Those of younger and darker persuasions might express themselves rather more pungently.