Monday, January 8, 2007

Monday with McKenna: Where's the Outrage?

The overall mission of DR is to expose fundamentalism and corporatism in our social and governmental institutions, so our focus tends to be on the national and the global. But occasionally we go local, and since both of us live and work in the New York City area, that means taking a perspective on events here, as we did in 2005 with the NYC transit workers' strike or the racist drivel of Assemblyman Dov Hikind.

About six weeks ago, an incident occurred that had people asking some old questions: are cops racist thugs, trained to target minorities in a program of intimidation and murder? Or are they the angelic heroes of 9/11, constantly sacrificing themselves like blue-clad Christs for God, City, and Humanity? As Terry McKenna reveals in his post today, the answer is, "neither of the above."

This week I wanted to write about the Sean Bell police slaying in New York City. If you aren't familiar with it, click the link at the graphic above, and here’s a synopsis (full text here).

Bell was supposed to be married last Saturday to his high school sweetheart. But hours before the wedding ceremony, he was killed when five undercover police officers fired 50 shots at a car carrying him and two friends. They had just left his bachelors party at a club in Queens. Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield survived the shooting but remain hospitalized. None of the victims were armed.

The police officers have been widely criticized - even by Mayor Michael Bloomberg - of using excessive force. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said of the shooting, "this is a symbol, not an aberration. Our criminal justice system has broken down for black Americans and young black males."

Mr. Bell was just another in a series of unarmed black men who have come to our attention only after they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the typical scenario, the police shoot dozens of bullets in a matter of seconds and only after the shooting ends do they discover that their victim was unarmed. Invariably, local black leaders express outrage, and sometimes segments of the black community march in protest. Whites invariably ARE NOT swept up in the outrage. New York City Mayor Bloomberg did his best to quickly express horror, but nonetheless, the question remains – where is white outrage? This was just the concern of local journalist, Brian Lehrer. His eloquent commentary was delivered to the WNYC community.

If you don’t know of Brian Lehrer’s work, he hosts what is probably the best talk show on either radio or TV today. His daily program mixes his own excellent knowledge base with a style of questioning which allows the guest to answer at length without having to endure a barrage of petty arguments. Naturally, his show is on public radio.

I wanted to answer Mr. Lehrer’s question, but I wanted to do it from a perspective that also admits that the police may lie. Most suburbanites have only the rarest interactions with the police. We call them when there is trouble, and they come. (We recently had a minor burglary at my house. The cops actually caught the guy and returned the stolen camera! That’s not a story you would encounter in most cities.)

Here is a short story from my past that concerns my one adverse police experience: I was driving to work one early Saturday morning, maybe 4:15 AM or so. The road I was on was a county road – so it had a centerline and posted speed limits. The street was wet, and it appeared that a building fire had just been put out. An unattended fire hose went across both traffic lanes and a police car was blocking the side of the road opposite mine, but the driver was not there. I didn’t want to drive over the hose, but I didn’t know what to do. After a few moments of confusion, I moved on, drove over the hose, and continued on past the strip mall. Suddenly, a police car was behind me and I pulled over. An angry young cop began his interrogation. Then he inspected every square inch of my car from the floor around the back seats, to the trunk. As far as I can tell, he did a full criminal background check on me. After finding nothing at all, he ticketed me for reckless driving.

In a rare moment of bravado, I fought the ticket, and it is here where I found out more than I ever wanted to know about police testimony. At the time, my car was an old low slung Buick Regal. It had sloppy suspension, and bottomed out on bumpy roads. The cop went first in telling his story; all the while referring to a little notebook. He described how I drove past two cops stationed to hold traffic back; how I weaved around him, and wildly drove over warning flares placed in my path; the story sounded like a rehearsed script. It occurred to me that I would have to cross-examine him – so I did. I confronted him about the flares that I supposedly drove over. I asked why his account didn’t include some mention of the flares being stuck in my exhaust pipe, or in my wheel wells. The cop had nothing to say - the judge ruled in my favor, assessing only minimal court costs.

So… do cops lie? In my tale above, it’s clear that I think they do. But what is more important is that cops are trained witnesses, and over time, I believe they learn a perfected story for each and every sort of event that they encounter during their workday. Thus, when the cop above gave his story, it was rich with detail and sounded convincing – even to me. Fortunately, he was tripped up with the flares and I got off. But the bottom line is that for cops (as for ALL professional witnesses) their testimony is already partially written even before the event they are describing occurs.

Partially written? Scripts? Well – think virtual scripts. Let’s imagine an event such as a congressional hearing. There have been a number of them over the past few years where a series of colonels and generals described a war in Iraq that surely was getting better. Unlike the cop in my story, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the various officers were sure they were telling at least a brand of truth. But when your job is to defend your enterprise over and over, whether your enterprise is the police force, or a drug company, or the US Army, your well-crafted story may have a life of its own.

Thus it is with Sean Bell. The details of each cop’s testimony have been crafted from descriptions that have been honed and shaped over time. And in the matter of Sean Bell, the events were very complicated – much more like what occurred in the Kennedy Assassination than with my simple reckless driving story. There were several cops involved. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that ALL of them believed that whatever they testified to was true.

I’ll ask again – did the cops lie? As I’ve demonstrated, we know cops DO lie. But we may never know the real truth in the Sean Bell case. The black community remains outraged and convinced of police perfidy.

But what about the silent “white community”? In the U.S., most whites live in suburban enclaves. In my home county, an ethnic minority is typically Asian or Hispanic (in my son’s high school, the most important language besides English was Mandarin). When we see urban black America, it is via movies, or tragedies like the one that took Sean Bell.

I am not a New Yorker. The city that I know best is Newark. Tremendously poor, its poverty is almost as if by design. If 90% of adults in my county have a high school diploma, only half of Newark’s residents have them – and only 9% are college graduates. Is it any wonder that Newarkers are poor? Or that most of Newark’s many jobs are held by non-residents? Newark is a scary place with a murder rate 5 times the national average, the rate for stolen cars is 4 times the average. Large employers typically provide door-to-door van service from work to the commuter train in order to encourage squeamish suburbanites to accept a Newark assignment. (New York City does not have to do this). The rare bit of news that comes from Newark is as often as not another report of the death of a black man, woman or child.

So the death of Sean Bell took place in a world that is as remote to white Americans as is Iraq. Such ignorance is, of course, sad. But we will not improve matters until we are willing to acknowledge that this is how it is.

—T. McKenna


Site Note: Next week at DR, we'll be featuring a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd's Animals. We'll have sound files, interview segments from a generally forgotten radio program featuring the band members themselves, and perspectives on PF from myself and other writers. Watch for it.

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