The unfortunate reality is that our collective ability to bear witness is being consistently ignored. It’s become an established pattern.
By RA Monaco
Fifty-thousand cameras won’t be enough to restore our constitutional right to bear witness—to declare the truth of—as countless people have attempted in police killings and brutality cases over the years. How else do we explain the absence of accountability in the killing of Eric Garner when the entire world witnesses a police murder caught on camera and it doesn’t make a difference?
In the case of Michael Brown, six eyewitnesses said that his hands were up in surrender—they were ignored! “What this tells us is that the testimony of people who have the right to bear witness isn’t being taken into consideration,” UCLA Professor of history Robin D.G. Kelley, explained during Suzi Weissman’s Friday evening Beneath the Surface radio program.
While President Obama’s federal initiative to advance the use of body-worn cameras will change the narrative about what happens, the question remains—why do we need cameras unless we can bear witness and our witness matters? It’s a continuing pattern and a violation of constitution dimension.
Attempting to bide time so public rage subsides
“Imagine where we would be without those cameras?” long time activist Tom Hayden asked during Margaret Prescod’s program Sojourner Truth later that evening. “Every person that has a device—a hand-held camera—should feel responsible for rushing to the scene because these incidents happen every night in America somewhere,” acknowledged Hayden, who served both in the California State Assembly and State Senate.
“Police think tanks have cooked up these proposals like cameras and suddenly everybody talks about the proposal,” lamented Hayden. Politicians then begin to carry-the-ball attempting to bide time for public rage to subside while managing the deep and justifiable distrust of police in communities around the country. The incidents of police killings often seem like a matter of local concern but the pattern is national—“not one person was killed by police in Great Britain last year” according to Jackie Goldberg, which underscores the problem as being an American one.
Brooklyn College Associate Professor of Sociology Alex Vitale commented that, “politicians are trotting out the same old ineffective—a little bit of training here; or a little bit of diversity there” ideas. They’re unwilling to directly address the real issues.
Police operate “above the law”
In Los Angeles, “it’s a known fact that the officers in the downtown inner city precincts have protest against these cameras; have broken cameras; have been insubordinate” recounted Tom Hayden, who is continuing to follow the ongoing struggle around the LAPD program, making clear that they’ve yet to “get it on track.”
While President Barak Obama announced his plan to provide $75 million for cameras and review federal funding programs that provide military equipment to law enforcement agencies, tear gas is being used against protestors in the streets.
Further, last Thursday, the President signed his name to H.R. 347, officially making it a federal offense to cause a disturbance at certain political events—under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service—raising eyebrows at the lengths that our government is willing to go in order to make it difficult to assemble, express dissent and protest.
In a recent Counterpunch article “Why We Won’t Wait,” Prof. Robin Kelley made a compelling case for resisting the war against the Black and Brown underclass. The fundamental issue is that the police operate “above the law” observed Prof. Kelley. Also saying, “We are not a nation of laws—they are not being applied.”
Prof. Kelley explained that “It goes to the origins of policing—policing begins with slave patrols” and “the purpose was to keep down up-risings of people who don’t have property.” Importantly, Kelley notes that most Black people are not waiting for an indictment—they’re waiting for justice.
All these ideas have been worked, reworked and now recycled again into the national dialogue—they are predictable platitudes being dusted off to calm the masses. “It’s not an accident that police are very hard to indict, Cops and DA’s are in bed together that’s how it works,” said Prof. Kelley.
A member of the Los Angeles City Council at the time, Jackie Goldberg recalled that following the Rodney King incident in 1994, a law was passed that required police department’s to annually file with the Department of Justice the number of police violence incidents for the previous year. Prior to her interview on Prescod’s Friday evening program Sojourner Truth, Goldberg made a point of looking up the compliance records to find that only six hundred out of eighteen thousand agencies had actually complied with the law.
“That means that seventeen thousand four hundred [police agencies] out of eighteen thousand [agencies] feel no need to even tell what a law requires them to tell—it doesn’t even ask [them] to tell how many were unjustified—just how many police violence incidents were in your department this year,” Goldberg explained. “This tells you that they believe they have no accountability to anyone for anything,” said Goldberg, who believes that police officer’s that have no accountability “will continue to do things which cause great harm and violence in Black and Brown communities.”
“It’s interesting how decisive—since Rodney King through today—civilians have been in taking pictures or videos of these cases of police brutality,” observed Tom Hayden who, as an elected representative, passed more than 100 measures during his time in office, tackling issues ranging from the reduction of gangs to domestic violence. Unfortunately, Hayden’s observation also reinforces the reality that our collective ability to bear witness—to attest—is being consistently ignored. It’s become an established pattern.
The result is a national realization of a crisis—a crisis of trust—that questions the legitimacy of the system itself. The reality is that politicians have been unwilling to directly address the real issues which Prof. Alex Vitale diligently organizes in his most recent article “We don’t just need nicer cops, we need fewer cops,” written for The Nation.
A National Day of Demonstrations
At this moment, Tom Hayden thinks that Rev. Al Sharpton’s call for a National Day of Demonstrations on December 13th to march on Washington is the right call. “It’s the only way to unify what is happening which is case after case of local violations of constitutional rights and abuses of power by police,” said Hayden.
As an activist, Hayden knows a thing or two about movements. He was arrested for protesting at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, becoming one of the “Chicago Seven” defendants who were convicted for conspiracy to incite violence but later had their convictions overturned.
A co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society in 1961, Hayden was jailed in Albany, Georgia, for attempting to desegregate a rail station. While incarcerated, he began drafting the famed Port Huron Statement, which introduced the concept of “participatory democracy” to a wider audience.
The important take away here is, unification. “I think that we really need to focus not so much on simple reforms of what the police are doing already” explained Prof. Alex Vitale, “we need to ask some fundamental questions about the proper role of the police.”
What would the future landscape of policing look like?
“One way to start is the question of drugs and whether or not the police should have any role in that at all,” suggests Prof. Vitale. Taken together with the point made by Tom Hayden about protestor’s need to unify, both ideas center around the importance of productively harnessing the justifiable rage with a vividly shared vision of what the future landscape of policing might look like—a definable framing that is both possible and necessary.
“In the aggregate we know that these kinds of occurrences just don’t happen in white communities,” says Prof. Vitale. “The police have a different attitude about what types of tactics [and] behaviors are acceptable in communities of color.”
Anticipating the explanations Vitale says, “They will say that this is because these are high crime communities—well that might explain a desire to have policing activity.” “But it does not explain” says Vitale, is “the constant everyday harassment, discourtesies, humiliation, much less the abuse and violence that’s meted out well beyond the color of law.”
The idea of community policing referenced by President Obama says Prof. Vitale, “actually represents an expansion of the police role.” Typically what community policing has come to mean is some partnership between the police and the community where the community brings its myriad of problems to the police and they try to come up with a solution.
We need mechanisms of control of city government as a whole
Unfortunately, according to Prof. Vitale, “The problem is like when the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.” “If the only partnership that the community has is the police in solving their problems” Vitale explains, “the solution to every problem looks like arresting people, coercing people, harassing people and the availability of the other kinds of options [are] never really on the table.”
“If the real goal is to reduce police power” Professor Vitale asks, “then we need mechanisms of control of city government as a whole—not just the police department. “Again, we don’t just need to alter the behavior of the police” says Alex Vitale, “we need to get the police function to be dramatically reduced.”
In an empathic effort to offer some insight Jackie Goldberg explained, “Young people of color have known for a very long time that the police were not their friend. They do not think when they’re having a tough time of calling the police” says Goldberg.
“First of all when they are in trouble and call the police—no one comes” said Goldberg. “The delay—the time they have to wait is forever,” Goldberg said, “but they get stopped and hassled over so many small things and if anyone resists, the response is overwhelmingly violent—and I’m not talking about just killing kids. I’m talking about injuring them.”
The thing about the Garner incident that bothered Jackie Goldberg as much as anything was the fact that the incident started over the alleged selling of individual cigarettes which might be a tax violation. “Now, there aren’t enough serious crimes in New York City that someone gets stopped for?” Goldberg asks. “I mean that’s really the issue” she says, “the issue is that if you are Black or Brown you can be stopped for virtually anything and virtually anything can be nothing.”
Police have no good reasons for doing a lot of the things
Goldberg’s legacy on the Council includes authorship of a “Living Wage” ordinance which guarantees a living wage and benefits to all employees working directly or indirectly for the City of Los Angeles. She is also responsible for the creation of model after-school enrichment programs in every school in the district and the passage of a citywide ban on the sale of small, cheap handguns known as “Saturday Night Specials” as well as the development of an extremely successful “Slum Abatement” program.
In Goldberg’s experience, “Police department’s say that they have zero tolerance— but what they really have zero tolerance for is not going along with whoever is the chief at the time views of the world.” According to the former councilwomen, “They don’t have a zero tolerance for roughing up people, hurting people, for stopping people for no good reason, for hassling them, for pulling them over to the side in their car for no reason, for searching their cars illegally.”
Goldberg went on to say, “They have no good reason for doing a lot of the things they do for which there is virtually no accountability no matter how many time you file a complaint.”
What it’s like to know that your life is not taken seriously
It’s easy to understand how Jackie Goldberg overwhelmingly won reelection to the Council hearing her response to Margaret Prescod’s request for a final comment, “We are out of control about this entirely” Goldberg began, “The truth about this is—and I’m including myself in this—white people do not have any concept of what it’s like to know that your life is not taken seriously by white people and I mean this quite specifically.” “I’m including myself in that,” said Goldberg. “What it’s like to know that your life is not taken seriously by people who carry weapons and badges of authority,” she continued.
Unloading both barrels the Honorable Jackie Goldberg went on, “We, as white people, have really no experience that lets us have a very deep understanding of what that’s like,” and like on the Garner tape “what white people get to actually watch for the first time, [is] having three white cops not paying any attention to a man saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’”