I used to trust police. I used to think that ‘to protect and serve’ was a motto that was uttered more or less free of irony. In other words, I used to be a blinkered fool (which is not to say that I am not still – just less so about this). One of the first albums I ever bought was Public Enemy’s classic Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black. I nearly wore that casette out listening to it over and over again. Before I knew anything about hip-hop music, before I knew about any music really besides classical and whatever my parents listened to, I knew the lyrics to ‘Get The Fuck Outta Dodge':
Even then, I didn’t really absorb the full implication of what Chuck D was talking about: racial profiling and abuse of power by law enforcement. It didn’t filter through. After all, I was brought up to have a very different understanding of the relationship between civilians and police. Police were there to catch bad guys, to protect regular folks like me, and were who you called when you needed help. And maybe that’s true for some people, but I’m not so naive anymore to think that it’s the case for everyone.
It certainly wasn’t the case for Kenneth Chamberlain Sr.:
Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., a 68-year-old African-American Marine veteran, was fatally shot in November by White Plains, NY, police who responded to a false alarm from his medical alert pendant. The officers broke down Chamberlain’s door, tasered him, and then shot him dead. Audio of the entire incident was recorded by the medical alert device in Chamberlain’s apartment.
Some of y’all are sensitive, and prone to react emotionally to disturbing descriptions, so I won’t link to the full account of what happened. I like to think of myself as being sufficiently steeled through my own skepticism and cynicism to not let stuff get to me, but I couldn’t read this story without being sick. The brief synopsis is that Mr. Chamberlain accidentally rolled over on his medical alert pendant in his sleep, which triggered an alarm sending emergency responders to his home. Police arrived first, and despite being told by Mr. Chamberlain and members of his family that everything was fine, kicked in the door. After failing to sufficiently appease the officers, Mr. Chamberlain was tasered, then shot to death.
This is not the deep south, where we can blame “racists”. This is not 50 years ago, where we could say “it was a different time”. A man was murdered by cowboyed-up cops who burst into his home and, for reasons that beggar understanding, shot him to death in his underwear. He was not carrying a weapon, he had broken no laws, and the police had no warrant. There have been no charges brought against the police officers involved, and the case is nearly 6 months old. This is despite the fact that the entire encounter was caught on a live microphone in the form of the medical alert device.
Now as we discussed yesterday, it’s always at least partially the victim’s fault they got shot, right? After all, police are trustworthy and honourable law-enforcement professionals who simply wouldn’t just burst into an old man’s home and kill him for no reason. He wasn’t wearing a hoodie, nor did he attack the officers (who would be hard pressed to find a mortal threat in a half-naked 68 year-old). He wasn’t wandering ‘suspiciously’ around the neighbourhood, and he hadn’t been suspended from school for an empty dime bag. We are sadly unable to level the same type of blame at Mr. Chamberlain as we could at Trayvon Martin.
Nor, it seems, can we blame an unnamed black Englishman whose vehicle was stopped by police, and who was strangled and subjected to racist abuse by police officers. He had committed no crime.
Nor, it seems, could we level those same criticisms at Yao Wei Wu, who was dragged out of his home at gunpoint and beaten nearly unrecognizable by two Vancouver police officers. These officers were responding to a domestic call and went to the wrong address.
Nor, one would imagine, could we blame Manjit Singh, a 51 year-old resident of Vancouver who was thrown to the ground and kicked repeatedly by police officers investigating a bank robbery. Mr. Singh was taking out the garbage in front of his home when police happened upon him. There was, in fact, no robbery.
In all of these cases, the police officers involved with physically abusing completely innocent civilians (in one instance fatally) due to the police’s own incompetence faced no charge. Two of these cases involved the Vancouver Police Department, which is one of the more progressive police forces I’ve seen or heard described. We cannot find common geography, offense, mitigating factors, or history to link these ‘bad apple’ cases together, nor can we find any reasonable explanation for why none of the perpetrators have been charged with assault.
The only explanations we can find are unjust ones – police are immune from prosecution because they are the arbiters of the law. And because of attitudes like the one I once held, we blithely grant the police an undeserved level of respect. We treat them according to the myth that they are protectors and guardians of the peace, rather than recognizing that this is an image airbrushed over a cartel of wanton thugs who are subject only to their own authority. Provided they can put on a sufficiently clean public face to charm enough of the populace into believing that people like Mr. Chamberlain somehow ‘deserve’ their treatment, they can sweep cases like this under the rug without ever having to deal with the consequences.
Mr. Chamberlain and his family dealt with the consequences of failing to find a way to put the police ‘at ease’ enough to not kill him in cold blood. He wasn’t being threatening, he was in his own home and the cops kicked his door down. He didn’t have a weapon, and he is on tape pleading for his life. But still, the Geraldos of the world, not able to find the magic hoodie defense, will blame Mr. Chamberlain for failing to look innocent enough, thus giving police no choice but to murder him. It’s simple: the cops kick in your door and shove a gun in your face, you’d better get down on your knees and kiss their boots and thank them for their mercy when a pistol whipping is all you get.
I used to trust police officers. Hell, I’ve had many positive interactions with the VPD. Despite that, I can no longer defend them with a clear conscience. Police are not your allies, they are not your friends, and their function is no serve and protect no-one but themselves.
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