My hometown of Cleveland has had a series of protests against police brutality and that eight months after the death of 12-year old Tamir Rice who was shot by police while having a toy gun, there have still not been any indictments. This was after the insane high-speed police chase through the streets involving 62 patrol cars and 100 police officers that ended with two unarmed people having 137 bullets pumped into them. These and a history of use of excessive force resulted in the US Justice Department issuing a scathing report about police practices here and imposed a consent decree on them that seeks to correct its practices.
But then over the weekend, we saw a conference in Cleveland where hundreds of activists from across the country gathered to discuss the issue of police brutality. The event was called The Movement for Black Lives. You would have thought that the police would act gingerly with so much attention being placed on them here. But on Sunday, a spontaneous protest was triggered when the transit police took into custody a 14-year old boy. This happened at around 5:00pm, right at the location of the conference and just as attendees were leaving the event. When people objected to the black youth being taken away into custody, the police pepper-sprayed the crowd, provoking even more anger.
As is usually the case immediately following such events, there are conflicting reports about what happened. The police say the boy was intoxicated and/or had an open alcohol container and they removed him from the bus to get some information from him before turning him over to his parents or guardians. They say the crowd was preventing them from doing their job. Others say the boy was arrested and slammed to the ground because he did not have a bus ticket and that this was another example of how police crack down hard for trivial offenses especially if the offender is a black male. You can see videos here.
Fortunately in this case, no one died and the youth has been released, because the death of Sandra Bland, who was thrown in jail following a traffic stop for the most common of driving offenses (changing lanes with signaling), is one more reason why black people fear being taken into custody for anything. There is no guarantee that you will come out alive however trivial the offense.
Following the death of black or poor people in police custody, law-and-order types are quick to find ways to blame the victim, usually finding some action on their part that they feel justified the police action and saying that things would have been just fine if the victim had been suitably obsequious towards the police.
After listing these kinds of lectures following previous deaths, Matt Taibbi notes that this has not been the case in the aftermath of Bland’s death and tries to understand why the sudden reticence. He thinks that this is because it so clearly demonstrated that the laws in the US are so broad that anyone can be arrested for almost anything if the police want to do so.
It was simple, they explained. There’s no police corruption problem. The real issue is that there are too many people who don’t know how to behave during a car stop. Don’t want to get murdered by police? Be polite!
But nobody yet has dared to say Sandra Bland would still be alive today, if only she’d used her blinker. That’s a bridge too far even for TownHall.com types.
Suddenly even hardcore law-and-order enthusiasts are realizing the criminal code is so broad and littered with so many tiny technical prohibitions that a determined enough police officer can stop and/or arrest pretty much anybody at any time.
Law-and-order types like to lecture black America about how it can avoid getting killed by “respecting authority” and treating arresting cops like dangerous dogs or bees.
But while playing things cool might prevent killings in some instances, it won’t stop police from stopping people without reason, putting their hands on suspects or jailing people like Bland for infractions that at most would earn a white guy in a suit a desk ticket. That’s not just happening in a few well-publicized cases a year, but routinely, in hundreds of thousands or even millions of incidents we never hear of.
That’s why the issue isn’t how Sandra Bland died, but why she was stopped and detained in the first place. It’s profiling, sure, but it’s even worse than that. It’s a systematic campaign to harass people, using misdemeanors and violations as battering ram – a campaign that’s been going on forever, and against which there’s little defense. When the law can be stretched to mean almost anything, obeying it is no magic bullet.
He looks at the origin of such laws and says that these kinds of laws that give so much discretion to the police to stop and arrest people for a wide array of even trivial offenses are the direct descendants of the laws during the Jim Crow era following the end of slavery, meant to be used as a means of control and intimidation.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander described how white America re-seized control after slavery by instituting a series of repressive “vagrancy laws,” under which nonwhite Americans could be arrested for such absurdities as “mischief” and “insulting gestures.”
In an eerie precursor to the modern loitering laws, many states even had stringent rules against “idleness.” There were even states where any black male over 18 could be thrown in jail for not carrying around written proof that he had a job.
What we have in America is a toxic combination of easy availability of guns, a warrior mentality within the police that demands absolute acquiescence and deference at all times to police and sees ‘contempt of cop’ as a major offense, and laws that allow people to be taken into custody, jailed, and fined for the most minor of offenses, solely at the discretion of the authorities.