In the year 1607, a principal tenet of American socio-economic culture was established when the first boatload of kidnapped Africans landed at the port of Jamestown, its human cargo destined for lifetimes of wage-free labor in the tobacco fields of Virginia. Ever since, the “national curse of white racism,” as the late vice president and senator Hubert H. Humphrey put it, has adapted to contemporary tribal imperative.
The institution of slavery, dependent on whip-cracking louts to enforce order among the manacled, is reflected in America’s current shame: a spate of police violence in which arrogant white cops terrorize, humiliate, maim, and kill black people every day in every region of the United States—with legal impunity for the most part. Permutations of the curse have scarred U.S. history: the post-Civil War era of Jim Crow de jure racial abasement; the lynching epoch of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; concentration camp internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; official apartheid in housing and public education evolved to de facto social presence; and now a Republican Tea Party of nudge-nudge-wink-wink-say-no-more appeal to white bigots, whose tribunes in Congress do not conceal their contempt for President Barack Obama—the eleventh generation maternal great-grandson of John Punch, an African slave who ran away from his master, a prominent Virginia politician, in 1640.
Context for understanding the national curse is bountiful, and the beat goes on.
Of late is the death of Walter Scott, a 50-year-old unarmed African American father of four and a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. He was fatally shot on Friday, April 4th, in North Charleston, South Carolina—killed by Michael Slager, a 33-year-old white cop, stepfather of two with a child of his own on the way, and a fellow Coast Guard vet. Five days after unloading a Glock 9 millimeter service revolver into the back of his victim—fleeing through open ground, posing no danger to anyone—Officer Slager was dismissed from the North Charleston Police Department. Currently, he resides in the isolation unit of the county jail, awaiting trial on a charge of murder. Inmate Slager may eventually be charged as well with submitting a false police arrest report, one that is thoroughly contradicted by a passerby’s smart-phone video—a gruesome account, seen worldwide at vimeo.
In addition to the encounter with Mr. Scott, whose car was pulled over for the dastardly infraction of a partially broken taillight, two other black men have filed brutality complaints against ex-Officer Slager during his past five years on the job. In each case, Mr. Slager was exonerated. (In light of the Scott matter, both these complaints will be revisited.)
Michael Slager has like-minded company still carrying guns and badges in North Charleston, a working-class city of 104,000, of whom nearly half are black. Nonetheless, the police department is eighty percent white, including Chief Eddie Driggers. According to South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State, black litigants have filed brutality complaints against the North Charleston department forty-six times since 2000. Nonpublic departmental investigations dismissed the lion’s share of such trifles. The courts whitewashed the rest. Chief Driggers has never seen fit to comment.
And were it not for the video, Michael Slager would not be held to account for what he did on the fourth of April. Which was to nonchalantly fire eight bullets at Mr. Scott, whose family presumes that he feared going to jail—again—for being in arrears on child support payments.
Responsible for the video is Feiden Santana, a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic with a dark complexion. He opted to go public as a protection against police who might be tempted to retaliate. Mr. Santana has reason to fear: across America, tetchy white police officers use the pretext of minor offenses to shoot, beat, and strangle dark-complexioned people.
Only last July, here in New York, videographer Ramsey Orta captured images of a cop fatally strangling an obese, diabetic grandfather named Eric Garner as fellow cops kicked and punched him as he lay sprawled on the street, face-down. Since then, Mr. Orta has languished in the notably unmerciful Rikers Island Jail, awaiting trial on a specious gun possession charge. But Daniel Donovan, the Republican Tea Party prosecutor expected to win a seat in the U.S. Congress in a special election set for May 5, declined to bring charges against any of the police officers Mr. Orta recorded in action.
Last February, six burly white deputies of the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department in Virginia dressed up in gas masks and biohazard drag, then proceeded to restrain a 37-year-old, mentally ill black woman named Natasha McKenna—all 130 pounds of her (58kg). The men dragged Ms. McKenna out from a jail cell, handcuffed her, shackled her legs, and strapped an anti-spitting shield across her mouth—after which they zapped her four times with 50,000-volt shocks from a Taser stun gun. Ms. McKenna died, screaming in pain. In an interview with the Washington Post newspaper, Fairfax Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, a white woman, explained that a Taser gun is “a means that is often useful to ensure the safety of a person.”
Question: when is a Taser not a Taser? Answer: when a wealthy 73-year-old white hobby cop, part of a posse of young white cops chasing an unarmed black man, draws his service revolver nstead of the stun gun and blasts away.
On April 2nd in Tulsa, Oklahoma, septugenarian insurance executive Robert Bates was tagging along with the Violent Crimes Task Force, as an unpaid “reserve officer.” A public-spirited citizen, Mr. Bates has donated generously to a police department that lets him play cop and carry weapons. Police spokesman Shannon Clark, who is white, explained that Mr. Bates is one of many tycoons who make up the “reserve” force, a personnel policy he defended as “not unusual at all.”
In light of Mr. Bates’ bungling, that policy may be reconsidered. When the pudgy, septugenarian hobby cop caught up with his younger comrades as they wrestled 44-year-old black drug dealer Eric Harris to the ground, he fired—bullets. On a video of the incident, obtained by the Tulsa World newspaper, Mr. Harris shouted, “He shot me, man—Oh my God, I’m losing my breath!” To which Mr. Bates admitted, “Oh—I shot him. I’m sorry.”
The younger officers, all of them white, were less sympathetic. Said one to the dying Mr. Harris, “Fuck your breath.” Said another, “You ran, you motherfucker. You fucking ran!”
Despite powerful video evidence of Michael Slager having Taser-ized Walter Scott prior to filling his back with bullets, it is quite possible that a South Carolina jury will acquit him of murder. Elsewhere around the country, after all, scores of homicidal police officers have beaten the rap, never mind the damning (if not visual) evidence against them.
Even wannabe cops are cleared of murder, witness the case of George Zimmerman, the self-appointed white guardian of a Florida apartment complex. On mid-evening patrol in February 2012, Mr. Zimmerman confronted 17-year-old Trayvon Martin—black; armed with a bottle of iced tea and bag of Skittles candy; en route to his father’s home. Heiliger Gott! Sensing mortal danger, Mr. Zimmerman shot the teenager to death during a scuffle of disputed provenance. At trial, Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyer cited Florida’s so-called “stand-your-ground law” in a successful plea of self-defense.
Mr. Slager is lawyered up with a seasoned professional in defending killer cops—the marvelously named Andy Savage. In 1987, Mr. Savage won acquittal for Officer Roudro Gourdine, indicted for manslaughter after he beat a prisoner to death in a South Carolina police stationhouse. Key to Mr. Savage’s strategy was the testimony of a psychiatrist who said Officer Gourdine suffered “extreme loss of sensory perception” while assaulting his victim; thus remembering nothing, thus unable to respond reasonably to the criminal charge.
As advance payment against the several hundreds of dollars per several hundred hours of legal service necessary to defend high-profile clients, Mr. Savage customarily receives an upfront retainer fee of $15,000 (€14,000). Just how he received the sizeable retainer this time around is an open question. He replaces Mr. Slager’s initial private counsel, who resigned in veiled disgust after viewing the video. Prior to the first lawyer, Mr. Slager sought free representation as a dues-paying member of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association. The association, however, cut him loose after deeming the Slager case unmeritorious.
At this writing, the “Michael T. Slager Support Fund” at the online IndieGoGo site has raised less than $1,000 (€945). Mr. Savage has declined to identify the financial guarantor of a first-class defense for a client who waited tables in a restaurant before his abbreviated stint in law enforcement.
At trial, Mr. Savage is certain to rely on a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions pertinent to his client’s predicament—Tennessee v. Garner (1985), and Graham v. Connor (1989):
- In Garner, police officers may employ deadly force to “prevent [the] escape” of someone whom they have “probable cause to believe…poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury [to themselves] or others.” When Officer Slager stopped Mr. Scott’s vehicle, he ran the standard computer background check, which revealed, along with an outstanding arrest warrant related to thousands of dollars owed in child support among other things, a 1987 arrest for assault and battery.
- In Connor, a violent police action “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene, rather than with the vision of 20-20 hindsight” because police must make “split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.” In fairness to the defendant, Mr. Savage will surely submit, a second video has surfaced—this one courtesy of a camera mounted on the dashboard of Mr. Slager’s squad car, certifying his reasonableness when asking for Mr. Scott’s license, car registration, and insurance card.
In other words, the deck may be stacked. The great American novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) said as much in a bitter 1966 essay for The Nation magazine—“A Report from Occupied Territory,” inspired by an police barbarism of the day in his overwhelmingly African American neighborhood of Harlem, New York City:
I have witnessed and endured the brutality of the police many more times than once—but, of course, I cannot prove it. I cannot prove it because the police department investigates itself, quite as though it was answering only to itself. …This arrogant autonomy…creates a situation as close to anarchy as it already, visibly, close to martial law. The police are simply the hired enemies of this population: they are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country [that] makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with stupidity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.
This is why those pious calls to ‘respect the law,’ always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is [supposedly] meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.
According to current statistics amassed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the number of prisoners in U.S. jails and penitentiaries quadrupled between 1980 and 2008: from approximately 500,000 to 2.3 million. Of those millions, almost half are black men, mostly convicted for nonviolent drug offenses; this in a nation that is twelve percent black. As of 2001, one in six black men in America have been guests of the Greystone Hotel—an African American term of art for imprisonment.
The study further states, “If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.”
Contributing factors to this social waste are obvious to those Americans who bother to care, starting off with the crime of poverty in so many black neighborhoods with profitable liquor stores operating twenty-two hours every day but Sunday, though lacking stores with decent food for sale—fertile ground for madness and family dissolution. Then comes a stark economic imbalance overall. According to research conducted by Brandeis University of Waltham, Massachusetts, the black-white wealth gap has tripled over the past twenty-five years: today, the typical black household accumulates one-tenth the wealth of a typical white household.
The imbalance is destined to grow worse, given the long-to-impossible odds of a black man paroled from prison finding a place in the legitimate job market. He can forget about employment in the field he knows best—the prison-industrial complex, a booming concern by which government policy enables corporations to essentially enslave inmates as a source of cheap labor.
Schools do their part in advancing societal decay. The Brandeis study finds that thirty-five percent of black children now in grades seven through twelve have been suspended or expelled during their academic careers—as opposed to fifteen percent of white children.
Mr. Baldwin writes: “It is axiomatic, in occupied territory, that any act of resistance, even though it be executed by a child, be answered at once, and with the full weight of the occupying forces.”
Last November, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death. He was playing alone in a Cleveland park one chilly afternoon. Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, both white, responded to a citizen’s call that a black boy had been pointing “a gun” at people, which the caller twice described to the dispatcher as a toy. Two seconds after the police cruiser pulled up to Tamir, Officer Loehmann leaped out and fired two shots into his belly.
As the boy lay bleeding to death, having been denied first aid by the cop who downed him, his mother and 14-year-old sister approached. The officers tackled wailing Mother Rice, jamming her face-down onto the cold ground, then handcuffed Big Sister before shoving her into the back of the squad car.
Local media in Cleveland discovered that Officer Loehmann held a previous cop job—in Independence, Ohio, where the police department found him unfit due to the frequency of his “dangerous loss of composure.” Officer Garmback cost the city $100,000 to settle a lawsuit a few months prior to the run-in with Tamir Rice and his family. According to the suit, Officer Garmback placed a woman in a chokehold, “tackled her to the ground, twisted her wrist and began hitting her body [with] reckless, wanton, and willful excessive use of force.”
Investigations, including one launched by the U.S. Department of Justice, are ongoing.
When a plane crashes, the horror becomes news. But never is there a coinciding public demand for media to report on all the other planes that land safely. However, each and every time a killer cop is in the headlines, we may be sure that politicians, and others of social renown, will take pains to mention the goodness and bravery of “the overwhelming majority of cops who put their lives on the line every day to protect us,” yadda yadda yadda.
The impulse for selective even-handedness has been planted deep into our American bones.
So it was that last Sunday, when Walter Scott was laid to rest at a funeral service in South Carolina, the Reverend George D. Hamilton of WORD Ministries Christian Center, felt moved to praise good and brave police officers everywhere.
“Honest cops live to serve with distinction,” said the Rev. Hamilton. “We thank God for them.”
If we accept the proposition that people everywhere, with the possible exception of the blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), are a mix of contradictory behaviors, it is illogical then to fetishsize cops. They are, as my friend Robert Leuci attests, as mixed up as anyone else.
“Cops have always been brutal,” he said in a telephone conversation the other day, about what seems to be an epidemic of wrong cops nowadays—“pigs,” as they were known in the 1960s. Cops have always been kind and valorous, too, as I can attest by own experience. Which boils down to this: for better and for worse, cops are us.
Mr. Leuci is a retired narcotics detective with the New York Police Department who, in the 1970s, famously exposed systemic corruption extending far beyond police officers—into the genteel precincts of the city’s criminal justice establishment. In retirement, he is the author of several well-received novels, an adjunct professor of English and political science at the University Rhode Island. Additionally, he has lectured on professional ethics at some forty universities, law schools, and municipal police departments—as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation academy in Quantico, Virginia. Often, he recounts his introduction to police brutality.
“I was a young guy still in [New York’s police] academy, and they sent me up to a precinct in the Bronx for some arrest forms,” he told me. “When I got there, I had to go to this guy at a desk near the holding pen. He was smoking a cigar and drinking coffee.“
Inside that pen—a free-standing cage of wire fencing, big enough to hold a prisoner or two—was a detainee whose spread-eagled wrists were clamped to the wire by two sturdy handcuffs, feet suspended off the floor.
Mr. Leuci’s reaction to the spectacle: “The prisoner was hanging there like Jesus Christ on the cross.”
My friend Frank Esser, vice president for development at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, spent ten years as executive director of a state affiliate of the Boys & Girls Club of America, a social service agency that assists youth at risk of making bad choices. In an email, he said the experience taught him, “We have nowhere near a level playing field when we come into this world.” Mr. Esser cares deeply about this inequity, and he deeply regrets what occurs to him is the nature of America in this moment—a “police state nation,” as he calls it.
He wrote further of his Swiftian sense of exasperation: “Try as we may to lock up the majority of our young black men who pose such a national threat, thus devastating a culture and an ethnic group that has had nothing but struggle and degradation as a daily ingredient in their lives—well, shooting them is much less costly and more efficient, morality be damned.”
Meanwhile in South Carolina, a political establishment dominated by the state’s lily-white Republican Tea Party leadership insists on flying the stars-and-bars banner of the Confederate States of America from the capital dome in Columbia. The flag was created as a unifying motif for states of the South seeking to secede from the U.S. in the glorious cause of preserving slavery.
To many in South Carolina and throughout America—neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan outfits in particular, vicious trouble-makers in general—the Confederate flag of the Civil War era (1861-1865) is a symbol of defiance against whatever is perceived as challenging white supremacy. To many more in South Carolina and throughout the country—blacks in particular; like the president himself, virtually all blacks are descendants of slaves—the Confederate flag is a profoundly hurtful reminder of America’s cruelest, most shameful era.
But to white legislators in South Carolina, the good old stars-and-bars are mere reminders of Southern valor on the battlefield—and an emblem of what they call “Southern heritage,” by which is meant such things as old-timey lily-white cotillions and the elegant white gentry of long-ago plantations. (Kindly do not mention slavery as an element of Southern heritage. And please pass the mint juleps.)
April 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the official end of the Civil War, which in a number of non-military ways never quite ended.
War began in South Carolina, the first state to declare secession. The first gunshots were fired at Fort Sumpter, in the Charleston harbor—not far from where Walter Scott was gunned down this April of 2015. In both deadly exchanges, the stars and bars blew proudly in the South Carolina breeze.
Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag.
Im Februar 2015 erschien seine Erzählung “The Cannibal of Pang Yang” als eBook bei CulturBooks.