THE ETIQUETTE OF POLICE BRUTALITY: AN AUTOPSY

Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

THE ETIQUETTE OF POLICE BRUTALITY[1]

(AN AUTOPSY[2])

By Rion Amilcar Scott

Go ahead. Smack him one. He expects it so it would be rude not to. Besides, look at him giving you a dehumanizing stare[3]. How dare he look at you in that manner? He thinks he’s better than you. Approach in such a way that makes you look huge, immense—a living blue wall of silence[4]. But be loud. Put this guy down before he even starts. Grab him from behind. Maybe use the baton. Don’t be swayed by his screams and pleas of innocence. As a matter of fact, don’t hear them at all. Be deaf to his cries. Innocence doesn’t really matter here, anyway[5]. Sort it out later. Don’t be inhibited with the violence—punches, kicks, strangulation holds[6], baton blows, Tasers[7], and so on. Don’t worry, the state has your back. Make up any excuse you want. It doesn’t need to sound good. As a matter of fact, it would be insulting to make it sound too plausible. Say something like: “He was looking at us all leery and then he raised his hands. We had to throw him on the ground, smash his face to the concrete, knock his teeth out, and put him in a chokehold[8]. It’s important to neutralize the threat.” Toss it off without thinking. Fuck it, say: “He was dancing funny and I found that threatening so I was forced to jab him in the ribs.” The state has your back. No matter what you say, your superiors, the courts, everybody will nod and mumble: “Seems legit.” Yell racial epithets[9]. Shoot wildly[10]. At least 40 shots if unarmed[11]. More might be better[12]. It’s only polite to flex your authority every once in a while[13]. Let the world know how tough you are. The standard charge is resisting arrest. Assaulting an officer. Pile up any ol’ charge. What does it matter? To make the people feel safe and whole you have to break[14] one or two every once in a while so they know your power is both awesome[15] and nearly completely unchecked[16].

 

[1] Inspiration for this piece came from a short story collection called Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons by Tara Laskowski. The work is structured like an etiquette book except each piece of advice covers how to properly comport yourself while doing something wicked such as homicide, adultery, or arson.

[2] I go back and forth with this satirical piece—or “mockery” as I call it (“humor piece,” “satirical piece,” such clunky terms)—wondering if it’s at all successful. It was written from a place of pretty raw anger and frankly, terror, after reading about a succession of police harassment and brutality cases, mostly involving black and brown “suspects.”

Many of these incidents featured graphic and disturbing video of the assaults taking place. Sometimes I was brave enough to watch.

The public has been filming and broadcasting egregious acts of police violence since the 1990s when a motorist filmed Los Angeles police brutalizing Rodney King. Now that most of us carry video cameras in our pockets, such footage is nearly a weekly occurrence. This has done much to inspire the outrage of the public but has seemed to do little to stem the tide of police abuse or even to ensure the type of decisive and swift punishment that would make police think twice about physically assaulting citizens.

One possible thin silver lining is a study done by Rialto, Calif. police that ran from February 2012 to July 2013. A group of officers wore tiny video cameras while interacting with citizens. According to the New York Times, the video cameras resulted in a 60 percent drop in the use of force and an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers.

[3] According to CBS Miami, Miami-Dade Police choked a 14-year-old boy on Memorial Day 2013 because he watched them with what police termed, “dehumanizing stares.”

[4] It’s often said that a universal and morally bankrupt admonishment against “snitching” in poor black communities enables crime in these neighborhoods, but when was the last time you heard of police informing on one another? As the rapper Immortal Technique said, “They never snitch on themselves, but they want you to snitch on you.” An important question that’s rarely asked in these debates is why would anyone want to report crimes to people who have a reputation for brutalizing them?

[5] In Sept. 2000 in Prince Georges County, MD—the county I currently live in with my wife and son (in fact, this occurred in the very neighborhood I once lived)—Prince Jones, a man who had committed no crime, began his last stand. Undercover Prince Georges County narcotics officer, Cpl. Carlton B. Jones (no relation) followed Prince roughly 30 miles to Fairfax, Va. (coincidentally, the county where I went to school in the mid to late aughts) in an unmarked SUV and shot his car 16 times, killing him in the process. Police say they were trailing a suspect in the theft of an officer’s gun and Prince’s car resembled a car driven by the suspect.

Prince, a Howard University student (the university from which I hold an undergraduate degree—as a matter of fact, I too was a Howard student at this time) nearing graduation, was unarmed.

Cpl. Jones claims Prince rammed his car and refused to stand down when he announced he was an officer (though he admitted to showing no badge); witnesses dispute this claim, however, saying that Prince’s car was not moving when Cpl. Jones fired his weapon. As a result of killing Prince Jones, Cpl. Carlton Jones faced no criminal charges (sources: Washington Post; Washington Monthly).

[6] On Thursday July 17, 2014, police in Staten Island approached 43-year-old Eric Garner, a 400 pound asthmatic, purportedly to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. Garner had reportedly just broken up a fight. Video recorded by a bystander shows Garner protesting frequent harassment: “Every time you see me you want to mess with me. It stops today… I’m minding my business officer. Why don’t you just leave me alone?” Four officers surround Garner and wrestle him to the ground. One deploys a chokehold, a use of force specifically banned by NYPD regulations. Despite video evidence, police claim a chokehold was not used on Garner. While an officer shoves Garner’s head to the sidewalk, he repeatedly cries, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” And those are his final words.

[7] When Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle pulled his revolver, shooting and killing Oscar Grant while he lay handcuffed and face down, he claimed to have been reaching for his Taser. For killing Grant, Mehserle served less than a year in prison.

In 2007, after a video of a University of Florida student being tasered by campus police made the rounds on the internet, “Don’t tase me, bro!” became a late-aughts punchline, but the incident that inspired it, a young man being tasered by police for aggressively asking a politician a question during an open forum, is a chilling, abusive, and reckless display of police power.

[8] From the New York Daily News: “The NYPD prohibited the use of chokeholds in 1993. The city’s independent police watchdog has substantiated 10 chokehold cases filed against cops since 2009, but little has happened to the officers involved, records show.

“In one of the cases, the cop accused of putting a person in a chokehold lost up to 10 vacation days, records from the Civilian Complaint Review Board show.

“In two cases, the department declined to discipline the officers, and in three cases, cops received ‘instructions,’ or retraining. In another case, the cop retired before he could be disciplined, and the three remaining cases are pending, the records show.”

[9] According to the New York Times, in 2011 the government intercepted a phone call in which NYPD officer Michael Daragjati bragged about falsely arresting a suspect. In regards to the young man, Daragiati said: “Fried another nigger.” Even more horrifying: Also in 2011, retired Marine, Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., 68, inadvertently called police to his White Plains home when he accidentally activated his medical alert bracelet. The response of police—this is not in dispute—was to ignore Chamberlain’s request that they leave, call him a nigger, and fatally shoot him (sources: New York Times; New York Daily News).

[10] In 2013, the NYPD shot a disturbed and unarmed man and two innocent bystanders. The man, Glenn Broadnax, caused a commotion by jumping into traffic. The wounded Broadnax was then charged with assault for the bullet wounds suffered by the bystanders under the theory that his actions caused the police shooting to occur. An attorney for one of the wounded bystanders speaking to the New York Times: “It’s an incredibly unfortunate use of prosecutorial discretion to be prosecuting a man who didn’t even injure my client. It’s the police who injured my client.”

The NYPD (again) in 2012 shot nine innocent bystanders during a confrontation with a gunman in Times Square. All nine bystanders were struck by bullets from police weapons. NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly on the shooting: “I believe it was handled well” (Source: FoxNews.com).

While searching for alleged cop killer Christopher Dorner in February 2013, the LAPD shot at trucks that were said to resemble Dorner’s on two separate occasions. In the first incident, police fired on two Hispanic women—a mother and her 47-year-old daughter as they delivered newspapers early in the morning. A bullet ripped through the back of 71-year-old Emma Hernandez. Somehow this incident resulted in no fatalities despite the fact that police fired more than 100 rounds.

Later that day, police opened fire on a truck driven by a white male, David Perdue, a surfer on his way to the beach. In that instance, police rammed Purdue’s truck before shooting at it. Perdue was not hit and prosecutors determined the use of force was reasonable. Dorner, who died in a cabin fire police claimed not to have intentionally set, was a black male (Source: Christian Science Monitor).

Richard Pryor on California police in 1973: “They accidentally shoot more niggas out here than any place in the world. Every time you pick up the paper: nigga accidentally shot in the ass. How do you accidentally shoot a nigga six times in the chest? ‘Well, my gun fell and just went crazy.’”

[11] 41 police shots took the life of Amadou Diallo in the infamous 1999 shooting in the Bronx. He was armed only with a wallet.

[12] In 2006, 50 police shots took the life of Sean Bell in Queens, NY the morning he was to marry. He too was unarmed.

[13] The examples of police brutality used in this piece are all relatively current, which implies that this is a recent problem. That is certainly not the case. Worldwide, police and excessive police force have historically been tools of the state used against the disenfranchised and dispossessed to make sure they don’t get too loud in their cries against their disenfranchisement and dispossession. As the rapper Boots Riley notes: “You never seen a police break up a strike by hitting the boss with his baton pipe.”

It was police, for example, who held the fire hoses that mowed down civil rights protesters in the 1960s.

Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland as a response to police harassment in 1966. Even then it was a long-standing community problem. The group’s initial program was an armed patrol to evaluate the behavior of the police. Government suppression of the Party was codified in the COINTELPRO program (see FBI documents here), a wave of law enforcement intimidation and force unprecedented in its cruelty, lawlessness, and violence. Chicago police murdered the Deputy Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, in a police raid while he slept (drugged by infiltrators) on December 4, 1968. Police fired nearly 100 rounds at the Illinois Panthers while the Panthers fired only one.

[14] Richard Pryor on the police from Wanted/Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1978): “Two grab your legs, one grab your head—they go, snap! ‘Oh, shit he broke. Can you break ‘em? Does it say so in the manual? Let’s check. Yep, page 8, you can break a nigger.’”

[15] A 2014 American Civil Liberties Union report (War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing) details the increased militarization of police departments around the United States. SWAT teams armed with military weaponry, vehicles, and equipment handed down from our decade long Middle East (mis)adventures are being deployed in American cities for fairly routine operations. Just outside of Atlanta in 2014, police raided a house in search of a small stash of drugs. They carried M16s and upon entering tossed a flashbang grenade that landed in a crib next to a sleeping toddler. The child suffered a hole in his chest and possible permanent brain damage. The suspect police were looking for was not in the home at the time and did not even live there, according to the toddler’s mother, who wrote about the incident for Salon.com.

The family moved to Atlanta, a town that is no stranger to police raids gone astray. In 2006, police invaded the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, shooting her dead in the process. After police found no drugs in her house, they planted three bags of marijuana. The paperwork that served as the basis for the “no knock warrant”—which alleged that an informant purchased drugs at Johnston’s home—turned out to be based on falsified evidence (source: CNN.com).

[16] In many of the above cases, such as the Chamberlain case, police were cleared of any wrongdoing or faced relatively light or unspecified punishments, a situation that I imagine leaves police feeling comfortable in deploying any act of violence in their toolbox, no matter how reckless, if it leaves them standing when all the smoke from the gunfire has cleared. However, for much of the populace, that knot in their chests when a squad car sidles up next to them in traffic is the twinge of sheer terror.

***

Rion Amilcar Scott has contributed to PANK, Fiction International, The Rumpus, and Confrontation, among others. Raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, he earned an MFA at George Mason University and presently teaches English at Bowie State University. He can also be found at forgottentunneltv.tumblr.com and @ReeAmilcarScott.

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5 Responses to THE ETIQUETTE OF POLICE BRUTALITY: AN AUTOPSY

  1. I am a cop’s daughter and have had “social” relationships with many officers of the law. I have also been involved, directly and indirectly with police officers concerning imagined, real, and supposed infractions of the law so I feel I have a sense of the dynamic you refer to. I stood on the balcony of my apartment watching a large part of Chicago’s West Side (MY home neighborhood). I will, of course, not dispute the incidents you cite. I will say your article is one-sided.

  2. Denevius says:

    I am not Michael Brown. I have never met Michael Brown’s parents, but I have a strong feeling that my parents are not like Michael Brown’s parents. Do we all share some things in common? Yes. I am a black man who lives in a country that elevates whites to a higher status in almost all fields. In films and television, we see mostly white faces saving the day or doing the incredible. If you have a black (or really, non-white) sounding name, you’d get called back for less job interviews for higher paying employment. When dealing with financial institutions, it’s been proven that blacks get inferior treatment to whites. When it comes to housing, there are some neighborhoods where, even if you have the income, you still may not be able to get into them if you’re black, which is also shutting off the nearby school system, which is probably in superior shape to ones that black parents have to send their kids too.

    Michael Brown and I share things like this in common, but I am not Michael Brown. I do not know the history of Michael Brown, but being black growing up in a black neighborhood and going to black schools half of my life, I can imagine who Michael Brown is. A wannabe gangsta who, though it upset people to see, had *just* robbed a convenience store before getting shot. I have never robbed a convenience store. I am not Michael Brown.

    And I think that blacks do ourselves a disservice when we conflate cop shootings like the Prince Jones incident with the Michael Brown incident. Prince Jones, from the article I found, was a hard working black man who truly did nothing wrong. Michael Brown, from the reports, was a thug who had just been in a strong armed robbery for cheap cigars, and who, for some inexplicable reason, decided to walk in the middle of the street at night. Michael Brown’s parents are upset on the news now, but can his parents answer why it is that there 18 year old son wasn’t home after midnight? Did they know where he was? I was not wandering my neighborhood at midnight when I was a teen. If I wasn’t home by midnight, my parents would have already called the police believing something had happened to me. But my parents taught me better than to be out wandering the streets after midnight. They didn’t want me being harassed by cops, but they also didn’t want me being robbed by the Michael Browns in my neighborhood. My parents are not Michael Brown’s parents.

    To those who have decided to sympathize, or empathize, with Michael Brown, let me ask you this. If you had the choice to move into a house next to the white cop who killed Michael Brown, or move into the hose next *to* Michael Brown, who would you honestly choose? Or if you’re a black parent, and you had a choice of having your daughter date this cop’s son (if he has one), or Michael Brown, who would you prefer? *If* you had to choose. I bet any money the honest black parent would say they’d chose to live next to the cop than Michael Brown, and if they had to choose, would prefer their daughter date the cop’s son, not Michael Brown.

    Like I said, I get it. There is still a lot of racism in America, and blacks have to work twice, if not three times as hard to make it to the same financial level as whites. But that doesn’t give us an excuse to accept thugs like Michael Brown as the face of black oppression. And I hate, literally hate, to have to agree with white conservatives, but if the black elite showed the same level of outrage over black on black crime as in the outrage of this cop killing Michael Brown, perhaps we’d have less Michael Browns as the face of black oppression. If blacks were marching in Chicago and threatening unrest because our people keep killing each other, even the innocent ones who are nothing like Michael Brown, like 15 year old honor student Hadiya Pendleton, then maybe less girls like this who had a bright future would be being murdered at the hands of our own people. I don’t like cops any more than the average black person, and they are more trigger happy with black people. But I find it absurd that Travyon Martin and Michael Brown are the people that blacks have decided to elevate to martyrdom, but not Hadiya Pendleton. I bet any money most black youth screaming for justice for Michael Brown don’t even know Hadiya Pendleton’s name. Did the writer of this article also write an article about the senselessness of her death?

    Michael Brown *was* a thug. He was a threat. Maybe he was going to college, maybe he wasn’t, but who knows if he would have ever graduated. Right now, from what we know of Michael Brown, it seems like he was going to be in and out of jail at least throughout his young adult life.

    Several days ago, Michael Brown robbed a store, and then was confronted by a white cop because Michael Brown and his friend, who’d just robbed a store, decided to walk down the middle of the street at midnight. If you had accidentally hit Michael Brown with your car, I’m fairly sure him and him parents wouldn’t have said, “You know what, I (he) should have been on the sidewalk anyway. My (his) bad, don’t worry about it. We’ll cover the doctor bills for my (his) bad decision.”

    • “I bet any money most black youth screaming for justice for Michael Brown don’t even know Hadiya Pendleton’s name. Did the writer of this article also write an article about the senselessness of her death?”

      No, the author of this piece (me) did not write an article about Hadiya Pendelton. You know who I also never wrote an article about? Michael Brown. Neither his name nor his case is ever mentioned in the essay above. Not one time. So it’s odd that you’d use this forum to inaccurately cast aspersions on a dead teenager who is not around to defend himself. (An example of your inaccuracies: Michael Brown was killed during the day, not after midnight).

      I have no idea if Mike Brown committed a robbery as is implied by the police. Unfortunately he was executed before he could get his day in court. It’s unclear if he would have ever had a day in court considering the storeowners nor the the clerk who he apparently pushed ever called the police about the incident. The officer who stopped Michael Brown also had no idea that a “robbery” had occurred when he stopped Brown and his friend. But the fact that we’re discussing an alleged robbery and not the death of an unarmed human being goes to show how easy it is to dispense with the humanity of a person once we’ve labeled them a “thug.”

      Last thing: “black-on-black violence.” It’s a myth. Most black people are killed by other black people, that’s a fact. Who are most white people killed by? 83 percent of whites are killed by other whites (http://www.vox.com/2014/8/21/6053811/white-on-white-murder). No one ever talks about the epidemic of white-on-white violence. Crime is usually about opportunity; people commit crimes against people they are around. Since we are a generally segregated country, it makes sense the people tend to kill people that look like them. People have been discussing and acting on the pockets of violence in many impoverished black communities for years, to imply that there is not a level of outrage about that issue is disingenuous. Here is a simple Google search for the phrase “march against violence:” https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=march+against+violence. But you know where “black-on-black violence” (or just “violence” as I call it) was not an issue? Ferguson, MO. Violence didn’t become an issue until Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown.

      Of course there is outrage about police brutality. When people perceive that government authorities are misusing their power people tend to get upset. That’s just an American (and a human) tradition.

  3. joescirehall says:

    A moving piece precisely. It doesn’t engage with the entirely subjective question of the character of people who die at the hands of police. Instead, it speculates (by being self-designated satire) on the operations of racialized paranoia that police forces have internalized (he’s attacking me with his gaze!) that contributes to a well documented history of police applying pre-emptive, massively disproportionate, lethal force to people of color without proportionate consequences.

  4. One swallow doesn’t make a summer – the first black face in the White House for over two centuries can’t undo overnight the poisonous legacy of the African slave-trade and of the inhuman greed, selfishness, ignorance, brutality, hypocrisy, lies and clan loyalties on both sides of the Atlantic that sustained it for centuries. Nevertheless, besides the retreat from Afghanistan and Iraq, civil rights at home will be a litmus test for the Obama administration.
    Day to day social relations on the one hand, and constitutional respect for civil rights on the other, have often been dominated throughout modern times in the USA by skin colour – along a spectrum running from diffident snobbery to murderous hatred.
    This fundamental historic US socio-economic problem has also been exported around the world for generations in Hollywood’s many violent movie exports – let alone its imperialist, interventionist wars, nearly always directed against darker skin coloured nations.
    It’s also a caste problem, since skin colour in the USA often conflates with clan loyalites, occupational status, area of habitation, and religion. Black churches were the only civil institutions truly open to black people in the US south until the 1960s, and the Southern Baptist Church still remains a pillar of white supremacism and the death penalty.
    That so many young US black people should have become rancourous is entirely predictable – as an English teacher, I saw the same decline in cooperative attitudes in UK schools among black youth during the 1970s, especially because of police stop and search practices. Yet partly because of the good sex education programmes of some English schools, especially in the Inner London Education Authority ( before Thatcher abolished it), black Caribbeans there have intermarried with whites much more frequently than black Americans in the USA, despite having been settled in the UK (of their own free will!) for little over half a century.
    After WWII, as part of the USA’s shortlived denazification program in W.Europe, Theodore Adorno drew up an Authoritarian Personality Test (1950) at UCLA, Berkeley, which has withstood the criticism of two generations, and can be easily adapted today for testing all candidates for posts in public administration ( as it has been done recently in Italy ), including the police.
    Many other anti-authoritarian reforms are long overdue, especially recognising the right of police to form unions, and the legalisation of marihuana.

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