Sunday, June 15, 2014

De-Legitimizing Authority and Reparative Justice

Albuquerque -- indeed, much of New Mexico -- has been going through a social and political crisis over the issue of the police use of firearms in so many confrontations with residents. There have been dozens of deaths in Albuquerque due to police gunfire. and about twice the number of those who have died have been wounded by police. No police officers have been killed by gunfire in Albuquerque since 2005, and only a handful have been wounded in such confrontations.

Statistics are similar in the rest of New Mexico.  Despite the fact that police declare themselves to be at such risk from the public at all times and in every way imaginable, and how their lives depend on their split-second decisions -- which often result in the deaths of residents -- police work is actually quite safe compared to most other professions, and residents are not shooting cops, nor are they trying to in any significant numbers.

It's quite the other way around. Police have taken to stalking residents, like Mary Hawkes, and gunning them down based on the suspect's non-compliance or attitude, and their perception that the suspect might be carrying or holding a weapon (let's say a gun, but it could be anything) and is a potential threat at some point in the future, either to the officer or to someone else... The officer who killed Mary Hawkes, for example, claimed that she "pointed a gun" at him -- and that's why he shot her to death, but many of those who knew Mary Hawkes say the story told by the officer is unlikely to be true, there is no video back up of the officer's story (somehow the video camera he wore and was supposed to turn on during his encounter with Mary Hawkes recorded nothing), and the gun he said she pointed at him was suspicious in and of itself, as it was not noted in first-responder videos of the scene, and it seemed to "appear" in the scene and move around quite a bit before being retrieved by investigators. Also, when the police chief held a news conference to justify the killing to the public, instead of the gun they said she had and which was recovered at the scene, he held up another gun, which he said was like the gun recovered at the scene. Close enough, eh? It was bizarre.

Many people suspect the gun Mary Hawkes supposedly had when she was shot and killed was a "throw-down," a weapon of convenience supplied by police to justify the killing, and the showing of a gun like the gun recovered at the scene was highly evocative of that practice. As there is no corroborating evidence, only the word of the officer involved, there's is no way to be sure, and the police like it that way. It allows for impunity, and impunity is something police seem to think is their right.

But impunity for anyone, but especially for those in positions of authority, is corrosive to society and leads to breakdown in social trust and cohesion. Ultimately, the breakdown of trust leads to the de-legitimization of authority.

Albuquerque is at that point now. The entire system of civic authority is under intense scrutiny and strain, and important parts of it have been de-legitimized in the eyes of a growing number of residents. The police are seen by many as an alien and militarized occupying force, out of control and running wild, threatening, brutalizing and killing with complete impunity. The city's governing and legal authorities -- the mayor and city council, the city administrator, the district attorney, the city attorney, and the police chief -- have faced numerous complaints about their disinterest (shall we say) in justice, and their unwavering support (well...) of police no matter what they do -- at least until recently -- and so, in turn, their authority has been de-legitimized in the eyes of many residents.

A growing community of activists have taken it upon themselves to help ensure that this process of de-legitimization of authority continues and is highlighted in the press and media, utilizing many well-known non-violent resistance and civil disobedience tactics. There have been many large and small demonstrations against police misconduct, many disruptions of the routines of power, many calls for justice and reform, many memorials for the dead, many pleas for redress of grievance.

Until very recently, the city and police administration were simply immune to any of this, indeed behaved as if it weren't happening at all, and city officials ostentatiously ignored the pleas of hurt and outraged residents. Even as tens of millions of dollars were paid out to victims and survivors of an out of control police force, the city maintained its disinterest in justice and denial of justice for those who had long been suffering at the hands of a militarized and deadly police force. 

As has been pointed out many times, complaints about police misconduct and routine shootings and killings have been piling up for many years, and apart from paying out tens of millions of dollars in settlements and court awards, the city made few and mostly futile efforts to reform and restrain policing. Many recommendations were made, some were adopted, few made any difference in the rate of killing and abuse by police.

Something more, and something else was needed.

A higher authority has stepped in. The Department of Justice civil rights division investigated and issued a scathing report in April of this year which found in essence that the Albuquerque Police Department has long engaged in a pattern and practice of "unconstitutional policing," and which cited the almost arbitrary use of weapons -- including gunfire -- against residents with no justification. It was a devastating report highlighting some of the worst abuses police engage in.

Its findings and recommendations became the basis for further demonstrations and de-legitimization of authority.

At least temporarily, the rate of killing seemed to increase, as if the police were in defiance of an authority greater than themselves. There has been no video evidence of any police killing in Albuquerque -- at least none released -- since the killing of James Boyd on March 16 which caused an international uproar.

That video showed a mentally ill homeless man, suspected of nothing more than illegal camping, confronted by a dozen or more heavily armed and threatening police who point high powered rifles at him throughout the confrontation, threatening him if he does not surrender, ordering him to obey, though he is terrified for his life under the circumstances, and believes he's done nothing to warrant this kind of over-reaction by the police. Eventually he agrees to surrender, and as he is doing so, a flash-bang grenade is fired at him, a police dog is loosed on him, and as he turns away to try to protect himself, two officers fire their rifles at him. Three bullets strike him; he falls, paralyzed, the dog bites him repeatedly, and three bean-bag round are fired at him from close range. He can't move, and yet he is repeatedly ordered to "drop the knives!!!" -- but both arms are essentially paralyzed from police gunfire, and he has a mortal wound in his torso. He physically can't comply. It matters not at all to the police who are only concerned with gaining his compliance -- whether or not he is capable of doing as commanded.

The video of this appalling incident was released by the police chief who sincerely believed it exonerated the police and provided justification for the killing. The public thought otherwise. International condemnation and revulsion soon followed. The police believed that because Boyd had two small knives in his possession at the time he was killed ("executed" has become a commonly used term) shooting him as he was turning away from their dog and a flash-bang grenade  was justified. He had... knives... and thus he was seen as an immanent and mortal threat to police, even though he had been trying to surrender up to the moment that the police fired the grenade and loosed the dog.

This was insane.

The police said that during the hours long confrontation, he had repeatedly threatened them, though he had no way to carry out his threats, and it was obvious to anyone with a lick of sense that he was pretty well out of his mind. He was never a serious threat to the officers or to anyone else, not even to himself.

Yet they killed him because they were afraid he might be a threat at some point.

Apparently, they figured that he was the greatest threat to them as he was surrendering, so they made a "split-second decision" -- police decisions are always "split-second" ones even in an hours-long confrontation like this one -- to execute Boyd so that he wouldn't become an actual threat to their safety.

In essence, they tricked him into surrendering so that they could kill him.

And initially, the police chief saw nothing wrong with it. No. Instead, the killing of James Boyd was justified in his mind because... ?

Because it never made sense to most of those who saw the video, the condemnation from around the world was swift and severe. Boyd had literally done nothing to warrant his execution, not by any sane standard, and the fact that the police chief claimed his killing was justified merely showed how very far off the rails our nation's policing culture -- and Albuquerque's police -- have gone.

This was not the first instance that people have seen for themselves what tragic consequences have come from a police culture focused on something other than their core mission -- supposedly to protect and serve. But an obvious question arises: protect and serve whom?

Not people like James Boyd, obviously. Not people like Mary Hawkes. We could go on and on and on and on naming the names of people who are not protected and not served by the police, and maybe we should do that, because when it comes down to it, the police protect and serve a very small fraction of the population. They prey on and sometimes kill everyone else.

This is nothing less than the Third World standard of policing. And for reasons of history and culture, this standard is most apparent in New Mexico and particularly in Albuquerque.

De-legitimizing this form of authority is necessary in order to change it. Authority will fight, as APD and the city administration are doing, even while making the pretense of compliance with an authority greater than themselves.

They are making cosmetic rather than substantive changes in order to appear to comply, much as the city administration and the police department of Oakland has been doing for more than a decade. They refuse to change their fundamental practices, practices which include the deliberate use of police violence against targeted populations and the protection of wealth and power at the expense of dignity and justice for everyone else.

The fight becomes more intense as authority is more and more de-legitimized. Typically, if nothing is prepared to take the place of a de-legitimized authority, the situation reverts to whatever the status quo ante was (this happened in Oakland), and progress is reversed, halted, or hamstrung, while lines and processes of authority are re-established. A cycle may then be established in which there is a constant circling of a point, but never a resolution.

The resolution, in my view, comes with the commitment to reparative or restorative justice.

I'll do another post on the process we went through in Sacramento for dealing with a police force that had become a danger to the public and how some important but modest reforms changed the way the police interacted with the public and the public responded to the police. The situation in Sacramento was not as bloody as it has been in Albuquerque, but the dynamics were very similar.

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