Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Wild West and Police Abuse

There was something of an unexpected dust up at the Albuquerque City Hall yesterday when a good sized group of protesters against police abuse made their way up to the eleventh floor mayor's office and walked right in to a "secure" area where they demanded to see the mayor, demanded the resignation of the police chief, and sat down to read aloud from the DoJ report on APD misconduct.

Elevators were disabled so as to prevent any more of the rabble from coming upstairs to the mayor's office. The City Administrator apparently tried to bully them out of this outer office, but they refused to leave. The police then "escorted" them out of the building. Much later, it was revealed that the mayor wasn't in town, he was in New York, meeting with "Wall Street" on the topic of "best practices." That's hopeful, no?

Thirteen were arrested, including David Correia -- who was charge with felony battery on a police officer, apparently for pushing on a door behind which a police officer was standing. Ergo, "battery" upon the poor po-po. Felony battery at that. Shades of Cecily McMillan.

Clearly they're afraid of David, an articulate and outspoken advocate for police accountability and reform. But more to the point, The Powers That Be in Albuquerque are having a collective melt down. Once again, for example, the City Council cancelled its Monday meeting over "security" concerns. The mayor has never met with those who have been protesting police abuse. They've been protesting for years. The mayor does not attend city council meetings and he has never heard the anguish of those who have lost loved ones to police misconduct and murder. Some of those on the council dismiss the concerns of the public regarding police abuse, claiming that none of their constituents have complained about police abuse, so those who do complain about it are not representative of their communities.

The police themselves have been reluctant to acknowledge any misconduct on their part, despite the abundance of evidence in the DoJ report that concluded that the department as a whole has for long engaged in "unconstitutional policing" and "unjustified uses of force, including lethal force." This has long been known in the community, long been protested against, long been ignored or dismissed by the powers that be (never, ever, has the District Attorney or the Police Department found any shooting by police to be "unjustified.")

When the autopsy results of the James Boyd killing were released last week, I read the report with a heavy heart. The man was shot in the back in a way that would lead to his death. His vital organs were ruptured and there was little chance he could have survived despite the fact that when he was taken to the hospital, he received extensive emergency treatment. He was also shot in both arms, one of which was shattered by the bullet so badly it had to be amputated at the hospital. His legs were savagely bitten by the dog that was loosed on him, and he was badly bruised by beanbag rounds which were fired from close range after he fell to the ground from being hit by bullets.

All for what? Why did this happen to this man at all?

That's the question more and more residents and activists have been asking themselves and The Albuquerque Powers That Be since James Boyd's killing, and many survivors and loved ones have been asking the city authorities for years-and-years. Why? Why is this happening.

James Boyd's killing is emblematic of a kind of killer police culture that is found more and more frequently in the United States, leading to more and more involvement by the Department of Justice in reforming and sometimes running police forces, but the question remains, "Does it do any good?"

There have been three killings by APD since the DoJ report was released, four (or is it five, I lose track) since James Boyd's killing. Only one might be considered a 'good shoot' -- in the sense that there might have been a clear and imminent threat to the police or others from the man who was shot, though he was armed only with a box cutter. The others are dubious at best. Video evidence from police is lacking in three of the four cases. Video evidence in the fourth case has not been released. Witness testimony and citizen-taken video evidence in some of these cases does not support police accounts of what happened, in fact, it contradicts police accounts.

The fact that police say something happened does not mean it did; the fact that police file reports does not mean they are true. This is the case in Albuquerque as it is and has been nearly everywhere for a very long time. False reports and fabricated evidence have a long and storied history throughout American police culture. It's by no means unique to Albuquerque.

But the rate of killing by police in Albuquerque is unique. Deaths occur at the hands of Albuquerque police at a greater rate per-capita than in any other city in the country. As the DoJ report makes clear, over and over, many of those who die are not threatening anyone but themselves, and even then, the threat is often exaggerated or exacerbated by police. In other words, the police themselves are the ones who jeopardize public safety by their violent actions.


For quite a while, I've attributed much of the trigger-happiness of APD to the survival of a Wild West ethos, something that may not always be obvious or recognized. Albuquerque is a large and in many ways sophisticated city, the largest city in New Mexico, the only city of any size in New Mexico. But it grew relatively recently from a tiny and ancient nucleus near the Rio Grande, and I suspect its growth has overwhelmed civic institutions -- such as the police. That's quite a different situation, I think, than that faced by residents and police in places like Oakland, Seattle, Cincinnati, Chicago and New Orleans, among many others where police misconduct has been reported and investigated and reforms demanded or required.

What it most closely resembles, to my mind, is the police vs resident situation in Los Angeles, a constantly tense and too often bloody confrontational situation that has led to extreme consequences for the city and county of Los Angeles more than once.


Or maybe the right question is "Who?" For not everyone in Los Angeles or Albuquerque is subjected to routine police abuse and misconduct, not everyone is necessarily in the gunsights of the police, even when they are acting out.

Certain areas of Los Angeles and Albuquerque are policed intensively, and certain types of people are subjected to police abuse at a far, far greater rate than others in both cities.

Who and why?

A lot of it goes back to the original impetus behind civic police forces as a replacement for military and militia occupation forces. This is especially true in the West.

The West, the Southwest especially, became part of the United States as occupied territory seized from Mexico in the War of 1846-48, a war of aggression against the Republic of Mexico initiated in order to acquire territory for westward expansion, the vaunted "Manifest Destiny" of Anglo-American lore and legend.

Los Angeles is a much bigger city than Albuquerque, and LA grew somewhat sooner and faster than Albuquerque, but their histories parallel one another fairly closely.  The railroad was crucial to the growth of both, as were the military and defense industry installations of World War II. The railroad overlaid an Anglo-American town and soon a city over a Spanish-Mexican-Indian village-rural settlement that had operated on very different social and political principles.

In order for the Anglo-Americans to feel secure enough to assert their own power in these lands they'd seized, they had to suppress the earlier occupants, restrict and confine them, and when it suited their purposes, they had to kill them -- or have someone in their employ, such as the military or militias, and later the police, do it for them.

This is a factor of the Wild West that's long been hidden in plain sight. The Wild West was wild partly because of the Anglo-American social/cultural (even spiritual?) necessity to exploit, control, tame or eliminate the original inhabitants of the land they seized. These were the non-Anglos, the Indians, the Spanish, the Mexicans. And later, they would include the blacks and the Asians.

In other words, the Wild West was wild in part to enable the exploitation, control, confinement, and elimination of those who were not Anglo-Americans.

Urban police forces were only necessary once there was an urban agglomeration to police. Prior to that advent, control and exploitation of non-Anglos was the work of sheriffs, posses, militias, military forces, and sometimes private forces (such as Pinkertons). When that failed, as it sometimes did, individuals would deputize themselves to "enforce the law" or lynch mobs would be organized to go wilding against those who were designated enemies and troublemakers.

This included attacks on Indian encampments and villages, both for sport and for cause, that continued well into the 20th century. It included the segregation of and exploitation of and frequently the murder of Spanish-speaking residents to "teach them a lesson" about who was boss. Very simple, very primitive expressions of power were routine and were widely considered to be socially acceptable and necessary for the Progress of Civilization. In order for Anglo-Americans to rise, it was believed by many, and is still believed by many, that the Other -- particularly those who were considered to be racially inferior -- had to be suppressed by any and all means including murder with impunity.

In some areas of the (Wild) West, the murder of Indians still isn't a routine subject for official investigation. It never was.

We hear of and sometimes celebrate the exploits of certain Outlaws of the Wild West, typically Anglo-American outlaws, rather than the more typical Hispanic and Indian "Outlaws," but from the perspective of the original residents of the West -- the Indians and Hispanics who were being turned into Outlaws by the advent of Anglo-American "civilization" in the West -- the Anglo-American newcomers and interlopers were the real Outlaws, stealing everything they could get their hands on and despoiling or destroying what they couldn't, leaving a bloody trail behind them.

That determination of who is "trouble" and what to do about it is still very much a part of the culture of the West, particularly among urban police forces such as those of Los Angeles and Albuquerque. Phoenix is notorious, of course, as is Arizona in general, for its somewhat overenthusiastic policing of the browner tinged residents of the area. But it happens in many other areas of the West as well, pretty much wherever there are significant numbers of darker-hued and/or impoverished residents, urban or rural, it doesn't really matter.

What matters is that Anglo-American rule is enforced with as much force as is deemed "necessary" for the security and comfort of the Powerful. The poor and the marginalized populations must be suppressed.

Just as it was when the Anglo-Americans came thundering into the region back in the day.

The irony in Albuquerque as well as other parts of New Mexico (and California, Arizona and elsewhere) is that many of those who exercise "Anglo-American" power against marginalized and impoverished populations are themselves of the browner tinge.

They have been acculturated to suppress/oppress their brothers and sisters, at times fatally. Frequently, the rationalization is that whoever gets killed by police "needed killing," because of their drug use, their tattoos, their odd behavior, their defiant attitude, or what have you. Victim blaming is routine. The victims always bring it on themselves and they always are deemed to deserve whatever happens to them, even when, as in the case of James Boyd (and Alfred Redwine and others) they were surrendering. Rather than accept such a surrender, it has been customary for police to summarily execute suspects. It's acceptable when the suspect is deemed to "need killing."

In the Wild West, such killings may not have been all that frequent, but when they happened, they were widely accepted as the appropriate consequence for (particularly) brown folks who out of line or for annoying someone of higher status. It was also acceptable to kill Anglo-American folks of lower status who acted "funny" or who were perceived to pose a threat of any kind to those of higher status.

Of course, killings that took place in the heat of passion or as a consequence of liquor were widely deemed to be acceptable as well -- unless someone of higher status were murdered by someone of lower status, in which case, frequently, the full force of ad hoc "justice" -- via lynch mob or other improvised means -- was often applied.

Murders among the poor and marginalized populations were "their problem," rarely troubling officials and The Powers That Be.

So long as these ideals of public order are maintained among those who hold the reins of power, so long will the killing and maiming by police continue. It is what they believe they are supposed to be doing. "Reform" really isn't the issue -- if the ideal stays the same. At this point, there is no sign that reform of the APD will even proceed, for APD is resisting even modest efforts to change the practices of the force, let alone reform the entire policing culture.

Yesterday, there was a protest at the Albuquerque mayor's office. Thirteen people were arrested, some of whom believe they have been stalked by Albuquerque police in the past for speaking out against the culture of impunity behind so much of the killing that's gone on. David Correia, one of the most outspoken members of the protest group, was charged with a felony, likely in order to shut him up.

The civic authorities are running scared. But so far, neither they nor the APD are willing to accept the inevitability of change.

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