When I was growing up (I’m 56), there were terrible stories coming from other parts of the world, particularly from Russia about things their police would do to people. My grandaddy was a police officer, my uncle was a police officer and because it was the midst of the Cold War, everyone talked about those things. But it wasn’t that way here in America and it could never be that way here in America. But it is. It really is.
As an adult, I’ve experienced those brutalities at the hands of police that acted more like some dictator’s private armies than police officers. I’ve seen them act the same way to others, heard the stories of other women, other people with disabilities and brain injuries, from other people with epilepsy and mental difficulties, from other families whose members had the same experiences as well as seeing case after case by the thousands over the years on the news, in newspapers, in books and now online.
I didn’t go looking for these stories, they jumped out at me because of the wrongness with it compared to what I was taught about the country that is supposed to be the protector of human rights and the guarantor of citizens’ civil rights. I didn’t go looking for those experiences with police either and they weren’t a result of my having been some dangerous criminal. It didn’t have to be because of that. In fact, my research shows that people who do crimes, even the most heinous are more protected in their rights as a result of police wanting to insure the case against them goes forward. That isn’t true when it is someone like me who, by virtue of a lower social class, by disability, poverty, race or gender, is treated commonly with harassment, bullying, endangerment, abuse, brutality and wrongful treatment in every way by police.
In many years of being an adult in America, I can honestly say there have been maybe three law enforcement officers that I’ve ever met who were not like this out of thousands I’ve known and met for various reasons over the years since I was about 14. And that excludes the two in my family, but does include three officers in law enforcement who were decent but were not typical uniformed officers since they worked in other capacities as detectives and specialties. But, three people out of thousands with only those handful I interacted with that were good and decent, not engaged in adrenalin junkie, trigger happy beatings of people, didn’t man-handle and brutalize people like me, and did use the common sense one would expect. The rest of those thousands I’ve met were a human nightmare to the lives of others.
It was as if I had awakened into an America of Soviet KGB tactics or Gestapo days in Nazi run Germany but there was the American flag and everybody said everything was alright. And yet, it wasn’t. I knew it wasn’t. Those experiences couldn’t be right that I was having when police got anywhere near any situation and that others were experiencing too from what I could read about it and the news commonly was telling about it. Yet, those are the facts. They aren’t just mine. They aren’t some delusion about the United States in my adult lifetime. They are facts.
Maybe because my grandaddy was a policeman back when people could call a police officer – “a policeman” – maybe I noticed when Southern police departments struck out at others in their community to “keep them in their place” contrary to the legal demands against racism and for equality under the law. Maybe I noticed more because my family comes from the South, but I wasn’t raised there. But it wasn’t just the South where police were behaving that way. Something changed in how police did things and how they thought about the people in their communities they were supposed to be protecting and serving.
In California where we lived, police would sit near intersections waiting for a car’s hood to dip as it went across to hand out tickets for not yielding the right of way or going too fast through it or for a left-turning car having to slow down yet every intersection had two dips in them for water to drain away during rains. They caught a lot of people that way, gave out a lot of tickets and people became angrier and angrier with them. Each opportunity, when police in California would hand out that ticket, they would try to add as many things as they could to up the ante received by the city from it. Reminded me of the Georgia and Florida, Carolinas and Alabama kangaroo courts and speed traps that the FBI had to come into those towns and counties in order to put to an end.
And, we all watched as the Watts’ riots happened and Kent State and Trenton, NJ where in every case, the people had become the targeted enemy police had defined with intent to kill with little cause or no cause for it and using lethal force even when for a cause but not necessary in the situation. The entire nation watched horrified at those things and some changes seemed to be made and then they weren’t because that infection of brutality from police seem to spread into communities rather than during specific well-publicized events where they could get in trouble for it.
I read the other day on a website timeline about the drug wars and policing in US, that in 1970 the law was changed requiring police to knock first. At some point, the law was changed about needing some reasonable probable cause too, but it could have been undone piecemeal where effectively the laws requiring probable cause meant none was required anymore. None of it stopped the drugs nor the drug trade, but the police war on drugs pumped billions of dollars into equipment and gave entire armies of very psychotic personality-types of people good jobs and nice houses. There are now massive industries built upon the revenues from it, including prisons as businesses and too many others to name here or just about anywhere.
Somewhere in the midst of this government effort to gain control of the country and then to fight the drug wars, police became more like a well equipped hate force running rampant on the streets of America. Again in California, the Highway Patrol was so involved in harassing people and endangering people, brutalizing citizens in the process that for a while people would see their patrol cars coming, let them come up to the car and just shoot the officers and drive off. People were sick and tired of it. I watched people outraged that everything in their day and in their life had to be stopped by some police action on them over a ticket given for the least excuse as if police had a quota to meet. Then if the person came out of it alive, often having their car impounded, many times arrested because officers didn’t like something they said, and having to spend their hard earned money to pay bail, fines, spend time going to deal with it, destroying their household budget, sometimes costing their job too, and too often costing people their lives or ending up with them in the hospital.
And believe it or not, then it got worse. From the Watts’ riots onward in this country, the police, law enforcement, sheriff’s departments, drug enforcement agents eventually too, IRS agents, and drug interdiction agents among others, had no accountability. When something they did was wrong and obviously wrong to nearly any person across the entire public spectrum, they still wouldn’t be found accountable. Attorneys for cities, counties and the state which were funded by taxpayers, and their union lawyers, pr firms and lobbyists would come into the situation. And, regardless of how heinous a thing the officers did, they would be found innocent or exonerated or never taken to trial or never taken to grand jury to decide. (Although that never seemed to matter, grand juries would give the officer more than the benefit of the doubt, sometimes doing mentally and morally twisted backflips to give police the free rein to do as they might think is necessary – so would find them not guilty of any wrongdoing no matter what evidence was shown for it.)
As a result of the effective removal of any real checks and balances on abuses of power by police, across the nation policing became more commonly abusive, often underhanded tactics were used, violations of people’s rights fairly rampant and common, sneaky ways of covering what they had done amongst records they were supposed to keep was business as usual and people knew it was wrong but allowed it to go on. Often during the years of the drug wars in America, police would not go after those they knew were heavily involved in it because of the dangers but would turn to others in the community including those most vulnerable and use highly dangerous and often military style weapons, tactics and brutality on them.
This is the America where I’ve spent my adult life. After growing up middle class, all of my adult life has been spent in poverty, so I can honestly say that rights, freedoms, justice, Constitutional guarantees, civil rights and liberties, even the most basic human rights of people – including those in “protected” classes under the ADA and other laws to protect minorities and women – are not extended to all and not extended to all equally in America. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. People I know have experienced it and we are still experiencing it today in 2014. For every one of us, there is a reason that police consider us differently than those they “must” treat morally, ethically, decently, humanely, reasonably, legally and Constitutionally.