Saturday, December 6, 2014

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone: The Police in America Are Becoming Illegitimate

...if Eric Garner had been selling naked credit default swaps instead of cigarettes – if in other words he'd set up a bookmaking operation in which passersby could bet on whether people made their home mortgage payments or companies paid off their bonds – the police by virtue of a federal law called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act would have been barred from even approaching him....This policy of constantly badgering people for trifles generates bloodcurdling anger in "hot spot" neighborhoods with industrial efficiency. And then something like the Garner case happens and it all comes into relief. Six armed police officers tackling and killing a man for selling a 75-cent cigarette.
This stuff is so good I want to munch on the screen.
There were more cops surrounding Eric Garner on a Staten Island street this past July 17th then there were surrounding all of AIG during the period when the company was making the toxic bets that nearly destroyed the world economy years ago. Back then AIG's regulator, the OTS, had just one insurance expert on staff, policing a company with over 180,000 employees.
This is the crooked math that's going to crash American law enforcement if policies aren't changed. We flood poor minority neighborhoods with police and tell unwitting officers to aggressively pursue an interventionist strategy that sounds like good solid policing in a vacuum......

You can make the argument that the policies work, as multiple studies have cited "hot spot" policing as a cause of urban crime-rate declines (other studies disagree, but let's stipulate). But the psychic impact of these policies on the massive pool of everyone else in the target neighborhoods is a rising sense of being seriously pissed off. They're tired of being manhandled and searched once a week or more for riding bikes the wrong way down the sidewalk (about 25,000 summonses a year here in New York), smoking in the wrong spot, selling loosies, or just "obstructing pedestrian traffic," a.k.a. walking while black. This is exactly what you hear Eric Garner complaining about in the last moments of his life. "Every time you see me, you want to mess with me," he says. "It stops today!" ...... Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone
Taibbi, the man. So many points here it is hard to pick out the best. This is not about individual cops - there are always bad apples. But the good apples protect the bad apples. When the cop leaped up and put Garner in a choke hold while colleagues looked on not one grabbed his arm and told him to let go. Taibbi takes the story beyond the posturing we see going on, particularly from some of my friends on the left who are breast beating about how anti-racist they are and calling out people who do not follow their lead.

Sometimes I wonder what they would do with themselves if white police stopped killing black men. No rallies to organize for so they can give out their newspapers and leaflets where a bunch of white people tell black people what is wrong.
Law-enforcement resources are now distributed so unevenly, and justice is being administered with such brazen inconsistency, that people everywhere are going to start questioning the basic political authority of law enforcement. And they're mostly going to be right to do it, and when they do, it's going to create problems that will make the post-Ferguson unrest seem minor.
The Garner case was a perfect symbol of everything that's wrong with the proactive police tactics that are now baseline policy in most inner cities. Police surrounded the 43-year-old Garner after he broke up a fight. The officers who responded to that call then decided to get in Garner's face for the preposterous crime of selling "loosies," i.e. single cigarettes from a pack.
When the police announced that they were taking him in to run him for the illegal tobacco sale, Garner balked and demanded to be left alone. A few minutes later he was in a choke hold, gasping "I can't breathe," and en route to fatal cardiac arrest.

On the tape you can actually hear the echo of Garner's years of experience with Broken Windows-style policing, a strategy based on a never-ending stream of small intrusive confrontations between police and residents in target neighborhoods.
The ostensible goal of Broken Windows is to quickly and efficiently weed out people with guns or outstanding warrants. You flood neighborhoods with police, you stop people for anything and everything and demand to see IDs, and before long you've both amassed mountains of intelligence about who hangs with whom, and made it genuinely difficult for fugitives and gunwielders to walk around unmolested.
This is the part white Middle American news audiences aren't hearing about these stories. News commentators like the New York Post's Bob McManus ("Blame Only the Man Who Tragically Decided to Resist"), predictably in full-on blame-the-victim mode, are telling readers that the mistake made by Eric Garner was resisting the police in a single moment of obstinacy over what admittedly was not a major offense, but a crime nonetheless. McManus writes:

He was on the street July 17, selling untaxed cigarettes one at a time — which, as inconsequential as it seems, happens to be a crime.
The press and the people who don't live in these places want you to focus only on the incidents in question. It was technically a crime! Annoying, but he should have complied! His fault for dying – and he was a fat guy with asthma besides!

But the real issue is almost always the hundreds of police interactions that take place before that single spotlight moment, the countless aggravations large and small that pump up the rage gland over time.

Over the last three years, while working on a book about the criminal justice gap that ended up being called The Divide, I spent a lot of time with people like Eric Garner. There's a shabby little courthouse at 346 Broadway in lower Manhattan that's set up as the place you go to be sentenced and fined for the kind of ticket Staten Island cops were probably planning on giving Garner.


I sat in that courtroom over and over again for weeks and listened to the stories. I met one guy, named Andre Finley, who kept showing up to court in an attempt to talk his way into jail as a way out of the $100 fine he'd got for riding a bike on a sidewalk in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He couldn't afford the hundred bucks. It took a year and multiple all-day court visits to clear up.
I met a woman who had to hire a sitter so she could spend all day in court waiting to be fined for drinking wine on her own front porch. And in the case of a Bed-Stuy bus driver named Andrew Brown, it was that old "obstructing traffic" saw: the same "offense" that first flagged Ferguson police to stop Michael Brown. 

In Andrew's case, police thought the sight of two black men standing in front of a project tower at 1 a.m. was suspicious and stopped them. In reality, Andrew was listening to music on headphones with a friend on his way home after a long shift driving a casino shuttle. When he balked at being stopped, just like Garner balked, cops wrote him up for "obstructing" a street completely empty of pedestrians, and the court demanded 50 bucks for his crime.

This policy of constantly badgering people for trifles generates bloodcurdling anger in "hot spot" neighborhoods with industrial efficiency. And then something like the Garner case happens and it all comes into relief. Six armed police officers tackling and killing a man for selling a 75-cent cigarette.

That was economic regulation turned lethal, a situation made all the more ridiculous by the fact that we no longer prosecute the countless serious economic crimes committed in this same city. A ferry ride away from Staten Island, on Wall Street, the pure unmolested freedom to fleece whoever you want is considered the sacred birthright of every rake with a briefcase.
If Lloyd Blankfein or Jamie Dimon had come up with the concept of selling loosies, they'd go to their graves defending it as free economic expression that "creates liquidity" and should never be regulated.

Taking it one step further, if Eric Garner had been selling naked credit default swaps instead of cigarettes – if in other words he'd set up a bookmaking operation in which passersby could bet on whether people made their home mortgage payments or companies paid off their bonds – the police by virtue of a federal law called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act would have been barred from even approaching him.

There were more cops surrounding Eric Garner on a Staten Island street this past July 17th then there were surrounding all of AIG during the period when the company was making the toxic bets that nearly destroyed the world economy years ago. Back then AIG's regulator, the OTS, had just one insurance expert on staff, policing a company with over 180,000 employees.
This is the crooked math that's going to crash American law enforcement if policies aren't changed. We flood poor minority neighborhoods with police and tell unwitting officers to aggressively pursue an interventionist strategy that sounds like good solid policing in a vacuum.

But the policy looks worse when a white yuppie like me can live in the same city as Garner for 15 years and never even be asked the time by someone in uniform. And at the very highest levels of society, where corruption has demonstrably been soaring in recent years, the police have almost been legislated out of existence.

The counter-argument to all this is that the police are sent where there's the most crime. But that argument doesn't hold up for long in a city that not only has recently become the unpunished economic corruption capital of the Western world – it's also a place where white professionals on the Upper East and West Sides can have their coke and weed safely home-delivered with their Chinese food, while minorities in Bed-Stuy and Harlem are catching real charges and jail time for the same thing.
City police have tough, brutal, dangerous jobs. Even in the "hot spots," residents know this and will cut officers a little slack for being paranoid and quick to escalate.

Still, being quick to draw in a dark alley in a gang chase is one thing. But if some overzealous patrolman chokes a guy all the way to death, on video, in a six-on-one broad daylight situation, for selling a cigarette, forget about a conviction – someone at least has to go to trial.

Because you can't send hundreds of thousands of people to court every year on broken-taillight-type misdemeanors and expect people to sit still while yet another coroner-declared homicide goes unindicted. It just won't hold. If the law isn't the same everywhere, it's not legitimate. And in these neighborhoods, what we have doesn't come close to looking like one single set of laws anymore.

When that perception sinks in, it's not just going to be one Eric Garner deciding that listening to police orders "ends today." It's going to be everyone. And man, what a mess that's going to be.  

8 comments:

  1. Where I work, heroin and cocaine are readily available. There are plenty of gangs for young people to join for extracurricular activity. Where is the outrage? Criminal pursuits that are profitable are overlooked in order to focus on petty offenses.

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  2. I like Taibbi, but he's still missing a piece of the toxic puzzle. You know the trope of the gruff, tough but fair teacher / drill sergeant / cop who doesn't tolerate sloppiness, but recognises and rewards excellence even in the misfit that no one else respects? That's what's missing. The police effort in hot spots is all one sided - enforce authority. They ARE the boss of you and you WILL kneel before that authority: literally. Except for shots fired, I pretty much don't call the police, because 1) they take forever to come to a place 'like that' and 2) they may or may not take a report but I have never seen action taken because of a police report. In summary: the police don't help us, ever.

    There's no 'tough but fair' here. There's plenty of tough, but no 'fair.' Is it any wonder that when someone gets knifed in a club with a hundred people present not one single person has a statement for the police? The police don't represent fairness or justice here. Mr Garner spent enough time on the street that police hassled him more than once. This means the police interacted with him more than once. Did even police officer ever, even once, converse with Mr Garner? Ask about his family, his cat, show him photos of his own funny dog; did any officer ever treat him like he'd treat a fellow officer? A fellow human being?

    What's it like, to think of the police as the good guys, come to help?

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    1. When I was a kid, living on Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn, I remember thinking of our local cop on the beat as a "good guy".

      We called him Officer Joe, and he was a fixture in our neighborhood. Everyone knew him, and he knew everyone- adults, storekeepers, families, the kids.

      In my particular case, I was found crying one day by Officer Joe, who wanted to know what was the matter. When visiting my aunt ( who lived two blocks away), I somehow got lost ( I was very young) on the way home. Officer Joe took me by the hand, comforted me, and took me home to my parents. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, even when we moved to Long Island, I always remember that there were officers on the streets that knew the neighborhoods and the people that lived there.

      Seems times have changed. I live in Brooklyn, once again, as an adult, and NEVER see ANY cops walking the streets of my neighborhood. On the rare occasion that we do see police, they are usually speeding in a car to get to whatever it is they've been summoned to.

      Maybe this is what we need again, police officers assigned to regular walking beats, where they get to know the people and the neighborhood. This would put a human face on both the police officers, and the people in the neighborhoods they are patrolling.

      And, just might just improve relations between the police force of this vast city and the citizens that live in it.

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    2. Can I ask you if you are black? Because if you are and Officer Joe was there for you he is a very good guy. My question: If officer Joe was assigned to Bed-Stuy would he have had the same attitude?

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    3. Yes, I am.

      As for your other question- I really couldn't say.

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    4. Kudos to Officer Joe. I imagine the answer to my 2nd question would be he would be fine. I don't want to establish a stereotype that all cops are racist. I imagine there are plenty of teachers who are insensitive to race issues. And you are absolutely correct about neighborhood policing. I compare that to neighborhood teaching which also is disappearing - the idea of a stable staff in schools that cover generations - schools should be a stabilizing force in a neighborhood and if there were neighborhood cops too there is some level of teamwork - and let's add some social workers and health care people - with the school as the central base.

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  3. At the risk of writing the obvious, The Rolling Stone has become illegitimate.
    This is not to say Matt Taibbi is quite so dishonest as the Rolling Stone writer who recently penned the UVA rape hoax. Or would Matt object to painting with such a broad brush?
    It seems the media is mighty quick to accept and trumpet reports that appear to reinforce their own views on race, class and gender.

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  4. Where I work, the practice of selling "loosies" is very common, particularly by the local bodega where we all get lunch. Many times, when I smoked, during my lunch break, I would be approached by people offering me a dollar for a cigarette. I would just give them one or two for free, and that was the end of it. They thanked me, actually still tried to give me the money, but I always declined. This is in what is considered to be a rough area of the South Bronx.

    Many of these so called "quality of life" crimes, such as selling loose cigarettes, were made illegal by the previous Mayoral administrations and City Council, not because these administrations cared so much about our health, but because they wanted the tax revenue, and to "clean up" the streets of people, such as Eric Garner. People like Garner, it could be argued, were bringing down the neighborhood, and taking away business from the stores that are selling the highly taxed cigarettes.

    Now, we have a so called "progressive" Mayor in office, and once again, we have a Police Commissioner that served under Mayor Guiliani. My question is this: If the present Mayor is so concerned about what happened to Mr. Garner, why doesn't he initiate a repeal of these "vice laws" that make selling loosies on the street a crime that apparently, so many police officers had to enforce, over and over again?

    The members of the police force are put in the untenable position of enforcing the laws, whether good or bad, each and every day. In the case of Eric Garner, why were so many police present to arrest someone for such a petty crime as selling loosies? Why couldn't the police in this case have been told by whoever was in charge of them to just tell Garner to move on, or write up some kind of violation ticket for repeated offenses? And, much focus has been put on Daniel Pantaleo, the officer that "choked" Garner to death. At any point, the other officers could have stopped him, as well as the Sargeant that was with him and the other officers. So, in my mind , ALL of those officers were equally culpable, and if the Grand Jury had decided to indict, ALL should have been indicted.

    In my opinion, rather than putting on a show of "retraining" the NYPD, what has to happen now is that the Mayor should be rethinking the policies of what constitutes a serious enough "crime" in these so called "hot spots" that so many police officers were assigned to arrest a man,just for selling loose cigarettes on the streets.





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