Everything Wrong with Police Has Been on Display in Ferguson
After Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, the cops’ reaction provided a neat snapshot of just about every dangerous aspect of policing in modern America.
For starters, there’s the reliable archetype of the racist cop. Brown, though he allegedly stole cigarellos from a convenience store not long before he died, was not stopped over a theft report. The weak jaywalking excuse for a police stop adds a flavor of profiling which angers people further, and makes the racial element of the shooting more pronounced. In Ferguson, the numbers suggest that black individuals are targeted for police stops more than whites. A few of their cops also once beat a 52-year-old man, then charged him for damaging their uniforms with his blood. Brown himself may have been a dumbass teenager who committed a petty crime, but now he can never grow up to be better than that.
The police showed up like an army, thereby antagonizing the mostly peaceful crowds, both before and after looting began on August 10. This reaction, where store owners often got screwed by the mob but the peaceful, pissed off folks got their First Amendment rights violated, underlined another major problem with the police: Aren’t they violating Posse Comitatus by now? Men in SWAT gear that resembles paramilitary garb may bust down the doors of various suspected drug criminals at night, but that mostly goes without video evidence (when there are exceptions to that,people tend to be shocked, even when it’s a normal drug raid). Seeing a roadblock that belonged in the Middle East during a weekday afternoon in Missouri was jarring to people just starting to grasp its new normalcy.
Yet another strike against the Ferguson Police was their incredible opacity after one of their own killed. They initiated a curfew, and then took six days to release the name of Wilson. They did everything they could to block media attention. On Sunday night, a SWAT officer screamed “Turn off that light! Get down!” and then “Get the fuck out of here!” at a student who was broadcasting live radio. The officer, allegedly pointing a gun, also yelled what sounds like: “Get that light out of here, or you’re getting shot with this.” Some outlets—including Mediaite—thought the cop yelled “or you’re getting shot in the face.” Others say the cop might have been yelling “getting shelled with this” instead of “shot.” Regardless, it was bad.
The War on Kids – Weediquette
This is the story of Jesse Snodgrass, a kid with Asperger’s syndrome who was arrested by an undercover cop posing as a student at Jesse’s high school. This is the story of how the war on drugs preys on the most vulnerable.
Watch the documentary
We Interviewed the Black Undercover Cop Who Infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan
These days the Ku Klux Klan is mostly an unfunny joke, a smattering of ignorant racists who play dress-up and hold poorly planned, sparsely attended rallies to protest the renaming of parks. But half a century ago the Klan’s power stretched from coast to coast, and members of the hooded hate group carried out firebombing attacks and murdered Civil Rights workers in the South. In the 1970s, internal conflicts and infiltration by the FBI weakened the Klan, but it was still dangerous enough that in 1979 KKK members killed five protesters in North Carolina.
It was during this era that Ron Stallworth, the first black cop in Colorado Springs, infiltrated the local Klan organization. He first made headlines in 2006 when he went public with his story and explained how he stumbled upon the Klan and managed to become a leader in the local chapter by faking racist sentiments over the phone and sending a white colleague to meetings in his stead. He just released a book, Black Klansman, about his experience, so I figured now was as good a time as any to talk about how he pulled off a trick straight out of Blazing Saddles (and one that made for the first great skit on Dave Chappelle’s short-lived TV show).
So how did you first get assigned to keeping tabs on the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado?
I was assigned to the intelligence section of my department, and in intelligence you handle a variety of issues: criminal intelligence, organized crime, VIP protection. One of the things we routinely did was read the newspapers to see what, if anything, in there might warrant our attention. I saw this classified ad that said Ku Klux Klan, and there was a PO box address, so I wrote a little letter basically under the guise of being a white racist: I said I hated all niggers, Jews, spics, chinks, wops. I used all the derogatory terms for the various races they like to use. And I said I wanted to do something about it, that I wanted—to use a popular term of the day—to take back our country from these people, But I made a crucial mistake: I signed my real name to the letter. To be quite honest with you, I had a brain cramp. So I signed my real name to this letter instead of one of my undercover names, but then I put the undercover phone number and PO box we used. I honestly thought that the PO box on the classified ad was not legitimate, but responded to it just in case. I was expecting to get a leaflet or pamphlet. That’s as far as I expected it go.
What happened next—how did they bring you into the fold?
Maybe a week later, I got a phone call at the undercover phone line in my office. I answered it, and the guy on the other end of the line said, “Am I speaking to Ron Stallworth?” I sat there thinking, Who the heck is calling me on this line? And then he explained he was the local organizer of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s how he referred to himself. He said he had gotten my letter. And that’s when I realized: Uh oh, I gotta come up with a plan real quick.
He wanted to know why I decided to join my Klan. I told him again I hated niggers, Jews, spics, chinks, wops, Mexicans, and they were taking over the country and I wanted to take our country back. Again, the rhetoric you’re hearing today, I was using back then. And then I added something else to flavor it up a bit: I said my sister is dating a nigger and every time he puts his filthy black hands on her white body, it pisses me off and I want to do something to stop that from happening in the future. He responded by saying, “You’re just the kind of guy we’re looking for!” and, “How can we meet?”
That’s how this investigation started. Obviously I couldn’t meet him because of my skin color, so I postponed our meeting for a week to give me time to set something up. We talked further. I tried to get him to tell me how big they were. He wouldn’t, but said they were relatively small. Most of ‘em were from Fort Carson, Colorado. He told me he was a soldier at Fort Carson. I asked him activities they were planning to do as a group. This started in October of ‘78, this conversation. One of the things they were planning to do was have a Poor White Folks Christmas during the holiday season in which they would give care packages to poor white families. He said all niggers ever did was take advantage of white people by gaming the system—welfare and things like that. He said Jews control the system, and they use niggers to do their evil deeds. Nobody ever thought about poor whites.
Read the whole interview
How Poor Young Black Men Run from the Police
Alice Goffman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (out this month on University of Chicago Press), has been getting far more attention than academic works usually get. The book is a result of her living in a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia she refers to as “6th Street” for years as an undergraduate and a grad student. (She changed the names of people and places in her book.) She eventually fell in with a group of young men who were almost constantly under the threat of being arrested and jailed, often for petty probation violations or unpaid court fees. She became a “fly on the wall” and took notes as her subjects (who were also her friends) attempted to make a living, support each other, and maintain relationships with their loved ones, all while attempting to evade the authorities. Goffman’s work shows how the threat of imprisonment hangs over the lives of so many in communities like 6th Street and warps families and friendships in the process. It’s an uncommonly close look at how lives are lived under police surveillance and should be read by anyone with an interest in poverty, policing, or mass incarceration. This excerpt is from the second chapter, which is titled “Techniques for Evading the Authorities.”
A young man concerned that the police will take him into custody comes to see danger and risk in the mundane doings of everyday life. To survive outside prison, he learns to hesitate when others walk casually forward, to see what others fail to notice, to fear what others trust or take for granted.
One of the first things that such a man develops is a heightened awareness of police officers—what they look like, how they move, where and when they are likely to appear. He learns the models of their undercover cars, the ways they hold their bodies and the cut of their hair, the timing and location of their typical routes. His awareness of the police never seems to leave him; he sees them sitting in plain clothes at the mall food court with their children; he spots them in his rearview mirror coming up behind him on the highway, from ten cars and three lanes away. Sometimes he finds that his body anticipates their arrival with sweat and a quickened heartbeat before his mind consciously registers any sign of their appearance.
When I first met Mike, I thought his awareness of the police was a special gift, unique to him. Then I realized Chuck also seemed to know when the police were coming. So did Alex. When they sensed the police were near, they did what other young men in the neighborhood did: they ran and hid.
How to Avoid Self-Incrimination via Smartphone
Should cops be allowed to search smartphones when arresting people? While the Supreme Court mulls it over, you can take steps to protect yourself.
How Did Victor White III Die in the Backseat of a Cop Car?
The night Victor White Sr.’s son died in the backseat of a cop car in New Iberia, Louisiana, he called the local sheriff’s station to figure out where his boy was.
“I asked them if he’d been apprehended, and they told me no,” he said to me. It wasn’t until the following morning, March 3, that Victor Sr. found out his son, Victor White III, had been arrested and died while in police custody. But he didn’t receive the news from the New Iberia Sheriff’s Department—he got the call from his son Leonard, who also lives in New Iberia and had been questioned that morning by police in connection with the death of his brother.
Immediately, of course, Victor Sr. made the two-hour drive from his home in Alexandria down to New Iberia to find out what the hell was going on. But the cops refused to tell him anything about the circumstances surrounding his 22-year-old son’s death, citing an ongoing investigation by the state police. At that point, Victor Sr. had no idea his son’s death was caused by a gunshot to the back while he was still in handcuffs in the backseat of a patrol car. Every official he talked to was cagey.
“They wouldn’t even let me see the body,” Victor Sr. told me over the phone. Eventually, when they realized he wouldn’t take “no comment” for an answer, they brought in the coroner and allowed Victor Sr. to take one look at his deceased son—but even then, they had conditions. “They told me I couldn’t see his lower body,” he told me. “I could only see his face.”
Hawaii’s Cops Say They Need to Be Allowed to Sleep with Prostitutes, Just in Case
Cops usually can’t break the law, even when they’re undercover, but police departments in Hawaii recently lobbied state lawmakers to carve out an exception to what is a pretty good rule. Last week, when the state legislature was considering amending an anti-prostitution law to prohibit undercover officers from having penetrative sex with prostitutes, the police were like, “Actually, we need the flexibility to have full-on intercourse or we can’t do our jobs properly. Third base doesn’t cut it.”
Hawaii’s House passed the bill, thereby saying “you can have sex with prostitutes if youreally need to,” but, understandably, a week’s worth of headlines like, “Hawaiian Police Want to Have Sex with Prostitutes Real Bad” and “Haha Dude Wasn’t This Exact Thing inThe Wire?” caused legislators to have second thoughts about the rule now that it’s hit the state Senate.
We Need to Stop Trusting the Police
Last Monday, a jury found two former Fullerton, California, police officers not guiltyon one charge of excessive force, two of manslaughter, and one of second-degree murder in the beating death of Kelly Thomas. The 2011 altercation, which lead to Thomas’s death five days later, was captured in detail by surveillance cameras and audio from police recorders—on tape, the cops can be seen beating the homeless man mercilessly and Tasing him twice in the face. At one point, Thomas is moaning “Help me dad” as the officers swing their nightsticks at him.
That fairly clear video evidence, along with the activism of Kelly’s father Ron (a former sheriff’s deputy) and the mobilization outraged community, ensured Thomas’s death got a lot more media coverage than the killing of homeless people by police normally do. But the officers are still walking free after beating an unarmed man to death. (In fact, one of them, Jay Cicinelli, already wants his job back.) How does that happen? A great many people in the community are asking that same question—multiple protests against the outcome of the trial this week resulted in 14 arrests
One answer to that question is that the jurors, like most Americans, probably thought that cops are generally almost always right. A Gallup Poll from last month found that 54 percent of respondents had “high” or “very high” amounts of trust in police officers. People think more favorably of cops than they do journalists, politicians, lawyers, or even members of the clergy. The only authority figures more trusted than the police are doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and grade school teachers.