Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Howard Swindle: Deliberate Indifference

About a year ago, I wrote a book review about Tulia, Texas where some bad cops busted almost 50 black men for a drug ring that didn't exist. I expressed my surprise that this shit still happens, reminded myself that yes, this shit does still happen, even in Oakland, Oscar Grant land, and then promptly forgot about this book (I've mentioned that I read a lot of books and have a bad memory). So while reading Howard Swindle's fabulous "Deliberate Indifference" which tells another tragic story of police brutality, this time resulting in the death of a black man in a Texas prison, but in 1988, I kept thinking, well, it was another time in another (shitty) place. I vaguely remembered reading "Tulia", but kept telling myself that the incidents in Tulia were the ones Swindle refers to a few times in the early '80s. No, this shit is still going down.

Short version: a black man and his two friends (brothers) are driving through Texas (they live in Louisiana) on Christmas. They have some alcohol in the car but are not drunk. They are pulled over, arrested for no real charge, brought to jail in Texas. Loyal Garner, Jr is beaten when he asks for a phone call. He is beaten to the point where he is non responsive, then brought back to his cell and left there, comatose, till the next morning. He subsequently dies in a hospital in a neighboring county. Although at least one of the three officers involved has a history of brutality, the officers are finally charged with murder, and civil rights abuses. It takes a long time for justice to (sort of) be served.

Swindle relays the eponymous deliberate indifference of Eastern Texas (a region he describes as being particularly insular and, some would say, backwards, though Tulia is in the panhandle, which is not Eastern Texas, so I can't say my general feelings about Texas and the state's relationship to W or really the state at all have improved) to civil rights. The state (not the State) mechanisms basically operate as though the 60s, civil rights movements, civil rights acts, integration, etc, never happened. The political correctness that I was raised with is only a tiny piece of the puzzle, and shows what a farce PC really is: in Hemphill, driving while black really *is* a crime, and Loyal Garner, Jr. paid with his life. The state, from the judges, the sheriffs, the police officers, juries, etc, all operate in the status quo that black "boys" have a place, and stepping out of it, or even driving through someone else's place is a very serious offense. Black people are scared to step out of line or challenge this place, because it can result in dire consequences. One of Garner's offenses was to ask (meekly) the police officers who had arrested him for driving what he was being charged with, and later, to ask for his phone call. Basically, to ask for his rights. I am using the present tense, because if I remember riht, it's the proper way to discuss a text, and also, because as much as I want to pretend that this doesn't happen anymore, as I said above, Tulia wasn't that long ago. And Texas really isn't as far away as I pretend it is. If Oakland falls into the ocean or burns up next week (more on that later), I've now ruled out Texas and Arizona as places to migrate to.

Thanks to some very dedicated lawyers, Garner's assailants are, after two trials and many missteps, found guilty of murder and sentenced to prison. However, the corrupt, racist, yes, backwards state mechanism grinds on. The town doctor, an authority figure who has basically treated every person around, paid the bail for two of the three cops, and denied under oath that Garner could have died from wounds inflicted by the officers. He also denied ever having treated any previous injuries sustained in the jail, though it was clear that the injuries could have been sustained nowhere else. The judge in the first trial against the officers refused to allow justice to be served, clearly having a predisposed outcome in mind, and remained on the bench. The sheriff, the highest elected official and I believe the boss of the officers, was never charged, and was reelected after the whole fiasco, with an even higher "approval" rate. And according to Swindle, the town became even more racially divided.

I've been reading this book for a week or so, and the Mehserle trial (the BART cop who shot Oscar Grant in the back) is about to wrap up. As usual, I picked up this book by chance from my shelves, and coincidences just seem to happen. But the big picture is brought home by literature, as usual, and yes, I'm being a little cheesy. Swindle closes with some really powerful thoughts, after pointing out that "jailhouse testimony" is never really taken very seriously, because jurors and judges are always going to take the badge's word over the suspects word, and if you're in jail, you're presumed guilty of something, therefore a liar. This makes, according to one of the lawyers prosecuting the Texas cops, beating up an inmate, the perfect crime. The victim can't easily accuse the officer or jailer, because the jailer's word is always going to win, and if he does, he runs the risk of retaliation, and the risk of the vicious cycle, where once again the cop says, "No I didn't," and everyone believes him. When the whole system is corrupt, like in Eastern Texas, and the doctors and judges and EMTs and bailiffs are all in the ole boys club, there's not a whole lot going for you.

But it's not just Texas, and it's not just 1988, Swindle points out. Rodney King would have just been another black man charged with failure to stop, and his serious injuries explained away, if not for the incident being recorded in 1991. The "Cop's Code," Swindle writes, had already been at work: "One of the four officers charged in King's beating had been suspended previously for kicking and hitting a handcuffed man; another was under investigation for making racial slurs and physically abusing two black college students..." It's a system-wide problem, not just in Eastern Texas, that allows this to continue. It's easy for me to say "it can't happen here," or "it's not happening here," but it's happening here. Swindle says, well, yeah, but, at least in LA they (after the riots) had a large investigation into the force and pointed to a large failure in leadership. I.E., they didn't just blame the bad cops, they said the whole apparatus was at fault. Did anything change? I don't know, I live in Oakland.

Oakland, where a BART officer shot Oscar Grant in the back on January 1st, 2009. BART police are a separate entity from Oakland police- but the shooting did happen in Oakland. Jurisdictional issues were an issue in the Garner case, as well. Oscar Grant did not have a clean record like Garner, but as I wrote above, the credibility issue is not negated because a person has a "past" or has been incarcerated. (Criminal justice system is a topic not for today, kids.) What Oscar Grant did have, like Rodney King, was a technological witness: cell phone videos that showed that not only was Grant restrained, but that the use of force outforced the problem at hand. Grant was prone and cuffed, with another officer on top of him, and didn't really need to be tazed, or shot in the back, whichever Mehserle *really* meant to do.

I'm pretty much anticipating riots in Oakland when the verdict comes out. Apparently OPD is, too, and I heard they even had a tank in their "wargame"-like preparations. My sister wisely asked me last week what "side" I was on. I was surprised at first, not knowing there was a side to be on- a cop shot a prone, restrained man in the back on a crowded BART platform. But she was right- I'm not sure I want this dude to go away for life. Selfishly, and morally, I'm thinking that if he isn't sentenced for a very very long time, there will be riots in Oakland, and I will be scared to leave my house unless it's to head for the hills. If he isn't found guilty at all, I will feel that I have been transported to Eastern Texas. But there's more to it than that. As Swindle summed it up, the "win" for Los Angeles was that (hopefully) the system was revamped. BART police is a shitty system. They're armed and operate outside of but within many jurisdictions. They have no oversight committee- I don't know who ever decided they had jurisdiction to investigate the murder charges, but I know originally it was Oakland because the murder occurred in Oakland. But OPD is not in charge of BART, and Oakland surely has enough on its plate to take on another broken system. If Mehserle is sentenced to a bajillion years in prison and the case just goes away, he'll have a miserable life, and nothing will be solved. If he is sentenced to whatever a lot of years in prison is, he will still have a miserable life and hopefully the people who allowed this to happen will be held responsible.

We have a long way to go. This can happen here. This does happen here.


Anonymous said...

Just finished Swindle's book (based on your review) and totally agree with your analysis/comments of relevancy for today. I wish I could have read the book as "history I was alive to see", but I fear that such situations are still to prevalent to be considered "history". DB