-David Brion Davis
Homicide in American Fiction 1798-1860
The Trayvon Martin story is not going to go away. It was a narrative event waiting to happen, and the story only gets richer with meaning as time goes on. There are the obvious racial aspects, but the most important elements are about police power versus citizen power -- and who can get away with shooting whom?
Since the police and the various paralegal and wannabe versions of police are the first-line of contact between individuals and The State the incident's outcome is important in the struggle between citizens' rights and state power.
So far, the police and a flawed criminal justice system are winning most of the battles.
George Zimmerman, the Retreat at Twin Lakes and Trayvon Martin by unknown
The Supreme Court just ruled five to four that police departments and jail officials have the right to strip search anyone once the person is ensconced in their clutches. These five male robed eminences agreed it was just fine for a police officer to make you stand in a room buck-naked, lift your nut sack, bend over and spread your cheeks. The officer doesn't need a reason, other than having you in his control. It's an elitist ruling ripe for abuse.
Then there's the realm of cameras versus guns and handcuffs. The other day Boston cops arrested a TV news crew for filming outside a hospital, something TV crews do all the time when a news story ends in an emergency room. The cop told the photographers he had the power to overrule their First Amendment rights. While the cop had the muscle power, he did not have the legal power. Still, fact on the ground, the TV crew was removed.
In another case, two kids are videotaping in the parking lot of a Houston Walmart and a cop tells them to stop because he thought he was in the shot. He was. The kid with the camera correctly tells the cop that he has the right to videotape police officers. The cop becomes hysterical and threatens to taser him if he doesn't stop. (See below.) Again, the photographer is shut down.
Taser versus camera in a Houston Walmart parking lot by unknown
I worked for years as a professional photographer, so I'm sensitive to this. I read about cops stopping photographers all the time. The fact that all police departments know very well that the law says a citizen has the right to photograph a cop doing his or her public job doesn't seem to matter. Why? Because muscle seems to trump brains when it comes to bad police behavior.
An amazing incident occurred last November in a public housing unit in White Plains, NY. A 68-year-old Vietnam veteran's medical alert device goes off by mistake while he's sleeping and police respond to his home. OK so far. But when he tells them it was a mistake and he's all right and that they should leave so he can go back to bed, their crime-buster imaginations and adrenaline glands go to work overtime and they bash down his door and ultimately shoot him dead standing in his boxer shorts. Next, the encounter comes out in the press as a story of cops forced to shoot a knife-wielding maniac. The man's son tells Amy Goodman there is no evidence of his father wielding a knife. Police refuse to identify the officers involved.
The case has belatedly gotten national legs due to the Trayvon Martin incident and the fact the medical alert company's audio recording device recorded the whole incident, including an officer hollering, "I don't give a f*ck, n-word, open the door!" This, of course, may suggest why some officers are so sensitive to being recorded. It's called accountability.
What's going on here? And why do so many police officers seem reluctant to question and re-evaluate their initial hyperventilated and paranoid assessments of a situation?
Of course, it needs to be said here that most cops are good people working a hard and often thankless job. We need good cops. The problem is a powerful handful whose bad behavior is too often condoned or overlooked. As our courts drift to the right, they unfortunately tend to empower the bad apples, as in the go-ahead to strip search, a power begging to be abused as a tool of humiliation.