From local law enforcement to Wall Street and multi-national corporations, democracy cannot be maintained without accountability. Part 1 of 4: Law Enforcement
There is a lot of talk about American society being in moral decay. Mostly, this is told to us over and over by religious leaders. They tell us our problems are gay people, birth control, abortion, and a decaying family unit. While we are inclined to disagree over what our nations problems may be, there is one word that I almost never hear on the lips of television pundits: accountability. Not only is it a democratic necessity, but it is also a religious concept. Accountability is simply being responsible for one’s actions, and it’s essential for any democracy to function. Major sections of our society seem to be immune from accountability, and it's high time it stopped. Wall Street, corporations, city police forces, and sometimes even our own government escape account; they seemingly float in another world outside of the rules that the everyday person needs to abide. Take a look at the OECD website. The United States is one of 34 members. The first statement by the OECD Secretary-General is that, “Openness and transparency are key ingredients to build accountability and trust, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies.” Pundits like to point out that trust in government is at an all time low, but they often fail to explain why that is. Accountability and trust have eroded along with openness and transparency. This is the true moral rot at the core of America's problems, and as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.”
Accountability begins at a very basic and local level—with our police departments. In a letter to the Toledo Police Department about an incident, RaShya Cunningham said it perfectly, “It is essential for local law enforcement to realize that the progression of our society is inherently tied to the public’s faith in local law enforcement and that faith can only be fostered through respectful encounters.” More than anything, America is a nation of laws. Our local police forces tell us they are here to “Protect and Serve.” What does it mean for our society when our police force stops protecting and starts attacking? What does it mean when the people who are supposed to protect us are not trusted by their own citizens? There have always been incidents of police brutality in our short history. The problem has being compounded by the militarization of America’s police forces since 9/11. Our black communities have grown accustom to being terrorized by police for decades. Civil rights protesters had dogs sicked on them, fire hoses were let loose on them, and they were clubbed ruthlessly. Currently, the police seem to have full license to shoot and kill anyone as long as they can offer up any sort of meager excuse. Again and again these police officers are let off without any charge. They have disturbingly become the judge, jury, and executioner.
The 1991 beating of Rodney King brought police brutality into the limelight for all to see. Afterwards, a panel investigating excessive use of force by the LAPD found that the officers operated under “an organizational culture that emphasizes crime control over crime prevention and that isolates the police from the communities and the people they serve.” As a result, police violence and racism stems from this culture that teaches “to command and confront, not to communicate.” Justice professor and co-author of Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force, James Fyfe, told Mother Jones in 2010 that police work is often viewed by those in the force as an us-versus-them war rather than a chance for community-oriented engagement and problem solving. The authors emphasize and point to a lack of accountability as one of the reasons why police violence persists.
A great documentary by Louis Theroux on Black Nationalism was my introduction to the Amadou Diallo case. In 1999, Diallo was shot 41 times on his doorstep. He was unarmed. These victims are fathers, brothers, and sons. His shooting brought massive protests to New York City. The police officers were later acquitted of all charges. It seems that this is considered a routine procedure for our police forces, some sort of collateral damage on the route to protecting and serving. Time and time again there is no accountability for these police officers’ actions. In order for things to change, police need to be afraid that their actions have real consequences, just like the rest of us.
This weekend, two Latinos were shot dead by police in Anaheim, CA, the eighth officer involved shooting in this city within one year. Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly told Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! that, “At that point, the community was already outraged. They’re saying, ‘Look, all you seem to care about us is when you think we’re doing something suspicious. The rest of the time, when we’re calling you for actual crimes being committed, instead of the supposed crime of looking suspicious, you really ignore us.’” This is the sentiment expressed time and again from people in communities dealing with out of control police officers. When the community came out to protest, they were met with rubber bullets and a police dog attacking a baby stroller, showing us yet another example of police attacking protesters. Attacks that the Occupy protesters have experienced far too often.
Even the elderly are not immune from brutal and unnecessary force. A disturbing case in White Plains, NY, was that of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. in November 2011. The case was covered extensively by Democracy Now! The 68-year-old’s life alert was set off by accident. When the police came to the door, he told them that he was okay. He did not need assistance. Things escalated quickly. Police brutality is a reality for Black America, so their reaction to officers is not surprising. Mr. Chamberlain was scared. He can be heard on tape saying, “This is my sworn testimony. White Plains officers are coming in here to kill me.” Minutes later, this is exactly what happened. No police officer was charged in the case. Recently, it emerged that one officer may be dismissed from the force: a slap on the wrist for the murder of a veteran in his own home.
Which brings us to the Trayvon Martin case. What I found, personally, most interesting about this case is that now the police seem to be encoding this particular behavior for a private citizen. I'm not sure that it matters if George Zimmerman was racist. The real question at the heart of this story is whether our police departments are racist. It is very difficult to find cases of white people, in nice neighborhoods, being shot down by police. In fact, I have none to present to you. It is almost always a black man or a latino man. Almost always “looking suspicious.” In New York City, stop and searches have reached disturbing numbers. More black people were stopped and searched in NYC than even exist. If George Zimmerman was a black man who shot down a good looking white female, would his actions have been covered up for him by the police department? We’ll never know the answer to that question, but it’s important that we as a society ask the right questions moving foward. A police department covered up a crime that is strikingly similar to their own. The outcry from the public was the right one. The cry was for accountability. Every person ever gunned down or mistreated by our police forces deserves the same.
Next for Part 2: Wall Street