Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Police Brutality or Bad Propaganda?

A lot of my liberal friends have what I consider to be an unhealthy distrust of authority. Anyone who makes, supports, or enforces rules is "the man" and can't be trusted.

I don't trust or distrust people in authority any more than anyone else. I question authority, but no more or less than I question anyone else. My philosophy is: treat everyone with respect, regardless of their position, and expect it in return.

Not everyone shares this attitude. Some people bristle when they encounter a police officer and make assumptions that it's someone who gets off on power. Someone who will abuse that power if given the chance.

To be fair, they might come by it honestly. Maybe they've had personal encounters where the police abused or disrespected them. I've been fortunate enough not to have experienced that. What I do know is that time after time after time, people get in trouble not for their initial transgression, but how they respond to authority.


Above all, I value the truth. So when I see a story like the one I read in Smile Politely today, it bothers me. Because the whole thing just smelled fishy and sensational, starting with the headline: "Local activist's son beaten by Champaign police." The article recounts the story of Calvin Miller, an 18-year-old black kid who ran from police when they tried to stop him, and in the ensuing scuffle, got roughed up.

As it's written here, it's not a news story, but propaganda. Lots of facts of the case are obscured or downplayed. There's no effort whatsoever to tell both sides of the story. Photos of the teen with a swollen eye and on crutches are there to elicit an emotional response. There are so many holes in the story, so many unanswered questions it brings up, that I was more suspicious of the teenager's story after I read it. Which makes it not only propaganda, but bad propaganda at that.

According to the story:

  • A cop tried to pull Calvin over for "no apparent reason." How does he know that? He didn't stop, so there's no way to know whether there was a legitimate reason or not.
  • "...he walked into the courtroom with crutches. His right ankle was sprained, maybe fractured." How exactly does one hurt their ankle while they're being beaten by police? I've hurt my ankle many times, and it's always a result of me running or jumping. How is this evidence of a police beat-down?
  • "...the vehicle he was driving ran into the porch steps of a house..." Notice how this sentence implies that the vehicle itself was the agent of action, not the driver.
  • "The officer turned on his lights. Close to his mother’s house, Calvin kept driving with the hope he could make it there." What was he hoping to accomplish by driving to his mother's house? Did he think the police would stop their pursuit once he got there?
  • "After a couple blocks, he turned into a residential driveway on Arcadia. The police officer rammed him with his squad car, causing the car to lurch forward into the porch steps." First of all, why this house? Wasn't he trying to get home? And the story about the police car lurching his car forward into the porch? This lessens his credibility. Not only is this an outlandish account, but it shows how much he's trying to deflect responsibility.
  • "Calvin got out of the car and started to run toward his house. Police told him to stop and Calvin says he responded by getting on the ground." Why run? Then, why stop?
  • "Calvin put his hands up over his head, but the cop kept beating him, injuring him on his forehead, eye, and jaw. He rolled over onto his stomach and was placed in handcuffs. Lieb pepper sprayed Calvin directly in his face while he was handcuffed." I wasn't there, and neither was the writer of this article, so this is all speculation, even though it's written as fact. I'm pretty sure the cops will have a different account of things. What we do know, which is undisputed by both accounts, is that Calvin has already, prior to this moment, fled from the police twice (once in the car and once on foot.)
  • "He was then placed under arrest. Calvin was taken to Carle Hospital which failed to conduct any tests or even wash the pepper spray out of his eyes." I don't know how these situations work. But what kinds of tests is the hospital supposed to conduct? Is it standard procedure to wash pepper spray out of eyes? Is that possible? Again, I don't know the answers, but the way it's phrased makes it sound suspect to me.
  • "Calvin has no criminal background, but remains scared of the police." I don't doubt that. But how does running from them make the police any less scary? It seems this whole situation could have been avoided if he had not let his fear take over in the first place.
It's not that I support the police brutalizing a young teen. What I object to is the article itself, and how it makes an assumption (local police are thugs) and then does everything it can to push that agenda. There's no nuance or complexity. No respect for the complex issues involved in this case. No balance. No fairness. And it does everything it can to push emotional buttons, like showing pictures of Calvin on crutches or with a swollen eye.

These were all my reactions from reading the Smile Politely article alone. This was before I saw the News Gazette account of the story, which filled in some of the holes and directly disputed some of Calvin's claims. For example, police said they tried to stop Calvin after they saw him speed out of a parking lot, run over a curb, and run a red light at 1:30 in the morning. That doesn't sound like "no apparent reason" to me.

He jumped out of a moving vehicle-- which then slowly drifted into a porch-- and fled from police on foot. He jumped a fence and then was tackled by police. They wrestled him down and sprayed him with pepper spray. It sounds like his ankle problems were most likely caused by running from police and jumping a fence. Does injuring yourself as you run away count as police brutality? (As the Smile Politely article implies?) It seems entirely possible to me that the injuries he sustained-- a swollen eye and a bruised forehead-- could easily be explained by pepper spray and being tackled. It's not evidence that "police beat the crap out of a black kid", as one commenter of the Smile Politely article asserts.


There are other issues involved here. The local African American community doesn't trust local police, and there are many stories of the police using excessive force. A few years ago an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by police. In that situation, as in this one, the kid panicked when he felt police were harassing him without cause. I tend to be very rule oriented, so it's hard for me to empathize when people don't follow the rules. One rule that I would think would be obvious is, "Don't run from police." On the other hand, if you've grown up feeling like the rules don't exist for you, don't protect your interests, I can understand not having respect for them.

I'm sympathetic, and I wish the police could do better community outreach to make the African American community feel safe. I'm not one of those racist pricks who thinks that these kids get what they deserve and it's evidence of moral decay among the blacks. I'm not going to use the phrase "black privilege" that one commenter on the SP article does to provoke racial tensions. We need solutions, not antagonism.

Which is why the Smile Politely article bothers me. It doesn't constructively build bridges, it's just trying to stoke racial unrest by implying that the police are racist thugs. It encourages the attitude that we should fear and distrust the police. And because it is so blatantly one-sided, it makes me question the credibility of the "victim" of what may or may not be a case of police brutality.

However you might interpret the incident with Calvin Miller, can't we at least agree that running from the police is a bad idea? That he made a potentially routine traffic stop way worse than it had to be? If you believe the local police are abusive, you're only inviting trouble if you antagonize them. Does Miller really believe that if he had simply pulled over when the cops turned on their lights, he would have been "beaten" by them? Does anyone? We'll never know, and because of that, his allegation of police brutality is a lot weaker.

Calvin Miller's father is a local activist who has "consistently appeared at city council meetings reporting on the brutality of the Champaign police," the Smile Politely article says. In the News Gazette article, the local state's attorney said that when she interviewed Calvin, he said his father had told him not to stop for police and call him if he's followed. I can't imagine feeling that much distrust and fear about authority figures. In a way, it seems that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Calvin was afraid of being beaten by police, so he ran from them, which resulted in him being beaten. (Or sustaining injuries, depending on which story you believe.)

We may never know what exactly happened. Even if there were 14 cameras recording the entire incident, I'm convinced you'd still have people arguing over what each frame proves. On the left you're still going to have people screaming police brutality and on the right you will have people saying this dangerous black kid got what he deserved.

It's more complicated than that. Let's be reasonable and try to solve the problem. It's not easy being a police officer, and it's not easy being a member of an oppressed group that has a legitimate historical fear of authority figures.


Gamera said...

Both Calvin and Martel have both stated that Martel never told his son to ignore being pulled over nor did Calvin say that to the police officers. That is propaganda by "The Man." Sorta like "We found WMD."

The SA and the police can say whatever they like---what they can back up with evidence and proof is another. Unless they say it under oath, it means nothing. The police are legally allowed to lie to you---while questioning you, while investigating, whenever. They have no requirement to tell you the truth.

Also, Rietz didn't interview Calvin. That came from the arresting officer---who is probably trying to cover his ass.

Interesting that you would believe hearsay from The Man but not from your fellow citizens.

Tim said...

Thanks for your comment. I guess it's not that important to me whether Martel told Calvin not to stop for police. But obviously, by his own account, Calvin did not stop for them. There must have been some reason that his first impulse was to run. I put that statement in my blog as a possible explanation.

I don't understand how fabricating a quote like that would "cover the ass" of the arresting officer, because it seems beside the point. So even that explanation doesn't make sense. It's more likely that he misinterpreted something Calvin said. Neither of them is lying, they just have different interpretations of the conversation. That happens all the time.

Regardless of what the truth is, what I mostly object to is the quality/objective of SA article, which felt sloppy and emotionally manipulative.

If I'm more likely to believe hearsay from The Man, it's because that hearsay sounds more credible. Maybe the local authorities simply have a more polished a PR machine. I'm willing to entertain that possibility. But I feel like the SP article hurt Miller's case (at least for this one reader), rather than help it, and in turn hurt race relations in general.

It sounds like one good thing to come out of this is that there might be more support for a Citizen's Review Board. I'm all for anything that sheds more light on incidents like these.