Thursday, August 21, 2014

The other fatal police shooting in St. Louis

Here is video of the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, released by St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Official reports claimed Powell was mentally unstable, acting erratically and threatening police with a knife held over his head. The video appears to contradict those claims.

Was Powell's killing justified? Was he murdered unnecessarily? Did the police have other options? You be the judge.

Here is a zoomed in, and therefore clearer, version of the video that was posted by Corriere della Sera:

Here is the original video posted to YouTube:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ferguson 2014 a reminder of Orangeburg 1968


History repeats itself. We often wish it wouldn’t; we wish we could learn from our mistakes. We like to think that with each generation we become more enlightened, better able to contend with life’s challenges.

Then Ferguson happens.

A shooting. Protests. Violent police response. Days of confrontation. The governor gets involved. The National Guard is called in. A state of emergency is declared. Anger and resentment simmer.

And nothing really gets resolved.

“Shooting Surfaces Deep Racial Tensions,” a New York Times headline declares, as if we’re meant to assume the rebellion in Ferguson, Mo., was spontaneous.

All of it — the fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth in a poor area north of St. Louis, the eruption of anger in the community, the belligerent and militaristic police response, the cursing, the marching, the escalation of fear and anger, the blame flung about by observers, the desperate attempts to “keep the peace” and “stabilize” the community — all of it is like a recurring nightmare, déjà vu.

It is reminiscent of many racial confrontations between black youths and law enforcement in American cities over the years, but one in particular comes immediately to mind: the Orangeburg Massacre.

It was Feb. 1968 and students at Claflin College and South Carolina State College, both historically black schools, were unhappy about a recalcitrant small-town merchant who stubbornly refused to desegregate his bowling alley, claiming his business was not subject to the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. He was a lone hold-out, and the students were not going to stand by quietly.

“Deep racial tensions” could be traced back to slavery days in Orangeburg and throughout the South. By 1968, the Black Power movement was in full swing, emboldening young African Americans to speak louder, protest more vigorously, demand not just their rights but political and economic influence.

It began with a protest at the bowling alley on February 6. Students tempted fate by entering the bowling alley (not for the first time; several similar challenges to owner Harry Floyd’s segregation policy had been attempted), only to be ejected. Some were arrested, prompting hundreds of students to leave campus and march to the small strip mall a short distance away. They gathered in the parking lot, met by state police. A fire truck was called to the scene, infuriating students. SLED Chief Pete Strom called for reinforcements.

The evening ended with the swinging of fists and batons. One officer was injured. Many students were attacked and beaten, some hurt badly enough to require emergency treatment at the college infirmary.

The episode was the result of rankling racial discord, of institutional injustice and pent-up frustration. It was followed by a day of simmering reflection and heated discussion. What should be done now?

The next day, Feb. 7, was relatively calm. Students and faculty held meetings on campus and drew up a list of demands to be presented to city and state officials. From his office in Columbia, Gov. Robert McNair tried to calm the situation. Publicly, he blamed “outside agitators” for the discord.

That evening included minor public outbursts. A small fire slightly damaged a home; a white man fired birdshot at a group of Claflin students who had ventured near his house; bottles were thrown as passing cars; two white teenage brothers drove onto campus and one fired a gun from the car, prompting students to attack the vehicle when it got caught in a dead end and ending with a police chase along Highway 601.

The daylight hours of Feb. 8 were the calm before the storm. Local police, SLED patrolmen, FBI agents and National Guardsmen were on high alert. Around 9:30 p.m., antsy students lit a bonfire on campus by the street. They grew rowdy. Some threw bottles. Fire trucks were called to the scene and the bonfire was doused. Law enforcement officers began to take up positions opposite the student protestors. Nearby, a banister was tossed through the air and struck Patrolman David Shealy, who fell to the ground.

Confusion ensued. Some thought Shealy had been shot. McNair apprised of the unfolding situation and fearful that students would burn down Orangeburg, ordered the perimeter to be tightened — 66 state patrolmen were armed with shotguns loaded with heavy buckshot; 45 National Guardsmen aimed M-1 rifles with fixed bayonets at the students.

Ellis MacDougall, director of the Department of Corrections, was struck in the leg by a rock. Someone discharged his weapon into the air, an act perhaps intended as a warning. Instead it prompted others to open fire. It was not clear who was giving orders. The 200 unarmed students gathered on the bluff dropped to ground. Some fell, writhing in pain. Others attempted to scramble up the embankment and out of danger.

Three young men were killed: freshman Samuel Hammond, sophomore Henry Smith and Orangeburg High School student Delano Middleton. Twenty-eight more were wounded, including Cleveland Sellers, a SNCC activist and South Carolina native who was on campus to promote black studies and other methods of black empowerment.

Sellers became the scapegoat, indicted ultimately on riot charges. In the immediate aftermath of the Orangeburg tragedy, news reports got it wrong. They stated that students and law enforcement exchanged fire and that Shealy was hit in the head by a bullet. Public attitudes toward the students therefore tended to be unsympathetic, even hostile: those thugs got what they deserved.

The FBI conducted a bumbling investigation but lost interest in the case after several months. The state did not insist on its own investigation. Students and campus officials complained, even protested, over the lack of resolution and vindication. Little public attention was paid to the case, even when a grand jury report indicated that nine patrolmen had broken the law.

In the end, blame landed on the shoulders of the “professional agitator,” Cleveland Sellers. The nine patrolmen were exonerated.

The Orangeburg Massacre remains a sore point in South Carolina’s remembered history. McNair went to his grave convinced that justice was done. He never apologized. The wounds inflicted on the psyches of South Carolina’s concerned citizens continue to fester.

The differences between Orangeburg and Ferguson are worth noting: the former was an active protest against segregation and marginalization, the latter a reactive rebellion against police brutality. The Orangeburg episode culminated in a shooting; the Ferguson disaster began with one. Orangeburg attracted very little media attention; Ferguson has made headlines for two weeks and counting. Nevertheless, the similarities are pronounced — the underlying grievances, the use of excessive force, the manner in which authorities escalated their response, the deployment of patrolmen and National Guardsmen, the attitudes and comments of elected officials, the differing perspectives of whites and blacks, and the highly confrontational nature of both incidents.

Ferguson’s wounds, too, will fester, long after the current troubles subside. For there, in the “hood” of St. Louis, misunderstanding and resentment rule the day. That’s what happens when police resort to violence rather than pursue community engagement, when they’re more concerned withgenerating revenue than with protecting the interests of those they are meant to serve.

In Orangeburg, segregation and discrimination and disempowerment were the burning coals that required only a thrust of the fan to ignite. In Ferguson, 46 years later, the roots of discontent are much the same. Ferguson is about 70 percent black; its police force is 95 percent white. In 2013, blacks were far more likely to be pulled over by police and searched for contraband, even if whites were 14 percent more likely to have illicit drugs, according to racial profiling data reported by the Ferguson police. Blacks also were arrested at twice the rate of whites.

As with the Orangeburg Massacre, law enforcement officers in Ferguson were placed in a no-win situation. Police, patrolmen and National Guardsmen were expected to “restore order,” but that order was precisely the problem. If the purpose of rebellion is to challenge the status quo, then those working to uphold it are in the way.

When police forces dress up in camouflage, arm themselves with military-grade weapons and roll through the streets in modified MRAPs, and adopt military tactics in an effort to control the crowds, they are undermining their own cause, according to Seth Stoughton, a former police officer in Florida and a professor of criminal law at the University of South Carolina.

“The military mission is straightforward: eliminate the enemy,” Stoughton said. “But a police officer is supposed to be working for everyone involved. He’s a servant of the public. And all of those individuals are the public. So when you start talking in terms of wars — on crime and drugs particularly — you put a set of blinders on police, who now say, ‘OK, now I work for the good guys.’ I think it’s changed the way we talk about it and the way we think about it, in a bad way.”

Now, he said, the enemy often is perceived to be within. Crime is not just crime, but motivated by something sinister, like terrorism. “It’s changed the way police see their mission,” Stoughton said.

And it has blinded them to the real problems: economic and educational disparities, unemployment, racism and discrimination. Instead of the cop on the beat who gets to know the community he is meant to serve, we have helmeted police-soldiers and SWAT teams, armed with automatic rifles, grenade launchers and megaphones.

This sort of policing is surely part of the problem, and the people of Ferguson are right to rebel against it.

If we are to prevent the next Ferguson, it is essential to address social unrest in a way that’s inclusive and fair. Escalating a military response, especially in the absence of dialogue and negotiation, only exacerbates the resentment, often resulting in disaster.

Orangeburg (and many other confrontations) showed us what can go wrong, and how quickly it can go wrong, when legitimate grievance is met with suppression — an effort “to restore calm” or “quell unrest” as the headlines say. Suppression alone sends a clear message: We are not interested in improving your lot, we only want you to obey the law.

Without genuine, organized efforts to address the underlying issues that cause discontent and disenfranchisement, the cycle of violence will surely continue. When the existing social order is the problem, it’s time to change the social order.

Adam Parker is a journalist in Charleston, South Carolina.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

LIVE OAK (a fable)

About 200 years ago, an acorn rolled through the grass, pushed by squirrels and an occasional gust of wind. It came to rest in a spot close to a beautiful tidal creek where dolphins dive and pelicans perch, always on the lookout for fish to eat.

The creek, which filled up and sometimes overflowed its banks when the tide tumbled in on a full moon, split a flat, marshy stretch of land on the other side of the big Cooper River, a place where nature ruled.

The acorn poked its roots into the ground, and soon a little live oak tree appeared. The tree was tiny at first, but it grew and grew, sprouting leaves, making new branches, getting fatter and fatter and taller and taller until, many years later, it could stretch into all parts of the sky like a starburst.

It was a beautiful big oak tree, soaking up the sun, proud of it accomplishment.

Then something unusual happened, something the oaks and magnolias and herons and dolphins and squirrels never expected. Even the wind failed to pick up the scent. People came and built houses for living in and stores for buying things and roads for getting around. They started to become friendly with one another.

The people built communities and began to socialize. The children played in special playgrounds and threw birthday parties so friends could get together. The grownups went to the theater and out for dinner. Families began to buy things to improve the way they lived.

More and more people came. It was getting hard to build roads and supermarkets and houses. There were so many trees, and so many animals!

The big happy oak tree watched and watched, every day and every night. The tree watched the people coming with all their things. One terrible day, several men with many poles and many wires came in a truck to extend electricity lines up and down all the streets. The wires hung on tall poles and were all connected together. The men who did the work didn’t care that they were planting electricity poles among the trees.

After a while, the trees forgot about the wires passing through their branches and started again where they left off. Squirrels scratched and scurried up and down the rugged trunks. As the years went by, the trees turned their green leaves to the sun, stretched and stretched their limbs and cast a cool shade on the ground.

The big happy oak tree watched cars roll past and scruffy people collect their newspapers early in the morning. One day, the man living in the house below climbed into the tree with a saw and trimmed away all the unnecessary or unhealthy little branches. The oak tree felt clean. To thank the man, the tree took an easy breath, ruffled its leaves and grew several inches, just enough to reach the house and caress its roof.

The oak tree continued to grow, watching grownups kiss and fight and laugh, watching children play and hug and yell and sing.

It watched one little girl from the house across the street come outside and swing on a round yellow seat hanging from a chain. The little girl looked up from her swing and marveled at the canopy of rustling leaves, at the birds darting from branch to branch, at the vastness of the sky overhead, and at the carpet of acorns the tree had laid upon the soft earth. The little girl reached down and scooped some acorns into her hand.

The chain of her swing was wrapped around the limb of another beautiful proud oak tree. The two trees were happy to be so close together, their branches intertwining above the asphalt like fingers.

One evening, the two trees watched a man collect his mail from a white mailbox near the road. The man held a light blue postcard in his hand, and when he read the message his face made a frown. Then he turned slowly and looked up at the trees.

When the big truck with a lightning bolt painted on the side arrived, no one was paying attention. The man who received the postcard had driven away in his car. Other people had driven away, too. A few stayed inside or did their daily chores.

The buzzing and chopping and grinding were very loud. It was the sound of destruction. It was the sound people make when they cannot see what’s ahead of them and when they don’t know how to look at what was behind them. It was the terrible sound people make when they are only following orders. It was the sound they make when conscience is shoved away.

When the frowning man came back home later that day he turned slowly and looked up at the trees again. He saw a giant, sky-filled letter “V” cut into a row of big trees. He saw huge piles of cut branches on the ground. He saw black electricity wires running from pole to pole through the airy spaces in the trees. The wires snapped and buzzed.

He thought: When you are not attached to the land, it is easier to forget. He thought: When you are pushed aside, it is harder to stop the forgetting.

After 200 years of slow stretches and turns, the branches in the middle of the big oak tree were gone, centuries of patient labor made to disappear in an instant. The tree was shocked, unbalanced, confused. What had just happened?

The sun shone hot on its leaves.

The wind blew fast through its branches.

The rain moistened fresh wounds.

The squirrels had to reassign their paths.

The people came home to cook dinner and watch TV.

The frowning man looked at the tree and hung his head low.

The next day, the little girl returned to her swing. In her pocket was one of the acorns she had scooped up. After turning twenty times and watching the thick, ridged bark of the oak tree cross her field of vision again and again, making her feel as though she were lost in the woods, she noticed an empty corner in the yard where the birds liked to bask in the sunshine and pick at the earth with their beaks in search of worms and bugs.

A cardinal bird saw her approach and flushed bright red before flying to a branch of the oak tree. There, in that sunny corner, the little girl stood still for a moment, thinking. A smile crossed her lips and she plunged her hand into her pocket, pulling out the acorn and holding it up in the sunlight.

With her hands, she dug a small hole then dropped in the seed.

That winter it was especially cold. The girl went to school. The frowning man went to work. The neighbors came and went in the cars and trucks. The trees shivered in the wind. No one was thinking about acorns, not even the sleeping squirrels.

And no one noticed when something new, something tiny and miraculous, happened in the sunny corner of the yard as soon as spring arrived.

Adam Parker
Revised August 10, 2013