The stakes of the campaign that has arisen in the aftermath of the execution of Oscar Grant were made clear over 50 years ago. The international outrage and disgust at the brutal torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi forced the Mississippi power structure to stage a mock trial, in order to fend off the threat of possible federal intervention by repairing its image with a thin veneer of Anglo law.
The prosecutors in the subsequent murder trial put on a fine show, that impressed both the white Northern and the Negro press – and that was fixed to fail. The Emmett Till murder, and the acquittal of the murderers, became a powerful unifier in the struggle against the Southern brand of white supremacy.
California’s 21st century brand of police state is more sophisticated and efficient. We’ve already gotten a glimpse of the intense propaganda campaign that we can expect to see waged by the state through its media mouthpiece. Although at this stage, more than two months after the killing, the killer still has not explained his action, the void has been filled by viral dissemination of the deceptive Taser-confusion fiction.
The Taser-confusion hoax is being spread by others: The killer himself has not publicly declared that. In fact, the killer’s bail motion only implies, but never claims, that he thought he was using a Taser and not his gun:
“However, the bulk of the discovery, including witness and officer statements, seems to indicate that this young officer, who carried a taser for only a few shifts prior to this event, may have mistakenly deployed his service pistol rather than his taser, thus negating any criminal intent.”
Note the wording: “seems to indicate” and “may have mistakenly deployed his service pistol rather than his taser.” These are terms of speculation, carefully crafted by the legal team of Michael Rains (who made his bones as Mr. Fix-it for law enforcement low-lifes by springing the “Corcoran 8” prison guards and the “Oakland Riders”) and junior partner Harry Stern (who chummed with Santa Clara county prosecutors to give the finger to the majority will of the jury and free Michael Kan, one of the two Palo Alto police thugs that tortured 60-year-old Albert Hopkins).
Yet this claim merely raises more questions: If the killer was negligent and had no criminal intent, why has he not cooperated with investigators? When police stop someone on the street for an interrogation, and the detained person invokes the right to silence, the disingenuous police response is always “If you’re innocent, then you should have nothing to hide.”
At least one of the contradictions in the claims of the bail motion was exposed by the judge. While claiming the killer intended to use the Taser, the motion also claimed the killer acted in self-defense: “I thought he was going for a gun”. But the self-defense claim implies that the killer intended to use his pistol – not the Taser.
By now the real purpose of the Taser-confusion hoax should be obvious: to restore public confidence in police. From blogs and online comments, it seems that many who viewed the video of the murder of Oscar Grant are not familiar with the data on extrajudicial executions by U.S. police.
Police killings in U.S. average one a day
In October 2007, the Justice Department reported that during the three years from 2003 through 2005 police in the U.S. killed, on average, a person every day. While the U.S. murder rate during 2003-2005 was 3.7-4.2 times higher than that of Australia and the U.K., the U.S. police killing rate was 4.1-74 times higher. In addition, the Justice Department figures are only a lower bound. The actual number of extrajudicial killings must be higher because three states, Georgia, Maryland and Montana, failed to submit data. Also, federal agencies are not required to report such deaths.
In October 2007, the Justice Department reported that during the three years from 2003 through 2005 police in the U.S. killed, on average, a person every day.
These statistics are disturbing. But the stories behind the numbers are frightening. While national media attention was given to the 2006 cases of Sean Bell – killed just hours before his wedding, when New York City police fired nearly 50 shots at his car as he left his bachelor’s celebration – and 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston – killed in a hail of nearly 40 gunshots during an Atlanta police no-knock drug raid – most killings by police that year received local attention at most. These stories may not be as widely known, yet they are no less shocking:
New Hanover County, North Carolina
A heavily armed unit of the New Hanover County, North Carolina, Sheriff’s Office went to the home of Peyton Strickland, an 18-year-old community college student, looking for a PlayStation 3 video game machine they suspected he and a friend stole. When police hit the front door with a battering ram, Deputy Christopher Long allegedly mistook the sound for a gun blast and he fired through the door killing the unarmed student.
According to court records, Deputy Long carried a .45-caliber submachine gun, a .45-caliber pistol, two extra pistol magazines, two extra sub gun magazines, a gas mask, a knife and a flash bang grenade. Deputy Long told a grand jury that he expected heavily armed resistance based on a Facebook picture where Strickland’s friend posed with a collector’s guns (though Strickland was not in the photo). Deputy Long was fired, but the grand jury did not indict.
Prince George’s County, Maryland
Prince George’s County, Maryland, policeman Jordan Swonger shot dead Gregory Boggs Jr., 24, in one of the disproportionate number of cases seen as “white cop kills unarmed young Black man” that raised the ethnic issues often surrounding killings by U.S. police. Police say Swonger responded to a report of a man assaulting a woman and found Boggs standing over a woman. Swonger said he ordered Boggs away from the woman but Boggs picked her up and held her in front of him as a shield. When told to put his hands up, police said, Boggs reached toward his waistband. Police said Swonger feared Boggs was reaching for a weapon, so he shot and killed him. Police acknowledge that they later discovered Boggs was not armed.
The woman on the scene, 19-year-old Lanaya Borden, denied the police account of the incident and said her unarmed boyfriend did nothing to provoke the shooting. She countered that Boggs did not use her as a shield, and that she was standing with Boggs, not on the ground. She said that Swonger shot Boggs within 20 seconds of his arrival.
In January 2006, the Clackamas County, Oregon, Sheriff’s Office ruled that Deputy Dave Willard “acted within existing rules and regulations and according to current training” when he and Sandy police officer William Bergin killed unarmed 27-year-old Fouad Kaady, firing seven shots into him in September 2005. (Bergin was also cleared, but resigned in October 2008 amidst an investigation charging that he gave revoked driver’s licenses to an underage friend. That followed a 2007 arrest for driving while intoxicated, to terrorize his ex-girlfriend.)
The victim had stripped naked after being badly burned in a car accident. Willard told investigators: “The first thing that struck me was that this man is seriously injured; he has … burns, he’s lost a lot of blood, he’s got blood all over himself … he is, appears to be, just kinda catatonic, he’s not looking up at us he’s not doing anything he’s just sitting just like this.”
The police then ordered the burn victim to lie down on the hot pavement. When the “catatonic” burn victim did not respond, they Tasered him three times. When the shocked victim then started running away from police, then towards them, and jumped atop the police car, they shot him dead. The entire encounter was reported to have lasted just 28 seconds.
People lacking such context – or personal experience – who normally accept killings by police uncritically, probably experienced “cognitive dissonance” when they witnessed the execution of Oscar Grant by police: discomfort with the discrepancy between what they believe and what they witness. The response to that discomfort carries the potential to rock the foundation of the police state. The Taser-confusion hoax serves to resolve that dissonance, by providing a reassuring narrative to that chilling video:
“You are NOT witnessing an extrajudicial execution: We all know that only happens in lands devoid of respect for human life, not the U.S. You are witnessing a freak accident, a terrible mistake. Everything is under control. Now let’s get this behind us and move forward in our post-racial society.”
It doesn’t matter how far-fetched the Taser-confusion claim is – the Internet gave it wings, and elevated it to the status of urban legend, because so many wanted to believe it.
The lead defense attorney who won the acquittal for Emmett Till’s murderers summed up the case by claiming, “After the jury had been chosen, any first-year law student could have won the case.” That was one of the ways the Mississippi prosecutors fixed the case to fail. Similarly, defense attorneys for police on trial for excessive force enjoy the comfort of knowing that prosecutors’ training and experience lead them to select jurors with blind faith in police testimony. These jurors will be yearning for relief from their cognitive dissonance – or, for those simply in denial, a rationalization for that denial.
But, ultimately, the acquittal of Emmett Till’s murderers helped dismantle Jim Crow Mississippi rather than preserve it. We will see what history has taught California’s guardians of police terrorism – and what it has taught those who seek to end that terrorism.
“Fixed To Fail: The Emmett Till Murder Trial,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuHeNQeSG8I
“Plan 9 from BART police,” http://www.sfbayview.com/2009/did-bart-cop-who-killed-oscar-grant-mistake-gun-for-taser
“Motion to Set Bail,” http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2009/01/30/18566987.php
“Close To Home: Measuring U.S. Respect For The Human Right To Life,” http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/04/16/18493097.php
“28 seconds : The Killing of Fouad Kaady,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8WijDe5BhQ
“What Happened to Fouad Kaady,” http://fkaady.blogspot.com
Bay Area writer Junya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.