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Last week I was on my way to visit Medium’s headquarters in San Francisco to discuss a project that I’m working on, mainly focused around police brutality. Funnily enough (or not so), I ended up being over an hour late, because this happened.
I recorded the incident Aug. 4, 2015, during the lunch hour. It involves a Black man who was taken down by police in the mid-Market area of San Francisco, between Seventh and Eighth streets. Though the takedown didn’t occur directly outside of the Twitter building on Ninth Street, I began to see outlines of the incident unfold from there: a limping Black figure, wearing black, increasingly cornered by a wall of blue. By the time I had crossed Eighth Street, I was pulling out my phone as fast as I could.
Witnesses said there had been a call about somebody waving sticks around. No one, at least no one who stayed long enough after the filming, could say for sure where the call came from. One woman said that she heard someone say that one of the deli managers called. By the time I arrived where Joe Bland (as we’ll call him) was, several officers had arrived on the scene and forced this man to the ground, which is where this footage begins. And they held him down, much of the time half-naked, for at least half an hour on one of San Francisco’s busiest streets.
The sticks? They were his crutches. You can hear people in the background around say as much. From my vantage point on Eighth Street, I could see the man reluctantly hand over his crutches. The man, it turned out, only had one leg; the other was a prosthetic. It is often twisted and backwards in the video. And this was the crux of the heightened tension between the police and Joe Bland; they wanted his crutches and he did not want to give them away.
“What are you doing this for?” he asked so many times. “These are my crutches. I use these to walk.” He repeats this throughout the footage. An officer can be seen at the 5 second time-mark stomping on the man’s prosthetic leg. In further efforts to subdue a man already on the ground with four people on top of him, they stood on his leg, held it, and twisted it around even after they had cuffed him and pinned him to the piss-stained concrete.
Even when restrained and clearly unable to walk, several officers continued to hold him down to the ground.
At one point there are at least 14 officers involved in restraining this one-legged man. Most of them were mainly trying to block the public’s view of what was going on.
This version of the video is 11 minutes long – the incident actually went on way longer and I have roughly 30 minutes of footage – but here’s a brief summary of what you can see:
At 5 seconds in, you can see a cop literally stomp this man’s real leg and prosthetic leg.
At 10 seconds, the manhandling of his head begins.
At 22 seconds, the man says, “What the fuck is you doing this to me?”
Around 1:35, the “Blue Wall” begins to form to block my filming.
Around 3:11, you can see that the man is partially nude, his ass exposed. You can also hear me responding to the things that officers are saying to me, even if you can’t really hear them. Among the things they said: “You don’t live here,” “What do you do?” and “Oh, you’re a journalist, right, for who?”
Around 3:55, you can’t hear him, but the man on the ground says, “They’re going to shoot me!” And then you can clearly hear someone behind me say, “They ain’t gonna shoot you, man. That’s why we have these cameras out here.”
At 4:00, the wall begins to deepen and you can also see his nude backside completely exposed.
Around 6:00, he begins saying how much it hurts: ”This shit hurts.” And at 6:44, he says, “That shit hurts … I have a fucking sore, an infection, on my leg.”
Around 7:00, the man begins asking: “What the fuck is wrong with you? Is this what you do? (Inaudible word, then “treat me?”) Is this respectable? When I say ‘no,’ is this what you do to me?”
At 7:25, he’s explaining to them, as he has before – and other people in the background have also corroborated – that he was walking with the sticks that were confiscated from him.
It goes on.
This isn’t a video of a man getting killed. Some might watch this and think in that general, indemnifying way, that this video is an exceptional case of an isolated case of poor policing. I’d have to disagree – and not respectfully – with you.
These incidents are so quotidian, so mundane, that they do not merit a mention even in passing on the local news. Which is to say, this is everyday harassment. Which is to say, we’ve normalized and habitualized the kind of policing in San Francisco and the rest of America that brutalizes the most vulnerable people, which strips them of their human dignity, the agency to their bodies – to walk with crutches when physically disabled, to have this body unviolated – when in actuality, they are whom the police are especially supposed to be protecting.
In the book “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body – it is heritage.” This is a literal and physical example of what he means. To say that this footage is exceptional or special is to be blind to Eric Garner’s death tape, to Walter Scott’s murder on video. It is to agree that John Crawford did not have the right to walk around Walmart with a toy gun in an open carry state. Yes, it’s racial profiling. Yes, it’s racism. Yes, it’s inequality. This is an American heritage.
Yes, it’s racial profiling. Yes, it’s racism. Yes, it’s inequality. This is an American heritage.
But before you think that this is not San Francisco’s heritage, it would be better to first ask the Joe Blands, those that you may step over on any given day because you are busy, the BART is packed and they smell violently, what they think San Francisco’s heritage is, as it pertains to the police. Before you think that this is not San Francisco’s heritage, it is better to wonder why Black people, 7 percent of San Francisco’s population, are 7 times more likely to be arrested than White people.
Before you think that this is not San Francisco’s heritage, it is better to wonder why Black people, 7 percent of San Francisco’s population, are 7 times more likely to be arrested than White people.
If you must believe that this video and the flood of others like it are exceptional instances of isolated brutality, then let us too believe that the stomping of vulnerable Black bodies and Black (prosthetic) limbs with pulverizing intent are what is meant when they say American exceptionalism.
I don’t know who Joe Bland is. I and others tried to get his name, but we could not make it out very well. Long after my meeting at Medium, watching the video by frames and discussing this with Bobbie Johnson (who did a tremendous job in helping this come together and edit this) about what to do next, I was still at a loss for exactly what he’d done.
But I do know that the police didn’t even put him under arrest: SFFD medics strapped him, against his will, to a stretcher and took him to hospital, for no apparent reason. I do know that he was humiliated, crying and deeply upset, but that and being physically handicapped are not enough reasons to be sent to the hospital. I do know that 14 officers to take down a presumably homeless man with one leg seems like a waste of resources and unreasonable.
The San Francisco Police Department is not new to controversy or to this American heritage. This year it’s been embroiled in a racist texting scandal, with officers caught sending messages calling African-Americans “monkeys” and encouraging the killing of “half breeds.” Earlier this year several officers and former officers were sentenced to jail for drug dealing and pocketing money found during drug raids.
Just last week it came to light that the department has requested a mine-resistant armored vehicle, and recently the department was also subject to an investigation into faulty crime lab evidence – with as many as 1,400 criminal cases in the spotlight. A 2014 KQED review of police-involved shootings between 2005 and 2013 found that 58 percent of the people killed by the San Francisco Police Department were mentally ill.
The San Francisco Police Department is not new to controversy or to this American heritage.
In an interview with the City Democratic Club in 2014, San Francisco’s chief of police, Greg Suhr, reported that his men are becoming “more and more charming.“
Speaking of which, Greg Suhr earns $320,000 per year – more than any other police chief in America. He also makes more than the mayor of San Francisco and the governor of California – $285,000 and $174,000 respectively.
What can San Franciscans do about the police, who work for them?
This happened in the heart of one of America’s most affluent cities, literally outside the headquarters of Twitter. One block away are the headquarters of Uber, which is on pace to be the fastest-growing company in history. There are dozens of technology companies and buzzy internet media businesses along this stretch of Market Street, worth many, many billions of dollars.
And not to my knowledge did any of their employees or representatives come out to look at what the police were doing. And if they did, none of them have since publicly wondered what and how to use the powers of innovation, access and capital to change the narrative of police brutality in San Francisco and America.
Perhaps they did not know that Joe Bland had been brutalized. Perhaps they were looking from their lofts and skyscrapers, on their way to the coffee machines or the in-house catered lunch and did see, but they too have normalized this mundane, quotidian and brutal American heritage. Whatever the internal struggles were, no one came.
And what could they do? If you’re sitting in your office in the Tenderloin, or mid-Market, or downtown San Francisco, what can you really do?
You are not powerless. You are rich and empowered, despite how you feel after paying rent and the IRS. You have a voice, a vote, a say in how San Francisco polices itself, in how it treats people. Greg Suhr and his officers work for you, not the other way around. As such, the police act on the democratic will of the people and if the current policing does not fit your will, you can change that.
You are not powerless. You have a voice, a vote, a say in how San Francisco polices itself, in how it treats people.
So here are three things you can do:
You can ask yourself: Why, in the heartland of the world’s technology industry, does the local police force not wear body cameras? You could ask your employers, or your friends’ employers, to lobby for the police who patrol the most technologically powerful region on earth to be the most technologically capable. If San Francisco cannot set the precedence for body cameras in America, who else will lead this?
You can go to a local SFPD district force’s public meeting and ask whether they believe this is a good way to police their communities. This incident happened in the Tenderloin district: There is a public meeting on the last Tuesday of every month; the next one is Aug. 25.
You can contact the superior officers of these policemen and women and tell them what you think of SFPD policing. You can also ask Greg Suhr if his officers on the video live in the Tenderloin community or know the community well.
Suhr has stated that the “well compensated” officers’ salaries – which begin at $81,000 and after seven years of service can reach upwards of $113,000 – of his force are necessary for his men to afford to live in San Francisco, and studies have shown that police who live in the communities where they police are less likely to use the kind of excessive violence that was caught on tape. But the money and the statistics do not follow, so you, citizens of San Francisco, should follow up.
Your move, SF and Silicon Valley.