The Verdict and the Questions Not Asked
by Justine Nicholas
by Justine Nicholas
I guess I'm vulnerable to the mainstream media's manipulations after all. On Friday morning, I fixed my eyes on toward the television screen as the local talking heads promised the verdict would be coming "any moment now."
They were referring, of course, to the decision in the trial of the NYPD officers who fired fifty shots at Sean Bell. I could claim that I was a captive audience: After all, the large plasma screen I was watching took up a rather large part of my doctor's waiting room. I could have read the book I brought or the two-issues-old magazines in the racks around the room. Or I could also have done some of my own writing. But I continued to watch and listen raptly to a reporter who probably couldn't have found Sean Bell's neighborhood if a GPS monitor were surgically implanted in her brain.
In that waiting room, as I waited for my appointment, I found myself thinking about the Presidential primaries, the upcoming elections and elections past. I could not make a connection between the electoral spectacles and the case which was soon to be decided. However, shortly after the "not guilty" verdict was announced, I understood the similarities between the polls and the trial of the police officers.
The trial led, as the process of primaries and caucuses leads, to people choosing A and B. Which choice people make is used to make all sorts of assumptions about them, to wit: If you vote Republican, you don't care about civil liberties or the welfare of elderly people and children; if you vote Democrat, you're ignoring the threat of Islamofascists (whatever those are) and/or don't care about "our troops." Likewise, if you favored acquittal of the cops who shot Sean Bell, you are racist (notwithstanding the fact that two of the three officers were, uh, people of color), but if you wanted them convicted, you are anti-cop and didn't care about the safety of my poor, dear grandmother in Rego Park.
And, in both the trial and the elections, you gain even more opprobrium by suggesting that people are picking among two bad choices: You are likely to get flack from both camps and if you suggest an alternative, you are labeled as "elitist" or "pie-in-the-sky."
But worst of all, people who think "democracy" is the privilege of picking between Frick and Frack come to their choices without ever asking, or even hearing, a relevant question about the issues in question. They still think that how quickly and thoroughly this country weathers the subprime mortgage crisis or how soon their children, siblings and spouses come back from Iraq is a matter of voting for the right candidate. By the same token, they think that "justice" (however they define it) is a matter of a "guilty" or "not guilty" verdict.
What is almost never asked is how and why the situation in which people have to choose between two bad alternatives — and think their choice will actually make a difference — came to be. I'm no expert on Middle Eastern or colonial history, but what I know about each tells me that it's foolhardy to think that we can shape (or do anything at all) to make countries like Iraq do what our plutocrats want them to do. (In fact, I realize that creating the country of Iraq was one of the more misguided things the British Empire builders did.) However, nearly everyone who votes, and nearly everyone for whom they vote, either doesn't know this history or deliberately ignores it. In a similar vein, they don't understand, as Gary North and others have shown, that economic conditions of the past two decades are largely the result "bubbles" in high-technology, real estate and commodities that were induced by Fed manipulation of the money supply. So, the debate about "what to do now" centers around not whether, but how, to help people who shouldn't have taken out adjustable rate mortgages to stay in homes they can't afford and to lower the cost of gasoline.
To continue the comparison between the electoral process and the Sean Bell trial, whether people favored acquittal or conviction, their choice was based on flawed premises and a faulty, at best, understanding of how and why three NYPD officers pumped fifty slugs into someone who was doing little more than celebrating his last night as a single man. The pro-conviction crowd, as I've already mentioned, cites racism, 'roid rage or pure-and-simple criminal dereliction of duty as the cause, while the ones who wanted the acquittal the cops got say the officers in question had reason to believe they were in danger and had to make a split-second decision. Those who think the acquittal was right also invoke Sean Bell's unsavory past as a reason for their stance. In other words, they are saying that Bell was one of the "usual suspects."
Of course, one could ask how Officers Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper knew about Bell's youthful offenses, the record of which was supposedly sealed. More to the point is the fact that if he had already paid for his past offenses, no law enforcement official can use them as a rationale for chasing or arresting him, any more than he could be tried for those same offenses.
Still more germane is a question that no one in the mainstream media (and, as a result the general public) seems to have asked: What, exactly, were Officers Oliver, Isnora and Cooper doing at the Kahlua Club — a dive hard by the Long Island Railroad tracks in a gritty area of Jamaica, Queens — on the night they pumped fifty bullets into Sean Bell's body. In asking that question, one would be questioning one of the most basic premises behind the NYPD's work — and most urban policing in this country — for at least the past two decades: crime prevention.
Up to about forty years ago, most policing could be said to have been reactive: The constables responded to an offense already committed. However, as the crime rate ratcheted up — fueled in large part by governmental bans on the sale of various recreational drugs — fed-up people were all too willing to go along with this idea, even at the expense of their civil liberties. This ceding of freedom was further accelerated by the events of 9/11 and the reactions to them. People who once cherished the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth Amendments were now willing to tolerate racial profiling, cameras in private places and other practices and apparati that would have given pause to George Orwell.
But here's the rub: Giving up our rights — and our means of defending them — means that the police — and by extension, the government who employs them — can impose its will with less and less impunity. Inevitably, the agents of government become more and more like the evildoers they are supposedly trying to stop: Police undercover work, as we have seen in the case of Sean Bell, has become one of the most egregious examples of this. Officers Oliver, Isnora and Cooper had to act like customers of the sleazy strip club they were ostensibly infiltrating. Upholding the law and protecting public safety while behaving like overgrown, testosterone-addled frat boys requires greater acting skills than any director ever demanded even of Ben Kingsley. Most people don't have that kind of talent or skills; those things certainly can't be taught at the NYPD Academy.
So we are left with police departments doing what they couldn't, by definition, do in a free society: i.e., one founded on principles of liberty and respect for law. Worse, taxpayers demand such things as "crime prevention" and the "War on Terror," just as they're now crying for the government to help people out of the subprime mess they got themselves into.
And they sit, transfixed, in front of their TV sets, awaiting the verdict and election results — as, I admit, I have.
May 3, 2008
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] is the deputy director of the Office of Academic Achievement at York College in Queens, New York.
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