Sunday, April 27, 2008

50 Bullets...Oops

When I was a kid, doctors could fix anything and cops were the good guys. Of course, for doctors, the most serious anything was swollen tonsils, which a needle squirting penicillin in my gluteus would fix it. For cops, my mother ran Red Cross chapters, which meant they were always around, taking first aid or water safety courses, working on fires and other disasters, or just because they were my cousins.

Πάντα ῥεῖ, as Heraclitus wrote — everything is in flux.

As an adult with a family, I have come to recognize that there are many things doctors can't fix. If most of us were as lame at our jobs as doctors necessarily at doing theirs, we'd be on the street in a flash. There's too much to know and too many variables out of their control. I never robbed my son of the illusion their F.P. could fix them, even though I was prepared for that.

Likewise, with police officers, I have learned that their virtue varies. One of my own cousins, a Maryland trooper once split a motorist's skull with a blackjack in a pique. This unjustified assault brought no punishment when the magistrate said he'd rather believe that a state cop felt threatened by an unarmed, tipsy, seated driver than the testimony of bystanders.

When I lived in Manhattan, an old city detective I came to know tried to get me to piggyback on his weekly visit to West 13th Street butchers who'd fill up my trunk with large amounts of beef and pork, a perk he'd availed himself of for decades.

Here in Beantown, we have had many cases of corruption and worse. I am still stunned by last year's pre-dawn death on I-93 in Dot of Michelle Vibert. A Boston cop plowed into her small car stalled on the right lane fog line with his gigantic Ford Explorer. The troopers who responded did not check him for alcohol, investigated only 40 minutes 7.5 hours after the crash (without closing the highway), and treated the dead victim as the sole cause. The shameless state-police report led the Suffolk DA to avoid changes against Thomas Griffin. The troopers said that sure he was at the Purple Shamrock bar for hours, but oh, no, he never drank. He swerved from the middle lane to the right one and smacked into Vibert's car without seeing or avoiding it, but he was not impaired. He was speeding, but all that much.

Of course, cops watch out for their own, a natural if immoral tendency. Judges far too often let cops get away with assault or murder that would earn the rest of us a hard fight in courts and the likelihood of jail and permanent criminal records.

How much slack should we leave for those who may put their lives on the line to protect us? Is it an infinite amount?

Last week, in extreme affronts to reason and justice, three NYC detectives who gunned down 23-year-old Sean Bell in September 2006, were acquited of all charges by Justice Arthur J. Cooperman, who said he didn't believe the prosecutors had presented enough evidence. This included Det. Michael Oliver, who reloaded his gun and fired 31 shots in the 50-shot sustained volley.

In terms of justice, his fiancé (and the two other unarmed young men shot by the cops) may see some money in her civil suit and the feds are still looking into civil-rights violations. However, the judge's assumption clearly was that cops are demigods, above the very laws they are to enforce.

Many citizens are outraged at such unconstitutional, institutionalized murder, but not astounded that this happened yet again. Mildly mitigating the murder and trial is the racial component. Bell was Black, as were two of the three detectives.

In the short-term, we're likely to hear more of this in the Presidential campaign, writes Robert Lovato in the current Black Communicator. He notes that this is another risk for Barack Obama. Still singed by his comments about the bitter social conservatives, Obama remains on the spot where we expect him to carry a civil-rights flag that the other two main candidates long ago dropped. As Lovato puts it:
Failure to use his rhetorical gifts to speak forcefully to and about real black and non-black anger about the Sean Bell verdict may re-animate doubts about commitment to that part of his base that is not white middle and working class.

Beyond Obama, all of us need to raise our voices and point at the abyss of our country’s institutional racism as was painfully and transparently reflected in the Sean Bell verdict. We might want to start by pushing Obama, Clinton and McCain-and the mainstream media- to speak honestly and continually about what the 50 bullets in Sean Bell say about justice in the 50 states of our tattered and bloodied union.

I've long ago given up on finding a fix-it-all doctor, but I do know some Boston cops who are brave and honest and honorable.

I too am looking for Obama to speaker louder, stronger and more clearly for civil rights, in the Bell instance among others. Come the battles and debates for the November vote, the call for justice will not be coming from John McCain. It needs to be more than a mumble from the Democratic nominee.

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