Wednesday, May 7, 2008
One Of These Things Is Just Like The Other
How we live now: Riding the subways in the "Land of the Free" in the Year of Our Lord 2008.
In late April, the mortal remains of 65-year-old Norman Stamp were interred in Essex, Maryland. Mr. Stamp, a member of a motorcycle club called the Chosen Sons, had been killed a few days earlier during a barroom brawl. The tussle capped an evening that had begun with the hazing of a new initiate into the Chosen Sons. And predictably enough, the whole thing started over contending territorial claims over women.
When police arrived at Haven Place in southeast Baltimore to break up the altercation, Stamp pulled on a set of brass knucks and charged into the fray. An officer hit him with a Taser blast, knocking Stamp to the floor. Recovering quickly, Stamp reportedly reached for a pistol and was killed when the officer shot him repeatedly at close range.
Among those who mourned Stamp's death was Sgt. Don Helms, a Baltimore police officer and chaplain of the local Fraternal Order of Police.
"He knew who the bad guys were. He knew who the good guys were," insisted Sgt. Helms, speaking of Stamp after his funeral. "He knew all his business people. He controlled the areas he worked in. He was Andy of Mayberry."
The crime scene: Haven Place, after the fatal shooting of Norman Stamp.
You see, Norman Stamp was not just a member of a motorcycle club, he was a 44-year veteran of the local police force. He was the third longest-serving officer in the force, and a founding member of the Chosen Sons, which was formed in 1969. His last words, reportedly, were: "I'm a cop."
He died on the evening he celebrated his 44th anniversary as a police officer, and presided over the initiation of a new member into a biker gang he helped create nearly 40 years ago.
As we learned last year when honorably discharged U.S. Marine Matthew Hale was gunned down by a paramilitary police force in Delaware, bike clubs aren't generally looked on with favor by police departments. But here we see Norman Stamp, an avatar of the beloved Sheriff Andy, spending his free time in a biker gang, eventually being shot to death by another police officer, and then being laid to rest with the familiar paramilitary pomp and ceremony that attend the burial of those members of the "civilian" police force who meet an untimely end.
Two gangs mourn an honored comrade: The Chosen Sons bike club (left), and the Baltimore Police Department (below, right).
Both of the gangs of which Stamp was a proud member turned out to pay their respects: Officers from the Baltimore PD wore dress uniforms, and the Chosen Sons proudly displayed their club "patch" or insignia, a stylized red cross.
Fortunately, there was adequate manpower on hand to protect the public from a potential outbreak of criminal violence, since (as the Baltimore Sun reported) "Bikers from various clubs around the state outnumbered the uniformed police officers."
Much of the press coverage of Stamp's admittedly tragic death depicted him as a man straddling the gulf between two very different worlds. But this "gulf" is about a micrometer deep, and perhaps the width of a human hair. Most people would believe that police forces and biker gangs are at antipodes from each other. Norman Stamp considered them to be perfectly compatible
Decades of militarization -- in terms of hardware, tactics, and indoctrination -- have produced a police culture that differs from that of the typical Outlaw Biker gang in relatively trivial ways.
Consider, for one example, the shared ethic of comrades-in-arms.
Speaking of the Chosen Sons, Paul "Nitro" Treash, the group's sergeant-at-arms, told one reporter: "This lifestyle, it isn't for everybody. These guys will fight and die for each other."
Of course, police officers are bound by a very similar sense of camaraderie -- the knowledge that someone's got your back as you confront a dangerous and unpredictable world. This is a noble and virtuous ethic. But like all other human virtues, it can degenerate into an insufferable sense of elitism and a thuggish impulse to punish perceived slights to the colors.
Many motorcycle clubs resist that impulse. Police forces are increasingly given permission to indulge it.
That's what appears to have happened in Philadelphia on Monday night (May 5), when somewhere between twelve and sixteen officers converged at a traffic stop involving two teenage suspects. The police break up into two groups; in each, several officers hold a prone individual to the ground as he is repeatedly punched, kicked and (in one case) beaten with a baton. A video of this incident shows a third individual also being kicked and thrown to the ground.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, allowing that the videotaped incident "certainly does not look good in terms of the amount of force that was used," explained that his officers had been "on edge" for several days following a fatal shooting of a fellow officer. He also claimed that officers were responding to a report of a nearby shooting, but didn't say that the people thrown to the ground and beaten had any connection to that alleged incident.
We hear this excuse quite a bit: The public is invited to sympathize with a police officer caught abusing some helpless schlep because the cop was "on edge" owing to some recent incident in which a policeman was on the short end of a violent confrontation. Oddly enough, however, we've yet to see a case in which we're urged to display similar empathy toward a citizen -- "on edge" because of recent police violence -- who shoots an innocent cop.
What we see in the video clip above is a phenomenon I've named a "Thugswarm." This isn't an example of peace officers protecting the public from lawless violence. This is an assault carried out by an armed gang, just as surely as if the assailants had been wearing the colors of the Hell's Angels. (Come to think of it, didn't that biker gang insist that the bloodshed at Altamont was no big deal because they were feeling a bit "on edge" owing to the size of the crowd?)
Every government, pared to its irreducible essence, is an armed gang with a territorial monopoly on "legitimate" force. In the "war on crime" that began decades ago under Nixon, police agencies across the country frequently behave as if their priority is to beat back competition from rival gangs, while keeping the public properly subdued.
At about the same time Baltimore was absorbing the implications of Norman Stamp's fatal shooting by a fellow police officer, New York City was "on edge" -- yes, again -- as three police detectives were exonerated in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell, an unarmed man going home from his bachelor party about a year ago.
The officers were undercover as patrons of a t*tty bar (yes, they get paid for that kind of "work") and didn't identify themselves before they opened up on Mr. Bell's vehicle.
Death by Government: Sean Bell, seen here with his lovely fiancee and their absolutely beautiful baby daughter, was hours away from assuming the duties of marriage and fatherhood when his life was ended in a fifty-shot fusillade by NYPD detectives. Unfortunately, while Sean's murderers were "persons," he was merely part of the "people," so they won't be punished.
They claimed later that they thought they saw a gun in Bell's car. Well, why wouldn't Bell have a gun, and perhaps even reach for it when his car is suddenly surrounded by disreputable-looking people at 4 in the morning?
Well, according to Judge Arthur F. Cooperman, as a matter of "law," Bell's concerns are irrelevant: said that did not matter under the law. In assessing whether the officers were guilty of a crime, Cooperman ruled, "It was necessary to consider the mindset of each defendant at the time and place of occurrence, and not the mindset of the victims.”
In other words: The police on the scene had an unqualified right to kill, and Sean Bell -- just a few hours away from his wedding -- had an unavoidable duty to die.
This doesn't make sense to reasonable people. Which is why, as soon as their comrades were acquitted, the NYPD formed the kind of protective scrum we'd expect to see from any other armed gang:
"The colors rippled along Queens Boulevard in a declarative statement. Clad in royal blue polo shirts and pullovers, men and women stood in ranks five or six feet apart, their public identity instantly apparent from the gold-stitched lettering, “NYPD Community Affairs,” that blazed across their chests and backs. On their heads they wore navy blue baseball caps with big white letters that said “NYPD. It was two minutes before 9 on Friday morning, and 98 police officers stretched in unmistakable presence along the sidewalk outside the Queens courthouse. They formed a human flag, flying the colors of the New York Police Department."
Within a week or so of this display of gang solidarity -- albeit from a government-sanctioned gang -- a federal indictment was released in Brooklyn dealing with the criminal violence carried out by a private sector gang that behaved exactly like the NYPD.
This "sadistic gang of police impersonators" were accused of abducting and torturing scores of cocaine dealers along the East Coast, "forcing them to hand over multimillion-dollar stashes by threatening to squeeze their testicles with pliers...." They also availed themselves of other forms of "enhanced interrogation techniques," including waterboarding.
But, y'see, when these guys did it without government permission, using those methods was a Bad Thing.
In addition to being ready to go all John Yoo on their captives, this gang followed the same methods used by State-supported gangs -- conducting surveillance of suspects, packing the same weaponry, equipping their vehicles with sirens and running lights, and even conducting its own Thugswarms.
Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, standing -- as it were -- at the crossroads* of State-sanctioned police violence and its increasingly efficient private sector simulacrum, created the verbal equivalent of an M.C. Escher illustration, describing what he saw as "a dangerous dance of alleged criminals preying upon alleged criminals, who profited from the desperation of drug abusers."
It's much simpler than that, of course. What's happened is that as the Cops have grown more thuggish, the thugs have grown more Cop-ish, until -- like Orwell's pig-men -- it's become all but impossible to tell one group from the other.
One quick note...
Among my most valued correspondents is a police detective in New York who is a deeply committed Christian and sincere proponent of minimalist government. He is emphatically not the kind of man who would commit any of the acts of lawless violence I write about and condemn.
Like many other decent men who went into law enforcement, my friend is caught between the genuine problem of street violence and a police culture that is increasingly inhospitable to liberty. He does what he can to protect the innocent from the former, and to hold the latter at bay.
While I am convinced that there are much better ways to secure the rights of individuals than our present system, I also respect those who, like my friend, are doing what they can within that system to mitigate its emerging horrors. If, God forbid, the balloon goes up, people like my friend aren't going to choose the Bonapartist option of making war on my citizenry. Should that day come, I think we may be pleasantly surprised by the number of "defectors in place" who reveal themselves as our allies.
I'm sure many of you have friends, relatives, or other acquaintances in law enforcement who are dealing with predicaments like that of my friend. I pray for him quite often, and those of you who pray might want to remember him, and others like him, as well.
*Sorry about that.
On sale now at Amazon.com!
Dum spiro, pugno!