Thursday, November 25, 2010

Opinions? Bring 'em on like we care

The other day I was standing in line waiting to use an ATM behind a white female while a Kent police officer was fiddling with the machine. This man was built like a pro football offensive lineman, and his utility belt was bursting with the tools of his trade. When he finally concluded his business and was walking away, the white female who was next in line told him “Have a great day, officer.” Like she really meant it. I suspect that she was trying to make the inference that white people are a cop's "friend," and the "others" are not, which may be true but is indicative of the the role race plays in policing. Now, I don’t know if what she meant was “Have a great day harassing 110-lbs Mexicans” or not, but I’m sure many cops don’t consider a day “good” unless they have some hassling to show for it. I told the woman that she must be a Republican. I also mentioned that it might surprise her that other people have other opinions.

For example, last year I observed on a sidewalk near the Laundromat I frequent a cement-filled coffee can, which held upright a small cross and a poster. The poster depicted headshots of two dozen people, accompanied by the words "Murdered by KPD" and "Stolen Lives." All but two or three were minorities. It was still there the following week, but by the third week the can was turned over and the wooden cross smashed. A couple weeks later it was replaced with a new can and cross, this time with an attached poster that contained a couple of xeroxed letters to the editor from people disturbed by recent shootings of unarmed people by police; one of them, I was surprised to see, was written by myself. This was in regard to a shooting of a man who was “driving erratically” on a “downtown” Kent street one evening, which is usually no busier than a small-town back alley at 3 AM. The officer who fired the lethal shots was riding a bicycle, so apparently he thought had “no choice.” I observed that a newspaper report included some of the questions posed to a jury during the subsequent inquest, and that all questions were designed to achieve a result that leads to a predetermined result. Did the officer believe his life was in danger? Well, he said he did, so what is an inquest juror to say he wasn’t? The point was that accountability was nowhere to be found, even in venues where “civilians” make the judgments, because law enforcement controls the result.

The John T. Williams shooting and several other cases of apparent excessive force all occurred after an incident I’ve mentioned a few times, where black-shirted Seattle Anti-Crime Team officers kicked and stomped a prone Latino man who turned out to be innocent of any crime. Rather than learn to control their impulses, Seattle police merely retrench and nurse grievances, ready to erupt at any time. It’s the same story; they have this need to “prove” that their victims really are the “bad” guys. Now some people are demanding that the U.S. Justice Department investigate the SPD for what is perceived as a culture of contempt for the civil rights of civilians. The U.S. attorney for Seattle says she will “investigate” if the evidence warrants it. But in Seattle, white people are never guilty of violating the civil rights of minorities or guilty of hate crimes. Seattle is the kind of place where progressiveness goes no further than personal taste, and no one ever need be inconvenienced by their failings. Being “right” means never saying you’re sorry; being “left” means you don’t think you have to.

Now, in Republican stronghold Bellevue across Lake Washington, they know how to take care of such inconveniences of conscience without taking into account anyone's opinion. Some years ago a Guatemalan immigrant named Nelson Martinez was shot to death by a Bellevue officer named Mike Hetle--who had already been disciplined for harassing an Ethiopian immigrant. After receiving an apparently false 9-1-1 report motivated by a dispute over apartment rent, a police dispatcher gave what turned out to be invented information that Mendez had prior incidents of domestic violence, and it was Hetle, who was known to have psychological issues in regard to racial minorities, who "answered the call."

From information from the subsequent inquest, it appears that Mendez was unaware that the police had been called when he left the apartment after the dispute (his roommate was unhappy that he was moving back to California and leaving her to pay the rent), and after climbing into his car and driving off, Hetle and his cruiser arrived on the scene; whether he knew Mendez was his "man" was a matter of dispute, but in any case Hetle blocked Martinez's car, which he later claimed had rammed him. When Hetle approached his car, Mendez apparently reached in his pants to retrieve his driver's license, which was the occasion for Hetle to empty his service revolver in him. At that time more police arrived on the scene; officers present stated that Hetle was in a highly "agitated" state, and for good reason: he found no weapon in Mendez's car. The scene then became almost comical. With an increase in curious onlookers, it was apparently desirable to put on a show for them; the obviously dead Mendez was pulled out of his car, laid out on his stomach and hand-cuffed.

The farce of an all-white inquest that followed yielded the expected result, despite Hetle’s clearly impulsive actions and the fact that the roommate admitted that she had “embellished” her 9-1-1 call not because she had been physically threatened, but because she was trying to stop the victim from leaving. It was still a bad enough business that the city was obliged to pay Mendez’s mother in Guatemala a modest sum in a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit. But that was after the police chief joked about how he'd like to "talk" to Hetle about the incident, before allowing him to skip town--all the way to Hawaii, where his National Guard unit saw fit to give him not one, but two one-year paid leaves from his police duties. The last we heard of Hetle is that he became a member of Department of Homeland Security, where he could practice his racism in a more "heroic" venue, "protecting" the country against the non-white menace everywhere. From what I can tell working at an airport, ex-police officers like Hetle are a natural fit.

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