Monday, January 05, 2015

State violence

In On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, author Alice Goffman gives a first-hand description of what it's like when the police burst through the door in the middle of the night:
I'd spent the night at Miss Regina's house watching Gangs of New York with Mike and Chuck for maybe the hundredth time. I had fallen asleep on the living room couch and so hear the banging in my dream, mixed in with the title page music, which the DVD played over and over. 
The door bursting open brought me fully awake. I pushed myself into the couch to get away from it, thinking it might hit me on the way down if it broke all the way off its hinges. Two officers came through the door, both of them white, in SWAT gear, with guns strapped to the sides of their legs. The first officer in pointed a gun at me and asked who was in the house; he continued to point the gun toward me as he went up the stairs. I wondered if Mike and Chuck were in the house somewhere, and hoped they had gone. 
The second officer in pulled me out of the cushions and, gripping my wrists, brought me up off the couch and onto the floor, so that my shoulders and spine hit first and my legs came down after. He quickly turned me over, and my face hit the floor. I couldn't brace myself, because he was still holding one of my wrists, now pinned behind me. I wondered if he'd broken my nose or cheek. (Can you break a cheek?) His boot pressed into my back, right at the spot where it had hit the floor, and I cried for him to stop. He put my wrists in plastic cuffs behind my back; I knew this because metal ones feel cold. My shoulder throbbed, and the handcuffs pinched. I tried to wriggle my arms, and the cop moved his boot down to cover my hands, crushing my fingers together. I yelled, but it came out quiet and raspy, like I had given up. My hipbones began to ache -- his weight was pushing them into the thin carpet. 
A third cop, taller and skinnier, blond hair cut close to his head, entered the house and walked into the kitchen. I could hear china breaking, and watched him pull the fridge away from the wall. Then he came into the living room and pulled a small knife from its sheath on his lower leg. He cut the fabric off the couch, revealing the foam inside. Then he moved to the closet and pulled board games and photo albums and old shoes out onto the floor. He climbed on top of the TV stand and pushed the squares of the drop ceiling out, letting them hit the floor one on top of the other.  
I could hear banging and clanging and clattering from upstairs, and then Miss Regina screaming at the cop not to shoot her, pleading with him to let her get dressed. All the while, the cop with his foot on my yelled for me to say where Mike was hiding. It would be my fault when Miss Regina's house got destroyed, he said. "And I can tell she takes pride in her house."
Goffman describes other experiences with the police:
The summer was punctuated by more severe police action. On a hot afternoon in July, Aisha and I stood on a crowded corner of a major commercial street and watched four officers chase down her older sister's boyfriend and strangle him. He was unarmed and did not fight back. The newspapers reported his death as a heart failure. In August, we visited an old boyfriend of Aisha's shortly after he got to county jail. Deep lacerations covered his cheeks, and his eyes had swollen to tiny slits. The beating he took while being arrested, and the subsequent infection left untreated while he sat in quarantine, took most of the vision from his right eye. 
In interviews, Warrant Unit officers explained to me that this violence represents official (if unpublicized) policy, rather than a few cops taking things too far. The Philadelphia police I interviewed have a liberal understanding of what constitutes reasonable force, and a number of officers told me that they have orders from their captains that any person who so much as touches a cop "better be going to the hospital."
On a side note, the dust jacket features a laudatory quote from Cornel West calling the book "the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neo-liberal capitalist America." West's blithering about neoliberalism is pretty rich considering the book is in large part not a tale of unfettered markets but rather draconian state intervention. His failure to grasp this point brings a certain graphic to mind:

(click to enlarge)

Overall thoughts on the book will be the subject of a future blog post.

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