A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“Justice, justice shall you pursue . . .” Deuteronomy 16:18
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke
Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. In recent months, their names have fueled headlines that have gripped the public imagination. Reading reports about their tragic deaths, the cumulative impression one gets is that many white police officers in the United States approach situations of conflict, or potential conflict, with a vastly disproportionate use of force; that African American men walk America’s streets at their peril, burdened as they are by a nearly universal presumption of guilt, even when they haven’t committed any crime; that police officers’ grievous misdeeds, which are becoming increasingly commonplace, are often greeted with a presumption of innocence, even when the evidence points overwhelmingly in the opposite direction; that equality before the law, a sacred ideal in any democracy, is nothing more than a convenient fiction in many American communities. Indeed, if recent events are any indication, white police officers can kill unarmed black men with impugnity almost anywhere in this country, and Barak Obama’s dream of a post-racial society is no nearer to realization now than it was on the day he took office.
Our nation is at a cross-roads. We simply cannot function without a competent and vigilant police force. We know this to be true. But even so, systemic racism is deeply embedded in American police culture, an issue Americans cannot ignore, and one that is likely to remain a “hot button issue” right up until the next Presidential elections in 2016. In the overwhelming majority of instances, its victims are people of color – black, latino or Muslim. But occasionally, its tentacles reach deeply into the lives of white people, especially those who attempt to address this problem head on.
Consider the fate of my friend Ritt Goldstein, a sixty three year old American now living in Sweden. Ritt has a BA in business and economics, and after several years in sales, started his own company in 1988. Fives years later, in 1993, his business was flourishing, and he was a millionaire, living the American dream. But he was also involved politically, becoming a Democratic Committeeman and Justice of the Peace in Norwalk, Connecticut. Then, on July 3rd of that year, a 21 year old African American male named Keith Sumpter died of gunshot wound to the head in an alley in North Norwalk. At the time of his death, Sumpter was suspected of having stolen two gold chains from a local teenager, and presumably resisted arrest. The local police claimed that the gunshot wound that killed him was self-inflicted, but several witnesses disputed their account of events. The consensus among Sumpter’s family and neighbors was that the police report was a cover up. After all, why would any sane person take their own life for the sake of a few gold chains? Especially someone like Sumpter, who had no prior record of arrests, and was known to one and all as a friendly, cheerful man?
Several days of rioting ensued, not just in Norwalk, but in African American neighborhoods all around Connecticut and neighboring states. The police account of Sumpter’s death strained credulity to the limit, and so Ritt, who had recently formed a citizen’s group to monitor the police in Connecticut, questioned the cogency and credibility of the police in the local press. Shortly after Ritt’s doubts and misgivings became public, he and his nextdoor neighbors in Danbury, CT all became ill. The Health Department detected a “chemical smell”, which prompted Ritt to move his residence. His former neighbors recovered quickly, but his symptoms – which included headaches, nausea, sneezing, coughing and vomiting – persisted. Ritt complained to the local police of harassment from an unknown source, but to no avail. That being so, Goldstein compiled his own documentation, including lab tests, medical certificates, and private investigators reports, all of which attested to the reality of his complaint. Then, in December of 1993, the steering in his car was disabled, and a mechanic from a local auto dealership testified that someone had purposefully unscrewed it. The local police took no notice, refusing to collect any physical evidence; proof of complicity, or grave dereliction of duty, at the very least.
Undeterred, in 1995, Goldstein founded and led a coalition calling for state and federal legislation to create Statewide Civilian Law Enforcement Oversight Boards. He drafted a bill which would insure that the local police departments could not simply investigate, then exonerate themselves. No member of the oversight board would be permitted to hear cases from their own or adjoining districts, and the Board would have its own investigators with the power to subpeona documents and witnesses. If there was a determination of guilt on the part of a police officer, or complicity on the part of his peers, the Board would have the power to terminate their employment, irrespective of the wishes of local politicians, there being no appeal for a Board decision except through the courts. Goldstein’s proposed legislation started to gain bipartisan support in several states besides Connecticut, including New York, Illinois, Washington, Arkansas and California. The Connecticut Police Union responded in a very revealing fashion. In an article by journalist Eric Freeman in the Fairfield County Weekly, David McCluskey, their spokesman, was quoted as saying: “Civilian review is an idea that will immediately inspire violent reactions from police.” Precisely.
Despite escalating threats against his person, in 1996 Ritt chaired a hearing on statewide civilian oversight which was sponsored by Senator Tom Upson, and took place in the Connecticut legislature. This hearing featured testimony from several white victims of police misconduct, including former Norwalk Mayor Bill Collins – who served four terms as mayor, and two as a member of the Connecticut legislature. This prominent politician’s home was vandalized by local police, who had the audacity to plaster their union’s stickers all over his front porch. In a radio broadcast shortly after Goldstein’s hearings, Collins notted that in the general public’s view:
“If victims themselves aren’t willing to make a big stink, then maybe the problem isn’t so bad. Reforms tend to grow from groundswells, and a single hearing, no matter how moving, is no groundswell. Particularly if the press is tepid. Tracking down fearful victims and persuading them to talk is hard work. TV stations lack the time, and newspapers lack the money. If 1,000 victims jammed the General Assembly, now that would be news. But unearthing them one by one isn’t going to happen.”
While the attacks against Collins subsided, the attacks against Ritt Goldstein escalated further. His home and office were destroyed, and he took to living in hotels, changing location frequently. But the attacks kept coming, and no protection was forthcoming. Commenting on Goldstein’s plight in a letter to Federal Justice Minister Janet Reno, Brian Reeder, President of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) complained that:
“There are many obstacles to successfully prosecuting police officers under the federal civil rights statutes: Due to inadequate resources, and in some cases, an apparent lack of will or interest by investigators and prosecutors . . . federal authorities do not routinely collect and review cases that might be viable for prosecution. When they do learn of such cases . . . the pursue and prosecute less than 1 percent.”
Less than 1 percent! ( Reno never responded to Reeder’s letter, incidentally.)
On January 1st, 1997, on a local radio station, WSUH/WSUF-FM, former Norwalk Mayor Bill Collins commented that the trends observed by Brian Reeder in his letter to Reno are deeply rooted in American culture:
“While other countries feel it is important to install civilian oversight, we feel the opposite. We like to turn our police loose, a bit like vigilantes. Mostly, that preference has to do with race. Many Americans feel that blacks are a menace to their safety, and if the police have to rough them up once in a while to keep them in their place, so be it. And if some whites also get mistreated in this exuberance of power, well, that’s a small price to pay for security. At any rate, that seems to be the thinking in Connecticut.”
For the sake of modesty, perhaps, Collins qualified his initial remarks about these nation-wide trends by confining his remarks to Connecticut. And perhaps that was wise. But even so, for anyone paying attention then, there was already plenty of evidence that this is a nationwide problem. For example, in June of 1998, Human Rights Watch come out with a very troubling report called “Shielded From Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States.” It documented the incidence of out-of-control police violence toward civilians in 14 American cities. The report also noted that “rogue police” who consciously flaunt the law constitute a small minority of most police forces, but added that when their misdeeds come to light, instead of bringing them to justice, their peers close ranks and protect them, causing the underlying problem to spread and intensify.
On July 3rd, 1997, four years after Sumpter’s death, Ritt Goldstein finally fled to Sweden, fearing for his life. His health was broken, his resources, spent. And lo and behold, in 2015, he is still living there, and though no longer a fugitive, he is still denied the protection and recognition he deserves at home. Instead of being treated as a hero, a champion of civil liberties who narrowly escaped with his life, he has been all but forgotten with the passage of time. It is time we remedied that situation. The recent deaths of so many African American males reminds us that we need to re-visit Ritt’s law to see if we can persuade legislators to adopt it, or some version of it, in state capitals around the country. Civil rights activists (of all ages) should familiarize themselves with the contours and contents of Ritt’s law, and urge their elected representatives to take it up again before the next Presidential election. If we make it a part of our national conversation on race and policing, there is a real chance to reverse some of the damage done, and to restore some sliver of hope for what President Obama called “a more perfect union.”
Meanwhile, lest we falter along the way, white folks like ourselves need to reflect on the longer term implications of letting this problem go unchecked. As we all know, our society simply cannot function without competent policing. But for that very reason, we cannot afford to be passive or complacent about this issue, even if whites like Ritt, who are targeted and silenced by “the exuberance of power” Bill Collins warned us about constitute a small fraction of the population, as Bill Collins pointed out long ago now. Why? Above all, because systemic racism in American policing is an affront to human dignity that erodes our moral authority around the world. Even if we manage to delude ourselves that it doesn’t exist, the rest of the world will remain undeceived, and will act accordingly. Meanwhile, here at home, it erodes trust and co-operation among predominantly white police forces and communities of color, not least because, unlike Goldstein and Collins, who were brave, honorable men, our elected officials often collude with police in cases like these, or simply refuse to act on the information at hand.. Much as we honor and depend on the courage and service of all “first responders” who risk their lives daily for our safety, the status quo in law enforcement today is a stain on our democracy – or what is left of it, anyway. If we do not address this issue now, it will only widen in scope and deepen in severity, affecting broader swathes of the population, as people of color comprise a larger and larger portion of the general population. If present trends are not reversed, virtually no one who openly objects to the abuse of police power – black, brown, red, or white will be safe from unlawful retribution from some quarter – even when it masquerades as legitimate. One is reminded of the words of Pastor Martin Niëmoller, who in the wake of the Holocaust, said regretfully:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Substitute the word “blacks” for Socialists, “Hispanics” for Trade Unionists, and “Muslims” for Jews. You get the picture? If we want to avoid this fate for the children and grandchildren of all Americans, regardless of color or creed, we must heed the lessons of white victims of anti-black racism like Ritt Goldstein. Reflecting on the gruesome fate of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and the thousands of unfortunates who preceded them, we should remember the words of the poet John Donne, who gravely instructed us: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
copyright 2014 by Daniel Burston, writing for Vox Populi
Daniel Burston, Associate Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University, is the creator of the Paul Sciullo II Award for Community Service. Paul Sciullo was a 37 year old Pittsburgh Police Officer (and a Duquesne alum with a major in psychology) who was slain by a deranged gun enthusiast on April 4th, 2009, while responding to a domestic call. The Sciullo award is bestowed annually on a graduating senior from Duquesne University’s College of Liberal Arts, and recognizes exemplary service to the community; something Paul Sciullo was known and loved for.