Keeping it off the court

Note: This post has been edited for readability since it was first published.

That some whites just don’t get it, that is, that they seem to think there is nothing about policing in the United States worth getting upset about, has been brought closer to home for me. Specifically, in a neighboring county.

Mendocino, which shares a name with the county, is one of the few towns along the California coast where it is possible to find vegan food. And just as with much of the coast, the surrounding scenery is spectacular.

Fort Bragg is the next town north, a bit bigger, with many more of the trappings of, well, a city. It’s a bit grittier and is one of the few places along the coast where it is possible to find gas at a relatively reasonable price.

It’s a little bit oversimplistic to say the towns are as different as night and day over police racism. But the Mendocino High School basketball teams wore tee shirts with the slogan “I can’t breathe” during warm-ups recently. This seems to have irritated their peers in Fort Bragg.[1]

Mendocino boys, except one, have agreed to stop wearing the shirts and they will play at an upcoming tournament. The girls have not, have been disinvited,[2] and will instead stage a protest at the tournament.[3]

The debate has pitted socially progressive high school students from Mendocino against a blue-collar Fort Bragg community still mourning the killing of Ricky Del Fiorintino, a Mendocino County sheriff’s deputy and popular wrestling coach at Fort Bragg High who was gunned down in March by an Oregon fugitive.

The controversy over the T-shirts, which bear the last words of Eric Garner, the New York man who died after a police officer put him in a chokehold, has amplified a fierce athletic rivalry between the coastal towns. With invective circulating on social media such as Facebook, the Fort Bragg Unified School District decided to invite a girls team from Round Valley in place of the Mendocino girls team. The Cardinals’ boys team will still take part in Monday’s Vern Piver Holiday Classic Tournament, minus one player who preferred to continue protesting.

Fort Bragg school officials said they feared a tournament designed to raise money for the basketball program would instead become an emotionally charged political debate that could result in violence.[4]

I applaud the girls and the one boy who are standing their ground. I am troubled that “the killing of Ricky Del Fiorintino, a Mendocino County sheriff’s deputy and popular wrestling coach at Fort Bragg High”[5] is being used to explain the disinvitation.

Similarly, the killing of two New York City police officers by a mentally ill person is being used against protesters.

I’d imagine that many people watching the drama unfold from afar are consoling themselves with the thought that, like so much else about the city, the hyper-sensitivity of New York’s police force is unique. They’d be right, at least to a degree; the NYPD stands alone in scale and ambition. But if you listen to some of the rhetoric that’s recently come from police unions and their most loyal politicians, you’ll realize that the problem currently engulfing [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio doesn’t end at the Hudson. It extends all across the country, influencing communities large and small, black and (less often) white. The problem isn’t the unions themselves or “bad apples” among the rank and file. The problem is that the culture of law enforcement in America has gone badly off-course; too many officers — and, for that matter, too many citizens — forget that law enforcement’s mandate is to preserve justice as well as maintaining the peace.[6]

The police argument boils down to a claim that because being a police officer is dangerous, they are justified in killing people.

At no point in the [Fraternal Order of Police in Baltimore] press release did the union acknowledge its members’ duty to protect Americans’ rights as well as their persons. There wasn’t even a perfunctory gesture to that effect. Instead, the union statement spoke of “the dangerous political climate in which all members of law enforcement, nationwide, now find themselves” (the rate of officers being killed is at a 50-year low) and how being a member of American law enforcement hadn’t been so bad since the civil rights movement (or, as the union puts it, “the political unrest of the 1960’s”). At the end of the statement, the union reiterated why it believed support for cops must be “unequivocal,” saying that Baltimore citizens must help “to restore the order necessary for their own safety and for ours.”[7]

Elias Isquith, from whose article I’ve drawn the preceding two quotes, proceeds to label this an authoritarian move and a threat to democracy: “Bill de Blasio and his millions of supporters may think the mayor’s in charge,” Isquith writes. “But it seems that in the minds of a frighteningly large number of police officers, both he and the Constitution are simply getting in the way.”[8]

Isquith isn’t exaggerating. At a news conference following the shooting of the two cops, New York City police officers turned their backs toward the mayor in a blatant show of disrespect.[9] “Officers say the outcry [against their killings of Blacks] has left them feeling betrayed and demonized by everyone from the president and the mayor to throngs of protesters who scream at them on the street.”[10] They make these accusations against de Blasio and Barack Obama without pointing to a single statement of the sort.

In other words, not only are police to be permitted to kill at will, but it is impermissible to challenge them for doing so. Or, in fact, to challenge them in any way.

While the Baltimore union’s statement could hardly be described as subtle, it still paled in comparison to the comments of Jeffrey Follmer, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, whose unvarnished authoritarianism made headlines just last week. Appearing on MSNBC in order to defend his claim that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins should be forced to apologize for political speech, Follmer told host Ari Melber that the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice was “justified” because the child refused to “listen to police officers’ commands.” Never mind the fact that Rice was shot almost immediately, and that the cop who shot him had a history of rank incompetence; according to Follmer, if “the nation” would simply obey when officers “tell you to do something,” everything would be all right. And if the officers commands are unconstitutional or in any way objectionable? Be quiet and let “the courts … figure it out.” Not content to simply issue commands to those engaged with officers on-duty, Follmer also ordered Hawkins and other athletes like him to “stick to what they know best on the field” because their voicing opinions on police behavior was “pathetic.”[11]

Let’s unpack this. Eric Garner is dead, due to an illegal chokehold.[12] And a 12-year old boy is summarily executed for what police call “disorderly conduct” (code for failing to do whatever the officer says to do). But we’re supposed to let “the courts … figure it out.”[13]

Maybe Garner and Rice deserved their day in court, preferably a very rare court that isn’t so deferential to police.[14] They didn’t get that.

And a Mendocino High School girls’ basketball team isn’t supposed to take notice. Because, you know, sports (as a totalizing concept whose invocation pushes aside any necessity for grammar and admits no challenge).

  1. [1]Bill Swindell, “Fort Bragg High asks team from Mendocino to stay home over T-shirts,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, December 27, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/3303629-181/fort-bragg-high-asks-team
  2. [2]Bill Swindell, “Fort Bragg High asks team from Mendocino to stay home over T-shirts,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, December 27, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/3303629-181/fort-bragg-high-asks-team
  3. [3]Kevin McCallum, “Mendocino girls team to protest at Fort Bragg tournament,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, December 28, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/home/3308542-181/mendocino-girls-team-to-protest
  4. [4]Bill Swindell, “Fort Bragg High asks team from Mendocino to stay home over T-shirts,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, December 27, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/3303629-181/fort-bragg-high-asks-team
  5. [5]Bill Swindell, “Fort Bragg High asks team from Mendocino to stay home over T-shirts,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, December 27, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/3303629-181/fort-bragg-high-asks-team
  6. [6]Elias Isquith, “A scary culture change: What new law enforcement rhetoric reveals about America,” Salon, December 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/12/23/a_scary_culture_change_what_new_law_enforcement_rhetoric_reveals_about_america/
  7. [7]Elias Isquith, “A scary culture change: What new law enforcement rhetoric reveals about America,” Salon, December 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/12/23/a_scary_culture_change_what_new_law_enforcement_rhetoric_reveals_about_america/
  8. [8]Elias Isquith, “A scary culture change: What new law enforcement rhetoric reveals about America,” Salon, December 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/12/23/a_scary_culture_change_what_new_law_enforcement_rhetoric_reveals_about_america/
  9. [9]Blue Telusma, “NYPD turns back on Mayor de Blasio at cop killing press conference,” Grio, December 21, 2014, http://thegrio.com/2014/12/21/deblasio-cop-murder-turn-back/
  10. [10]Tom Hays and Colleen Long, “Police: Chokehold Victim Complicit in Own Death,” ABC News, December 5, 2014, http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/police-cases-stir-national-protests-debate-27383589
  11. [11]Elias Isquith, “A scary culture change: What new law enforcement rhetoric reveals about America,” Salon, December 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/12/23/a_scary_culture_change_what_new_law_enforcement_rhetoric_reveals_about_america/
  12. [12]Eugene Robinson, “The Eric Garner case’s sickening outcome,” Washington Post, December 3, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-the-eric-garner-cases-sickening-outcome/2014/12/03/283c0e02-7b5c-11e4-b821-503cc7efed9e_story.html
  13. [13]Jeffrey Follmer, quoted in Elias Isquith, “A scary culture change: What new law enforcement rhetoric reveals about America,” Salon, December 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/12/23/a_scary_culture_change_what_new_law_enforcement_rhetoric_reveals_about_america/
  14. [14]Dan Simon, In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012).

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