This is What Democracy Looks Like?!?

Heavy times these days. An innocent man, Alex Nieto, was murdered by the police on Bernal Heights on Friday March 21. This follows a litany of police corruption cases, regular incidents of police violence, and a growing climate of utter impunity under the old-boy police chief Greg Suhr.

At a wider scale, every day there is dire news about climate change, most recently the NASA-funded report that suggests we are on the brink of a collapse of industrial society (hardly a new idea, but interesting to have it widely disseminated by a scholarly study funded in part by NASA). Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book The Sixth Extinction leaves little doubt that it is humans who are causing the wipe-out of thousands of species across the planet.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed its ongoing commitment to plutocracy by eliminating limits on individual donations to election campaigns. It’s not the Armageddon for democracy that a bunch of liberals are making it out to be–just more of the same relentless arrogance of the ruling class in the U.S., abandoning any pretense about legitimate democratic elections (the same Supreme Court a few months ago threw out most of the Voting Rights Act rules that assured the right to vote to poor and people of color in the most reactionary states in the Union). Much as I disrespect electoral democracy and think it is broken, the message from the Supreme Court is pretty clear: voting rights are for those with money, obviously!

Locally, the supposedly “progressive” Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s city council) listened to a packed chamber for about 3 hours, nearly unanimous in their clamor for a proper environmental review of the absurd shuttle bus give-away to tech companies (wherein private luxury shuttle buses are allowed to use public bus stops for $1 each–after being free for the past several years–while private citizens who stop on a bus stop in their car are liable for a fine of $271 each!). Citizens documented the radical inflation of local housing markets around tech shuttle stops, decried the ethnic cleansing of the Mission and other parts of the City that are the result, and showed the heavy strain put on public buses and their riders by having the tech buses in their way, and so on. But as has been the case for a long time in this city, the public hearing was a charade, the decision having been made before anyone even spoke. The vote after this overwhelming insistence on an environmental review? 8-2 against, including some so-called progressive supervisors like Jane Kim and David Chiu. Kudos to Campos and Avalos for sticking with the people in spite of the greased wheels and done deal behind the scenes.

We live in a deeply corrupt society, from the local level to the national level. The 1% have decided, going back more than a decade, to grab whatever they can. It’s a society of brazen theft and bribery, where the politicians in Washington are mostly millionaires serving the interests of their class, and local politicians are so devoid of vision that they serve the interests of whatever ascendant pile of dough happens to come along.

To enforce and defend this organized kleptocracy, the federal government has been pushing local police into militarization for several decades now. The War on Drugs has been the primary mechanism used by the Feds to insist that local police departments adapt to their new standards. The rise of the SWAT team since the late 1960s has led to a militarized strike force being established in thousands of police departments across the country.

Radley Balko has published a sweeping analysis of this in Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. He summarized his work on the ACLU’s blog:

Between about the early 1980s and today, American police forces have undergone some substantial changes. Most notable among these is the ascent of the SWAT team. Once limited to large cities and reserved for emergency situations like hostage takings, active shooters, or escaped fugitives, SWAT teams today are primarily used to serve warrants on people suspected of nonviolent, consensual drug crimes. The numbers are staggering. In the early 1980s, there were about 3,000 SWAT “call-outs” per year across the entire country. By 2005, there were an estimated 50,000. In New York City alone, there were 1,447 drug raids 1994. By 2002, eight years later, there were 5,117 — a 350 percent increase. In 1984, about a fourth of towns between 25,000-50,000 people had a SWAT team. By 2005, it was 80 percent. Today, the use of this sort of force is in too many jurisdictions the first option for serving search warrants instead of the last. SWAT teams today are used to break up poker games and massage parlors, for immigration enforcement, even to perform regulatory inspections.

Troubling as all of this is, the problem goes beyond SWAT teams. Too many police departments today are infused with a more general militaristic culture. Cops today are too often told that they’re soldiers fighting a war, be it a war on crime, on drugs, on terrorism, or whatever other recent gremlin politicians have chosen as the enemy. Cops today tend to be isolated from the communities they serve, both physically (by their patrol cars) and psychologically, by an us and them mentality that sees the public not as citizens police officers are to serve and protect, but as a collection of potential threats.

On top of the rise of domestic police agencies who increasingly identify themselves as an war-making force in their communities, new federal efforts have accelerated the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments. In 1997 the National Defense Authorization Act created what it called the “1033 program.” It established the Law Enforcement Support Program in Fort Belvoir, Virginia to help move military gear to civilian police agencies.

In its first three years, the office handled 3.4 million orders for Pentagon gear from 11,000 police agencies in all fifty states. By 2005, the number of police agencies serviced by the office hit 17,000. National Journal reported in 2000 that between 1997 and 1999 the office doled out $727 million worth of equipment, including 253 aircraft (notably six- and seven-passenger airplanes and UH-60 Blackhawk and UH-1 Huey helicopters), 7,856 M-16 rifles, 181 grenade launchers, 8,131 bulletproof helmets, and 1,161 pairs of ning-vision goggles. (p. 210, Rise of the Warrior Cop)

In the decade since these astonishing numbers, the war machine has rolled over Iraq and Afghanistan, and increasingly that war machine is being directed at the people at home. When the Occupy camps were “rolled up” in late 2011, there was a coordinated, militarized crackdown in over 300 places across the country within a 2-week period. The wide surveillance society that has been created during this same epoch is increasingly focused on how to prevent the rise of new networked movements (the information they hope to glean from careful parsing of the metadata behind all the social media they are swooping up every day).

But the local police departments have to keep up appearances. They have to use the fancy hardware, the overloaded SWAT teams, the electronic gizmos, and make sure the population has the impression that they are a “thin blue line” between utter chaos and terrorism and the calm daily life of shopping and working that is the preferred sum total of American society. The war is here at home as much as it is anywhere else. There must be a steady diet of police achievements, including arrests and killings, to reinforce social insecurity. Hence, the arbitrary murder of lifelong local resident Alex Nieto.

SF Police surround Alex Nieto memorial on Bernal Heights--outrageous effort to intimidate the mourners!

SF Police surround Alex Nieto memorial on Bernal Heights–outrageous effort to intimidate the mourners!

Alex Nieto’s death has been a shock to us and to many in our neighborhood. But we know that this is not so unusual. In San Francisco there have been at least a half dozen deaths at the hands of the police in the past few years, notably the case of Kenneth Harding, a young African American man who decided to walk away from a fare check at a bus stop in Bayview-Hunter’s Point and when police ordered him to stop and he took flight and they shot him dead, basically over an unpaid $2 fare. The police later claimed that he shot himself after a campaign of public character assassination against the deceased, a pattern now repeating itself with the Alex Nieto case.

I have been aware of the growing militarization of the police since I came of age in the 1970s. During those waning years of the Vietnam War and the ramping up of the domestic war on the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Chicano/Raza movement, and others, I was in middle school and high school. By the time I got to Sonoma State College in 1975 I was interested enough to drive down to the Marin County courthouse to see in person the trial of the San Quentin Six (six men accused of participating in the 1971 attempted breakout by George Jackson that left a half dozen dead). It was an incredibly vivid experience. To attend the trial one had to enter the courthouse building and pass through a metal detector (still new at at that time), then walk down a long hallway of 200-300 feet lined with heavily armed sheriff’s deputies, then stop and get fingerprinted and photographed, pass through a second metal detector, and finally be allowed into the courtroom. The spectator zone was separated from the actual courtroom by a bullet-proof filmy plexiglass with a tiny 6-inch grate at the top through which we were supposed to be able to hear the proceedings. The six defendants were already in place, in orange jumpsuits, chained to their chairs and handcuffed. The whole proceedings had little to do with anything I understood up to that point as “justice” and seemed to be a manipulated show trial like one expected from the Soviet Union. (By the end of the trial, three were convicted of murder and assault, and three were acquitted.)

It’s been very difficult to untangle the sequence of events that led to Alex Nieto’s being shot down by the police, but as far as we can tell, it seems to have started with a 9-1-1 call by a jogger or some other person who saw this 28-year-old Latino man as dangerous. He was eating his burrito at his favorite bench overlooking the Mission District. He was a life-long resident of Bernal, growing up on Cortland Street just south of where he was killed. He apparently had a taser in a holster, equipment for his security guard job that he was going to after having his meal. He was also a practicing Buddhist, and a student at City College where he was studying criminal justice with aspirations of becoming a probation officer!

Riot cop at right, most of the rest of them have since moved down the hill in distance.

Riot cop at right, most of the rest of them have since moved down the hill in distance.

Whatever prompted them, the police approached from below a little after 7 pm on that solstice Friday. Their own story is that they never got closer than 75 feet, and with weapons drawn, spread out in military style, they ordered Alex to show his hands. They claim, against all plausibility, that he pulled his weapon (which they claim they could not distinguish from a gun) and when they saw the laser dot that the taser produces automatically (a weapon with a 15-foot range) they read it as evidence that he was targeting them. They opened fire riddling Nieto with sixteen shots or more (the police have been unwilling to admit how many shots were fired, or how many times Nieto was hit).

Why did they shoot him so many times? If you are four armed police officers approaching one person in a military formation, even a “dangerous” armed person, why would you need to shoot so many times where they are no shots coming from the other person? Others who know about police procedures these days reminded me that they make sure to kill their targets to reduce the possibility of injured innocents testifying against them later. But the bigger picture shows that the San Francisco Police Department is increasingly militarized (like the police throughout the U.S.) and Police Chief Greg Suhr has encouraged a wild-west atmosphere in the department.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr.

Suhr was appointed chief by incoming Mayor Ed Lee, who some conjecture had to choose him in order to get the cooperation of the police when facing the extensive budget cuts his administration was going to implement due to a $300 million deficit. But Suhr is one of the old boy network that has dominated the San Francisco Police Department for decades. Even right-wing scribe C.W. Nevius had to point out on his appointment that it meant that “the old boy network gets a mulligan,” (meaning they get to have a “take over”, or wipe the slate of past failures–the expression is from golf).

In fact, Chief Suhr has created a climate of impunity in the department, apparently condoning murderous violence and cover-ups, alongside an ever expanding list of scandals. While he has not been convicted of any wrongdoing, and was only once indicted for malfeasance, his regime is clouded by the appearance of impropriety. San Francisco Judge Kay Tsenin dismissed earlier indictments against Suhr and other police commanders but seemed to be holding her nose as she did so: she

complained that “the grand jury was left to drift in a sea of evidence of preferential treatment, hearsay, innuendo, accusations, evidence of delay, evidence of interference and other inappropriate actions by individual members who are now defendants.”

Suhr didn’t help matters when just a couple of weeks into his term as Chief he fired the two investigators in the Internal Affairs department who had actually brought charges against him previously. Worse still, Kelly O’Haire has sued Suhr and the City, claiming that he not only terminated her inappropriately but after Suhr’s lawyers threatened her during her work to bring charges against Suhr, she has now been blacklisted and is having trouble finding work anywhere. In other words, don’t cross Suhr or you will have to pay for years to come!

A former lawyer for the San Francisco Police Department is alleging she was fired in retaliation for her investigation of misconduct allegations against Greg Suhr, now the department’s chief and the highest-paid top cop in the nation. In a suit filed against Suhr and the city earlier this week, Kelly O’Haire claims she was terminated from her internal affairs attorney position on the police force because of her work prosecuting Suhr for failing to report an incident of domestic violence. O’Haire argues SFPD’s rationale for her firing is flimsy. She says at the time, the department had a handful of internal affairs attorneys, all of whom received equal pay and of whom she was the most experienced. Only she and Jerry Tidwell, another attorney who also worked on the case against Suhr, were terminated, despite there being another lawyer on staff who had worked at the department for only a few months.

Many San Franciscans go through their daily lives with no idea of the kind of arbitrary violence the police impose on young men in the Mission, in the Bayview, and wherever youth of color live. The press is often complicit, uncritically reporting police claims, echoing their efforts to assassinate the characters of police victims, and failing to expose the militarized logic that shapes this racialized and class-biased system of enforcement.

Meanwhile the façade of representative democracy further masks the underlying merger of corporate power with state power. The brazenness of the recent Supreme Court decisions in reinforcing the class power of the wealthy provides a brief but compelling hint at the shape of American society. If we’ve had a more or less complete buyout of the institutions of democracy by the wealthiest individuals and corporations, which then direct the policies of the state to further benefit their personal enrichment (often by the naked transfer of public resources to private hands, e.g. the ongoing hand-off of billions every month to the largest private banks), and use militarized force in highly biased and class-based ways, how is that different from fascism? I’m not trying to say that we’ve got Hollywood Nazis running our society. It’s quite a bit more subtle and sophisticated than that. Instead of glorifying the state, we just have endless social rituals (from anthems at sports events, to annual “Fleet week” and “Armed Forces Day” and other parades and festivals) glorifying the military and the “nation” and its flag. Mass culture puts wealth and its trappings on the highest pedestal, equating moral goodness with being rich. And private property is the ultimate divine right, trumping all social and shared concerns (unless someone wealthier uses the state to take it for themselves!).

How will we overthrow this twisted caricature of a free society? Given the shrinking natural wealth we’ve so profligately exploited during the past two centuries, our reorganization of how we make life together will have to not only disempower the militarists and plutocrats, but also find a way to invent a society not based on incessant growth, not based on rampant waste (of resources as much as humans), but one organized to harmonize with natural systems, and that redefines wealth in profound ways. We have a lot of work to do! And the conversation has barely begun!

2 comments to This is What Democracy Looks Like?!?

  • Martin

    Great round-up of matters both global and local – the newspaper world lost its best chance for a national correspondent when you went underground.
    Yet to leave it like that is too much comments-section boosterism – the “conversation” has been nothing but the “conversation” since I was seated in second grade around the student circle in forced-listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary – all talk, no effect.

  • Jason

    Chris — In view of all of the police misconduct in SF, I think we can only observe the bizarre “Bat Kid” celebration, where the City commandeered thousands of dollars of public resources to fulfill the fantasy of a lone, young cancer survivor, as a direct product of the SFPD Public relations unit. Note the subtle and not so subtle reification of pro-police bias and extra-judicial vigilantism implicit in the Batman story.

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