Thursday, May 8, 2008

That 70’s Flashback: Police Brutality Back In Vogue?

“Who wants to live in the past? Man must face up to himself.” — artist Louise Nevelson

There was a story that broke across the news today that grabbed my attention. While I don’t know whole back story, the video is pretty compelling and harkened back to a previous era. As you see from the video clip, the Philadelphia Police pulled over a car and had a good old fashioned beat-down. Even if there was legitimate reason to get them pulled out quickly and under control, the video shows something well beyond simply controlling the situation. (

It made me think of my days as a teen and young adult in Corpus Christi, TX. That was the last time I’d seen a beat-down like that, where police outnumbered the one suspect by ten to one. I was nineteen and lived in an apartment snug up against a Depression-era business block which housed three cantinas and a couple other odd small businesses. While studying for an exam when I’d heard the cascade of sirens and walked out and around the corner to see what was going on.

They had drug a lone belligerent boracho, a 30-something latino they’d pulled out from either Javier Soliz Lounge or the aptly named Jesse Borrego Stompers Lounge and the guy was not being cooperative. I stood there and watched at least ten of them proceed to beat the guy senseless there in the front parking lot. This went way beyond subduing. It was overkill in a brutal fashion. While some of the bar patrons came out and made comments, and other curious folks like me stood watching, the police partaking were oblivious in their rage. The few others not involved stood watching the rest of us like hawks, waiting for a move from us.

One woman, the poor guy’s friend, began loudly protesting and noting how he was “a veteran … he was in VietNam.” None of her words registered, but a couple of the watchers then began struggling and manhandling the woman, bending her backwards over a car hood and then taking her to the ground roughly. Others called in even more inforcements who quickly swooped in. Things got ominous afterward as the police began menacing those of us witnessing this. For a half second I thought about making a comment, but then held off – I didn’t feel like spending a night in the tank.

Watching the Philly cops caused me to flash back to that Saturday night, and how sickened I was – and yet powerless to stop it. In Corpus, you didn’t fight City Hall. If you reported the cops, you became a target. You might get a free ride out to Saratoga flats or Way Out Weber where they’d take off their badges, kick the dogshit out of you and let you walk home.

Back in the 1970’s, police violence nationwide was pretty widespread and unbridled. Indeed, Philadelphia under the notorious Chief Rizzo was notably the most violent PD in the nation. Houston was #2 at that time. In fact, while I was safe in San Diego back in 1978 I’d watched a 60 Minutes-type news show highlighting police brutality, and they’d flashed the top ten most violent police departments in the country. With Philly at the top and LA at #9, the remaining eight spots were all in Texas. Corpus was #7, and other notorious hotspots such as San Antonio, Dallas and smaller towns like McAllen, Castroville and Jacinto City were all over that list.

While I lived there back then, I used to worry that I’d end up being arrested or killed for nothing.

It may seem irrational, but to those of us who grew up in it the danger was very real. You could lose your life just by making the wrong move reaching for your wallet. In Texas, certainly in Corpus, police killing unarmed people (and sometimes under strange circumstances) were not surprising.

Additionally, in Corpus it wasn’t a race thing. In fact, it wasn’t even a class thing: they attacked a businesswoman, and a husband-and-wife who were both local teachers! Not until I moved out to California did I realize this wasn’t the way everyone was. I was shocked at what I thought was timidity by the San Diego County Sheriffs who were very polite and stood out at the street, and only sent one unit when my grandma’s husband would get drunk or make threats with the shotgun. Sure, they knew him by name (being over there enough), but it was still a vast difference than Corpus where police would come in like an army overrunning a sniper’s nest even when it was a non-firearm type situation!

You never forget the face slams into the car hood while handcuffed, batons ‘taps’ in the ribs, the serious tone of the yelled commands, the guns pointed at your face and the look in the gun-holder’s eyes …. And all from traffic stops or minor unarmed altercations, no less!

Yes, I’ve been jacked up myself a few times, thankfully pre-trans!: The first time for rolling through a stop sign in front of a cop, one for being jumped and fighting downstairs from my apartment on Christmas Eve, and twice for being a white face driving through black section of Corpus affectionately known as The Cut.

The first one stunned me – I’d never believed my friends’ stories of being jacked up and thought they were exaggerated fantasy up ‘til then. When it was happening to me, it felt like a movie of someone else. They called in eight different units – 7 cars and the sergeant on motorcycle – all for running a stop sign, having marijuana roaches on my floorboard (I could’ve kicked my brother’s ass for that stupid oversight) and having a knife in its sheath on my belt! With the adrenaline rushing through me I felt pain only vaguely, and the blood dripping from the bridge of my nose seemed disconnected and impertinent. Even my head getting whacked by the roof of the cop car on my way in the back was strangely painless. To my luck, though, it was mid-day on a Saturday, and I had plenty of gawking neighbors out watching.

The most ominous incident was in The Cut and at night in the middle of winter. As I was driving through the main drag through that section, I saw the cop car at the corner and knew they’d spotted me. Knowing better, I made certain to stop fully at both stop signs I came to, but when I saw the other two units coming from alternate directions I knew what was about to happen, lawfulness be damned. I had just crossed the tracks into the Ship Channel area that was desolate for the first couple blocks, with the brick projects high-rise the locals called Funky Manor a block back. With the howling north winds, no one was out and no one would hear a thing.

This was after Jose Campos Torres in Houston being beaten and tossed handcuffed into a bayou, and CCPD took their inspiration from Houston. The cops (this time 5 cars) swarmed in force and made me stand with my hands on the back of the car in short sleeves in the biting cold while they searched for drugs for over a half hour, and even some time after while they shot the bull (they had their jackets on). After they stopped responding to my pleas to retrieve my coat and needing to get to work (only two blocks up from where I was stopped, ironically) I made a nearly fatal mistake of walking to the car to get my coat.

After hearing the yelled commands, I froze. Then came the pump of the shotgun, the face-slam to the hood, the punches to the back and ribs, and the pistol in my face. And the threats … how nobody would find my carcass out there in the brush for years maybe. No blood that time, but it was much more frightening. Those memories don’t leave you, and they left me with both a healthy respect and fear of police.

Keep in mind Texas is renown for convicting folks who are eventually found innocent. It always boils down to “who do you believe: the alleged perpetrator or the fine upstanding officer of the law?”

A lot of these incidents aren’t just “criminals exaggerating” as even I’d initially thought. In their defense most police are honest and do the right thing. But a few are (as one cop explained to a friend of mine who’d just been roughed up by one Corpus cop) “just punks with a badge.” Sadly, the former gets tainted by the latter. But even though they’re few, they are there and it’s a genuine concern. The last thing I wanted was to be the “accident” due to a nervous finger on a hair-trigger, and eventually I got the hell out of Corpus.

Houston has been much better than its notorious past. I’ve had no problems whatsoever here, and I like it like that. That said, there have been numerous recent reports of police treatment in the trans community here. There’s nothing to grab headlines: most of it has been lack of filing reports when transgenders in the Montrose (Houston’s gayborhood) have been attacked or beaten. A few of these have been have been accompanied by “intimidating” responses and some mild physicality by the very folks expect to uphold law. But it’s a trend that’s moving in a troubling direction.

In the past couple decades I’ve gotten beyond a lot of those old fears and misconceptions. But you never forget those memories, especially when you get a reminder that remnants of the bad old days are still around.

“Understand that legal and illegal are political, and often arbitrary, categorizations; use and abuse are medical, or clinical, distinctions.” — Abby Hoffman

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