Legalized violence?

This isn’t Philadelphia or Los Angeles, and Rodney King doesn’t live here. But events during the recent Republican and Democratic national conventions have turned the spotlight on the role of peace officers in the community.

Although national mainstream media devoted most of their coverage to political stumping, a fair amount of coverage was devoted to the overwhelming police presence and their clashes at the conventions with social activists and demonstrators. After all, violence does sell newspapers.

National Public Radio depicted police lines so heavily armored they conjured images of medieval knights with chainmail. The most publicized event took place at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where, by most accounts, police grossly overreacted to a few self-proclaimed anarchists who were throwing rocks and bottles at them. But of the 7,000 people the cops drove away from the scene, most were simply waiting to hear popular angst-political rock band Rage Against the Machine.

After the conventions, stories began to circulate about a state of martial law — where demonstrators and anyone near them were subjected to billy-clubbing and unreasonable imprisonment, and a disregard for civil rights not seen since the ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Unless, some folks say, you were at the recent protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C.

With his 20-something-boyish looks and a conservative haircut, Asheville resident Jon Hunt does not look like an anarchist or, for that matter, a threat to national security. But when he went to the Republican convention to peacefully protest against the death penalty, he and his friends found an atmosphere that fostered fear.

Speaking at the “Who Will Police the Police?” forum at Pack Library on Aug. 17, Hunt described how people were stopped and searched with no probable cause, and incarcerated on what he said would typically be minor charges. Many of those unfairly imprisoned then had to post huge bails to obtain release. Consequently, Hunt said, he and his fellow protesters decided it wasn’t safe to go out on the street, a fear that was confirmed when a cop punched him in the chest for wearing a Mumia shirt. (Mumia is Mumia Abu-Jamal, the frequent subject of graffiti in these parts, and the much-written-about black journalist on death row in Pennsylvania. The short story on him is that he was a longtime leading critic of police brutality, mainly against blacks, by the Philadelphia Police Department. Some of the criticism led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1981, Mumia and his brother were involved in an altercation in which a police officer was killed. Many conflicting accounts exist as to what actually happened.)

About a hundred social activists and concerned citizens attended the forum sponsored by the Town Hall Project, a group that holds discussions for social awareness on issues rarely reported on except by the Asheville Global Report.

“I believe that many cops are sincerely trying to serve the public,” said Brendan Conley, the event organizer and an editor at the Global Report. “We should acknowledge that, but should also acknowledge that that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to talk about police misconduct. Police brutality is real. We’re not talking about a problem of individual cops. This is a systemic problem, a social problem that needs to be exposed.”

A principal speaker at the forum was Efia Nwangaza — a member of two groups that decry “legalized cop violence,” the Oct. 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality and Copwatch out of Greenville, S.C. A black woman who looks to be in her mid-40s, Nwangaza was wearing a T-shirt depicting a police officer gunning down an unarmed man with his hands raised over his head. She said she believes that the armed forces are the teachers and instructors of police forces, and that the two are of the same disposition.

“The mind-set of one is no different from the other,” Nwangaza said. “For any of you who have been at Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and now L.A., you know they look like Darth Vader conventions. Full-body armor, all sorts of weapons hanging off them, and their willingness to use them.”

The purpose of police departments, Nwanga continued, is to enforce the Constitution — which people believe is a human rights document, but it is really a document “to protect white male property owners.” The Greenville police have gone so far as to start gating the projects, she added, and what was once reserved for upscale housing developments has “become a security measure for public housing … [with] one way in and one way out. The community is being led to believe that it is in its best interest to allow this … to accommodate the so-called war against drugs, which we know is clearly a war against the people, a rationalization to suspend people’s civil liberties.”

Nwangaza also shared several accounts of police brutality and the shooting deaths of unarmed, fleeing suspects. A climate exists, she said, where some poor kid of color walking down the street in baggy pants, with chains hanging off him, has the police acting like they need to be afraid for their lives.

“It seems to me they find that the dumbest, the blindest, the most trigger-happy people, intolerant people, to make them police officers,” Nwangaza proclaimed. “They are afraid of everything, everybody.”

Also attending the forum was Sheila Olvera, whose husband Rigo died in April 1999 after being shot by Henderson County deputies. Several people contend that deputies overreacted when Olvera tried to flee in his truck, and that they shot him because of his race. She said the incident is still under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Asheville itinerant resident and social activist Mickey Mahaffey also spoke at the forum. He refocused the discussion on what he considers unnecessary funding of police departments at both the local and federal levels. The Asheville Police Department has a $12.5 million budget, he said, and that taxpayer money would be best spent elsewhere. “There’s nothing left to help the pollution problem. There’s nothing left for affordable housing. There’s nothing left for traffic control. There’s nothing left for the transit system.”

Mahaffey also criticized the flow of federal grant money into police department coffers. “[The government] doesn’t have a big war going on now, so their military budget goes to the police force,” he pointed out. “In the last six weeks, the city has applied for and received $250,000 [in] grants to up their police presence downtown.”

Mahaffey adamantly encouraged people to demonstrate and speak with city officials, City Council members, the city manager, and the chief of police. “At every City Council meeting you get three whole minutes to get up and say anything you want to. Those doors at the police station are still open. We are still able to have conversations with them. They are stilling willing to talk to you.”

He did add one caution, however: “Remember it’s about that moment. We can’t allow all our rage to spill over into that one occasion. That’s were I’ve got in trouble in the past, by not keeping my cool.”

At the end of the forum, several people called for a citizen police-watch group. Members of such groups in other cities listen to the police scanner and then might ride their bikes to the scene to videotape what happens — both good and bad. Former Columbus, Ohio, resident Jerry Bellow said that when they started doing this in Columbus, they recorded plenty of the latter, but eventually police officers welcomed the videotaping — “to prove I did my job,” he recalled of one officer’s viewpoint.

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