Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Remembering why I do this work

Alright, it's been a long time since I've posted. To those online and offline friends who've told me "what's going on?" I can only say, thank you for encouraging me. Work has been very busy of late, and management at our office has really become unhinged in a bad way (it's all relative, I guess. I hear enough horror stories that really makes my management pale in comparison). The net result has been that I've been offline too long. Perhaps it's drained all inspiration out of me.

That being said, there are times that things happen that have a cathartic effect on me and makes me realize why I do this, and a video on You Tube has provided that for me.

People have accused me of being obsessed with black/white issues, or rich/poor issues, or things of the like. In reality, I am obsessed with powerful/weak issues. Those who have power, and abuse it, against those who are weak and cannot fight back.

In this video, a Utah Highway Patrolman pulls a guy over for speeding. The guy evidently disagrees, and makes it clear. What is clear from the start is that the officer isn't accepting any disagreement, and goes back to write a ticket. When he returns, the person refuses to sign it. Here's where it gets really bad, and where the cop totally loses it. The person being pulled over probably had no clue that in signing the ticket, he's just agreeing to show up in court, and not admitting to any guilt (his lack of understanding of the system should've been a tip-off to the cop at this point). At this point the cop could've calmly explained "look, I know you disagree with me, but signing this ticket is just a promise to appear in court. You can explain to the judge why I'm wrong, and we can have it decided in court rather than out here, since we obviously disagree. I just have to make sure you're willing to come to court on your own, which this signature affirms. If you don't, I have to take you in cuffs to have you post bail personally. You have your pregnant wife and infant here, and I know you don't want that, so sign the stupid ticket, come to court, and we can argue about it there."

That, of course, would be the reasonable thing to do so as to explain to someone who appears otherwise law-abiding what the system is actually doing here. Instead, the cop orders him out of the car and immediately decides to arrest him, without telling him what he's arrested for. Obviously, the guy is pretty surprised by this and doesn't jump to it with his hands behind his back, and after 6 seconds (which was actually timed in one news report of the event), has his taser out and is threatening to shoot - which he does a second later or so. The victim (I love calling the arrested person that, but he clearly is one) never endangers the officer, never threatens him, and never does anything offensive other than request a sober statement of what happens.

Here's what fascinates me. The officer otherwise seems like a nice guy. He talks with the wife afterwards in a very polite manner, as if he has concern for her (this after just tasing her husband, leaving her hysterical, and threatening her as well, all for nothing). He clearly will never be disciplined for this, he tells his supervisor who comes on scene what happens (only slightly lying in his rendition), and has evidently never been disciplined in the past. In other words, this was standard operating procedure.

And yet, watching it, I felt the pangs of uncontrollable rage in me. I felt the same as I felt watching videos of 60's protesters in the south being set upon with dogs, or sprayed with high powered hoses, or watching protesters in Russia get clubbed, or with any other place where injustice plays itself out in such a blatant fashion and where society at large yawns or (worse) applauds loudly.

I am so honored to be one of those people who stands up for these powerless people. I'm not saying that every client of mine is in this guy's position - of course not, that is absurd. But the chips are stacked so dramatically against the people that I represent, and when something like this happens, there is no one otherwise there to stand up for a victim of police abuse like this and say "enough!" The problem is, society has become so inured to the notion of "lock 'em up and throw away the key" that they are now willing to lock up anyone and everyone, and society at large applauds. Honest, good people get abused now because it has become acceptable. After decades of shitting on poor minorities, the attitude has spread and the practice has followed closely behind it. Anyone can be nailed now, legal protections have become so pro-forma so as to not exist anymore. Perpetrators of these actions are protected far more than the public at large is. Police officers are seen as victims if their actions are called into question and they are investigated for their misdeeds.

The only people out there fighting against this all the time - not just in the case of the highly sympathetic white victim in Utah with a pregnant wife and infant in the car where the case is caught on video - are public defenders and other lawyers like us.

It takes watching a video like this, and feeling once again the frustration in me while watching it, that reminds me why I'm so proud to do this work.

And with that, I'm back.