A protester at the University of South Alabama –
Social Commentary –
By David Underhill –
MOBILE, Ala. — The University of South Alabama has taught a bonus lesson not included in the tuition.
The instructor was a university policeman, and the visual aid was a student sprawled on the ground with a bullet from the cop’s pistol buried in his chest outside the police headquarters on the school’s main Mobile campus in October.
Since then a torrent of commentary, local and beyond, has swirled around this scene. All of it has focused either on the details of the officer’s and the student’s behavior that night or on their supposed states of mind. None of it has noted how instructive the deadly event was about the ongoing mutation of policing. That lofty old motto of protect and serve is being replaced by shoot first and ask questions later. The dead student is a textbook example of the changes underway.
Just as drones in the skies of Pakistan and Yemen to locate and eradicate “bad guys” soon lead to drones at home, so do decades of constant war abroad lead to vets with military minds returning to take jobs as cops. Also to military equipment being handed down to local police forces. In war anybody not on your team is a suspected enemy, and if you don’t kill first, you might be killed.
As this attitude worms into the culture of police agencies, it begins to affect even officers who never were soldiers. Combine that with the upper levels of government declaring war on terror — which lurks everywhere around us ready to pounce — and soon you have battalions of cops with body armor and automatic weapons marching through the streets of Tampa and Charlotte this summer to protect the presidential nominating conventions from a few hundred unarmed and mostly meek protestors.
Anybody viewing pictures of those police operations, without news stories attached, might have thought they depicted military maneuvers in a theater of war. Such practices are becoming standard methods to control crowds and squelch unwelcome opinions by intimidation, rather than being reserved as a last resort against insurrection.
Kill Before It’s Too Late?
The maneuvers on the South Alabama campus that deadly night involved small units: One policeman, one student.
Gil Collar, an 18-year-old freshman from the Montgomery area, walked up naked to a window of the police station and flailed on it. Trevis Austin, a 27-year-old officer with several years of policing experience, came out with his pistol drawn. The two circled each other, advancing and retreating. The cop fired and the student went down, got up, collapsed again. Seconds later, backup officers converged. Within just a couple minutes of his arrival at the police station, Collar was dead.
Security camera video shows these things. It does not show why either young man behaved as he did, nor what either said because there’s no audio. And obstructions shielded some moments from view, including the instant the shot was fired.
Mind-bending drugs, allegedly taken by Collar that evening, may account for his nakedness and for other bizarre conduct by him on campus before his disruptive appearance at the police station. But the absence of clothing surely means that the cop did not fire for fear of sudden attack by a hidden weapon.
Was officer Austin in mortal danger from the naked student’s bare hands? Perhaps, if the cop was puny and the teen was not. The reverse was true. Collar had been a high school wrestler — but in a lightweight category. He stood 5′ 7” and weighed 135 pounds.
Could Collar have wrenched the pistol away from the officer and turned it against him? Perhaps, but that would require grappling with the cop, and the video does not reveal the student ever touching Austin.
The video shows the officer backing away when Collar comes toward him. Did Austin fear retreating into a corner or against a wall, where he couldn’t evade assault by this naked, unarmed fellow? Perhaps, except the video doesn’t show him being trapped, and examining the site of the confrontation suggests that he could have continued backing away whenever Collar approached him.
So why did he shoot instead?
In all the fanciful and contorted commentary about officer Austin’s thoughts that pulled the trigger on his pistol — the fear, the uncertainty, the inadequate training, the absent backup, the nakedness, the whatever — none of it considers two of the plainest possible answers to the question Why?
One: The student was being disobedient and disrespectful. An audio surveillance tape would likely have recorded Austin telling Collar to stop and drop, face down, hands in sight — the usual drill. The video does picture the student halting, going to his knees, but then rising and advancing again. As the officer backed away was he feeling not endangered but humiliated and enraged at being disobeyed by this teen, and that’s why he fired?
Two: Austin must have known that other officers were patrolling the campus and could arrive soon. He might have waited for help to grab and subdue the student. Some commentators have puzzled over this, especially ones who’ve seen the video revealing how swiftly backup appeared. But none have raised the question of whether Austin fired because he realized backup was coming — and he would have to shoot soon or he would lose his opportunity to kill.
Only careful investigation and questioning could indicate whether the campus cop fired for these reasons, and maybe no definite answer would ever emerge. But the failure to even consider such prospects exposes either undue reverence for armed, uniformed authority, or a sheepish public herded to slaughter with barely even whimpering complaints, or both.
It may be unpatriotic but it isn’t illegal — yet — to question the sanctity of official violence. Some of the WikiLeaks releases drag these issues into the open. For instance, the one called Collateral Murder, a video from an American helicopter gunship operating over a Baghdad neighborhood not yet fully pacified during the invasion of Iraq. That tape does have audio, and you hear the crew whooping with joy as they massacre unarmed people in the streets below and congratulating each other on their marksmanship.
These are our heroes at work, as we are instructed incessantly at election rallies and athletic events. And so it seems normal, even admirable, when recent news reports tell of a policeman in a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter firing at a pickup supposedly carrying illegal people or drugs. If, as the department says, the shots were intended to disable the truck, the airborne sniper isn’t qualified for his job. Instead of hitting the engine or tires, he shot two passengers dead. The truck then crashed into a ditch, where pursuers on the ground found dead and injured people but no weapons or drugs.
Could the officer at the university in Mobile have shot the student not to protect himself and others from harm but because he wanted to kill? In the famous, and unresolved, Florida case of the community watch volunteer killing the unarmed teen who walked through the neighborhood, lawyers for the shooter have asked the judge to grant access to the dead kid’s social media posts. They said this might aid the self-defense argument by illustrating the violent tendencies of the deceased. The judge has agreed.
Someone who appears to be University of South Alabama officer Trevis Austin has a Facebook page. Among his likes are five games. Three have these titles: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Medal of Honor Warfighter. On an adolescent male’s Facebook page that list would signal normal hormone levels. But when an adult in a job authorizing him to use deadly force exhibits an attachment to games that turn killing into entertainment and sport, this is worth notice.
If similar evidence is relevant to the Florida case, wouldn’t it be in Mobile also? Perhaps attorneys and prosecutors could offer legal opinions to the contrary. But this should at least be part of the public discussion. It has not been.
The Big Not So Easy, Tasers, Vigilantes
Reminders of why such evidence ought to be weighed are not distant in time or place. Last year a jury in New Orleans finally convicted five policemen of federal civil rights violations for their role in the shooting deaths and injuries of several citizens in the submerged city after hurricane Katrina in 2005. The trial showed that the officers were not defending themselves. They were firing with reckless negligence at unarmed people in a manner not much distinct from human hunting.
And in Mobile this spring four officers responded to a domestic disturbance report. According to the police department, a suspect at the scene resisted arrest and assaulted the officers. Rather than the four of them physically overpowering him, they electrocuted him. Shot him with a taser. Paramedics took him to a hospital, where he died. A police news release explained the fatal course of action by saying the suspect’s behavior had been “delusional.” This violent death may generate lawsuits, but it has sparked no public outcry, nor even calls for an investigation. Evidently it’s now accepted that the proper punishment for delusional behavior is death.
And a little earlier this year across the bay from Mobile three teen boys and a girl went slinking at night among the fishing camps in the swamp. Judging from the boys’ histories, they were scouting for stuff to steal. Three men at a cabin in one camp noticed prowlers at another camp and came by boat to check. They were armed and fired a “warning shot” that struck the girl square in the skull. She died several days later without ever regaining consciousness.
The authorities investigated and quickly decreed that no crime had occurred and nobody would be prosecuted — except the surviving teens, who were charged initially with burglary, then with murder for contributing to the circumstances resulting in her death. The investigation did reveal that two of the men who came shooting had records of felony convictions for cocaine trafficking, and so it was likely illegal for them to have weapons. But no charges have arisen from this.
It also revealed that an officer of the Alabama Marine Police had earlier suggested to the shooters that they handle burglary problems without waiting for the cops. So says a pending civil lawsuit filed by the family of the dead girl.
Meanwhile, the gunmen will face no criminal charges and the message delivered by both prosecutors and police is: the proper punishment for teen mistakes is vigilante justice delivering death.
Americans Need To Watch What They Say
In such surroundings the saturation police presence at a Mobile Walmart on Thanksgiving night was not merely a misallocation of resources that might have been dispersed all over the city on the lookout for actual crime. There wasn’t any epidemic of criminality at Walmart that night, since stampeding to heap carts with cheap stuff in the late hour shopping melee that now precedes the same thing on Black Friday is not a crime.
But the police cars were too numerous to count: lined up across the front of the store, in the shadows on the side, sprinkled around the parking lot and roaming the nearby streets. This was the official local response to a nationally organized call for Walmart workers to exercise their legal rights to briefly walk off their jobs while contemplating unions. Also to a call for support by the public.
There was no disturbance, nor any apparent walk out, just a dozen or so folks with picket signs on a sidewalk beside the parking lot. They were violating no law. But a knot of belligerent men, evidently managerial types, approached saying — falsely — that Walmart owns the sidewalk and you will be arrested if you don’t leave. A small squad of cops followed close behind and they were not smiling.
The picketers knew they were within their legal rights to be there. And they knew the police concentration in the vicinity far outnumbered them. If they dared to stand their ground, they would soon be in cuffs and in the back seats of police cars — at best. So they abandoned their legal rights and retreated across the street to a sidewalk on the far side that Walmart could not readily claim to own.
They also knew, though no one said so aloud, that just a few weeks before, just a couple miles away, a policeman at the university had shot an unarmed student dead with little or no provocation. And in the aftermath the whole apparatus of local officialdom and media had unified to explain, excuse and exonerate the officer, while suggesting that the student’s misbehavior made him largely responsible for his own death.
In the fearful and infuriated wake of the 9/11 attacks, comic commentator Bill Maher exhibited insufficient ire toward the plane hijackers who’d crashed into the trade center towers in New York. He said it was wrong to call them cowards, a routine slander at the time. Whatever else you might rightly call suicide attackers, coward does not apply, he said. For this he was evicted from his TV show.
A reporter at the White House asked president Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer about W’s reaction to the squelching of Maher. Fleischer replied, “Americans…need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that.”
The appropriate time has never arrived. President W declared the Global War on Terror, which has continued in various guises throughout the decade since and now seems a permanent American policy. It combines standard assaults on whole countries with multiple operations around the world by various military and clandestine agencies using high-tech hardware, plus cyberwar, surveillance and spies, to eliminate undesirables — including American citizens deemed threatening or troublesome by targeting them with drones, special forces and probably exotic methods yet unknown to the public.
No matter how far away these things occur, some consequences seep back.
The abrupt and forceful features of war intrude into domestic activities. Last year an ex-CIAer turned repentant peacenik, Ray McGovern, decided to protest US policies embodied in secretary of state Hillary Clinton when she spoke at George Washington University in DC. He rose from his seat in the audience, turned his back on her and stood there in silence. For this outrage her burly protectors beat and bloodied him, dragged him away in handcuffs and threw him in jail.
Syllabus Of Suppression
From smothering dissenters, to bullying picketers, to shooting misbehavers, the catalog of ugly policing enlarges. The university setting for the summary killing of an unruly student is fortunate. It could prompt some serious scholarship about the trends and prevalence of lethal police uses of force, and the academic trait of the exercise could provide a tint of protective coloration against the certain backlash.
Even hinting at any critique of the police invites barrages of verbal assault intended to silence inquiry and banish thought. Everybody is familiar with the litany: the police do a very demanding job under extremely dangerous circumstances — they put their lives on the line for the rest of us every day — it’s unfair and verges on deranged to criticize or complain about their methods for protecting us, etc.
But hard and hazardous circumstances are scarcely unique to policing. Reports stretching across decades confirm this. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and others compile the numbers. Death rates for truck drivers, garbage collectors and construction laborers run about the same as for police. For farmers, fishers, power line workers and loggers, among other categories, the rates are much higher than for police.
Nor is it true that cops perform functions more essential than others. Imagine that all crops, seafood, electricity and lumber disappeared tomorrow. Would that leave a society with less chaos and distress than one whose police disappeared?
The question answers itself: All of these functions, and myriads more, are vital to keeping things running. Yet failures and faults by police receive an exemption from criticism that no other sector of society enjoys.
And police deaths in the line of duty generate memorials, testimonials, processions and services of rare scope and solemnity. The Mobile area has hosted two of these ceremonies within the past year, and they resemble the canonization of a saint. Workers killed in other types of employment almost never have such departures.
The reasons for these stark distinctions are a fit topic for scholarly research and courses of study. As an initial hypothesis, the faculty and students should notice that those who are showered with respect and reverence are those who form into squadrons on command to defend the world’s Wal-marts against calls for wage increases. Those who do not receive these accolades are those who seek the increases.
Another area of inquiry could be the sociology of the reaction to the student’s death. A few people, on campus and off, hastily summoned a demonstration mixing protest with grief at the police station scene of the shooting. The university has about 15,000 students and the demonstration attracted just a couple dozen. On a campus without an activist tradition, even that small group numbered more than some organizers expected. The crowd was integrated by race and age, campus and community.
Nearby a little counter-demonstration in support of the police was entirely white, although the dead student was white and the cop who shot him is black. This astounded some veterans of the civil rights struggles in the area. They had never expected to see such role reversals. Only subtle analysis could determine whether to attribute this change to waning racism or to reflexive deference toward authority, regardless of the races involved.
The absent majority of students and faculty is also a sociological puzzle. Apathy is the easy, lazy explanation for their inaction. But the random reactions appearing in the media and the Web don’t verify this. Instead they’ve said the cop acted wrongly, or the student did, or both did, or police training and equipment were faulty, or bad things are done and can’t be undone and you must move on, or their opinions have no effect and don’t matter.
None of these reactions are simply apathetic. Perhaps detailed surveys could define and quantify the main attitudes. This would reveal something about the condition of the campus society and would imply similar features in the society beyond.
Some courses at the university about international relations must teach that shows of force — troop movements, naval exercises, deadly skirmishes, even occasional invasions — are normal tools of statecraft. They maintain credibility by reminding of the capacity to do even more. Defunct professor-politicians like Henry Kissinger receive media platforms for lecturing about this. The Israeli attacks on Gaza are justified as necessary to bolster Israel’s credibility.
Might this analysis apply to the shooting of a student on campus? If the evidence suggests the cop wasn’t in danger but he fired anyway, was this a way of maintaining the credibility of policing? When an officer says stop and drop, obey — pronto. Here’s a reminder — bang! — dead.
Similar off-campus instances are numerous and multiplying, it appears. And the public reaction, or lack of it, is also similar.
Does the anarchy and violence of geopolitics now infiltrate policing practices too? This is certainly a subject suitable for research and instruction at a university.
And a course in psychology includes the abnormal variants. Killing for fun or with cool unconcern has always been studied in this field. From workplaces to movie theaters to classrooms, the society at large drips with gory enactments. Why would police personnel be exempt from this deadly quirk? Indicative examples for study abound.
And numerous departments might be appropriate locations for courses referencing Martin Niemoller. This German pastor survived WW II as if for the purpose of coining a famous reflection on its prelude. Various versions exist but the essence of all is: First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists…trade unionists…Jews…Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
This is a wise cautionary tale. But for the chronically wary and suspicious it could be a mental freeway to panic and paranoia. The sane challenge is to use it soberly as a guide for examining the enveloping situation.
Recognize, as a start, that America is not a police state. To verify this, do comparative studies of places that truly have been. Do the same about fascism and Nazism.
But look very carefully at the early stages building toward the grim outcomes in those places. And be alert for symptoms of the same here.
A local paper quoted one student at the university saying that some campus cops behaved like lords dealing with serfs. “It’s almost like they treat their badge as a crown,” he said. But he prefaced that observation with: “I’m scared to say this.”
Give him credit for courage by saying it anyway. And also note that he is already terrorized. Anybody who hesitates to state his true opinion about the police has a foot on the path toward Niemoller’s spiritual and political doom.
Despite flashes of courage, to what extent does the general public harbor supine acceptance of police conduct they actually detest and fear? When this kind of conduct is tolerated, does it tend to expand? How much of a military ethos has infested policing? And what ideas or practices could reverse such developments?
All of these questions belong in a university curriculum, especially on a campus where a cop has just shot an unarmed student dead. If the bureaucracy of inserting them into classes is cumbersome and slow, a teach-in that begins addressing them could occur soon.
But if the University of South Alabama does none of these things, it will still be teaching about the role of police and the role of citizens in relation to the police. The lesson will be that when police kill citizens the proper response is not critical examination of official violence. It is mourning at the funerals.
In that case, remembering Niemoller’s grieved postmortem, the university should consider enlarging its criminal justice department, because many job openings beckon for cops, wardens, guards — and all other sorts of enforcers, watchers, controllers, confiners.
Launching a department of mortuary sciences might also be shrewd.
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© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.