In May 2009, I was a victim of police violence. Initially, my encounter with two officers seemed to be one of a failure to communicate. Unfortunately, this issue escalated quickly and as more officers arrived I experienced nearly every stage of the “use of force continuum.” Even after being handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a police car, I continued to be assaulted with fists, pepper spray and a TASER. The next morning at the county jail, a pretrial officer informed me that I had been charged with 3 misdemeanors: alcohol intoxication, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest and 1 felony: assaulting a police officer. Having committed none of these crimes, I “lawyered up” and fought the charges. The grand jury chose to indict me on only two of the charges, which were then subsequently dismissed by a District Judge with prejudice.
After the criminal case was over, I brought my own charges against the officers, their supervisor, and the City that gave them authority. The confidentiality agreement I signed mandates that all I can really say about how that turned out is that “the matter was resolved.”
Legally speaking, I suppose that is the case. However to say that “the matter was resolved” still stings a bit to this day. After the beating, and during both the criminal and civil parts of the case, I was treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of the major symptoms were present — fear, bad dreams, flashbacks, hyperarousal, anxiety, anger, the whole bit. By extension, my family and friends were vicariously traumatized, none more so than my wife who witnessed the whole event all while trying, in vain, to utilize conflict resolution skills learned through her career as a nurse.
Still, after a few years had passed I was able to look back reflexively on my experience and to think about how it might be similar to, and different from, others’ violent encounters with police. Drs. Jeff Ferrell of Texas Christian University and Wilson Palacios at the University of South Florida helped me turn this exercise into an autoethnography that became my first peer-reviewed publication. We called it an exercise in cathartic criminology and cultural victimology and titled it “Brutal Serendipity.” Part of the article dealt with negotiating the victim identity, and the way many victims of violence find strength by instead claiming a survivor identity.
It was earlier today while reading Twitter posts associated with the #crimingwhilewhite hashtag that the extent of my serendipitous survival became most evident. I hesitate to call it a privilege because shouldn’t it be a human right to expect not to be beaten, or worse, by those sworn to serve and protect us? Still, when seeing the news surrounding Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and others, I must admit that I feel quite fortunate to be alive.
And today, on the anniversary of the murder of Fred Hampton by Chicago Police and in the wake of the non-indictment in the killing of Eric Garner by Officer Daniel Panteleo of the NYPD I think about Dr. King’s statement about how “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Likewise, I wonder where the social psychologists are with regard to translating this language and interpreting its meaning as it pertains to police legitimacy, or the lack thereof, in communities repeatedly oppressed, silenced, and traumatized by police violence. I think about the anger, the fear, and the anxiety I felt after a severe beating and for months, even years, afterward and I can relate to Michael Brown’s stepfather’s blurting out “burn this bitch down” and Esaw Garner’s “Hell, no.”
What I cannot wrap my mind around, no matter how hard I might try, is how much more exponentially traumatic such experiences must be when compounded by generations of systemic and systematic brutality and oppression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “reliving the trauma over and over” is a major symptom of PTSD. “Some people get PTSD after a friend or family member experiences danger or is harmed” and “The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one can also cause PTSD.” Also, “Children and teens can have extreme reactions to trauma” and “Sometimes large numbers of people are affected by the same event.”
While I would like to believe that current events and their associated protests and proposed reforms will lead to the kind of social change that could give whole populations the possibility of becoming survivors, rather than victims, of state violence…I am hardly optimistic.
Instead, I think of my own privilege. My attorney said more than once “if anyone has a chance to win a case like this, it’s you. You’re not the usual suspects.”
In America, “the usual suspects” is a phrase chock full of racial and class-based bias.
In America, “the usual suspects” are 21 times more likely to be killed by police.
In America, a camera documenting excessive force by departmental standards leading to homicide as declared by a coroner is not sufficient to indict.
Not when the victim is one of “the usual suspects.”
I would go on, but I’m feeling that old familiar fear, and like so many others in this traumatized nation right now, #icantbreathe.
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University