Sammy Yatim and Fruitvale Station: Police killings

Fruitvale Station (2013) is a powerful debut film by Ryan Coogler, about Oscar Grant III, a 22 year old African American from Oakland who was killed on New Year’s Eve, 2009 by a policeman during an arrest on the BART subway platform. The film comes at a particularly appropriate time, given the outcry over the Trayvon Martin killing and the horrific murder of Sammy Yatim by an undisciplined and poorly trained Toronto police officer.

Coogler’s film does some subtle and effective messaging, for me the way the dominant (or white) culture responds to the dress and mannerisms of minority youth. When Coogler shows these young men in a group, their clipped language, gestures and sheer nervous energy place the viewer at the same distance we might feel when seeing such groups in public places. Fear eclipses our rational belief that these are just ordinary young people out for a good time. But then the way they are treated by the police (who act as guardians and representatives of our fearful society) actually produces their alienating behaviors.

In the Yatim and Grant killings, it wasn’t just one police officer involved in the incident. Large groups of police were present at both incidents and not a single officer urged restraint on a colleague. In other words, all the officers present were responsible to some degree for the outcome. At best, one can see some officers turn and walk away from the scene, enforcing the culture of silence that seems to prevail when dissent results in being ostracized from the group. The killings of Oscar Grant and Sammy Yatim had one other thing in common that one only wishes was present in the Trayvon Martin affair. Cell phone cameras. Having police incidents visually recorded results in public mistrust, well deserved public mistrust, for police actions. Whereas Zimmerman can lie about or obscure the truth that isn’t seen, the taped beating of Rodney King, the RCMP murder of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport, the police killings of Grant and Yatim and other such incidents reveal a shocking level of disregard for human life on the part of police. As much as one might detest cell phones, this use of them, highlighted in Fruitvale Station, is beneficial. At least the police sometimes get charged and have to construct another story aside from being attacked by a man with a stapler or an isolated young man with a small knife or a person unarmed altogether.

An example of an unrecorded police killing, one of Canada’s worst, was the murder of teenager Ian Bush by an RCMP police constable in a northern BC town. Bush was apparently a little drunk outside a hockey arena and refused to give his name (as reported by the RCMP) to the constable. These are not exactly unusual behaviors by a Canadian youth. He was arrested, brought into police headquarters and, so it seemed, summarily executed with a shot to the back of the head. But no, that’s not what happened, according to Paul Koester, the RCMP officer. Ian Bush attacked him and during the attack the constable was able to take out his gun and somehow shoot his assailant in the back of the head. When the inquiry lawyer asked the RCMP constable to demonstrate the contortions that would have made this explanation possible, he refused to do it.

“Const. Paul Koester told homicide investigators last year he feared Bush, 22, was about to choke him into unconsciousness, telling the rookie police officer to “take [his] last breath.” With Bush on Koester’s back, Koester said he pulled his pistol as a last resort, reached behind Bush, hit him with the barrel a few times and then shot him once in the back of the head on Oct. 29, 2005.” (Vancouver Province)

Yet he was cleared! A cell phone camera would no doubt have forced Koester to tell a different story but that doesn’t mean he would have faced justice. The RCMP have shown themselves to be more interested in good PR than the self-examination needed to change the sometimes violent and sexist culture of the force.That they lie is indisputable as is the leniency they have gotten from inquiries and the rare court charges.

It is very rare for a police officer to face a murder charge in the line of duty. The officer in the Oscar Grant case was charged with murder, reduced at trial to manslaughter. He was given two years in prison and paroled in eleven months.

No doubt Yatim’s killer and the guy who tased him afterwards will get off with lesser charges than are merited. Imagine killing someone in that way and being suspended from your job “with pay” as a consequence. That kind of kid glove treatment may well result in more reckless shootings.

Truth and the Courtroom: the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin affair

The courtroom is more filled with illusions than a house of mirrors, or maybe the courtroom is nothing but a house of mirrors. The language of the courtroom obscures its actual function. Hence we hear about ‘verdicts’, a word at the root of which is Truth, from the Latin, veritas. Or we hear, in the courtroom itself, a witness sworn in who promises to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” That means if one fails to tell the truth, he’ll be punished by God or charged with perjury. The first illusion then is the greatest illusion of all: that the proceedings and the verdicts of a courtroom represent the Truth. In point of fact, the Truth is irrelevant in a courtroom. As Rubin Carter wrote in Eye of the Hurricane: “Truth would not be recognized if she sashayed into a courtroom and sat in the judge’s lap.”

This assertion surprises casual observers, especially those who consume TV shows about the law, shows that do little but sustain the illusion of assiduous police, hard working lawyers and righteous judges with a dollops of American flags and sentimental music. The Zimmerman/Martin case is instructive in that way, because the verdict defies common sense. The verdict is the ‘untruth’ because it was based on a law, the so called Stand Your Ground Law, that is loosely interpreted to mean that you can shoot anybody who makes you feel threatened. Twenty states currently have this law in place. In other words, a law is passed that essentially invites a person to break another law, condoning legalized murder. This situation demonstrates the house of mirrors (or ‘through the looking glass’) nature of the law.

What is at stake in a courtroom? The lives of individuals caught up in an absurd system.  What really happens there is a battle of wits without a commitment to the Truth. “There is your truth, my truth and the Truth.” The lawyers who battle and the Judge who rules on points of law and the witnesses who see what they are coached to see and the jury whose decisions are often the product of groupthink and the legislators who pass stupid and unjust laws are hardly a recipe for Truth. What happened in the Zimmerman/Martin case? Common sense and evidence tells you that Zimmerman, racially profiling Martin, chased and followed and cornered him inside their gated Florida community, causing a ‘fight or flight’ reaction in the eventual victim. That Martin chose to fight is understandable, knowing that Zimmerman was likely to be armed. He must have decided in an instant that it was better to fight than to be gunned down from behind. So, really, it was Trayvon Martin who stood his ground, not the ‘innocent’ Zimmerman, but the law is the truth in a courtroom; merely that Zimmerman said he felt threatened is all that mattered.

The defense must have felt great satisfaction at having ‘won’ and the prosecution a large amount of humiliation–even embarrassment, given the scrutiny–at having ‘lost’. To the officers of the court, winning or losing is what matters. Such trials are games played with other people’s lives and to think that God is the true arbiter in a courtroom, that somehow He will make the Truth known, is mystification writ large. The defendant and the aggrieved family are largely irrelevant; anyone who has spent time and money in long legal battles knows this to be the case.

The above explains why wrongful convictions are so hard to overturn. So much is invested in winning that prosecutors and police will not readily give up their victory in the face of clear evidence. It’s not about the truth, no matter how much garbage they spout about not wanting to have people serving sentences for crimes they haven’t committed. It’s a macho game, which is why female lawyers, judges and prosecutors, tend to see more of the whole picture. Perhaps due to early learning, their egos just aren’t as invested in the outcome of the game. But this difference should not be overstated. Many prosecutors, male and female, are into denial. How else can they live with themselves in the face of a wrongful conviction? The case against Guy Paul Morin in Ontario, Canada, in the rape and killing of nine year old Christine Jessop, fell apart when DNA evidence clearly indicated a person other than Morin. Yet Susan McLean, the prosecutor who tried Morin twice for the same crime, refused to accept even the DNA evidence. She was still certain of Morin’s guilt.

One of the many sad elements of the Zimmerman/Martin affair is the way people rallied against the verdict. They too are suffering from the illusion that truth matters in a courtroom. Yes, Zimmerman murdered Martin. Even Zimmerman admits that he shot him. He murdered Trayvon Martin but, according to the uncivilized law which is all that is of issue, he did not murder Treyvon Martin. If this absurdity does nothing else, it should disabuse many people of the notion that a courtroom’s purpose is to find the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

All this being said so cynically on my part is not to say that the system doesn’t mostly get it right. The majority of cases result in a plea bargain entered into by a guilty (although sometimes not guilty) party. When cases do go to trial, and that is the subject of this entry, the results are less trustworthy. When the system gets it wrong, the wrongly convicted are swallowed inside penal institutions, their lives a struggle to emerge from legal quicksand.

Problems with Parole


The recent parole hearing of David McCallum points to a flaw in the system. On the one hand, a wrongly convicted prisoner may choose not to show remorse for a crime he hasn’t committed. His desperation to leave prison is overcome by his need to be vindicated; his life has no meaning and no chance of even getting a job if he admits that he’s done a heinous crime and leaves prison as a convicted murderer.  Moreover, if he admits to a crime after decades of denying involvement, then he’s seen as a liar for having held out all of those years.

In actuality, the requirements around parole do not necessitate that a prisoner express remorse. He or she needs to have demonstrated by his or her behavior a readiness to re-enter the community. But a larger flaw in the system allows parole commissioners to ignore  the rules and the legislation. Even though the process of selection is supposed to be random, one individual commissioner can follow one particular prisoner from hearing to hearing. This has happened in McCallum’s case where James Ferguson, a former prosecutor who is also the son of a police officer, will not accept that David might be telling the truth, even after he has spent 28 years proclaiming his innocence. Ferguson uses the parole board hearings as a prosecutor retrying the case. He insists that David shot a young man in order to escape identification in a carjacking. He insists that he knows when a young person is lying or telling the truth by observing a confession tape. But no scientist in the world makes the claim that such certainty is near possible, even with the use of sophisticated technology. And he makes claims that are patently false, the most egregious being that David’s confession is fully corroborated. David’s confession is not even partially corroborated, even by his co-convicted. He would never have been convicted if he had a decent lawyer. Even the DA’s office has admitted that! The whole case against McCallum is his ‘confession’; Ferguson makes it plain that he cannot accept that a police officer would force a 16 year African American to confess to a crime. Like Javert, he follows McCallum, believing that he’s a force for justice. AT LEAST JEAN VALJEAN STOLE A LOAF OF BREAD!!