By Helen Gerhardt
David Sisak’s defense attorney, James A. Wymard, is concluding his final closing arguments for the officers who beat Jordan Miles beyond the recognition of his own mother.
“Night after night, these men go into the highest crime neighborhood in the city, where murder, rape…gun violations happen all the time… where Jordan Miles said in his FBI interview he heard gun shots every night…into a neighborhood that you and I wouldn’t drive through because of fear…we would skirt it because we would have known what would happen…”
These three men have endured intense public scrutiny…they haven’t wavered…embracing the motto of the Bureau of Police, to protect and serve. They’re heroes, members of the jury.”
Wymard is done. He has concluded his defense, with two more attorneys to still speak their piece for their clients. The judge calls a break.
I was strongly affected by the last statement by Wymard. I could not restrain myself from shaking my head in the courtroom, as I took notes, in the full sight of the jury, who we are not supposed to distract or attempt to influence one way or the other. I didn’t look their way, but, I was, in truth, attempting to influence those eight men and women, to show through my face and body that surely they must see that this line was bullshit made more potently toxic by an admixture of truth. By shaking my head, I departed from my role as citizen journalist taking notes for this website to document this trial, went beyond even my role as determined advocate for Jordan Miles, and I reverted to a bitter soldier reacting from my nauseated gut – I know all too well how effectively these poisonously sentimental clichés, these romantic hero myths, these shining halos are used to manipulate and to justify abuses by clearly superior force. As a veteran of the Iraq War, I have heard Wymard’s same arguments so many, many times before, to excuse the behavior of my fellow soldiers sent into war zones over the past decade.
Yes, “but” the subtext always runs beneath the hero praise, “these three (or ten, or twenty, or whatever the number) heavily armed soldiers clearly killed, maimed, battered and/or tortured the defenseless civilian victims.“Yes, there’s no hard evidence that the ‘civilian or complaintant at hand’ did anything wrong or criminal. But it is so hard to tell friend from foe, innocent from guilty when you are all alone, just the small number of you (whatever number you are will be depicted as small) moving through the home territory of the enemy. Yes, these soldiers committed the grossly excessive use of force they are accused of. But they had so much to be afraid of. But, they risk their lives for us, again and again, but they go there every day and night for months and years without end…”
The explicit statement usually runs “…Yes, but, you must see, they are heroes.” And the vast majority of the public not only swallows the subtext beneath the “you must see”, they repeat it with conviction, with eagerness, with compassion – and with less savory enthusiasms to believe other converse stereotypes that bolster up the image of knights in uniform, images that provide the contrast of (literal) darkness for the halos to shine.
Yes, but, you surely see, those people really are the enemy, we just can’t say that outright because we are supposed to be there to free them, to serve them, to protect them, to bring them democracy…but, because of political correctness, we can’t say that those people are out to kill each other anyway, they aren’t ready for democracy. Come on, you know that warfare and violence, that’s just their culture, they’ve been killing each other for so many years, those people probably never will be able to handle democracy – not unless we make them learn it, make them practice it, force them, yes, sometimes the only way, at the point of a gun. Yes, there are the good ones, yes, there’s the collateral damage, the innocents that get in the line of fire. But, really, those few people are the exceptions that show the majority rule. We know what those people are really like.”
Such justifications and beliefs help us ignore other motivations for the force inflicted in our name, supposedly for all our protection. In the years since I returned from Iraq, I’ve watched millions of refugees stream outward from our numerous official and unofficial war zones into conditions of abject privation as U.S. taxpayers have paid billions of dollars to brutal mercenary corporations to open up that country and to extract a harvest of wealth beyond our hoi polloi imaginings, most of the loot gathered for tiny elites. That extracted wealth takes the obvious form of oil and other mineral goodies, but far less often noted in mainstream press is the use of many thousands of brown people from across the world as slave labor, including thousands subcontracted to our own military. Such practices continue despite numerous Congressional hearings and forthright protests of deceptive hiring practices, debt-peonage, eighty hour compulsory work weeks, violent abuse, rape, and frequent near-starvation conditions.
What I have not yet seen considered in the news coverage or editorial commentary on Jordan Miles’ trial is that neighborhoods like Homewood are also harvesting grounds across the country. Hundreds of thousands of young black men are stopped and frisked without credible probable cause, arrested with scanty evidence, provided grossly inadequate defense counsel, charged and convicted of nonviolent offenses, so often simply convicted of drug possession. Many thousands of young black men are given stiff sentences of years even for having a few ounces of marijuana on their persons as part of the “War on Drugs.” And many brown men and women are abused all along the chain of the “justice system” from initial “investigative detention” through imprisonment in enormous warehouse state and private prisons where beatings, electroshock, rape, hoses, pepper spray and years of maddening solitary confinement are all too often used to punish and control – yes, right here in Pittsburgh, too.
As detailed by such scholars as Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, the War on Drugs has helped to create a new caste system, has filled our prisons with brown people who work very hard for private corporations for almost nothing in constant fear of punitive damage – more black men now slave for corporate profit than slaves worked for plantations in the South before the civil war. In a recent interview, Alexander reported:
Black men in ghetto communities (and many who live in middle class communities) are targeted by the police at early ages, often before they’re old enough to vote. They’re routinely stopped, frisked, and searched without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Eventually they’re arrested, whether they’ve committed any serious crime or not, and branded criminals or felons for life. Upon release, they’re ushered into a parallel social universe in which the civil and human rights supposedly won during the Civil Rights Movement no longer apply to them.
Like the War on Terror, the War on Drugs has been so enormously lucrative for a tiny minority that work to propagate convenient myths about the black people that they are using so “efficiently” to produce cheap products for the general population and high profits for corporate elites – yes, products for us, who so often don’t want to know about the sweatshops here and across the globe that make it a little easier to get by in this terrible economy – and we buy the cheap and easy myth that our fellow citizens deserve to be so used. This country has a long history of such profitable use of stereotyped prisoners as slave labor.
So, what has not been talked about much in the coverage of this trial is that there was very good reason for Jordan Miles not only to fear “gangbangers” but also undercover police as often violent harvesters of cheap human labor for the corporate prison industrial complex.
Earlier in the trial I had watched the attorneys for the three officers project an image that Jordan Miles posted on Myspace when he was sixteen years old, a photo of himself with his shirt off flexing his muscles, calling himself “Bulky J.” I laughed bitterly – and I instantly worried that Jordan might think I was laughing at him rather than at the ugly but unsurprising irony that the “defense” was working to put Jordan’s credibility on trial by using such a typical teenaged-guy image to mimic a long tradition of racist “brute” caricatures. Not the last time that representatives of the Bulky Powers That Be will work to terrify white folks in a jury box about bestial black men.
Such images are being pitted against photos of Jordan as ravaged victim. Jordan Miles told his psychiatrist, Dr. Leathers, that he hadn’t wanted to serve as poster child for the rallies that clamored for police accountability, for the civil rights groups for whom he has repeatedly expressed deep appreciation and thanks and respect, groups that held up his case to the community to highlight patterns of abusive behavior by “law enforcement” officers. Perhaps Jordan was made uncomfortable by the use of his image and situation as the “good kid,” the “honor student” who most clearly didn’t “deserve” to be beaten so severely. I think I might understand part of his hesitation to be held up as one of the “good ones.” I have myself felt disturbed that all the “bad kids” have all too often been forgotten in the press and commentary, even though so many have been equally or far more horrifically abused, even though so many committed such minor offenses, even though they are equally deserving of human rights and due process under the rule of law.
Yes, I am rooting for Jordan Miles to win his case. But at the beginning of the trial, I wished fervently that the three police officers alone would be directly paying for their actions. I felt bitter anger that it would be the taxpayers of Pittsburgh who bore the brunt of cost for a guilty verdict. Now, I’m looking out at the audience for this trial, at all of us who do not watch the other cases of so many young men and women less “deserving” of our compassion and concern, young men who are not so photogenic, who are not so clearly mild-mannered and dignified and gentle, young men who do not have such articulate teachers and principals, the testimony of mothers and grandmothers who show such unshakable faith and public gravitas even in the face of the sharpest questioning, young men who do not have flocks of civil rights advocates so humanly eager to sanctify their fellow fallible human being for the cause.
As so many Pittsburghers are all too willing to sanctify us veterans, and the police officers who do indeed put themselves as the gravest of risks on a daily basis. And who all too often cause grievous harm to people who do not deserve it.
It is we, the People, who are still eager for too simplistic myths of heroic protectors and dastardly criminals, it is we who flock to theaters to cheer on Batman and Robin as they bring thugs distorted into caricatured monstrosities to violent, vigilante justice. It is we who have accepted that we send out soldiers and police officers to “Wars” on abstractions such as “Terror” and “Drugs.” It is we who have accepted that it is not Abstractions that suffer the consequences.
Maybe We the People of Pittsburgh should indeed pay some portion of the cost that Jordan Miles has borne. And maybe we should pay further costs not so easy to pay off with money. The commitment to stand up for the human rights of our fellow citizens who are not saints. The long hard work to build systems of justice which do not act as forms of War.