6/3/2007 Newsletter


  • Lydia Howell: I've seen American Torture

I've Seen American Torture

by Lydia Howell
Tue. May 22, 2007

I witnessed torture last week.

Thursday, May 17th, was a beautiful Minnesota spring afternoon and I was mentally planning out the next phase of planting in my new spot in a community garden, while out running errands. I came out to the bus stop in the Rainbow Foods parking lot on 27th Avenue off East Lake Street---a few blocks from where the raids on immigrants took place two days later.  Immediately, my guard went up, as a police car pulled up.

Their focus was obvious: an African-American woman. Perhaps in her early 30s, she was even more vulnerable to law enforcement by two aspects of her situation that became apparent.

Her white jogging pants and t-shirt were dirty. She gripped a luggage cart, with a battered overnight suitcase strapped on the bottom and various plastic bags tied all over it. I'd bet this week's pay she was homeless. In our age of relentless gentrification and contempt of the poor, being homeless is treated as  a crime, where one is not only subjected to harassment and arrest, but to beatings and theft of all one's belongings by police.

It was also quickly clear that she was mentally ill.

In a sing-song voice she repeated the same sentence endlessly. Yet, as the 1960s radical psychologist R.D. Laing observed in the 1960s, if one attempts to read the "metaphors of insanity" they are often very revealing. In fact, they often say a great deal about the insane, everyday cruelty of our culture that drives people mad.

The woman was saying, over and over, "I'm not white and I'm not a star."

One police officer was speaking too quietly to hear, but at one point she said, "talk to the store manager."  Then, a Hennepin County Medical Center ambulance drove up. The police knew they were dealing with a mentally ill person and Mayor R.T. Rybak has made a number of reassuring speeches about MPD's Crisis Intervention Teams--officers trained to deal differently with mentally ill people after several mentally ill people were gunned down by police.

There were about six of us at the bus stop, just five feet away. I remembering thinking that surely so many witnesses present would protect the woman from harm. The two EMT guys came forward and the second police officer was behind the woman.

The woman made no threatening moves toward anyone but proclaimed with a bit more intensity, "I'm NOT white and I'm NOT a star." She was now surrounded by four big white men in uniforms. One cop was behind her.

The officer who'd been talking to the woman put one hand on her shoulder. Taking one step back, she jerked away and shouted, "get your hands OFF ME!"

Then, I heard the harsh buzz as the other police officer used a stun gun--Taser--on the woman.

One. Two. Three. Maybe even a fourth time.

Like the woman's reaction at the first officer's touch, I just reacted. Bursting into sobs and yelling, "STOP IT! You're FOUR BIG MEN! You DON'T have to Taser her! STOP IT!"

The woman crumpled to the ground. I guess the EMT guys stepped in but I wasn't looking since the Taser cop now turned towards me.

"She's OFF her meds! Did you want her to attack YOU?"

Actually, it was the police that had scared me from the start. But my body was now numb and I was in "de-escalate the cops" mode. That means: be still, maintain eye contact, keep one's voice low and use the word "sir" frequently. He threatened to arrest me for "interfering with a police officer," demanding I leave.

Walking quickly across the Rainbow parking lot, I desperately hoped for another bus.  Any minute the squad car might come, and then what? Luckily, the #7 pulled up and I jumped on.

The Taser is touted as a "non-lethal" alternative to deal with aggressive suspects, without shooting them.  No research has been done as to its long-term health effects. As many as 200 people have been killed by Tasers. Police departments are supposed to train officers on when they're allowed to use this device, which administers a shock of 50,000 volts. Here's what Amnesty International says:

Many U.S. police agencies now ROUTINELY use Tasers to subdue UNARMED, non-compliant individuals who DO NOT POSE A SERIOUS DANGER to themselves or others...police have used Tasers against unruly school children, mentally disabled and elderly people and people who simply argue with officers...REPEATEDLY ADMINISTERED SHOCKS, sometimes [to subjects] while IN RESTRAINTS.  (Emphasis added)

The City of Minneapolis spent $160,000 on Tasers last year and plans on spending $861,000 this year on more Tasers.  The Arizona-based company supplies thousands of U.S. police departments and also sells them to human rights abusing governments world-wide.

AI also notes that these weapons are "portable...easy to sue..inflict severe pain at the push of a button and leave no marks."

That sounds like the perfect torture device for abusing one's authority over others while evading all accountability.

American torture didn't start in Abu-Graibe. That video of Los Angeles cops beating Rodney King--almost 60 blows with batons--exposed this reality more than 15 years ago.

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