Home of the Brave
Issue #58, December 2001
As America braces for war, and the threat of attack via chemical or biological warfare from outside forces, we would do well to consider the ongoing disease from within that contradicts our claim to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Imagine a killer "disease" that stalks innocent people, strikes at will with little to no warning or regard for human life, and seeks to silence, debilitate, or destroy anyone attempting to survive it. Add to this the purposeful lack of institutional response for combating or curtailing this disease and the utter despair that can result from near absolute media reluctance to cover it, and we have a most chilling prospect on our hands. Sadly, this is hardly an imaginary matter. It is tragic reality for far too many Americans. Thousands have been killed and severely injured in the last ten years alone. The "forgotten" legacy left to their families, friends, communities, and this nation is a blight on our collective sense of self and safety.
Luckily, I am a survivor of this disease. It attacked me right in front of my house last year on the 23rd of September, as I came home from a night out in San Francisco. I am still in the process of recovery. Though I had done nothing to warrant the onset of this sickness, it nevertheless struck me from out of nowhere. The threat, as well as the effect, was much like being held at gunpoint. Only by thinking my way through every stage of the attack, and relying on an ultimate faith of goodness in the world was I able to narrowly escape death and begin to alert those outside of my circle of family, friends, and colleagues to this ongoing danger.
Given the scope of this danger, the names given to this disease range from the graphic to the somewhat inadequate. When a good friend was informed of what had happened to me she gave this sickness a name that resonates with ever deepening meaning: She called it "police terrorism". By going beyond the grossly euphemistic term "racial profiling" and polarizing "DWB" (driving while Black or Brown), police terrorism captures the severity and brutality of these cowardly acts and crimes while highlighting the larger pattern of activities that facilitate its spread. And it is spreading nationwide, doing its best to creep out of the neighborhoods it has historically haunted and hunted to ensnare and prey on innocent people of all races, ages, colors, and genders. We must work together to expose and end these criminal acts by those entrusted to serve us as well as any attempts to cover up, downplay, or disregard our rights, especially now.
Before I go any further, I should say that there is a need for police in our society as it is, and therefore this essay should not be taken as a diatribe against the many honest, hard-working, and helpful officers across the country who provide an invaluable service to our communities and place themselves at risk for doing so. There are officers out there who deserve our support, some of whom have witnessed these crimes by their peers and have turned them in to face prosecution. The prosecution of "the riders" in Oakland is an apt example of such bravery and heroism.
But in trying to accomplish the criminal prosecution of my attackers as a private citizen, I have run into numerous institutional barriers. Even writing about what happened poses additional risks, but they are risks that I and many others must take. We cannot allow the human story to be lost or forgotten.
My name is Michael Pipkin. I'm a 35-year-old educator, poet, and writer here in the City. Having been a public school English teacher at Balboa High school, I am much more accustomed to advocating for matters related to teaching students and other education-oriented issues than I am to advocating cases such as this. In this instance, however, it's clear that my personal safety continues to be at risk. It's apparent that if I do not speak up on my own behalf and warn others, the police would continue to harass me or worse, try to get away with their hideous actions, and very likely hurt others.
I was illegally stopped and beaten by members of the SFPD in a wholly unprovoked attack that night in September last year. These police officers were like animals, very ugly in what they did, especially considering that I wasn't fighting them and posed absolutely no threat. In addition to forcing me to the ground onto my stomach, they folded my legs behind me and sat on them and my back, among other things. All the while, they were shouting obscenities about my mother and other vile profanities. They also pinned my arms behind me and nearly choked me to death! This resulted in them fracturing my right forearm at the elbow and severely damaging my right wrist. I'm a writer and am right-handed. They also injured my sacrum, my right shoulder, my feet and my back, as well as scraping up the side of my face, my elbows, knees and shoulders. Because of these injuries, my doctor directed me not to return to my work in adolescent literacy for over six months. Had I not gotten my right arm free and been able to peel one of the officer's elbows away from my throat, I might not have made it. They were out of control; I was almost one of their casualties.
In the matter of this attack against me by officers Morrow, Olsen, and others of the San Francisco police department, it's clear that they have acted with impunity, lied on and falsified official police reports and documents, which is a felony in the state of California; presented other fabrications; and may well be willing to perjure themselves in court, in addition to the physical and emotional havoc they've brought to my world and those who know me. In the interim, they've faced no disciplinary action or consequences for their near deadly actions. They are still on active duty! As such, they represent a danger to everyone, adults and young people alike.
In an attempt to escape responsibility, hold on to their jobs, thwart both a criminal and civil trial and judgments against them, these officers have filed false charges of battery and resisting arrest against me, along with a host of bogus vehicle code violations. I have had to retain an attorney, not only to defend myself against these false charges, but also to clear a path to hold them accountable for their actions. I'm discovering that as a private citizen, there is little else you can do when it's the police who are acting like criminals. We should all want to change this, and we can.
We can take action for others and on our own behalf, and both encourage and support honest officers to step forward to testify against rogue officers. It's about sending a clear message and backing it up with our actions. We can show that when things like this happen anywhere in the Bay Area, we will respond positively yet firmly, relentless in our pursuit of results! Some of the reforms that are needed include things such as:
- An independent prosecutor to vigorously try these cases in court. Many district attorneys are unwilling because of their reliance on the police for evidence in other cases.
- Severe criminal and civil penalties for each case of excessive or wrongful deadly force;
- Job termination without rehire for the offending officer(s) upon conviction;
- Disciplinary action for commanding officers that turn a "blind" eye toward these actions;
- Rewards for officers and citizens who blow the whistle on police terrorists;
- Video cameras mounted on police cars;
- More accountability and citizen oversight of police departments;
- Higher standards for officer recruitment and vastly improved training.
Once people can be made aware of how pervasive the threat is, they'll want to see police officers who have injured and/or killed innocent people — and there have been thousands of reported cases across the country — face serious jail time and prohibitive fines. The reasons for this are fairly basic. Who would want to be their next victim? No one. This is a huge part of why people would rally and offer support for these and other police reforms.
Another example of the barriers to bringing them to justice is the fact that it isn't advisable from a legal standpoint to give all the details of the attack. Sometimes, in the interest of helping others, we have to step beyond these legal risks.
Due to the attack and its impact on my life, getting a full night's sleep is still difficult. Back in January of this year, several months after the original assault, I discovered that this continued unease was justified. Early in the morning at approximately 2:35 a.m., I saw three marked police squad cars in front of my home when I happened to get out of bed because I was, again, unable to sleep. They drove off immediately when I came to my front window after I'd turned on a light. One of the squad cars was numbered 522. My concern was that I was being targeted for continued harassment, and possibly further assault, because I am rightfully pursuing justice via the courts in this matter.
We all know, as generally law-abiding citizens and taxpayers, that no one should have to suffer abuse at the hands of supposed authorities, or go through this kind of ordeal. Police terrorism via acts of cowardice and brutality has been documented and is a growing problem in our country. As this matter proceeds through the courts, should it come to a trial or not, there are additional steps we can take to put the spotlight on these officers and show them they are not above the law.
Again, this means getting other people involved and enlisting the help of the media. Let's increase and expand the dialogue on this heinous subject. It would help not only my case but many of the larger issues involved as well. We have an opportunity to create positive change on a number of levels before these predators kill any innocent human beings! No one is safe unless and until we all share equal protection under the same laws.
All of which brings home the glaring fact that until this protection from those public officials who would harm us is extended to everyone in this country, then this land is not free, claims to the contrary even in times such as now notwithstanding. However those officers who would speak up along with the families, friends, co-workers, and other interested people of those targeted, injured, and killed truly do constitute the homes of the brave.
Michael A. Pipkin is a poet, educator, and writer living in San Francisco.