Kendra James: One Year Later
It was one year ago today that Kendra James was shot and killed by Scott McCollister of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). Lofty words were exchanged after her death about how things would change, how the PPB had learned from it's "mistakes," how it would never happen again. On this day, one year later, it's time to look back.
May 5th, 2003. A patrol car with PPB's N Precinct spots a car, driven by an African American, driving through the working-class neighborhood of N Portland. Although the driver has, by the officer's own statement, done nothing wrong, the patrol car turns around and begins following the "suspect." The white police officer hounds the driver of the car, following at close range, waiting for some pretext -- anything -- to pull the car over. Why? Because it was "suspicious" that the car was out so late in "that area." At some point, the car attempts to make a turn, probably to get out of the path of the ongoing police intimidation. The driver uses a turn signal, but the officer's subjective statement is that the driver did not turn on the signal soon enough. Just as in so many other "isolated incidents" of police harassment, the officer uses the turn signal violation to pull the car over and go on a fishing expedition that intrudes into the civil rights, the human rights, and the very lives of the occupants of the car.
In the course of this all-too-routine traffic stop, a young, unarmed African American woman is pepper sprayed, tazed and then shot to death by the Portland Police. Although she was unarmed and weighed less than 100 lbs, the huge and fully-armed officer Scott McCollister claimed he was justified in the killing because "I feared for my life." McCollister never paid for his crime, and is still walking among us with a loaded service revolver, waiting to strike again.
Sound familiar? It should, by now. It's happened again. Less than a year after Kendra James was gunned down in the course of a "routine traffic stop," Jahar Perez was murdered in the same manner. Just like Kendra James, Jahar Perez was killed after his car allegedly failed to signal soon enough before turning. Just like Kendra James, he was unarmed. And just like James, he was smeared by the police and the corporate media, while the officer who pulled the trigger was protected. Both were accused of being "nothing but drug addicts" who do not deserve the sympathy and support of the community, who are not worth the outrage their deaths sparked. Both died without justice at the hands of the uniformed officers who claim to be there "to serve and protect."
How many times do people of color wind up in jail or dead after being stopped for an alleged "turn signal violation"? I would like to know. In both these cases, the officers themselves admitted that the drivers had done nothing wrong at the time they turned their cruisers around and began following them. Both officers implied they already intended to stop the cars, even though the drivers had not committed any infraction at the time they made that decision. Why? In the Perez case, the officer told us that the car Perez was driving was too good for a black man in a poor neighborhood. In Kendra James' case, it appears that the occupants of the car she was riding in were in violation of an unwritten code in the occupied zone of N Precinct: BPOAD (Black People Out After Dark). Either way, the result was the same: One more unarmed person dead, one more uniformed murderer free to kill again.
How can this community be going through this again, only a year after we gathered in the streets and swore we were finished with this? How can it be that McCollister, Sery, Bean, Reynolds, and Macomber are still walking the streets among us, still armed with service revolvers aimed at our neighbors?
Perhaps too many of us put our faith in "the system." Don't be angry, we were told, "the system will work." Laws were going to be passed, reports would be filed, audits performed...there were going many, many steps in the process, and these steps would ensure justice even if the secret grand jury did not. Even if there was no justice for Kendra James, at least it would never happen again. We were supposed to wait and see how much better things would become, if we just let the system work it all out.
But the system did NOT work. Yes, a report came out 3 months after Kendra James was killed. The auditors who performed the PARC report were not allowed to consider the case of Kendra James, or any of the other people who were killed by police in the previous two years, because "the system" wanted the report to deal only with those cases in which the 2-year deadline for families to file lawsuits had passed. Nevertheless, as reported here previously, the PARC report actually made numerous recommendations that, if followed, could have prevented the death of Jahar Perez. For example:
Recommendation 3.1 "The PPB should add a preamble or mission statement to its written deadly force policy, underscoring the bureau's reverence for the value of human life and its view that deadly force is to be used only when no other alternatives are reasonably available."
This recommendation, according to the PPB, is "still in review." I guess it's difficult to underscore that which does not exist.
Recommendation 3.4 "The PPB should consider whether it would be appropriate to revise its written deadly force policy to expressly require officers to refrain from taking actions that unnecessarily lead to the use of deadly force."
As I mentioned in a previous rant, the Public Information Officer at PPB explained to me, incredibly, that "It only says we should consider it, not that we should do it." And so, they did not do it.
Recommendation 3.5 "The PPB should revise its deadly force policy to clearly articulate when officers may draw or point their firearms and when they should re-holster them."
Again, "still in review." Nine months and several deaths later, the PPB has still not adopted this common sense and cost-free measure that could have saved a life.
Recommendation 7.18: "The PPB should abandon the use of the term "lethal cover" in its less-lethal training and directives and make it explicit that officers should use whatever force option is appropriate to cover officers deploying less-lethal weaponry."
The report indicated that use of the term "lethal cover" would predispose officers to unnecessarily resort to the use of deadly force. According to Portland Copwatch, then-chief Kroeker rejected this recommendation. Jason Sery's own testimony before the public inquest indicated that he saw his role as "lethal cover" for Macomber's tazer. And so, he was pointing a loaded gun at an unarmed man in that cruical moment when reason abandoned him and he inexplicably "feared for his life."
In short, nothing has changed since the murder of Kendra James one year ago today. Officers are still allowed to harass and intimidate African American motorists, to shoot people and get away with it, to claim it's "reasonable" to gun down an unarmed person. How many more police houndings will we tolerate in N Portland? How many more unarmed people will we allow them to murder? The system did not work, will not work, to protect us from the violent police force occupying our community. It will not work because the violence, racism and classism that led to the death of Kendra James are endemic to the system itself. It is time to abandon the folly of believing "the system" will ever make things right. It's time to make things right for ourselves. NOW. Before another child is orphaned by the Portland police.
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