Tuesday, December 23, 2014


The city I live in, was enraged this month. People poured onto the streets chanting "No Justice, No Peace", "I Cant Breathe" and carrying banners that read "Black Lives Matter". Once again the system had failed to deliver justice, and the ugly face of racism emerged. The outrage was justified and the uproar was expected, as yet again men in uniform who were tasked with the job to serve and protect, brutally choked an unarmed citizen to death. And it all happened in front of a camera wielded by an onlooker for the world to see. A specially convened grand jury did not find the dying words of a black man, "I cant breathe" convincing enough to indict the policeman who strangled, while five others jumped on the victim. Eric Garner pleaded eleven times to be allowed to breathe. The officer's humanity did not kick in, and that shocked everyone. But what stirred the public with a clear sense of right or wrong, was the grand jury's decision to not even think there was anything unlawful that took place, when the evidence could not have been anymore glaring.

Last year I had the privilege of serving on a grand jury in Brooklyn. While I was familiar with the term and knew a little about it from watching TV shows and movies, I only clearly understood its purpose, by serving on one. Unlike a trial jury the grand jury can be made up of more than twelve members, and the purpose of it is to examine and investigate whether there is enough evidence of a crime, to bring someone to trial. The grand jury's purpose is not to prove someone innocent or guilty but to find "probable cause" , "reasonable cause to believe" and "legally sufficient evidence" to prosecute someone. It is a lower standard they must adhere to than a trial jury, whose job is to unequivocally find someone guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt".

This is not the first time an African American citizen has been assaulted with overwhelming force by police. The list is long and many altercations have not attracted the level of attention the recent incidents in Staten Island, New York and Ferguson, Missouri have. The first one ever to have been recorded on camera ignited a nation in 1991. Rodney King was captured on grainy video being brutally pummeled by a group of five officers on a highway near Los Angeles. In the pre-internet days, this video went "viral" across all national and local broadcast networks. I had just arrived in the United States from India as a graduate student, and to see the video on television day in and day out was unsettling and disturbing.

Rodney King's case unlike the present ones, actually went to trail and the policemen were acquitted of all wrong doing by the county court. This caused riots to break out in Los Angeles, killing 53 people and causing billions of dollars in property damage. The abuse of Rodney King was so disturbing to so many, that the federal government had to intervene, bringing a civil rights trial against the policemen. Subsequently, two of the officers were found guilty and sentenced to prison, while the others were let go. Attorney General Eric Holder has initiated a similar investigation in the Eric Garner case and people are hoping that a civil rights trial might restore a sense of justice and will bring some closure to a situation that begs for immediate attention.

The conversation around police brutality has always polarized America. Every time the issue rises to the surface it is brushed aside by many. Some make it a point to sight that we should be talking more about "black on black crime" as it is more rampant than crimes committed by the  police who have to do a dangerous job in black neighborhoods risking their lives. The absurdity of this argument is as distant from the truth as reporting is on the right wing TV channel Fox News, which mainly spews such talk. While one could be a symptom of the other, the social reasons behind high crime in blighted black neighborhoods and why American prisons are overflowing with largely black inmates, is a consequence of poverty, racism and a breakdown of a social fabric. The history behind this is long and complicated, tracing back to the days of slavery. But there can be no excuse for police crime no matter the circumstances. Men in uniform are in uniform by choice. And they are paid to serve the people, regardless of race, gender and status. And when they end up killing the people they are supposed to serve, regardless of the crime, they need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, so that the men in uniform who actually do their job, are not feared but respected for their sacrifice. So when district attorneys, do not prosecute policemen who commit crime, they send a signal to the public that they are above the law. That in no way is acceptable in any democracy whose foundation is the rule of law.

While the police crimes disturbed many around the country to draw them out in protest, the CIA torture report that the Senate Intelligence Committee released perturbed anyone with a conscience. For anyone following the dirty and illegal wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should not have come as a surprise. Revelations about the secret CIA rendition programs, the Abu Ghraib prison photographs, water-boarding and the term EITs (Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) have been circulating in the American media and consciousness for sometime now. Torture was sanctioned at the highest echelons of American power and men were branded "Enemy Combatants" and locked away for good, stripping them of their rights to human dignity. The term EIT was used to cloak torture and compromise all what America stood for. With the Guantanamo Bay prison still open for business, America's association with torture still has not ended and the uproar is muted.

On December 9th, when Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee made the "Torture Report" public, what disturbed many were the techniques that were used to grossly violate the human rights of individuals that were protected under the "Geneva Convention" rules. What was most disturbing to me, was the revelation that 26 innocent people were tortured and a couple died as a result. This admission was chilling, disgusting and horrifying in every way possible. It grossly diminished America's standing in speaking routinely as it does, against torture in places like Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and other dark places. And there in lies the problem.

When the Senate Intelligence Committee decided to release such a report to the public in September, there was severe resistance both from the present administration and hawks from the previous one. CIA directors past and present raised an alarm, that such a report would embolden the enemy and risk American lives on the never ending and nebulous battlefield. After the report came out, the CIA chiefs defended their actions by literally stating that torture had in fact kept America safe and had yielded intelligence that actually saved lives. Former Vice President Dick Cheney came out of the woodwork and actually admitted on television that the torture of innocent people did not bother him as long as the program yielded results, as we were at war with an "unconventional enemy" and any means necessary were justified. Such an argument could very well be made by any power to justify its dubious and diabolical actions. And that is the explicit reason the Geneva Conventions were established to keep human madness and its capacity to do evil under check. America's links with torture as a means of waging war, diminish its standing separating it only slightly from the Jihadist's who make a gruesome spectacle of beheading people to make a point. Its association with torture jeopardizes the safety of its citizens around the world than anything else. 

The police and the CIA exist to serve the people who pay their salaries. Their clearly defined objective is to keep the nation and its inhabitants safe from harm. But it is also their obligation, to uphold the values of a system of government, that at its core protects individual rights and human dignity. Not just of its citizens, but of all those who inhabit the planet. That's what is expected of any civilized nation. So when some "bad apples" lose their way and compromise these values, they need to be reprimanded, otherwise all that is sacred and hard won is lost.

America as a superpower democracy sends a message to the world, that we are a nation of laws and no one is above the law. By releasing the Senate report, America wanted to send a signal that it does make mistakes and loses its way, but eventually it does acknowledge and rectifies. But only to confess does not mean anything unless people are held accountable. The architects of torture in America roam free and are allowed to appear on television and defend their actions. They are immune from prosecution and have been so since the Vietnam War and before. Policemen are set free even when the evidence is clear as day. By not punishing those responsible America sends a signal, that yes we do make mistakes, but trust us, we will not do it again. To the outside world, America's checkered past does very little to instill faith. Unless people are prosecuted for the extra judicial police killings and CIA renditions and torture, the change will only be marginal and superficial and the risk of it happening again remains high.

The public uproar is therefore justified. I am only disappointed that there is so little of it. There were no street protests when the torture report came out. There was no uproar when little children got gunned down in a suburban school in Connecticut and very little was done to outlaw machine guns. There were no street protests when unbeknownst to its citizens, emails and phone calls were intercepted by the NSA. There was very little noise when drones killed innocent people in far off places. There are many things to be enraged about, but there is very little uproar.

A few weeks ago I was called by BET Television to edit an interview of President Obama for broadcast. In the interview he was addressing the African America community about the protests surrounding the recent killings of unarmed citizens in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. When asked what he thought of the protests, he said they were essential in a democracy as long as they were non-violent, as it forced those in power to pay attention to issues they normally would not. He went on to quote the adage "power concedes nothing without demand". 

While the protests demanding justice in the police killings are diminishing with the cold weather, they are only simmering under the surface. The violent culture that we live in and have become accustomed and numb to, is disturbing, pervasive and destructive. The violence pushes those who are given the task to protect, turn violent too. Where and how we break this cycle, is a quandary. But if we are to suppress the rage, we need to address the violence in the streets, on the battlefield, in our minds and in the new year, in our hearts. 

It is what it is.