Posted on April 3rd, 2014
If we hadn’t been stopped at the light, we probably would have missed it: a smallish, handwritten sign tacked up to a pole at the corner of Carlisle and Central in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill. Someone had printed the words in black marker on something tougher than paper, a remnant of plastic unlikely to yield too much even when beset by the desert winds.
‘The police will kill you,’ the sign said, its words rendered in careful capitals.
Roy read the message aloud as we rolled past.
“What does it mean?” he demanded, scandalized and nearly breathless. ‘What does it mean?”
That was two months ago.
Since Roy and I read that sign together, the Albuquerque Police Department has found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to answer various iterations of that very question for themselves. Last month, the APD was responsible for the shooting deaths of two more men in different parts of the city, both with a history of mental illness and run-ins with law enforcement. But James Boyd and Alfred Redwine were only the most recent fatalities. Officers with APD have shot 37 people since 2010, killing 23.
There seems to be careful consensus on the point that those are big numbers for the city the size of Albuquerque, population 550,000. In the wake of Boyd’s March 16 death, a federal criminal investigation has been launched into police conduct and no wonder; when the body count gets uncomfortably high and some officer’s helmet cam video of one fatal incident goes all viral, the right thing to do is to welcome outside scrutiny, to encourage a sense of transparency.
In short: to manage this mess.
And while there’s been some discussion about the lack of training for officers confronted with angry, confused and violent citizens who are, at the same time, mentally ill, I have to ask, friends, what is it that we expect? Because even with Sandy Hook in our rearview, we aren’t angry enough to change the way consumers buy guns. This, then, would be the justification I suppose for the militarization of our peace officers, suiting them up to such an extent that their own mothers might be hard-pressed to pick them out of a line-up with the likes of RoboCop (there was a reboot, did you know?) and one of those animated dudes from Halo. What message are we hoping will penetrate all of those layers? Seriously, now: are these men and women armed for the peaceful resolution of complex socio-emotional issues or are they going out into the wilds of the 505 to shoot some bitches?
With such a variety of non-lethal interventions at their disposal—tasers, dogs, and chemical agents (used with impressive efficacy against Albuquerque citizens protesting police brutality just last Sunday night, might I add; a grasp of irony, perhaps not in the APD decision-maker’s bag of tricks)—why are so many people in a state riddled with poverty and drug abuse dying at the hands of the officers we pay to protect us?
Over coffee with a kindred spirit—this was before the James Boyd shooting and prior to the protests along Central—the two of us were talking about widely-seen footage of New Mexico State Police officers outside of Taos, breaking out the windows of a minivan belonging to a woman stopped on a speeding violation. Shortly thereafter, the officers shot at the vehicle as she sped away. With her children inside.
My friend said her feeling is if she’s pulled over, she’ll do whatever is asked of her, no questions asked. The officers want her to take off all of her clothes? Fine. ‘Just leave your gun in the holster and your dog in the car,’ she said. ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that remains the case.’
She wasn’t really joking.
So I have found myself revisiting that sign in conversations with my children over the last few days and Roy’s question, too, about what it means. There is poetic language and hyperbole. There could have been layers of meaning to what that writer wanted drivers to carry away with them after they saw it. Certainly, it is complicated, the reasons for violence between law enforcement and the populace, the forces move between those empowered (and armed) and those who aren’t, but when I am finished digging to the bottom of that mess of equivocations and rationalizations I find myself surprised to be left holding onto the conclusion that what the sign said was true.∗