Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Officer Jack Sparrow?


Do the police in Tenaha, TX, "shake down" drivers, particularly drivers of color, in what one attorney calls "a piracy operation?"
Roderick Daniels was traveling through East Texas in October 2007 when, he says, he was the victim of a highway robbery.

The Tennessee man says he was ordered to pull his car over and surrender his jewelry and $8,500 in cash that he had with him to buy a new car.

But Daniels couldn't go to the police to report the incident.

The men who stopped him were the police.
This story caught my attention because my family and I routinely travel through Tenaha on our way to and from Louisiana. I have my own stories about East Texas police:
My experiences with the police have included:

My father and I being pulled over while I was an undergraduate, separated, and questioned. We were in Texas, our car had Louisiana plates, and the cops admitted they suspected drug trafficking.

Similarly, I was tailed closely by a cop for a while in a small East Texas town who didn't turn on his lights, initially. He was following me so closely that I put on my signal and got into the next lane. Then he turned on his lights--said I was supposed to wait until I'd traveled at least so many feet after turning on my signal to switch lanes. The problem, again, was my Louisiana plates in a Texas town. He wanted to know where I lived currently, where I was traveling to, and why. I answered, simply because I didn't know if I was allowed not to answer and I had no intention of disappearing in East Texas.
More recently (several weeks ago), my sister and her fiance were pulled over in East Texas after meeting me in Houston. Her description:
The cop pulled out behind us and trailed us for five minutes before turning on his lights. He made [my fiance] get out and come to the back of the car and made me stay in. He shined the light directly in my baby's face, woke him up, and wouldn't move the light. Of course, he started crying and I was digging for the insurance papers and wanted to cry myself.

He kept asking the same questions over and over, trying to find inconsistencies. Then he asked for permission to search the car. I told him yes because he wouldn't find anything and offered to show him all my prescription medicines. When he realized we were telling the same story, he didn't want to search the car anymore. I'll be honest, I definitely felt like it was racial profiling--he saw a black man who didn't live there, driving through town late at night. But, I threw him off by agreeing to let him search the car.
My sister's experience and one of mine occurred in Diboll, TX, 70 miles from Tenaha.

There seems to be some element of racial-profiling in the Tenaha cases, as well.
[Attorney David] Guillory, who practices in nearby Nacogdoches, Texas, estimates authorities in Tenaha seized $3 million between 2006 and 2008, and in about 150 cases -- virtually all of which involved African-American or Latino motorists -- the seizures were improper.
Emphasis mine.

You might wonder, if the stops seem suspect, why people sign waivers forfeiting their property. There is of course the very immediate fear of what can happen to you, particularly as a person of color being pulled over in a rural town by the police. Then there are the threats. According to the article, the officers routinely threaten people with jail time and the loss of their children.*

Of course, town officials deny all wrongdoing. I scoffed while reading that. Stops like this are often the result of the so-called war on drugs. You know, the "war" that disproportionately targets people of color and takes away their liberty, property, and rights. It feeds into racial-profiling which 1) encourages cops to conduct searches of people of color and their vehicles more often when they are stopped (and treat them more harshly) 2) perpetuates the stereotype that all African Americans and Latin@s with large sums of cash must be drug dealers or doing something illegal 3)justifies the intense focus on communities of color which contributes to the disproportionate numer of arrests and convictions.**

I also scoffed because the racial disparities in arrests and convictions, and the concurrent violation of PoC's rights, have been particularly well-documented in small Texas towns.

We'll see how this plays out, though I can already here the faint cries of the coming, "It's the damn outsiders trying to make something racial outta this!"

H/T Bint via Twitter

*This is a particularly salient threat--the state intervenes disproportionately in families of color, a fact partially attributable to both racism and classism--as Dorothy Roberts said in Shattered Bonds, "the public child welfare system equates poverty with neglect," (p 25).

**For statistics about the claims I made in this paragraph, I referred to a fact sheet I put together for my class's discussion of the prison industrial complex. The fact sheet was culled from these sources.

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