Tuesday, January 9, 2018

An Open Letter to the Pasadena City Council on the beating of Christopher Ballew

Christopher Ballew and his mother Sonya
Several months ago, Christopher Ballew was driving up north Fair Oaks when the Pasadena police noticed  that 1) he had tinted windows on his car and no license plate in front and 2) he was a young black man. They followed his car into Altadena to a gasoline station and when he got out of his car, they approached him about this infraction. What happened immediately after this is unclear, but videos reveal that this incident soon escalated. The police tried to arrest and handcuff him, he demanded to speak to their commanding officer, and they demanded that he get onto the ground and be handcuffed. During a scuffle, the arresting officers told him to "give us your fucking hands." They pulled out batons to beat him and soon he was on the ground, his face pushed against the concrete and bleeding. He grabbed the baton to avoid being beaten and the officer pulled it away. His fellow officer pointed a cocked gun at Ballew while the officer beat him with a baton and broke his leg. Ballew was unarmed and is heard screaming with pain and begging them to stop. "What did I do?" See Ballew beating

The police charged him with felony assault and resisting arrest, and that probably would have ended the matter. However, a month later, a video was posted on social media showing the Pasadena police beating Ballew. The video went viral. Because the incident occurred in LA county, the County DA examined the case and dismissed charges "due to lack of evidence."

It seems clear that Ballew was not assaulting the police, but vice versa.
Only one pastor spoke out for justice:
Mike Kinman of All Saints Episcopal Church!

This has been called Pasadena's "Rodney King moment." The police were out of control when they assaulted Ballew, shouting obscenities as they beat him, yet the City Council is in denial. The City Manager accused Ballew of "resisting arrest" twice during the previous Council Meeting. Now he is letting the police conduct an internal investigation, and we are told to wait patiently for the outcome, but the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Police cannot police themselves. They will undoubtedly acquit the officers, just as they did with the officers who killed Kendrec McDade and R.J. Thomas. Only an independent review will be credible.

Ballew's family is conducting a law suit, which seems to nbe the only thing that the City Council understands or takes seriously. At the ACUL office this week I heard their attorney present the case and it's very clear and irrefutable, especially when you see the video.  The Ballews will easily win their case, the City will make another big settlement, and the police will probably be let off scott-free. That's how Pasadena handles these matters. It's a "cost of doing police business."

Jasmine Abdullah Richards was a powerful voice
for Black Lives Matter
Hundreds of people stormed City Council to demand justice--to demand an apology to the family, that the police who beat Ballew be suspended until their case is tried, and that there be an independent police auditor with subpoena powers to investigate cases like this. Public comment went on for nearly two hours. It was a moment of truth for Pasadena. Will racial profiling and police violence continue? Or will the Council finally do something about it? See Pasadena Now article.

So many came to protest that many had to stand outside or go to the overflow room. 

Here is my open letter to the City Council:

Dear Mayor and City Councilmembers,

I hope you got the message that the community is appalled and outraged by the behavior of police, not only the beating of an unarmed African American man but its efforts to cover up and justify its actions. Pastor Mike Kinman, community leaders and neighbors spoke out loud and clear about the need for police accountability, but did you really hear us?

Mayor Tornek and the City Council members were cautious and did not show any concern for the feelings of the family. Even though the DA refused to press charges against Christopher Ballew due to “insufficient evidence,” the Council acted as if there is still doubt that the police acted improperly. It is clear to anyone seeing the video that Ballew was brutally beaten by police who were out of control, using obscenities as they beat him. An officer screamed, “Give me you fucking hand.” At a gathering this week in the ACLU office, Mr. Ballew’s lawyer calmly laid out his case that the police violated procedures numerous times. This horrific video has tarnished the reputation of Pasadena police in the eyes of the world, and of the community.

Yet the Mayor and City Council were for the most cautious. None expressed sympathy to the family who were seating in the Council chamber. No one apologized for the behavior of police. Ironically, this Council meeting took place just before our City celebrates Martin Luther King Day. What would Dr. King say? In his 1968 sermon at Riverside Church, Dr. King said, “Silence is betrayal.” Dr King pointed out that those who remain silent in the face of injustice are complicit.

City Councilmember Tyron Hampton showed that he heard us and had the moral courage to speak out for fairness. He said that the officers should be taken off duty until an investigation is complete—which (as I pointed out) would happen if a teacher was accused of harming a student.  Why can’t a police officer be taken off duty in a similar fashion? Why is the public not being protected from police who commit acts of violence that the public regards as unwarranted?

Hampton called for firing officers if they acted out of compliance with police procedures. And he said something even more telling: if these officers are in compliance with police procedures, then those procedures need to change.
I agree with Councilmember John Kennedy that there needs to be education around racial issues, but the problem also requires action.

The Mayor counseled patience, but we know from past experience what that means. The City pays out damages to those who are victims of police violence, hoping to silence them, and then exonerates the police. This is what happened with Kendrec McDade and will probably happen with Ballew unless there is sufficient public outcry that our elected officials listen.

The Mayor also called for better “communication” but in doing so, he sounded to me like the captain in “Cool Hand Luke” who beats up a prisoner and then says, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

This is not a PR problem, a failure to communicate, it is an issue of trust and accountability. The black and Hispanic community don’t trust the police, and for good reason. Many of us who are white and privileged and seek to be allies with the black community see only too clearly that the police are becoming increasingly militarized and some (not all) police are dangerous. It has been rightly pointed out that not all police are bad apples, but almost all police defend bad apples, no matter how rotten their actions.

This video shows that our police department cannot be trusted.  Before this video surfaced, the police charged Christopher Ballew with felony assault and resisting arrest. Once the video appeared on social media, and the County DA had a chance to review it, those charges were dropped against Ballew. The video makes it clear to those who are willing to see that the police are the ones committing assault, not Ballew. It is also clear that the police department was covering up its actions until they were revealed on social media.

The community of Northwest Pasadena has zero confidence that the police can police themselves. From the comments we heard from police, we know that they defend their own, no matter what. I’m afraid that seems to be true of most City Councilmembers.

That’s why we urgently need real police accountability, we need an independent police auditor with subpoena powers able to hold our police department accountable when its members commit outrageous acts of violence against citizens they are supposed to serve and protect.

I brought to the City Council a petition signed by members of my Quaker meeting. As Quakers, we oppose all forms of violence, including police violence, and regard each person as sacred, deserving of fair and respectful treatment.  Diane Randall, the executive director of our national Quaker lobby, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, spoke out powerfully in favor of Black Lives Matter and police accountability. She said: “At the federal, state and local levels, our elected officials and the leadership of our police departments need to hear from us. They need to hear the voices of tens of thousands of people who support them, who care for them, who want them to do their jobs with fairness, with equality, with justice for all.”

“Equality and justice for all.” That’s what we pledged allegiance to when we stood and faced the flag at the beginning of this City Council session. It is time for the City Council to make good on that pledge. 

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