Periscope Depth

if the hate doesn't make you want to die, try harder

I’m reprinting this op-ed from my birthplace’s paper of record on why the War on Drugs is destroying this country without further comment:

Imagine you’re Cheye Calvo, the white mayor of Berwyn Heights, an affluent part of Prince George’s County. Coming home one night in late July, you find on your front porch a large package that, unbeknownst to you, happens to contain a lot of marijuana. As it turns out, your spouse is the victim of a drug-smuggling scheme that targets innocent customers in the UPS system. You bring the box inside; moments later, the SWAT officers standing by break in and shoot your two beautiful Labradors. As the dogs lie there bleeding to death, you’re held in the same room, handcuffed for hours. Nearly a month later, you have yet to receive an apology.

Because of who he is, the nation knows what happened to Mr. Calvo a few weeks ago. Here’s what most Americans don’t know: There are perhaps 40,000 such raids each year, according to a Cato Institute report, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”

Now try to imagine that instead of a middle-class white man in the Maryland suburbs, you’re a young Latino boy in Modesto, Calif. Shortly before dawn, in early September 2000, a SWAT team forces its way into your house. Thirty seconds later, although you comply with police orders to lie face down on the floor, you are dead from a shotgun blast to the back. The officer responsible is later cleared of wrongdoing in what is concluded an accidental shooting – though it was not the first time his weapon had “accidentally” discharged during a raid. Alberto Sepulveda had just begun the seventh grade.

Or say you’re 57 and getting ready for work in May 2003. A battering ram breaks down your door shortly after 6 a.m., and a flash grenade is tossed inside. You’re coughing, you can’t breathe, while the police search for a stash of drugs and guns they’ll never find because it isn’t there. Alberta Spruill, a church volunteer and city worker in Harlem, died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital.

Or you’re a fierce 92-year-old Atlanta woman, frightened by the sounds of someone prying off the burglar bars that cover your door but determined to protect your home. The door is broken down; you fire one shot at the intruders before being shot at 39 times, handcuffed and left to die while the police (who have broken down the wrong door) realize their mistake and plant drugs in your basement. Two of the cops responsible for Kathryn Johnston‘s death pleaded guilty to manslaughter last year; a third was recently convicted of lying in the cover-up.

Many lives are lost, and many more are ruined, by these paramilitary operations in the ever-widening circles of survivors and families of those killed. You’re in extra danger if you happen to be poor or a person of color.

No-knock warrants may be justified in unusual circumstances. But unreasonable, routine no-knock raids must be stopped. Police should do their homework beforehand, show restraint and use the minimum amount of force necessary in a situation. They must take extraordinary care not to enter the wrong house when conducting a raid. Most important, they need to be held accountable to the communities they serve.

The fact is, raids like the one on Mayor Calvo’s home violate every precept of American liberty that is held up as integral to our “free” society. We can no longer allow our supposedly democratic government to terrorize communities across the country with the very tactics that are publicly decried when used by defense contractors and our own military in Iraq.

Unfortunately, racism in political structures and security forces still dictates who matters and who doesn’t – and for the most part, violence against those who don’t is tolerated. Because the vast majority of these raids are against poor people of color, we hear very little about them.

That’s what makes the Berwyn Heights case so potentially important: It is opening a window into the realities lived every day by innocent victims and survivors of the ineffective and destructive “war on drugs.” Let’s remember this case, keep this window open, and use it to address the misguided (at best), unjust and indisputably failed drug war policies that are destroying the fabric of our society.

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