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Police State Chronicles
Walking While Black
Police nostalgia in Bunnell, Fla.

Bunnell is the county seat here in Flagler County, Florida. It’s not much of a town these days, well removed from its old lumber and turpentine prosperities of half a century ago, and a small industry in palmetto leaves. Its biggest claim to sentience now is a massive, ostentatious county administration building that just opened, the result of a former school superintendent’s grandiose and not quite financially honest follies: He sold the idea as a $12 million project that would efficiently combine county and school district administrations. The building will top $30 million by the time its last plasma-screen television is suspended from gapers’ disbelief. Off in the older part of town, Bunnell’s old ways—the city’s racist past remains prologue—persist: Last week a couple of men were walking along a street, or hanging out. The new police chief in town pulls up in a cruiser, ostensibly to introduce himself. The police chief is from Miami , just started here in late January. The men on the street were black.

Before long he’s asking them why they’re there, who they are, whether they have identification, and, according to them, telling them that he’s sick of the bullshit, that he knows why they’re there. That they’re drug dealers and he’s having them arrested. Prowling and loitering is the official charge. In a “known drug area.” The arrest report has it all in black and white. They couldn’t provide a reason for being where they were. They carried cash. They were from out of town. (Yes, from Palm Coast , seven miles away.) Because that’s what we’ve come to here. We have to give police a reason as to our whereabouts. We have to produce ID on demand. We must never, never walk away when we see an officer. He’ll interpret that as probable cause for an arrest. As indeed the arresting officer did in this case: they tried to walk away the arrest report says, and when queried they gave conflicting answers.

The name of one of the men arrested is Cecil Hubbert. He’s 21. Graduated from the local high school in 2004. Had never been in trouble. No record. He had $1,000 in his pocket. Confiscated as drug money. All on the police’s assumption that because the men were where they were, and couldn’t explain it, they must have been drug dealers. Hubbert told me he was going to his aunt. Not that it matters: it’s no one’s business what he was doing on the street corner or who he was going to see, if anyone. But there’s irony in all this. The $1,000? He says it was a gift from his brother, for his birthday last January 24 (the date of birth on the arrest report.) Nice brother. And who does his brother happen to be? Eddie Johnson, one of the rising stars of the U.S. national soccer team.

Still: it shouldn’t matter. What’s revolting is that stories like this happen often, and increasingly so, because police forces, like the military, are assumed sacred cows. The other predominant assumption is that if the police arrest someone, it’s deserved. That “scumbags” need dealt with, that “criminals’” rights go too far. Once in a while a judge will take a stand and say enough. But rarely. Thursday was one of those times, incidentally. “In a rebuke of a surveillance practice greatly expanded by the New York Police Department after the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal judge ruled today that the police must stop the routine videotaping of people at public gatherings unless there was an indication that unlawful activity may occur,” the Times reported. “Nearly four years ago, at the request of New York City, the same judge, Charles S. Haight Jr., had given the police greater authority to investigate political, social and religious groups. In today’s ruling, however, Judge Haight of Federal District Court in Manhattan found that by videotaping people who were exercising their right to free speech and breaking no laws, the Police Department had ignored the milder limits he had imposed on it in 2003.” Ignored the milder limits he had imposed. That’s what the police do now. They ignore limits on their authority on the assumption that judges will wink-wink-nudge-nudge and approve everything they do. It’s the Bunnell mentality.

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