Monday, July 27, 2009

President Obama and The Venice Drum Circle

For many years, on cool, cool California nights, the Venice Beach Drum Circle has gathered at the rim of the Pacific and rendered rhythmic homage to the sun, to life, and to liberty.

Congas clip, djembes clop, drummers bang and dancing dervishes delight. Incense floats from boardwalk merchant stands and sometimes it is accented with a wisp of marijuana. A crowd of onlookers, always different, enjoys all the spontaneity under the watchful eye of ...

...the Los Angeles Police Department.

highwayscribery can attest to this Sunday night ceremony stretching back to at least 1996, but suspects the tradition dates back to the first hippies.

Frequent attendance over the years also qualify the highway scribe to unequivocally state that these folks are not bothering anybody. Quite the opposite. Carving out a small piece of the public commons for themselves the goal is establishment of a tiny bubble where tolerance and primal beats reign.

It is a charming space to be for those who share the circle's open door philosophy and even for those who don't.

The fly in the ointment is the police presence. They do not serve any protective purpose. Instead the police skulk around observing and intimidating. It has gone on for years and often, they ruin the fun, inexplicably barging in and breaking up the circle before its climactic crescendo just as the sun dips into the ocean drink leaving an orangeade sky behind.

Venice Beach is Los Angeles' Greenwich Village. Despite suffering similar ravages of gentrification, it is holding better than its more famous bohemian cousin. It residents are your usual real estate poison pills of blacks, working-class Mexicans, and dreadlocked indy freaks.

They do not participate in the ambitious race that is American life for reasons varied as their odd raiment. But last year the neighborhood was papered in Shepard Fairey's famed "Hope" poster and local activists, usually aligned with the Green Party or Che Guevara's ghost, came out strong for Obama.

Like the conservative pundits who hurled time-worn labels at Obama such as "leftist" and "socialist," they did not completely buy what the media was claiming the next president to represent.

A "The New York Times," editorial on Mr. Obama and race, noted how he has refused the role of black "exceptionalist" lecturing his people "to stop whining about racism and get on with it."

Regardless of Obama's posture on Guantanamo, detentions, the intelligence capers, and other civil rights issues, the conservatives were correct in their earliest presentiments that he was something "other."

So were the "others."

And last Wednesday. The Venice Beach Drum Circle got their reward for voting Obama in November.

That was when President Obama, a guy who thinks thrice before talking, said that a stupid Cambridge cop "acted stupidly" in its handling of a report that a Harvard professor was burgling his own home.

Of course, the upstanding and obedient who claim all American values to be their own pounced, but out at Venice, around the drum circle at sunset, the congas were getting conked a little harder.

Because the victim of police abuse in the case at hand was African-American, much of the ensuing debate has rested upon the question of race, which is fine.

But for highwayscribery, and those at The Venice Drum Circle on behalf of whom he deigns to write, it was only a "black thing," to the extent African-Americans are subject to the larger "police thing."

In America, we reserve a place for the forces of law and order that are too often, well, above the law. There is and always has been a slavish deference to the whims and desires of those we ostensibly pay to protect us.

The only exception to the habitual bending of this tropism toward all things cop is the National Rifle Association, which can beat a capitol building lined with police officers seeking some sanity in our gun laws, every time.

highwayscribery does not need to go back very far in time in a search for events that make his case. And it is worth pointing out that the only reason we're talking about this now is because the Cambridge Police Force picked on the wrong black guy.

That's because Professor Gates is a black guy with a big brain, a brain with our Constitution's Bill of Rights etched into its recesses, and a strong conviction that democracy is healthier when you question cops rather than lick their shoes.

That, of course, was his privilege. Gates took the cop on because of the firepower (intelligence and connections) he had.

But not everyone is so blessed.

Only a month ago, in San Diego, a jury acquitted a police officer who, while off-duty, got into a road-rage scrape with another driver and wound up shooting both she and her eight-year old boy.

As the current state of affairs would have it, the one who got shot was convicted and sentenced, medical problems associated with being wounded by a cop, notwithstanding.

It turns out that she was an "unsympathetic" victim, someone whom even the prosecutor trying the cop called a "butthead" in court, a person plagued with flaws we'd have never known about had Officer Frank White not taken aim at her.
And fired.

Whatever Rachel Silva's imperfections, it was Mr. White who carried the gun, who was sworn to uphold the law, and who should have gotten spanked for acting in a manner beneath the dignity of his office (or anybody else's).

Also down in San Diego, Encinitas to be exact, a Democratic challenger to Rep. Brian Bilbray's congressional seat had a residential fundraiser "upset" by the local police.

A 60-year old woman, Shari Barman, and a 62-year old activist named Pam Morgan, were both pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, and charged with the usual crimes associated with telling a cop to go and respond to a real crime.

The American Civil Liberties has said the case involves, "what appears to be a significant abuse of power by a peace officer who intruded into a person's home and reacted with unwarranted force to an unsubstantiated complaint alleging a minor infraction."

When Will Carless, an intrepid investigative reporter for the nonprofit "Voice of San Diego," requested documents from the Sheriff's Department on the investigation into Deputy Marshall G. Abbott's
meltdown, he was told to go screw.

See what we mean?

The "San Diego Union-Tribune," which never met a police raid it didn't like, was able, with the help of local "Christian" activist, to dredge up some evidence of Barman's "violent past" involving an altercation with an airport security guard in...1977.

Michael Wilson and Solomon Moore of the "The New York Times" wrote that, "The line of when to put on handcuffs is a personal and blurry one, varying among officers in the same city, the same precinct, even the same patrol car."

Some officers in the article described a degree of tolerance and the need for a thick skin in their particular line of work.

But another officer from Denver had a different take. "We're not going to take abuse," he said. "We have to remain in control. We're running the show."

Well, over at The Venice Drum Circle that they're never abusing anybody when the police come around. They might add that "control" is the provenance of free citizens until they forfeit it and note that civil society is not a "show" so there is no reason for somebody to "run" it.

It is worth noting that, in the San Diego incident, Abbott went haywire when Barman asked him why he needed her date of birth.

Seems Barman and Professor Gates hail from a similar time and generation that did not care much for the dictates of security guards and police officers with a dim view of America's claim to being a free county.

Ms. Barman's "partner," the 55 year-old Jane Stratton was also knocked down by "Wildman" Abbot.

See a pattern here?

NRA wins. Conga players, lesbians, and black people lose.

The NRA did not support or endorse Obama. Its propaganda about the meaning of his election led a guy in Pittsburgh to shoot up the town for fear our president would remove the sacred gun from his cold sweaty hands.

The conga players, the lesbians, and, for certain, the blacks, did vote for Mr. Obama. Thus elevated, he characterized a certain type of police behavior, common and accepted from the cold Northeast to the warm Southwest, in the same way they would have.

The president has not apologized. Obama has said he would have "calibrated" his remarks differently, but the sum total would have been the same.

If his hand was forced in commenting anew, and calling the policeman and the professor to a White House conversation, the victory goes to his supporters, because there Sergeant James Crowley will come face-to-face with his sloppy handiwork.

And that would be a first.

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