Friday, March 22, 2013

Shown No Mercy in St. Francois County

ACLU-EM's John Chasnoff keeping his hands where we could see them at all times in Long Memorial Hall, while explaining what to do if you're stopped by the police:
Think carefully about your words, movement, body language and emotions.

Don't get into an argument with the police.

Remember, anything you say or do can be used against you.

Keep your hands where the police can see them.

Don't run. Don't touch any police officer.

Don't resist even if you believe you are innocent.

Don't complain on the scene or tell the police you're wrong or that you're going to file a complaint.
 Do not make any statements regarding the incident.
Ask for a lawyer immediately upon your arrest.

Remember officers' badge and patrol car numbers.

Write down everything you remember ASAP.

Try to find witnesses, their names and phone numbers.

If you are injured, take photographs of the injuries as soon as possible, but make sure you seek medical attention first.

If you feel your rights have been violated, file a written complaint with the police department's internal affairs division or call the ACLU of Eastern Missouri Complaint Line: 314-653-3111
45 brave souls attended the Know Your Rights Community Speak-Out conducted by John Chasnoff, Program Director of the American Civil Liberties Union—Eastern Missouri (ACLU-EM) here in Farmington last week. Brave because we were told that at least two cops were going to attend our meeting, which  understandably might have had a chilling effect on people who were hoping to have a place to speak out. As I was out canvassing at food pantries and laundromats, grocery stores and barbershops, when people asked me if the cops were going to be there as they invariably did because they're savvy about such things, what could I do but shrug?

But the truth is, any meeting I've ever attended concerning civil liberties, whether it be about abuses of fundamental human rights in Guantanamo or America proper, has always also been attended by spies of one sort or another; sometimes they even disrupt the meeting with some kabuki theatrical, sauntering in late, shrieking some madness, distracting the participants from the work they came there to accomplish with some absurd diversion. I've seen it scores of times, even in the meeting rooms of the ACLU in NYC on Broad Street. These sorts of intrusions fuel my sense of urgency to push forward to help make whatever revolutionary changes we have to make before an even more repressive regime rules us with an even more iron fist.

So while 450 would have been better, 45 people leaving their homes, their routines, not watching Dancin' With the Stars, in some cases even bringing their kids, was a pretty marvelous achievement, especially given that the local papers would not print our rather benign press release.

Friends and Family of Callion Hamblin To Sponsor Public Meeting: “KNOW YOUR RIGHTS”
    Farmington, Missouri. On Wednesday, March 13, 2013, at 7:00 p.m. at Long Memorial Hall in Farmington, Missouri, representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri (ACLU-EM) will offer a presentation on police/community interactions. According to John Chasnoff, Program Director at ACLU-EM, the goal of the evening is to better inform people in southeastern Missouri about the rights they currently have when stopped, questioned, arrested, or searched by federal, state or local law enforcement officers.
“We want the people of St. Francois County to be aware of the basic rights that all people in America have under the law,” explained Mr. Chasnoff. “I’m looking forward to our public meeting and the chance for the ACLU-EM to find out what’s happening with policing in Farmington and St. Francois County.” The group will also be handing out Know Your Rights wallet cards to everyone who attends.
On the heels of the Associated Press article (link below) filed on February 19, 2013, revealing that Callion Hamblin took six bullets to the back, and the successful one-year commemorative rally outside the Farmington courthouse on February 20, 2013, the group reached out to the ACLU-EM.    [...]   

Nor would the editors allow our event to be listed on the online Community Calendar. Actually one attendee reported that she had seen it on the calendar but then couldn’t find it again, so apparently it was up and then removed, and we were effectively excommunicated!  But those that report the news around here are totally in cahoots with those who dictate it, so no one should be surprised that the Park Hills Daily Journal and The Farmington Press do not wish their readers to know their rights. Why? Because to know your rights in St. Francois County is to begin to wake up to their wrongs. 

It’s unclear at whom this suppression was aimed. Was it at the ACLU-EM, which has been busy in this neck of the woods challenging local municipalities on various fronts? As part of a national campaign probing militarized police departments Farmington has the dubious distinction of being one of only four police departments in the state of Missouri coming under their scrutiny. Plus, it was announced two days ago that ACLU lawyers have won the right for the KKK to distribute leaflets in the city streets of Desloges, a neighboring hamlet a few towns over to the north. It's an important principle, which they rightly (no pun intended) uphold.

Or was it aimed at us because of our video that shoots about as many holes in the fanciful and incomplete story as printed in the local papers as the cops fired at and into Callion Hamblin?

Nonetheless, those who found their way to the Know Your Rights Community Speak-Out told us that they’d spied one of the hundreds of flyers posted at local businesses and VFW halls, heard the radio coverage on KDBB or KREI, or got wind via word of mouth. They burned gas from all points in St. Francois County, carpooling from Bonne Terre and Bismarck, or traveling from Iron County, and beyond. Some arrived early, well before the 7pm start time, clutching fat file folders with documentation of alleged abuse by the authorities at the level of policing, courts, jails and elections. And because it was court night downstairs, some folk just stopped in after taking care of business to shake off their funk and pick up a Know Your Rights wallet card.

I was honored to introduce John with this brief profile:
John Chasnoff has worked on issues of police accountability for fourteen years. As a leader in the campaigns for civilian review and local control of St. Louis police, and as a staff member at the ACLU of Eastern Missouri since 2009, John has long advocated for police practices that provide both citizen safety and respect for civil liberties. He has worked on countless individual cases of police misconduct, but believes that lasting improvements will only come with systemic changes to the culture of policing and institutional structures that hold officers accountable.
As John proceeded though his Powerpoint he was soon interrupted by people giving voice, often with a kind of gallows humor, to the cognitive dissonance between what was being asserted on the screen and what happens routinely on the ground. He could not have been clearer that knowing and invoking one’s rights and having them respected by the authorities when they pull you over or attempt to search or arrest you, were two entirely different things. He repeatedly made the point that where knowing your rights and behaving accordingly could make a difference is later in court: evidence, for instance, obtained in an illegal search could be set aside by a judge if you have acted properly, said and not said the magic words.

About two-thirds of the way through the presentation, one woman who'd been squirming and seething with frustration pretty much the whole time got up to leave with these rather pointed barbs: “This has nothing to do with what happens in Farmington with the police. Do you know what happens if you try to remain silent in Farmington? They bash your head onto the hood of your car, that’s what! If they want you to talk, there’s no remaining silent.”

No one disagreed with her assessment.

In fact, the first person accounts that surfaced about doing time in St. Francois County jail were very tough to take—reports of routine and savage beatings, rotten food or forced starvation (not feeding them at all), mold creeping up the walls painted over by paint paid for finally by the inmates themselves, frozen pipes, stinking air, and dangerous overcrowding, as many as five in a cell. It sounded like we had our own miniature gulag going right here in the town of “Tradition and Progress.”

After much deliberation and some avoidance, I decided to see if these claims could be verified and drove over today to the St. Francois County Jail, a place I'd never been before, somewhat off the beaten path over on Doubet Road. A bleak destination on a dreary day made more forlorn by the punishing aesthetics, a visual assault on the central nervous system, a shaming environment.
Not a tourist destination, a very sad place

View across the street, a piece of the State prison complex

Side view of the jail where 200 or so inmates are locked up
In the lobby there's a little memorial window set up to honor a fallen comrade who died in a freak accident on Highway 67 years ago, when a trailer came loose off of a truck and came flying across the highway to absolutely demolish his vehicle and end his life. There is a picture of the pulverized car, the grotesquely twisted mangled metal that looks meteor-struck, and the well-written story is by Doug Smith, who is currently the Editor of The (aforementioned) Farmington Press with whom I've had one rather charming but exasperating conversation (total unreality, he is in about the criminal landscape that is the justice system in these parts).

Through the metal detector one is forced to approach a dark window. I've encountered this twice now, once at the police station last week and now here. In both instances my eyes went immediately to the floor; a refusenik gesture--if I don't have access, neither do you. A very few minutes (no more than seven) later Dennis Smith, Jail Administrator came and invited me back to his colleague's office where we met with Gregory Armstrong, Chief Deputy.

Now anyone who knows Chief Armstrong knows he's a badass dude, charming but in a badass way. The kind of guy who said about Callion's death, because he was there: "Hey, I'm the kinda guy, I'm going home to my wife at the end of my shift." Badass! Who's badasser than that? Dude starts rapping to me about Maricopa County Arizona (where they have chain-gangs), transferring prisoners from there who are happy to come to Farmington just because of the food here, like they had today: ham and beans, fried potatoes, corn bread, and iced tea. Says some of the prisoners at the prison are federal prisoners. I was really shocked that we were housing federal prisoners in our county jail. Dude asks me where I live and if I have a firearm? Badass.

Between the conversation that I had with Mr. Smith and Chief Armstrong, and the impromptu tour of the facility I can absolutely attest to the following:
  • I saw no evidence of mold
  • There was no stench in the hallways (I didn't enter the day rooms or cells)
  • The kitchen was spotless
  • I didn't sense that it was a place of terror and torture, people didn't look agonized by and large in my pass through.
  • The overcrowding was undeniable
  • Everyone gets a mattress and a blanket and if there's no steel bunk then it's the concrete floor.
  • It's stripped as bare as a place can be.
  • There's not a single comfort to be had or respite from what it is.
  • The televison is on.
  • There is no silence.
  • They can't hear the peepers from their bunks like I can from my plush bed.
  • I was saddened to learn that there are some prisoners who are awaiting trial in that sterile sunless moonless windless place for three years.
  • They could be innocent but can never get those years of liberty back.
  • Unless they're going to court, they don't go outside.
  • Six bullets to the back, one from the bondsman's gun.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Becoming a Heroine

Brandy Hamblin

"A heroine, like a novelist, can convert the least promising of lives into art by the way she looks at it." 
Rachel Brownstein, Becoming a Heroine

Along with tens of thousands of others, I first encountered Brandy Hamblin in print, or more precisely, pixels on a screen. I read her words as reported in the St. Louis Post Dispatch article in which she was describing an anguished final telephone conversation with her ex-husband (and father of her son) on the night he was exterminated by Farmington, Missouri law enforcement, and cronies. But I couldn't help but notice that even through her upset, she was scrupulous about conveying the main and telling detail for anyone who cared to see it:
"I heard rapid gunfire," she said in an interview Tuesday. "It sounded like an ambush, like someone had lit a whole block of Black Cats (firecrackers)." 
What an astute young woman, I remember thinking at the time

Reading those words again now...sounded like an ambush, like someone had lit a whole block of Black Cats...I remain struck by her keen intelligence: both her personal smarts and what she lucidly seized the opportunity to relate. Another woman might have succumbed to the panic and dread of the moment, sunk into a quagmire of the kind of emotionalism so rampant around here. But Brandy didn't. Not at all. Her brain didn't switch off just because her heart had been shattered, and her son traumatized. And that's where my admiration for her began.

A necessary digression: Farmington, Missouri, which Brandy has called home since 1998, and which is also my home for the past two years, is currently the subject of a probe by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri with respect to its use of SWAT teams, military-style gear and ops, and tracking devices. With just over 16,000 in population, it's rather amazing that our town is coming under ACLU scrutiny along with the City and County of St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri.

The next phase of our relationship, Brandy’s and mine, came to be as members of a private Facebook group she co-administers: RIP Callion “Smoke/Kinloch” Hamblin. This is a somewhat delicate task because a number of the mourners in the group were Cal's lovers, some from the time after their marriage ended, and some from the time before. But as Brandy recently wrote me with her special brand of humor and generosity: 

LoL that man did get around but you know in my old age I don't even care I have moved past all of that. We ALL LOVED CAL! And that's why we are doing this.

Brandy is such a genuinely lovely person, I’m sure I speak for everyone in the group when I say that one always looks forward to her posts and comments on others’ posts. Hers is a sure and steady kind of friendly leadership, the kind that sees you all the way through, without drama. Posts like: 
Merry Christmas Cal, u have been heavy on my mind lately. Have been missin you bunches. I know u were here with us in spirit today..........wishin you could "get a plate". Lol Just thinking of you puts a smile on my face. You may be gone from this earth but you will live in our hearts forever. We love and miss you so much.

Seasons passed and it came to be that the Facebook group committed to organizing a commemorative rally on the one-year anniversary of the taking of Callion’s life. I took a shine to Brandy at our first meeting. I remember her as being open, refreshingly so for this area, but at the same time nobody’s fool. 

Plus she’d come to the meeting after a long shift (She works at an area nursing home as an LPN in an Alzheimer’s ward) and was game to try what I was serving, a delightful beverage that involved a tumbler of icy apple cider stirred with an ice-breaking pour of Jameson’s whiskey. 

Brandy did a lot of talking that first meeting, which was wonderful for us all. So much had been bottled up for so long, she needed to get it out and we needed to hear it. Because every word she was speaking was all true, every bit of it had actually happened; it was real, not some horror movie we'd all seen or nightmare we'd weirdly shared

No..., they really had killed him in a hail of bullets, they actually did leave his desecrated body to bleed out on the frozen ground from 2am to 6am, even though an ambulance was already on the scene. If they had tried, maybe they could have saved his life. But they didn't even try.

Photo from the St. Louis Post Dispatch
 The day before the rally (pictured below), Brandy fielded questions from a journalist writing a national story for the Associated Press in which he publicly revealed the details of the autopsy report for the first time, as well as a very high-profile radio webcaster from NYC. In Alan Scher Zagier's story that appeared all over the country on February 19 and 20, 2013, Brandy made this excellent point:
"I know Cal was in the wrong,"  said Brandy Hamblin,"..."He should have turned himself in. I just don't think that should have served as his death warrant."
Brandy's responses to Ed Champion's tough questions begin around the 27-minute mark, just after the county coroner confirms that Callion took six bullets to the back from all angles
Keandre, age 11, and Xavier, age 12, Brandy's son with Callion (on right)

Brandy tells the story of the events of that night in our video (soon to be completed!) which is to be called: “Shown No Mercy: Remembering Callion Hamblin.” Her account, while conveyed with utter poise, is not for the squeamish. It’s hard not to admire a woman who in one fell swoop goes from never having spoken on camera before to telling a very tough story with a lot of grace and compassion for her listeners. 

Drawings by Callion Hamblin

In addition, Brandy has given a number of very fine radio interviews, and doubtless will have to give countless more as this story continues to grow in consequence and resonance.We spoke after her interview with KDBB, it was a very emotional interview for her, her first with the local media since the news that Callion had taken six bullets to the back. 

She laughed because even though she had felt herself to be prepared she got a little flustered, and instead of saying "Know Your Rights" the words that came out were: "Right to Know!"

The ACLU will be sniffing the air in Farmington, MO this Wednesday, March 13, 7pm at Long Memorial Hall

A second necessary digression: KDBB Bonne Terre is also running a more in-depth story about Wednesday's ACLU program sponsored by our group this Monday. This expanded coverage is most welcome because not only have the local papers not written in a fair way about our event, they won't even allow it to appear on their "community" calendar listing, even though I dropped by their offices twice in Park Hills and spoke with their IT director, so I know for a fact it's not a technical snafu. Just pure out and out suppression. The other local paper (all part of the same corporate outfit), printed this uninformative opinion piece.

It's risible that, like children, they wish to pretend that if they don't pay attention to our event, that it isn't happening. Earth to Lee Enterprises: Not only is it happening but we will have plenty of news coverage of the event with or without your deliberate disinformation campaign. 

The last thing I'll say about my friend Brandy is that her courage is contagious. While I was posting flyers of our event in Park Hills, Missouri, a neighboring town, I chanced upon the office of one of the bail bondsman who gained $25,000 by helping to make sure Callion Hamblin was good and dead. I couldn't resist, I snapped this shot:

My Not So Very Silent Fuck You to Mike Cross and the Horse He Rode In On

Mostly because I hoped it would make Brandy laugh. I'll ask her when I see her Wednesday at Long Memorial Hall, if it did!