Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Keepin' your head above water

Keepin' your head above water,
Making a wave when you can.
Temporary lay offs.
Good Times.

It seems warped to me, but the honest truth is I can't get the theme song from the 70's sitcom Good Times out of my head. I think a defiant posture of positivity in the face of real-life challenges is something to strive for. I'm enthusiastic and encouraged that today I heard both Jon Matthews and Plastic Jackson, morning and evening DJs respectively, read the brief Voter Confidence Committee public service announcement on KSLG. Then I think, who cares, Martin Cotton II died last week in the Humboldt County jail after a physical encounter with the Eureka Police Department.

Good times. Right.

Last Thursday I received a phone call from a representative of the Humboldt Green Party. With apologies for the short notice, I was asked to make a presentation about the Voter Confidence Committee "Report on Election Conditions in Humboldt County, CA," and our campaign for hand-counted paper ballots, at the Green Party General Assembly on Saturday. I was glad to do it and especially pleased that two people offered to join us in tabling to sign up people wishing the County to know they are willing to hand-count votes on election night. I had my voice recorder, but forgot to start it when my talk began. I'm not sure I said anything WDNC readers don't already know.

The same day I got that call, I also attended a so-called Town Hall Meeting convened by Eureka police chief Garr Nielson. About 50 community members filed into a back room at a restaurant owned by Eureka Mayor Virginia Bass. That might not be the ideal setting for such a gathering, but this too was presented as a matter of short notice. Nobody had planned for the death of Martin Cotton II on August 9. Likewise for the five other community members who have died from dealing with the Eureka Police Department in the past two years. In each case, skeptical members of the public challenged the police version of events.

I should point out that I never met Martin Cotton II, nor was I present for his final altercations. By all accounts, he was fighting with folks at the Eureka Rescue Mission, which precipitated the arrival of the police. At this point there are many different stories and I shall not attempt to portray any one of them as reality. Consider this inherent uncertainty part of a vast trend I have outlined many times before.

And still, the VCC campaign rolled on with a promise from Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich that the group will be able to make a brief presentation about the report, the campaign, and the spreadsheet tool (.xls) at the next meeting of the Election Advisory Committee. That is less than two hours from now. Taking place at the same time is a Eureka City Council meeting at which members of the Redwood Curtain CopWatch intend to attend en masse, making their views known to the Council about the death of Martin Cotton II and the role of the police in that sad loss.

In an e-mail circulated yesterday, RCCW claimed to have documented reports from many witnesses who have been too afraid to speak to the police or the media. I think they will have an uphill battle trying to change popular opinion about recent events, even if the majority view states that once again we'll never have a definitive "truth." That's not to say they shouldn't try to bring forth witnesses and help the story evolve. But I'll put out there what I think is the most likely point to get traction.

Now, it is not as if I'm the first to say that Martin Cotton II should have been taken to the hospital instead of the jail. But what I have to offer to the discussion is how Chief Nielson's words indict the officers involved for a judgment call the Chief can be pressed into questioning. It has already happened once, though it seems to me the impact has just slipped on by. What I'm talking about stems first from a question asked by another community member at the Town Hall Forum. Nielson was asked about a quote in the media in which he alleged that Martin Cotton II was on dangerous drugs. This allegation by Nielson was not based on direct observation or a toxicology report. Yet he defended it, as if it were almost self evident.

Following up on this question, I noted to the Chief that in defending his allegation, he was thereby repeating it, and also defining what could be considered a reasonable assumption of his officers on the scene. Nielson acknowledged the logic of my statement. I then went further to point out that if his officers could be expected to conclude that their suspect was in this condition and behaving violently and erratically, then the appropriate course of action anyone might expect of these officers is that they would take their arrestee to the hospital and not the jail. In response, Chief Nielson said, "That is a reasonable premise and I can't argue with that."

Nielson then deftly moved on to the next question. He gave this type of "agreement" in response to several other questions that would seem to have pegged him to a position he likely wouldn't otherwise volunteer to take. So when it comes to this pattern of officer-involved deaths, there is no shortage of emotion or allegations that look to have no real potential for resolution. What may just exist, in at least this one most recent death, is an admission from Chief Nielson that could completely define the rightness or wrongness of the actions of his officers, but which do not seem at all likely to stick unless the logic above is laid out and emphasized repeatedly by RCCW and others.

While I was writing this, Plastic Jackson at KSLG scheduled me for an interview Friday at 7pm.

Ain't we lucky we got 'em. Good Times.

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