A preventable tragedy

The most appalling police news of the week wasn't the alternately aggressive and nonexistent response to drunken, obnoxious Mardi Gras revelers—though that did make the national news and prompt yet another round of Paul Schell's making an ass of himself (not that any sort of transformation was involved).

But far worse was the North Aurora death of 31-year-old bicyclist Joel Robert.

Damn, this sounded familiar.

Police immediately blamed Robert for the accident, saying that he tried to cross Aurora on 90th against the light when a police cruiser, driven by Officer Chris Hansen, plowed into him at high speed. When witnesses contradicted that claim, Seattle police officials hurriedly backed off, saying that it was under investigation.

Now, I obviously have no idea what actually happened, and it's not like a bicyclist cruising through a red light is unheard of, either. (That's a different rant.) However, reports seem to agree that Robert followed two cars (which presumably had the green) across Aurora; therefore, one at least has to wonder why Officer Hansen was going so fast through a light that had just turned green.

That may not have been what happened. Several witnesses claim Hansen raced through the intersection, against the light, with no lights or siren on—even though the call he was responding to was to back up a traffic stop seven blocks away. That hardly requires stealth—or speed. One onlooker pegged Hansen's speed as "over 50 miles per hour," describing "a roaring of an engine." And every person in Seattle can picture it happening.

On one recent memorable 1am trip up 23rd Avenue east of Capitol Hill, in three different neighborhoods, across two miles, I saw three separate SPD patrol cars, and every one of them crossed against red lights with no warning. One was speeding; two got tired of waiting for the lights and, after stopping for a bit, ignored them. When I mentioned it to friends, nobody expressed surprise.

A department that routinely considers itself above traffic law is bad for public relations—and also dangerous as hell. Just as bad was the automatic police response, in Robert's death, of blaming the victim before the facts were known. That's just as familiar.

We'll never know what happened. It's Hansen's word against that of other witnesses, and we all know how that will turn out—rather differently than if a civilian stood accused of vehicular manslaughter.

How could this be fixed? Well, cameras in patrol cars—the same reform I suggested a while back to combat racial profiling—would help. So would an end to the practice of police officers' perjuring themselves—a routine fact of life in modern America.

But that's for afterwards. I'd be happiest with prevention, with Robert's death leading to a determination by every single Seattle police patrol officer to drive by the rules—because too often, they don't. Occasionally, it's lethal, but every day, it reinforces the public perception that Seattle's cops think they're above the law.

Organizing the organizers

The relatively new South Seattle chapter of ACORN (a national advocacy group for low-income tenants and homeowners) is embroiled in controversy, with its half-dozen staff members mounting a strike last week over what they say is a refusal by ACORN to recognize their desire for union representation.

It's easy to see ACORN management's side in this. They're an entirely self-sustaining community group, tithing 17 percent of their local income for the national office. And financially struggling activist groups are as old as the Left itself—older.

Nevertheless, equally familiar to anyone who's ever worked an organizing job is the often atrocious way in which groups that claim to want to work for a better world treat their own staff. Labor organizers routinely work 60 to 80 hours a week. Peace and social justice jobs are for the young, and not because they're idealistic—it's because it's hard to raise a family or retire on $10 an hour with no benefits.

To be blunt, very often these groups get what they pay for. By the time activists can learn how to organize effectively, they're usually long gone. It's a sadder truth that it will always be hard to take such groups seriously—even when, as is the case with ACORN, they do wonderful work—when they don't practice what they preach and don't treat their own workers the way we want everyone to be treated in a better, more just world.

Giving away the store

It looks like George W. Bush will have the nearly unprecedented opportunity to appoint four new members to the five-seat Federal Communications Commission, joining new Republican Chair Michael Powell (Colin's kid). Democrat Gloria Tristani is leaving the FCC to run for office in New Mexico; another Democrat, Susan Ness, is living on borrowed time due to a Bill Clinton recess appointment. Add in two existing vacancies, and Bush will have a remarkable chance to stack the FCC with people who share his philosophy: Give away not just all remaining regulation of broadcast media but whatever enormously lucrative, publicly owned space 1996's Communications Act didn't already shovel into the hands of Bill Gates et al. It's the denouement of one of the biggest corporate welfare schemes in history—a stunning theft of public resources—and the country's media, for some odd reason, are reluctant to cover it.


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