A Jury of One's Fears
On May 2, 2016, I sat in court to observe jury selection with other members of Enough is Enough in support of Scean Gordon, arrested as he filmed the illegal handcuffing, search, and abduction of his friend, Daryl Appleberry who was racially profiled and targeted by Rochester Police Department officers Nicholas Thomas and Christopher Kosch. The infamous race-baiting, bully cops insisted their behavior was a legitimate case of mistaken identity. Mr. Gordon, however, recorded Mr. Appleberry repeatedly clarifying his identity, his family members anxiously shouting that the police had the wrong person and naming him correctly, the cops illegally searching Mr. Appleberry's person without permission, and then police forcing Mr. Appleberry into a police cruiser and beginning to drive away with him. All this activity occurred without a warrant or any legally required effort to speak with the family members who offered identification, or required response to Mr. Appleberry’s saying he did not consent to search.
Having infuriated the police with his loud insistence on legality, Mr. Gordon was targeted, chased down, beaten and maced, and arrested under false charges. He chose to stand trial, rebutting police lies and their brutal treatment of him, rather than admit to guilt in a false plea deal.
I'd been part of a small team that attended the Huntley Hearing for the case, listening to police testimony. Later we FOILed and transcribed the sworn testimony of the two officers' claims and compared their words, frame by frame to the videos that Mr. Gordon himself, and Daryl Appleberry's sister, Diamond, had taken of the episode. I could easily see for myself that the accusations were largely untrue; the police lied in answer to nearly every question asked about their behavior from the start of the episode to its brutal end. There seemed some hope that if we could get the video and the testimony shown to a jury Scean might have, before a jury of his peers, a chance at justice.
We already understood that the jury would be drawn from the wide county, not many from those who live in the city, and realized then that the pool would be predominantly white, matching the county population. From earlier study of the overwhelmingly white and suburban composition of the police force (there isn't a single city dweller on the Professional Standards Section that reviews complaints of police violence, for example), we understood the risk of going before a likely white jury. Still, Assistant Public Defender, Christine Seppeler, was sharp and remarkably clear about the issues, we had the video and still shots as proof, and were confident any jury could practically touch the bigotry and racial undercurrents in the materials and testimony. So when we viewed officer Thomas complain that the "houses were all jammed together, the way they are in the city," we knew he brought suburban standards not only to Scean's neighborhood, but to ALL city neighborhoods in this country and around the world. The pattern he complained about, "a house just separated from the next house by a driveway," is the format of streets in Washington DC, San Francisco, St. Louis, Paris, Tokyo – poor neighborhoods and rich, sophisticated and impoverished. His bias seemed so obvious, it gave us hope. But we knew it would be easy to exaggerate fears if the jury selection didn't include anyone from city neighborhoods.
Luckily, there was hope of unbiased possibilities among the sixteen selected, one an IT specialist working for Xerox, another a homecare nurse raising a family not far from the courtroom. All but one other lived in the suburbs. Two of the three city dwellers were black and had some experience with profiling, (The remaining city resident, a woman my age, was surly, inattentive throughout the trial, and was snide in response to questions involving race.) There was, in the remaining mix, an out lesbian, not Caucasian, who acknowledged police might make errors based on racial expectations and may have been profiled herself. Everyone else was white. Very white. Sunglasses-on white. My own kind of pink people. And not a single one of the jury pool – not one – could (or would) explain what the Black Lives Matter movement was about. (Christine Seppler, asked them all that very question.) None of them had ever had anything but the most "positive treatment" by a police officer and none expressed any concern at being pulled over for traffic infractions – their ONLY experience with police. So only the three with darker complexions had darker experiences with cops. Guess who were the first to be eliminated in the backroom selection. The two black potential jurors were dismissed, immediately and only because their experiences with police paralleled Scean Gordon's, by the vigorously racist assistant district attorney, Hillary Levitt. (More about her handling of the prosecution in another piece.) We expected their truth telling, however careful and delicate, might cause their dismissal, but watching such cultural bias in action solidifies my beliefs that the system is carefully designed and extremely effective in maintaining racial imbalance.
Among those still standing were many golfers, men whose hobbies included working on their large homes and lawns, a pilot who enjoyed trips in his private plane, several college professors, and most astonishing, a judge who knew the prosecutor, had been a police officer in Gates – long known as a Sundown Town, where black people are unsafe being pulled over after dark – who spoke in puffy absolutisms that sound like overacting on a one-season cartoon cop show. Representing the middle class, just a bit less privileged, were a suburban stay-at-home mother and a man who worked as a dishwasher in a franchise restaurant.
As the selection continued, the judge actually lobbied for retention of her colleague, a judge who radiated such bias in every phrase that we supporters cringed at his oblivion and sanctimony. Naive and hopeful to the last, not for a second did I think he'd be even considered. Yet Judge Ellen Yacknin used her position to insist the judge stay – a sickeningly obvious ignorance of both her own and his cultural bias, of systemic injustice. Luckily, the assistant public defender had just enough clout to assure he would not serve. He tottered off, likely relieved, to his country club.
So this was 'a jury of one's peers.' All white. Nearly entirely suburban. None with the daily experience of profiling, racism and violence that the RPD has been known for from its inception. [Do a search for "Rochester Police Department" on Rochester.Indymedia.org to get a sense of the problem, Ed.] None who would question the many overt lies of the police, even when they were demonstrated by the video and the still photos blown up for details. None questioned the pretense of officer Thomas that he was offended at the phrase, 'You don't have to listen to that niggah,' or 'Get the fuck off the property,' when he is known for his own abusive, vile, racist sputtering. Street talk shocked the suburbanites and the DA played them like lutes. Their own cruelties take place behind large picture windows and vast lawns. Police assure and comfort them when they veer from polite and quiet exchange. They don’t risk arrest for conferring with a neighbor about music production schedules in their own yards! Shocked, they were, that Scean Gordon was loud and angry at repeated and extensive abuses against him, his friends. I was sick at heart, exhausted each day by the pretense of 'justice' in a courtroom of lies. Mr. Gordon maintained equanimity and grace – and utter silence – throughout the four-day ordeal.
This experience did not surprise Scean or Daryl or their families, for they are used to such abuse every day. It will not shock my other black friends and allies. This is their daily diet.
I, who have lived next to racism and have experienced its advantages, who have seen it regularly in our city where I work and play, have read and watched its nationwide effects online and know its history, have worked against it in Enough is Enough and other local groups fighting police bias, have tried to work with the police and finally determined it is only possible, and truly necessary, to work against the entire policing system, I, for all my efforts to understand racism, was stunned by the ugly implications of this jury selection.
The roots of racism are like those of black walnut trees: they reach both deep and wide, holding up a productive and beautiful tree as they poison everything beneath its crown in a wide radius. We must, as so many gardeners have learned when their nearby crops fall as the tree roots touch their beautiful tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers, to uproot that thing that poisons everything else. Our local police union calls itself the Locust Club for the hardwood used in its billy clubs. Better, I think, we call it the Black Walnut Club, poisoning every part of city lives in a huge radius. Get the saws and axes. This deadly police system must fall.
– Katherine Denison, 12 May 2016
Related: Two Black men, one falsely arrested & the other brutalized by RPD, tell their stories | Gordon's motions denied by judge in police violence case | Motion to suppress statements denied in police violence case | According to civil suit, RPD officers Kosch and Thomas have violent histories on the force