Saturday, July 01, 2017

An Equal Protection Parable Out of Commerce, TX

The story of Miss Black Texas' arrest for being called a "black bitch" by an influential white guy in Commerce, TX shows how, red state or blue, the terms of debate surrounding policing and the justice system are changing. In particular, the public is less likely to acquiesce in the heretofore-accepted reality that the role of police and the courts - especially in small towns - are as much protector of privilege and power as life and property. (We have equal protection under the law, it's been famously said, so that the rich and poor are forbidden equally from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges.) It also represents a moment of empowered populism, when exoneration by the government for official misconduct could not redeem perpetrators in the eyes of their constituents or preserve the positions of power they allegedly abused.

Here are the basics:  A local school-board trustee in Commerce, Michael Beane, was teaching his too-young-to-drive 14-year-old daughter how to drive in a Walmart parking lot in a black pickup truck. She couldn't handle the vehicle and began swerving and driving erratically. Carmen Ponder, a beauty queen who at the time was interning at the Hunt County District Attorney's office, drove around the underage driver and exchanged opinions with the father - she told him the girl was too young to drive and he allegedly called her a "black bitch" (he denies the "black" part, so is happy to own his misogyny but denies racism, fwiw).

When Ponder came out of the Walmart, the school trustee, his daughter, and another white guy - who turned out to be Commerce Police Chief Kerry Crews, off duty and in plain clothes - stopped her and demanded an apology for her behavior (maneuvering around and away from the swerving 14-year-old driver). They wouldn't let her leave until uniformed officers arrived and the police chief had her arrested. Their exchange was all recorded on store video and corroborates Ms. Ponder's account to a T. You can watch it here; the young woman couldn't have behaved in a classier nor more appropriate fashion. But they hauled her off in chains, anyway.

The City of Commerce reportedly investigated the incident and declared the chief had done nothing wrong, but for once, "official" exoneration didn't sway public opinion. Even if it was the school trustee, not the chief, who allegedly made the "black bitch" comment, it was clear from the video (and the reaction of the local establishment after the fact) that Crews had picked his side by demanding Ponder apologize to the alleged racist road rager from the local school board. Not long after the city manager declared Crews officially blameless, the police chief and the school-board trustee both resigned, insinuating they had been victimized by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The police chief insisted he wasn't motivated by race when arresting Ponder but instead, apparently without self-reflection, was acting out a scene starring Cartman from the cartoon series South Park, who popularized the pretend-cop dictum, "Respect My Authoritah!" (“It had nothing to do with her race or gender or anything other than what I felt was her disrespect of my position as an officer and as the police chief,” Crews said in his statement resigning from his post.) The city manager, doubling down on his contention that the chief was in the right, kicked Crews upstairs, naming him assistant city manager and thus retaining his authority over the department.

Neither Beane nor Crews, much less the Commerce city manager (Crews' boss, then and now), expressed concern for any victimization Ms. Ponder may have felt, one notices throughout the press coverage in which they complain of their victimization. After all, black people in East Texas are surely used to false arrests and take them in stride, right? [/sarcasm] Her life was disrupted by false allegations and unlike her antagonists, she was actually taken to jail for it. (Charges were later dropped.) But these asshats want to portray themselves as the victims! Infuriating.

Grits finds the contents of Ponder's story unremarkable - anyone who has worked on police reform issues as long as I have has heard many dozens such stories, frequently with as much or more corroboration as Ms. Ponder brings to the table. Rather, what's remarkable is that public disapprobation for Crews' and Beane's behavior proved more powerful than their friends in officialdom and among local elites, who would have let the incident pass with a wink and a nod.

For Crews, a small-town police chief in East Texas, it was obvious whose side he should take in a dispute between a white elected official and a young black student in a sweatshirt. He didn't seek out her side of the story or investigate because, in his world, the fact that his friend, the white official, would prevail was inevitable. So he demanded an apology, probably thinking in his own twisted way that he was doing Ponder a favor by giving her a chance not to be arrested. After, all, a politically powerful white man was angry! In towns like Commerce, it's ever been thus. Meanwhile Ms. Ponder rightly felt her assailants were owed no apology, standing up for herself with courage and aplomb.

Michael Beane and Kerry Crews's abuse of power in their interactions with Carmen Ponder was in truth entirely unremarkable in every respect except the outcome - a harsh public backlash which made it untenable for the men to continue in their official roles. And that makes it as remarkable and extraordinary a policing parable as this writer has heard out of East Texas in a many a year.


Soronel Haetir said...

I am continually amazed by how long it is taking people at all levels to come to the realization that if they are in public there is a very good chance that they are being recorded. Even if they aren't being recorded at the beginning of something interesting the chances go up the longer the something interesting goes on. And without this having been recorded I doubt anything different would have come of it than any similar example from the past. Same with the various flight crews behaving badly earlier this year.

Anonymous said...

Ignorance seeks validation, especially among other ignorants. Perhaps some federal oversight is warranted here. I'm not a fan whatsoever of federal oversight anything, but in this incident maybe it will compel other small, untrained, and unfocused agencies to get in line with the professional standards and education levels that are mandated by larger law enforcement organizations. Perhaps even the state legislature can set a deadline as to when a peace officer at varying stages of education and training are either retained (meets/exceeds) or they are unlicensed immediately for noncompliance. More state oversight, more federal oversight will get these other areas to doing modern law enforcement the way it should be done. The GED era should be long gone for eligibility to carry a gun, usurp rights, and dare the courts to disagree. But GED training is what you got. Any expectations will always be less than stellar.

Anonymous said...

Several of mine went to school (Texas A&M University-Commerce) in Commerce, beginning in the 90s. All WASP born & raised in the deep south so while they don't agree they know the drill well.

The only thing that surprised us is how long it took for this sh*t to hit the fan.

OTOH the cover up is classic deep south.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe a District Attorney in Hunt County should be making decisions on criminal matters when he's under criminal investigation himself. Now that's classic East Texas.

Chris H said...

What's frustrating in this is that Chief Crews didn't have arrest powers since the alleged offense (reckless driving) is neither a felony nor committed in his view. A school board trustee (the witness) does not have arrest powers for misdemeanors committed in his view.

Gadfly said...

Grits, don't know if you saw it, but James Ragland at the Snooze wrote a column about this last week. (He's an ETSU/A&M-Commerce alum.)

d said...

What a disgusting abuse of power.