A video surfaced Monday night of a police officer in Perris, California, tackling a 52-year-old woman, grabbing her arms and pulling her hair — all for the “crime” of selling flowers without a permit.
As the local news station KLTA, which covered the video, reports, Juanita Mendez-Medrano was peacefully selling flower bouquets and Hawaiian-style leis to families celebrating at a nearby high school graduation when the cops got involved. She was ticketed along with some other vendors for selling without a city permit, and when she declined to provide her name for the ticket, one officer escalated the situation into a violent arrest.
Though it thankfully didn’t end in the same manner, this incident reminds me a lot of the death of Eric Garner, who was killed by Staten Island cops for the equally innocuous “crime” of selling untaxed cigarettes. Both victims were assaulted for peacefully making a living without giving the state a cut of their realistically small profits.
There’s no question systemic racial bias plays some role in these situations, but bad law does, too. As I wrote about Garner, institutional racism exists in our criminal justice system, but without the institutional part, that racism would be much less powerful. When everything is illegal, police have every excuse to stop, harass, and even kill minorities (though that is not to say, as this week’s tragic news out of Minneapolis shows all too well, that white people are immune to police violence either).
Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter expressed this dynamic well while commenting on Garner’s death for Bloomberg in 2014. “I often tell my students that there will never be a perfect technology of law enforcement, and therefore it is unavoidable that there will be situations where police err on the side of too much violence rather than too little,” he wrote. “Better training won’t lead to perfection. But fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand.”
Carter said he always tells his first-year law students they shouldn’t support any legislation if they can’t support killing someone to enforce it. This sounds overly dramatic at first—a professor’s attempt at shock value—but Carter’s argument is sound. His advice is met with skepticism, he said, “until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.”
While most members of the public tend to say “police” or “cops,” I’ve noticed over several years of covering criminal justice issues that police often refer to themselves as “law enforcement officers,” often in the abbreviated form “LEO.” That may seem like a matter of mere semantics, but I think the nomenclature is important.
When we say “police,” we envision officers policing our community, a verb that usually conjures pictures of them keeping the peace or protecting us from criminal violence. “Law enforcement officer,” by contrast, helps us remember that the cops’ job is to enforce the law, including all the outdated, unnecessary, onerous, inhumane and just plain stupid statutes we have on the books.
There are a lot of those. By one legal expert’s estimate, as many as seven in 10 Americans have done something that could land them in prison. Of course, most of us haven’t knowingly committed a crime. The problem is it’s impossible to keep track of the tens of thousands of federal, state, and local laws and regulations whose violations can be punished as a criminal offense.
As long as we continue to have these laws, police will continue to enforce them against us. And as long as cops continue to be put on the streets with inadequate de-escalation training, that enforcement will continue to include grossly disproportionate violence.
Obviously that violence won’t always culminate in death. Carter’s warning to his students envisions a worst-case scenario, and nobody died in this incident in Perris. But Eric Garner was choked to death for breaking a petty tax law, and if Juanita Mendez-Medrano had Garner’s physical complications (asthma and a weak heart), she might have ended up dead, too.
In video of the video of her brutal encounter, Mendez-Medrano gets at the heart of the problem. “Why go after people trying to make a decent living?” she asks. “Why not go after gang-bangers?” The answer is that too much of what we’d call “making a decent living” is what our government calls “crime.”