Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Suspicious Behavior"

"I love these people," said Gregory Gibson, 47, a tall man in dreadlocks who regularly eats at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker's skid row kitchen at 6th and Gladys. He said he has been living on skid row for 13 years, landing there after a run of "personal problems."

"They do it out of the kindness of their heart," Gibson said of the Catholic Worker. "Isn’t that amazing?"

He was waiting for a friend at the dental clinic, which sees patients on Fridays. Rolling Hills Estates dentist Rich Meehan has been volunteering there for 16 years.

"I don’t have any financial worries, so why not do something?" said Dr. Meehan, 72, whose workspace in the clinic is set off by a rickety 5-foot partition. The dental chair is a relic.

"This is pretty basic," Meehan said with a laugh. "We don’t do crowns."

Rich Meehan has worked as a volunteer dentist at the Hippie Kitchen for so many years, and has been to Skid Row so many times he probably couldn't even guess at the total number. But last month was the first time he was ever arrested, on Skid Row, or any place.

Ed Pilolla, who lives and works with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker part-time and is also busy writing a book, describes the incident in an article which appeared in the August 2007 Catholic Agitator. The following is Pilolla's account of Meehan's arrest:

chainAll he was doing was leaving "the Hippie Kitchen" after doing his usual four-to-five hour shift filling cavities, scraping off plaque, and pulling rotten teeth for free.

Rich, 72, recalls the incident as if he made some sort of mistake. "I was parked on the wrong side of the street," Rich recalled, a couple weeks later while working on a patient sitting in the worn leather examination chair. "I was saving goodbye to Jesse, and he put his arm in the (car) window and I shook it," Rich said.

Jesse, a full-time community member, supervises the garden on Fridays while Meehan sees as many as a dozen or more patients. Jesse helps homeless folks get comfortable, refills water jugs, fetches folks’ plastic bags, and asks others not to play the radio in the garden. Basically, Jesse runs a tight ship, and when Rich is done seeing patients without any means to pay for dental work, Jesse feels it's appropriate to shake his hand in order to say thanks.

From now on, however, Jesse is going to shake Rich's hand inside the garden and not out on Gladys Street. "I don't reach into any white person's car anymore because I don't want them to get arrested," Jesse explained.

After laughing and saying goodbye to Jesse, Rich put his gearshift in drive and headed back home to Rolling Hills Estates—or at least tried to.

As Rich pulled his car away from the curb, two mounted police officers up the block waved for him to pull over. "What's going on?" Rich remembered asking.

"That's what we want to know," one of the officers responded.

The officers explained that they witnessed "suspicious behavior" when Rich shook hands through his car window. The police are trying to eliminate the drug trade on Skid Row and that behavior appeared to be a drug exchange, they said.

Rich, who described the officers' behavior as both professional and courteous, handed over the usual things: driver's license, registration, proof of insurance. The officers asked why he was on Skid Row, and Rich told them about his "job" with the LA. Catholic Worker, and showed the officers his dental license with the hope of proving to the officers he was telling the truth. While one of the officers continued to ask questions, the other officer began searching his car. (Rich doesn't remember whether the officers asked to search the car or not.)

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The Bill of Rights, Amendment IV

"I wasn't worried," Rich said. "There was nothing there (in the car). Then he came out with a Zip-Lock bag, with a bread crumb inside the size of your thumbnail. And he says, 'Here's the evidence.'"

Rich's response: "Evidence of what?"

The officers said the substance looked like cocaine. The plastic bag was inside a paper bag, and the cocaine-like substance was a bread­crumb. The officer found it on the floor of the car beneath the seat.

At this point, Rich went fishing, so to speak. He dropped a name. Rich asked the officers if they happened to know a police officer he knew. Turned out, the man Rich knew for many years was the officers' lieutenant. Still, the officers patted Rich down, handcuffed him, and informed him the substance must be tested at the police station. The officers did allow Rich to make a phone call from his cell phone, and Rich phoned his daughter to inform her that he was, apparently, going to be late coming home that day.

After the phone call, Rich's daughter called the lieutenant, and the lieutenant, according to Rich, said he couldn't do anything, and that the substance had to test negative before Rich was let go.

I want to give credit to the lieutenant and the officers for not giving Rich any break based on the fact that he happened to know a high-ranking Skid Row police officer. The officers did do him one favor: they handcuffed Rich's wrists together in front of his body instead of behind his back, which was nice.

The conclusion of this story is that one of the officers drove Rich's car, with Rich sitting in the passenger seat, back to the police station. Rich sat on a bench and waited until they tested the bread crumb and found it not to be cocaine. Then Rich was released. (A short time later, Jeff and Catherine, leading a throng of summer interns, burst into the police station intending to stage a sit-in until the LA. Catholic Worker dentist was released.)

What's the moral of this story? Police officers are all over Skid Row looking to make arrests, any kind of arrest, especially drug arrests.

In the ongoing effort to please wealthy developers and clear Skid Row of its low-income and not aesthetically pleasing residents, the police, with the blessing of the mayor, have been jailing as many folks as possible. Routinely, the police handcuff people on the street and search their property, hoping to find drugs. This sort of search is only legal, though morally indefensible, to anyone on parole. However, the Los Angeles Police Department handcuffs and searches residents of The Row who are not on parole, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has interviewed dozens of folks over the past year or so.

Rich was able, and thankful, to drive out of The Row. "I was probably treated a little better than some of my patients,” Rich said.

For those living on Skid Row, there's no escaping the police, guilty or not. You walk from your low-rent hotel room to the grocery store and the police might stop you, handcuff you and search your pockets. It happens routinely, every day for many people.

One homeless man in the garden at the Hippie Kitchen described the police behavior this way: “they’re terrorizing people, man."

At random, I asked a homeless man the other day how often the police search him on the street. "Every day," he said.

Skid Row is the poorest neighborhood around. Some people like living on The Row, but many live there because they can’t afford any other neighborhood. So you're stuck on The Row if you don't have much money. You think to yourself, "I'd like to get out of here." But you can't because you don't have enough money to move. Meanwhile, the police stop and search you every time they see you on the street.

A sincere Thank-You to Rich, who has helped so many low-income and homeless folks with his years of dedication. A Head-Shake to the police for dedicating themselves to arresting as many as possible by searching as many as possible.

Readers of Pilolla's fine article may recall that Benjamin Franklin was about Meehan's age when he signed the Declaration of Independence, risking his "Life," his "Fortune," and his "sacred Honor" to defend liberty against tyranny. Did Franklin or any of the other Founding Fathers risk so much to give us a "War on Drugs" which would arrest Dr. Franklin and Dr. Meehan without probable cause, without warrant, with no oath-bound witness, for the "suspicious behavior" of volunteering dental services to the poor and shaking hands with a social worker, a war with a total cost of about $100 billion per year (according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker), with no measurable success in accomplishing its stated goal?

No, without question, the Framers would have opposed the "war on drugs." Had the British imposed police forces upon the colonies such as are now waging the "War on Drugs" in America today, this alone would have fomented the American Revolution.

Why do Americans put up with this costly, unconstitutional, failure of a "war?"

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