This past Saturday, November 19, marked the five-year anniversary of the extrajudicial killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. by police in White Plains, New York, and the second day after a jury exonerated the shooter and the city in a civil wrongful death suit brought by the Chamberlain family.
As many Americans struggle with how to react to the looming Trump presidency, it bears keeping in mind that long-simmering injustices, especially the killing of African American men, women, and children and the collusion of the so-called justice system, haven’t just sprung up overnight.
Before Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Deborah Danner, and Black Lives Matter, Chamberlain, a 68-year-old former marine and corrections officer, was shot and killed in his own home. Early in the morning, he accidentally triggered his medical alert pager. The police who responded precipitated a 90-minute confrontation, insisting that Chamberlain allow them into his apartment. Despite repeatedly shouting that he was okay and did not need or want their help, the cops ultimately broke down Chamberlain’s apartment door, tased him, and fired four beanbag rounds at him. Policeman Anthony Carelli then fired two fatal shots from his handgun.
Audio of the incident from a phone call placed by a LifeAid operator gives no indication that Chamberlain, who had some history of mental illness, was acting more than a little agitated while sensing a growing confrontation with police and not wanting to let them in his home. It also captures one of the officers calling him “nigger.”
In 2012 a grand jury declined to make any charges against Carelli or the other officers. Chamberlain’s son, Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., filed the civil suit the same year.
The cops’ absurd defense was that after shooting him with the beanbags, Chamberlain miraculously charged at them with a knife, even though prior to that, as Carelli himself testified in court, the elderly man was face down on the floor.
From the beginning, U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel hamstrung (“castrated,” in the lawyers’ words) the plaintiff’s case, making a verdict in the family’s favor a near-impossibility. She excused all the officers but Carelli from the lawsuit, refused to admit the racial epithet into evidence while allowing Chamberlain’s words against the cops to be used, and insisted that only the few seconds leading to the shooting could be considered. Unsurprisingly, this enabled the defendant to claim the threat of imminent harm. Who could contradict it? A dead black man?
Still, it took a leap of illogic by the jury to believe that Chamberlain, who suffered from a heart condition (hence the medical alert) could spring back to life, like Superman, and attack the officers.
Or, as attorney Debra Cohen put it more succinctly, the defense shamelessly used the trope of the physically intimidating black man. For this reason, the Chamberlain case has perhaps the greatest parallels with the better-known Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. What they have in common is not only that both shooters were able to get off by claiming they were threatened by a scary black man, but also how in each case the police caused and escalated the conditions for a deadly confrontation. In short, do as we say, or you die.
This is how the racist-authoritarian state works, and Donald Trump didn’t invent it, though he may further embolden it. Police insist on blind obedience to their authority, however unreasonable and unreasoned it may be. Get out of the street, Mr. Brown. Get out of your car, Ms. Bland. Open your door, Mr. Chamberlain. I, the white agent of the state, control your black body. And if you dare defy me, there is no length to which I will not go to punish you. Moreover, your act of defiance is met with inchoate, violent rage. In the death of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., clearly it was the police who were mentally unhinged, not the victim.
Inevitably, the Chamberlain case will draw parallels to the Deborah Danner killing, as well. Danner, 66, was a mentally ill woman shot by police in her Bronx home last month. Unlike New York Mayor DeBlasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill, however, White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach and Police Chief Anne FitzSimmons have neither criticized the police nor apologized to the Chamberlain family. (In perhaps the only silver lining to be seen, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Chamberlain, Jr. and other activists, the White Plains police now have a policy for dealing with mentally ill people, which they lacked at the time.)
Defense lawyer Andrew Quinn predictably threw fuel on the fire with his public comments after the verdict. “The narrative that’s been put out into the media and the press that this was a group of racist rogue cops who beat down a man in his own home without justification has always been very misleading,” he told the Daily News. “This case was about, unfortunately, an individual with psychiatric history who was refusing police orders to open his door.”
“Quinn said the police couldn’t walk away after Chamberlain failed to let them into the apartment because he was acting ‘irrationally’ and was a threat to himself and potentially other people in the apartment.”
“’What they did know at the time that they breached that door was that he was screaming, he was ranting, he was irrational, he was delusional and he was armed,’ Quinn said. ‘They didn’t know if there was a hostage in there, they didn’t know if there was a victim in there, so the concept that they didn’t have a need or requirement to enter that apartment has never been based in reality.’”
Quinn’s ironic words perfectly echo the rationale of the racist-authoritarian state. Police orders may be given with no evident justification, based on assumptions that have no basis in reality. A hostage? A victim? That’s a narrative beyond fiction; it’s fantasy. Without probable cause or a search warrant or any sign of imminent danger, police can break into your home and kill you.
Actually, Quinn perfectly described the crime: a bunch of racist rogue cops beat down a man in his own home without justification.
Judge Seibel showed a rich talent for irony when she expressed the hope that the verdict would bring “closure.” One can only hope that’s closure to her career, after an appeals court sees how she biased this case. Meanwhile, Chamberlain’s lawyers have appealed and vowed to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.