March 8, 2010

Drinking While Brown (or Gay) in Texas Will Get You Arrested

Ah Texas. I’ve said it before, with the exception of Austin and a few other alcoves of sanity in the state, we may as well hand Texas back over to Mexico; they seem to want it more than we do. Kidding aside though, Texas manages to ram some really incredibly stupid and mind-boggling laws down the throats of its citizens, most of whom are so conservative or libertarian enough that they don’t really care because the rules will never apply to those with privilege – the moment they do, however, you can expect them to rally with their guns in the air outside of the state capital.

In this case, Texas’ new drinking laws give police the discretion to cuff you and lock you up regardless of where or how you’re drinking. This is how it works:

Late on a balmy Saturday night last June, six Fort Worth cops and two officers from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission went looking for trouble. They had just raided two Hispanic bars in an industrial stretch of town and nine detainees now sat in the paddy wagon (pdf), hands bound with plastic ties. The rest of the city’s bars would soon shut down. It seemed like the night was over, except for the paperwork. Then Sergeant Richard Morris had an idea. “Hey,” he said. “Let’s go to the Rainbow Lounge.”

A half-dozen police cruisers, an unmarked sedan, and the prisoner van slid to a stop in front of the Rainbow Lounge, Fort Worth’s newest gay club, at about 1:30 a.m. on June 28, 2009 — 40 years, almost down to the minute, after New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn with billy clubs and bullhorns. Inside the bar, the officers fanned out, grabbing and arresting six patrons for public intoxication. Benjamin Guttery, a 24-year-old Army vet, says an officer told him to put down his drink, then “bulldozed” him through the crowd to the paddy wagon but then let him go. “I’m 6’8″, 250 pounds, and I had just finished my second drink,” Guttery told a local reporter. “I might have had enough to have a loose tongue, but not a loose walk or anything like that.” Another man alleges that he was slammed against a wall, elbowed, and fell on the ground, landing him in intensive care for a week with bleeding in his brain. He was charged with public intoxication and assault.

That’s right – arrested for “public intoxication” inside of a bar. Only in Texas.

But here’s the clincher – these guys aren’t going to rootin’ tootin’ cowboy bars with blasting country music and confederate flags on the walls; they’re headed to gay bars and latino night spots, so they can make sure they round up, harass, and arrest the people they dislike the most: minorities and gays. It’s racial profiling at its finest, and the law enables them to do it.

The finest quote on the matter comes from a defense attourney in Dallas:

The public intoxication standard, backed by the Texas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is so broad that you can be arrested on just a police officer’s hunch, without being given a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test. State courts have not only upheld the practice but expanded the definition of public intoxication to cover pretty much any situation, says Robert Guest, a criminal defense attorney in Dallas. “Having no standard allows the police to arrest whoever pisses them off and call it PI,” he says, adding, “If you have a violent, homophobic, or just an asshole of a cop and you give him the arbitrary power to arrest anyone for PI, you can expect violent, homophobic, and asshole-ic behavior.”

Yup – that sounds about right.

The point of these laws, and the intention I’m sure that Texas’ MADD arm had, was to keep drunken people off of the roads and streets where they can cause harm to themselves or others. But good intentions paving the road to hell and all that, the statute doesn’t include the appropriate checks and balances against the inevitable abuse of police power, especially in a state like Texas; deep in the heart of Red America.

There is hope though – as with any group of cockroaches (I love this metaphor, which is why I use it so often) as soon as you shine the light on them, they scatter and try to get away:

After community activists took to the streets and airwaves, Irving’s arrest rate for Hispanics plummeted. (Dallas and Irving are no longer part of the federal program.) In Fort Worth, protests over the Rainbow Lounge raid elicited a quick apology from the police chief and promises to review the PI policy. But the arrests have continued elsewhere, and no one is targeting the public intoxication law itself. Many people don’t care, Novello says, “because they can’t vicariously experience this injustice.” The Houston attorney puts it more bluntly. “As long as police are going out there fucking with the blacks and the Mexicans, until it hits the people with the power, they won’t care.”

And that brings me back to the original point. Until the white, privileged majorities are affected, there likely won’t be any real change here – and if there is real change because of the outcry, it’ll be a step-by-step struggle against that privileged majority who doesn’t see anything wrong with the rules only because they’re not the target of their enforcement.

[ Drinking While Brown (or Gay) in Texas Will Get You Arrested ]
Source: AlterNet

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