The “rough ride” is a common tactic used by U.S. police. It is real, incredibly dangerous and totally illegal. It has received more scrutiny since the death of Freddie Gray from injuries he received while being driven around in the back of a Baltimore police van. But since most members of the media who write about “rough rides” have not been in such a position, I’ll share a personal story.
Several years ago when I was a graduate student at MIT on a research trip to Miami, I attended a jail solidarity vigil the day after major protests outside a gathering of hemispheric leaders who were discussing the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Jail solidarity is a traditional tactic from the Civil Rights Movement meant to safely secure the release of arrested protesters. It is completely nonviolent.
To our surprise, the entire group I was with was surrounded by riot police and unlawfully arrested (as a judge later confirmed). The arrestees (after being beaten and pepper-sprayed while in custody — another violation of the law) were loaded up into police vans. There were about a dozen of us in the van. Hands cuffed behind our backs. No seat belts.
Once moving, to our surprise, the van immediately shot off like a bullet, to the point that we all began sliding toward the back of the vehicle, sending some of us into a panic. Then we came to a sudden, screeching halt. Bodies went sliding across the van as we smacked up against the steel walls of the enclosure, as well as each other. Our hands were cuffed behind our backs, so we were defenseless from the impacts, which is a terrifying feeling. We actually cushioned each others’ impact, like human airbags. I was lucky. I was near the back.
Unable to see out from the van, we actually assumed the van had just been been in some sort of car accident.
Then it happened again. Speeeeeed up — BRAKES!!! Speeeeeed up —BRAKES!!! Over and over. By that point, I was on the floor on my back. We quickly figured out a way brace ourselves by intertwining all of our bodies. The guy closest to the front wall screamed at the drivers through the steel barrier separating us: “What the fuck is going on?!!!”
Then we heard it: the sound of the two officers driving the van whooping and hollering like bandits. What was happening was not just intentional. For them, this was a joy ride.
Now, to be clear, what happened to us is nothing compared to what the police did to Freddie Gray. Beforehand, they didn’t just beat and cuff him, they crippled him. He was then left alone on his half of the van with nothing to secure or cushion his body from impacts. He was possibly even unconscious at the time. The “rough ride” was so severe they broke the man’s spine. His fucking spine!
I share my own experience simply to underscore how pervasive this practice is. It was clear to me even at the time that if the police felt they could do this to a bunch of privileged, college-educated students — and be fully confident they would get away with it — it was inconceivable what they were doing to others.
I remember one Miami officer stating at the time, “You can beat the rap, but you can’t beat the ride.” It was a cute way of saying: “A court of law may find that you were not guilty of anything, but it doesn’t matter because we are delivering punishment right here, right now…and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
That’s not just illegal. It defies the very concept of a justice system. If you ever find yourself confused as to why people are out in the streets, and so angry, understand that this is a reason why.
One of a thousand reasons.
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