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WHISPERS IN GREAT FALLS


Great Falls, South Carolina"All right, now it's serious. Christ, no one - I mean no one - will talk. Forget long conversations or explanations, and don't even think of getting people in this town to go on the record. Everything I hear is terse and dry, with the parch of fear clinging to the back of their throats and choking back the words."

by Cliff Montgomery

Copyright © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


The town of Great Falls, South Carolina is a tiny hamlet like many you now find in America. It courts no principal industry, promises no wonderful hi-tech services sure to save the 'average working joe' from financial oblivion, and has not a single fine landmark to make its name. It's a town referred to even by those living somewhat south of its small regions as "down there", and possesses as its only mark of distinction the sobering reality that, as one young drink of water living there whispered to me, "nothing - and I mean nothing - ever really happens here".

That changed about two months ago in the early morning hours of July 16th. It was a birthday Michelle Hastings won't soon forget.





The exact details, as one source said to me, "completely depends upon who is speaking", but the basic story rings out true enough. It began as a simple gathering to celebrate Michelle Hastings' birthday at a place called DJ's Restaurant & Lounge, there on the only road through town (Dearborn Street), and put together with care by her husband, Brad Hastings, and many of her best friends.

"Everything was well taken care of in advance", one of Michelle's closest friends told me later. "We were having the whole thing for her, and we got everything we needed - brought our own beer to the place and everything - and we even made sure we had all the papers and clearance from the town that we needed to make everything nice and official, so they (the Great Falls police force) had nothing on us."

Now I should interject here and explain why Michelle's husband and all the others putting this party together would bother to bring their own beer and other such drinks to a place like DJ's Restaurant & Lounge in the first place. One must remember that South Carolina is the buckle in the "bible belt"; it is currently the epicenter of the second fastest growing religious movement in America (the most recent studies show that only Catholicism is bringing in more converts than the south's much more conservative religious export, Fundamentalism). Therefore the south is definitely the most socially conservative region of America today. In fact, until about two weeks ago Great Falls and the small area surrounding that little space of the upstate was one of only two regions in the country where the music channel MTV still wasn't broadcast (the other market, tellingly enough, is Waco, Texas). The reason given by the cable company that supplies local programming for the long absence of MTV is that such music and video images could "possibly corrupt the area's youth". Though it is currently on the air, it's not definite whether it will stay on the supplier's roster. In any case, I think you get the idea; as one angry guy wrote in a letter to the editors of a local paper, "the brain trust around here (the cable supplier & others like them) are the only people in America that still act as if they're afraid of that Elvis Presley and his Rock n' Roll that the kids are all talking about" . . .

So it should probably come as no surprise that in the fine state of South Carolina no establishment - not even a bar - can serve any liqueur after 2am Sunday morning (or Saturday night, however you'd like to look at it); the day of our Lord cannot be blasphemed, after all. In fact, there's a whole little series of things a person simply cannot do in these worried parts on the Lord's Day; it's a little bundle of joylessness commonly referred to as the "blue laws", and serves as an excellent reminder that the people with the smallest minds are still in charge around these parts. Since the '2am blue law' is still firmly on the books throughout the Palmetto State, the Hastings party resorted to the 'dutch-style' drinking that often serves as an nice, underhanded way to live in the 21st century around here.

So, according to Michelle and those throwing the birthday party for her, there was no problem with any 'blue laws'. "Besides", one of her friends speaks up, tossing aside a small straggle of hair that has just fallen across her excited face, "it was a 'clean' party, know what I mean? I mean, that's all we had there, a little bit of beer and drink for a friend's birthday to celebrate the occasion - and it truly wasn't all that much, either. No more than enough for everyone to enjoy and raise their glass to Michelle here, y'know?" Suddenly her face takes on an aura of pure determination, as if it is essential to convince me of the truth of what she's about to utter. "We had nothing there - I mean, no drugs, no big thing that anybody could say they had on us, or . . . anything. That wasn't what we were doing there, and they (the police) know it."

Perhaps; as of this moment it's hard to say just what the police did know - or thought they knew - about the Hastings party. But everyone agrees on what happened next:

At precisely 1:05 a.m., a large contingent of cops tried to force their way into DJ's; the party-goers inside, who told me they were "unsure of just what the hell was going on", at first tried to block the front doors from the invasion. The cops, determined to get inside immediately, tried breaking the glass doors down. After realizing that all this commotion was indeed a full attack on the lounge, those inside - who seem to be of a mostly young age (20-35 or thereabouts) - decided they'd better let the cops in.

This is where it gets really interesting.

The police reports suggest that they acted with proper procedure, and used force sparingly; even then it was only as a last resort - and only against those who were "resisting arrest" (Although the initial grounds for that "arrest" - in other words, the reason(s) for the attack in the first place - are more than a little shaky since there is no reason given in any official report for the raid, and since Police Chief John Brown has stopped dealing with all members of the press, especially yours truly; but more of that later . . .) .

But those inside the lounge - the party members themselves - have an entirely different tale to tell. According to them, abuse was heaped upon most of them, presumably for having the audacity to block the doors in the first place (it's almost a truism that nothing seems to get a cop more riled than when you force him to break a sweat). Verbal abuse - of both men and women - was rampant; some were slammed across the head with police flashlights, and many say they were treated as if they were vicious, snarling, drug-abusing beasts.

"That's what it was like", say two of Michelle's friends to me almost in unison. "It was like we were on one of those 'real' cop shows - you know, those weird things where all these cops pour into a place and slam everybody down on the floor for dealin' crack or something. Only they threw all of us up against the wall. But we were treated like - well, like some kind of dope-headed pushers or something, that's the thing. It seemed to me like it was just like that." Michelle herself is there, saying very little and for the most part assenting to what is said by a slow nod of her head, looking at me with the weary eyes of a young woman who has already relived all this by herself a thousand times.

They do all agree on one point: being in a small town, most of them know the other, sometimes quite well. The police reports say that one cop in particular by the name of David Robinson knew one of the party-goers there, George Spires. The moment he recognizes Spires, he tells the whole group to line up against a wall in the far corner of lounge. Spires, now speaking to Robinson directly, tells him to "get out of my personal space and leave me the hell alone". Robinson in his report then wrote that he, quote, "advised Spires to calm down and please cooperate", whereby Spires, now furious, yells, "Fuck you, do you still have a problem with me from before, or just tonight?" Robinson insists he continued to talk to Spires, but Spires was already going berserk. "You get out of my fucking space", Spires demands. This is when, according to Robinson, he took Spires' beer away from him (it must be noted that Spires was later found to be neither drunk nor on drugs at the time of his arrest - although Robinson seemed to be thinking of marking Spires 'inconclusive' for excessive drink since he began to mark that box on the police report but apparently changed his mind at the last second). A handcuff clanked onto Spires' arm, and Spires fought back; he was maced and taken to the ground while screaming, "I know where you live [Robinson], I'll kill your ass; I'm coming to your house and kill your ass."

If this exchange is indeed true, there's little one can then say for Spires himself; no rational person would support what he did, and it would certainly be right to arrest him. He was driven to the station and charged with disorderly conduct, threatening a public official, and resisting arrest.

Two others - Shawn Wilson and Jimmie Lee Eubanks - were arrested in the parking lot as the cops were shutting DJ's down, all according to orders from Chief Brown for reasons still unanswered. My man Wilson kicked one of the cops - named Fowler - in the nuts with everything he had as he was forced to the ground by Fowler and Robinson; and Jimmie Lee was a very busy boy, who it seemed got arrested after trying to stop the cops who, he thought, were harassing a friend. After being shoved away from the cop he thought was doing the harassing (Fowler again), he fought back; after being pepper-sprayed, he fought some more; after being taken to the station, he fought again - and broke the mugshot camera in the process - then broke off the shower knobs in the detox center (he was there because of the pepper spray) and threw them at one of the cops watching him; one of four arresting cops for Eubanks, described only as 'G. Fach'.

Damn it, you've gotta love his consistency.

But again, those who were there at DJ's that night whom I interviewed, while not denying those reports, say that the conduct of the cops there that night was anything but professional.

"They were throwing everybody around like that, screaming - just yelling, banging us around and humiliating us, y'know?", said one anonymous party-goer. Another said, "they were treating us like dogs, really. Throwing us up against a long wall there, hitting us - sometimes just whacking people hard in the head with long flashlights as they told all of us to line up against that wall." Perhaps Brad Hastings said it best when he told a local paper, "It's a terrible thing to have your guests humiliated like that".

There was, it seemed, one sure recourse for those involved in all this; there was to be a town meeting on July 18th - two small days after the event - and so you can well guess what the principal subject was that night. The big question on everyone's mind was why it all went down in the first place. What were they after, anyway? Was Donald Young, the owner of DJ's, suspected of something? Or perhaps the Hastings?

DJ's

To his credit, Chief Brown was about to try to answer these most haunting questions but was stopped cold at the last second by the town attorney. It was announced that an investigation - an internal one, of course - would be given to answer all questions. Until then, no questions about the raid would be answered until there was a "total review of all the evidence".

But to do something like this to a group of people who are not exactly anyone's idea of mobsters without giving them one good reason for the business in the first place is a damn cold thing, and - because of a little thing called 'illegal search and seizure' - possibly illegal in itself. I asked Michelle and those with her about all this, and if they've heard anything about the cops' reasons for the whole ugly business.

"No, that's just it - it's been about a month now, and we're as much in the dark as we were that night it all happened."

I then asked them if this experience has made them afraid to continue living in their own town.

"Well, I'll tell you what we're doing . . . we're going to have another party there [DJ's], just like before, the same thing, with the same people - just to show them that they're not gonna put us out like that! This is our town, and if we didn't do anything wrong then they're the ones who'll have to hang their heads in shame, not us."

So much for all that. So now, on to the big question I'm sure is on everyone's mind: why the fuck should any of us care about a one-road town like Great Falls in the first place?





"Police abuse remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States. The excessive use of force by police officers - including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment - persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses. Police or public officials greet each new report of brutality with denials or explain that the act was an aberration, while the administrative and criminal systems that should deter these abuses by holding officers accountable instead virtually guarantee them impunity."

This is the finding of Human Rights Watch, a non-profit organization founded in 1978 to expose human rights violations whenever possible and to hold violators accountable. In their two-year (late 1995-early 1998) investigation, they studied cases of possible police brutality in fourteen major U.S. cities; their discoveries are, unfortunately, not surprising to many who have already found themselves victims of such crimes:

"Our investigation found that police brutality is persistent in all of these cities; that systems to deal with abuse have had similar failings in all [fourteen] cities; and that, in each city examined, complainants face enormous barriers in seeking administrative punishment or criminal prosecution of officers who have committed human rights violations. Despite claims to the contrary from city officials where abuses have become scandals in the media, efforts to make meaningful reforms have fallen short. The barriers to accountability are remarkably similar from city to city. Shortcomings in recruitment, training, and management are common to all. So is the fact that officers who repeatedly commit human rights violations are all too often a small minority who taint entire police departments but are protected, routinely, by the silence of their fellow officers and by flawed systems of reporting, oversight, and accountability. Another pervasive shortcoming is the scarcity of meaningful information about trends in abuse; data are also lacking regarding the police departments' response to those incidents and their plans or actions to prevent brutality . . . Another commonality in recent years is a recognition, in most cities, about what needs to be done to fix troubled departments. However, this encouraging development is coupled with an official unwillingness to deal seriously with officers who commit abuses until high-profile cases expose long-standing negligence or tolerance of brutality."

But to presume that such violations occur only in the largest cities is, frankly, a little cracked. Every condition brought up by the Human Rights Watch applies just as well to the smallest departments in the tiniest of towns - in many cases even more so. Above all, it is perhaps that overriding sense that policemen must cover the sins of their fellow cops that buries any legitimate attempts to reform the system. Combine this with the fact that some police departments hire mostly part-time employees who are not as well trained as their full-time brothers in other towns, and that magistrates for many small towns can often be found sharing their quarters with the police department itself (and the Great Falls police force suffers under both conditions), and you have a mixture that often brings even greater pressure - both personal and professional - to sweep the whole matter under the rug as soon as humanly possible, even if the cops in question are repeat offenders, and even if some there have a real desire for reform.

How entrenched are these problems in the American police system? A few of the worst violators in recent memory:

* A half-assed background check of a cop with a long history of brutality in another police department and poor internal investigation procedures resulted in the Marc Andaya case of San Francisco. A suspect by the name of Aaron Williams was subdued and sprayed with pepper spray several times in the Western Addition neighborhood in June 1995, and died while still in police custody. He was suspected of burglary; and, after being taken to the ground during his capture, was bound fast with wrist and ankle cuffs and, according to witnesses, pretty much had the shit beat out of him as he lay there helpless by Andaya and others. The cops insisted Williams was high on something (they were a little murky on exactly what), and used copious amounts of their beloved pepper spray on the already bound man without checking his breathing or health through the whole ordeal. Now Marc Andaya, who seems to have been just a bit more determined in his work than the rest, had previously been "the subject of as many as thirty-five complaints while working with the Oakland police force before being hired by the San Francisco Police Department", according to the HRW report. His Oakland supervisor was reportedly so scared of having Andaya on the streets that he called for Andaya to serve desk duty because of his "cowboy behavior". So how did a nut-job like Andaya even get his foot into the San Francisco P.D. in the first place? Well, it's easy if you just lie like a rug about your complaint history and apply to a department that gives recruits no thorough background check. Andaya was accused of using excessive force and neglect of duty, but the city's Police Commission couldn't decide one way or the other on the charges (the score was two for, two against, and one police commissioner conveniently absent), which meant that he got off scott-free. If not for the press and the raw, bloodthirsty outrage over the whole thing Andaya would still be there in Frisco daring someone to take him on. Instead, Andaya was let go for lying on his application. There has been no further charges regarding the Williams case, and Andaya is still a free man.

* Here's a nice one: a laundry list of brutality complaints hardly kept the NYPD (that oldest - and most fun - of police departments) from doing much of anything about 'Officer' Francis X. Livoti, who finally got into his job a bit too much when he choked Anthony Baez to death during what seems to have been a 'routine' encounter on December 22, 1994. It was at least 'routine' to Livoti; on another occasion this asshole was reprimanded by the city's civilian review board for choking a sixteen-year-old kid who was allegedly 'riding his go-cart recklessly'. Livoti, at least, was not afraid of a little hard work; HRW reports that "Livoti had been the subject of at least eleven brutality complaints over an eleven-year period" He was actually acquitted in the Baez case of criminally negligent homicide in a judge-only trial that ended in October of '96. But the judge was nevertheless brave enough to criticize the mountain of conflicting and inconsistent officer testimony, and cited a "nest of perjury" in the department's efforts to protect their boy at all costs. Again, it was only bad press and public calls for Livoti's blood that forced the city's hand, and Livoti was fired in February 1997 for breaking departmental rules and improper use of a chokehold.

This odyssey wouldn't be complete without mentioning the strange case of Christopher Rudy of Philadelphia. It is so wonderfully bizarre that I fear my powers of description may fail me and I will not do it justice. I am therefore simply repeating the report in full:

* "Officer Christopher Rudy was on duty but reportedly visiting friends and drinking alcohol at a warehouse in November 1993. A dispute arose between the warehouse owner [Rudy's friend] and Frank Schmidt, with Schmidt accused of stealing items from the warehouse. Schmidt reportedly told investigators that the warehouse gates were locked behind him, a gun was put to his head, and he was beaten as Officer Rudy watched and poured beer over Schmidt's head. Throughout the ordeal, the warehouse owner reportedly threatened to cut off Schmidt's hands with a knife and to have warehouse workers rape him. Schmidt reported the incident to the police, but Rudy was not questioned for seven months (italics are mine) and then denied everything. Rudy reportedly received a twelve-day suspension for failing to take police action and for conduct unbecoming a police officer; he was returned to active duty."

Now that's some fine readin'.

The "41 shots" in NY and the blowback from that is so well known that there's hardly any reason to mention it; and the LAPD, after about a decade of embarrassment that shattered the faith of most of those living there in those who were hired to protect them, is now caught in possibly the most widespread case of police brutality and misconduct that that city has ever seen: over 70 cops are embroiled in a scandal involving extortion, the using and selling of illegal drugs seized from raids, and a few simple frame-ups for good measure; one, performed by a cop named Raphael Perez, involved shooting a suspect while he lay handcuffed on the ground and planting a gun on him to make it look as if it were all part of one great shoot-out for a nice little blame game. The suspect is now paralyzed from the waist down with no hope of recovery.

And, in the most recent turn of events, on August 24 up to 41 LA policemen filed suit against the LAPD, saying the department basically made their lives a living hell because they had been the ones to help spill the beans and bring out all the shit about several of those on the force a few weeks ago. They say they were harassed and, in many cases, fired outright because - again - of that 'code of silence' that permeates police stations across America, which makes any hope of battling this problem a waste of time and money, even for those cops who really do want to clean up their departments for the general welfare.

Now there's no doubt that these are some of the worst cases, taken from thousands; and, no doubt, no one is claiming that such wonderful stuff went down in Great Falls. But it's cases like the one in this small town - and how the witnesses' descriptions often mirror the kind of unprincipled behavior we're told occurred in the big cities - that remind us that instances of possible brutality are hardly simple aberrations found only in the biggest cities, and that this is clearly a problem of national proportion.

Or to put it at a more "gut-level"; very few of us really live in the big metropolis. Most live in or around towns and small cities, and really commute only a few miles to our jobs. The hard truth is that most Americans live lives filled with much of the despair and sometimes unutterable loneliness that permeates tiny villages like Great Falls; and the sad truth is that most of us have a lot more in common with such townspeople than we do with those who live and work in the glass towers of the biggest towns. If the cities' problems with police brutality are truly a national cancer (and they surely are), that sickness must hit even closer to home when it's happening to people living in the quietest towns - just like ours.





Friends in a small southern town aren't too terribly hard to come by, since positively everyone is sure to know everyone else. The only sure-fire way to a lack of popularity in these parts is to be a bit too wild (at least among those you're sure to be with on those dark Saturday nights that "would go on forever otherwise"), or - if you're a male - not quite wild enough (the only acceptable. . . . . . . . 

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