Susan Greene, Powerless For The Moment

As the editor of the Colorado Independent, Susan Greene was not someone who the passionate among us would characterize as “powerless.” If the pen is mightier than the sword, then she should certainly have had some clout. And, indeed, based upon what she had to say about it afterward, Greene has power. But for the period of time she was on the street, it happening around her, to her, she realized how utterly vulnerable she was, how the power of her words wouldn’t help her.

What happened to Susan Greene is no travesty of justice. She wasn’t beaten. Wasn’t killed. Wasn’t falsely accused of a crime to make her appreciate the obsequiousness demanded by the cop on the street. It was an utterly banal interaction. What makes it noteworthy is her subsequent ability to put into words the momentary hopelessness of a person, even a person with some power, in a confrontation with police.

It started with the sight of a black man, handcuffed and seated naked on a Colfax Avenue sidewalk across from the Statehouse, his private parts covered only with a small towel, while several Denver police officers stood around him.

A story? Greene explains why this caught her attention, but what difference does it make? As a journalist, she can take interest in anything involving the cops on the street. Her explanation was good, but doesn’t really matter. It’s entirely up to her what she decides to observe.

I parked and was using my iPhone to shoot pictures of the scene when Denver Police Officer James Brooks, badge No. 07030, blocked me, then got in my face and told me to stop. I said it was a public sidewalk and that I had the right to take photos. He said I didn’t. I said I did, citing the First Amendment. Officer Brooks tried to one-up me, all legal-like, by saying I was violating the man’s HIPAA rights by shooting his picture.

Of course she had the right to take photos. Of this, there is no question whatsoever. This is where a misunderstanding commonly happens, that the legal fact of an indisputable right runs head first into a street cop, in this case Denver Police Officer James Brooks, who orders you to stop doing something you have a right to do.

I wanted to say that was absurd.

As an aside, the HIPAA explanation was false, but may not have been as ridiculous as it seems. Perhaps the naked man was having a psychotic episode and Brooks was there, together with “Officer Adam Paulsen, badge No. 08049,” to render aid. When Brooks ordered Greene to stop taking photos, perhaps he was attempting to protect the man’s medical privacy. Whether this is true is unknown, but it’s possible, so his mention of HIPAA might have been wrong, but not absurd.

Then again, this would not have been the first time a street cop threw some shade around, “all legal-like.” Whether it’s because he has no clue what he’s talking about or he’s using a well-worn mechanism of feigning legal knowledge to seize command of a situation, is neither clear nor particularly important. Brooks tossed out HIPAA as a rationale for his command. Greene wasn’t buying. Her response wasn’t, “Oh, well if that’s the case, I’ll just back off. Sorry to have bothered you, Officer Brooks.”

But I decided to stop talking and to start shooting photos of this particular officer using his height and weight, his Denver Police uniform and his Cracker-Jack-brand legal poppycock to try to intimidate me.

As it turns out, Officer Brooks didn’t like having his picture taken. After accusing me of blocking the door of an ambulance that had been called to the scene – toward which he had prodded me during our encounter – and saying something about me obstructing officers, he grabbed me and twisted my arm in ways that arms aren’t supposed to move.

There is such a thing as obstructing an officer in the performance of his duties. And that same thing, so utterly vague as to provide no comfort to anyone accused of it, relies on the officer’s integrity not to be abused. Some cops don’t care if you photograph them, take video of them, in the performance of their duties. Some actually believe it their duty to assure your right to do so is protected. And then there are some who don’t like it at all, and will use their power to stop it.

At some point in the blur, either he or Officer Adam Paulsen, badge No. 08049, locked one or maybe two pair of handcuffs on my wrists, tightly, and pushed me toward a nearby police car by grabbing my arms hard enough – and with a painful upward thrust – that I told them to stop hurting me. Their response: That I was hurting myself by resisting.

There is a sense of helplessness that begins with being ordered, whether to do or not do something. We’re not used to be given orders. If we’re on the good guy curve, we react as normal “good guys” would, by asking questions, challenging things we believe to be unfair, inaccurate or just plain wrong.

Greene saw herself as a good guy, as well she should. The police were physically hurting her. Of course she told them to stop hurting her, just as the less-good-guy might use his arms to protect his face from the toe of a police boot kicking him in the head. This, to a cop, is resisting. Your resisting has nothing to do with his hurting you. You should acquiesce to his conduct. He can’t feel your pain, and likely wouldn’t care if he could, but he can feel your resisting his harming you.

After the interaction, Susan Greene could write about what happened. She could identify the street cops involved. She could express her helplessness, her powerlessness, in the confrontation. But when it was happening, there was absolutely nothing she could do to prevent it. Had she been beaten, shot, there would be a far stronger hook to hang outrage at her treatment by these two cops.

There are many who will (justifiably) shrug, their experiences being far more common and far less genteel than Greene’s. But Greene has a soapbox from which to tell her story, and the story isn’t about whether she lived or died, but about those few minutes of her life when a good guy lost all control over her world to some guy wearing a uniform with a gun and the authority to harm people.

Greene was released, but not until Officer Brooks said something to her to the effect of “try to act like a lady.” Maybe this was all one big misunderstanding, but then it could have been avoided had Brooks tried to act like a normal human being instead of like a cop.

17 thoughts on “Susan Greene, Powerless For The Moment

  1. REvers

    She’s lucky. What you generally hear after “Stop resisting!” is the clickclickclick of a taser. Or the ssssssss from a can of seasoning sauce.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s largely why I decided to use Greene’s story as the foundation for this post. Tasers, etc., take the focus off the most banal aspects of the interaction and focus it instead on use of force spectrum or violence. Here, it’s just the brutish nature and power dynamic of the interaction itself.

  2. Jeffrey Gamso

    Decades ago, back when I was a college kid with no thought of going to law school, a pretty good criminal defense lawyer gave me a sound – if in some ways problematic – piece of advice for surviving encounters with cops: “Don’t argue your rights with a man who’s wearing a gun. Just take notes.”

    1. SHG Post author

      As I recall, the advice back then was “comply now, grieve later,” which serves well to keep one alive long enough to let others know about it. Whether anybody will appreciate it, or give a damn, is another matter.

  3. Noxx

    As the lowest caste member to comment here with any regularity, I frequently try to use the best of my working mans brain to offer minimum amounts of reason, logic, and civility so as not to tar my fellows in the great unwashed.

    Some mornings, however, my asphalt education gets the better of me. Fuck the police.

      1. Jake

        “As the lowest caste member to comment here with any regularity”

        Have I been replaced?

        1. SHG Post author

          Self-assessment is notoriously unreliable. But you will always hold a special place in my heart.

  4. B. McLeod

    So, she had her rights, well enough, but slipped up trying to assert them in a context where most common folk understand you can’t safely assert them. Predictable result, and now she has learned a valuable lesson.

    1. SHG Post author

      Is the problem that she asserted them or, as “most common folk understand,” you can’t safely assert your rights because it might piss off guys with guns?

  5. Jake

    “When Brooks ordered Greene to stop taking photos, perhaps he was attempting to protect the man’s medical privacy. Whether this is true is unknown, but it’s possible, so his mention of HIPAA might have been wrong, but not absurd.”

    Respectfully, I find this confusing and possibly misleading. It’s my clear understanding that under HIPAA a hospital, and it’s employees, agents, and contractors, hold the duty to protect a patient’s privacy and a journo has no duty. Is my understanding incorrect?

    1. SHG Post author

      Your understanding is correct. The significant was that while the cop was wrong about HIPAA (shocking, a cop wrong about law), it wasn’t completely outlandish, but bore a distant connection to reality, even if legally inapplicable.

  6. Neil

    I never read this blog before, just found it through googling. The entire account, through the eyes of Scott, seems to diminish Greene’s agency and bolster the police’s. Only at the end is there any hint that the cop may have been in error. This seems ahistorical at best, and fascism-enabling at worst.

    The right’s aggression and abuse toward the press must stop, and those guilty must be held to account.

    In Colorado, I believe the law is that people may be taking pictures and within 8ish feet of police as they respond to a situation.

    1. SHG Post author

      This is a law blog, Neil, for lawyers and judges. Your comment is utter gibberish. You don’t belong here. Try reddit.

    2. B. McLeod

      We’re all about fascism-enabling here. We’re literally Hitler(s) (or so I have heard).

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