What happened when Ojore Lutalo was arrested after he was (wrongly) accused of making terror threats on a train.
The ease of their voices shocked me: a white district attorney and a white police officer shooting the breeze, discussing how they could have killed a black arrestee whose case was causing them trouble. It was January 2010. Ojore Lutalo, a Black Liberation activist who had formerly spent nearly three decades in prison, was traveling on an Amtrak train back to his home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The woman sitting in front of Lutalo, who was eavesdropping on his conversation, reported hearing alarming remarks to train staff. When the train pulled into La Junta, Colorado, Lutalo was arrested at gunpoint. He spent three days in jail. Meanwhile, town officials had realized they could not substantiate Lutalo’s purported terrorist threats, prompting the embarrassing question of whether charges would even be filed. Assistant District Attorney Barta phoned arresting Officer Mobley to confer about how to salvage the investigation and secure an indictment. (Lutalo was never charged.)If the circumstances of Lutalo’s arrest were different—if he didn’t have a high profile or access to legal support—we’d probably never know about this incident. The recordings were disclosed during discovery after Lutalo filed suit against the city for violating his constitutional rights by making false claims to justify his arrest. The suit was ultimately settled out of court.Arresting Officer Mobley: I should have just let [the arrestee] get off the train and go.Assistant District Attorney Barta: Ah, you should have said that he pulled a knife on you and shot the son of a bitch.Mobley: (Laughter)Barta: (Laughter) He pulled something out of his pocket and it looked like a gun… then… it was a goddamn comb, I’m sorry! (Laughter)Mobley: My bad, I’m sorry! (Laughter)Barta: My bad! (Laughter)Barta: (Laughter) Oh well, anyway… (Pause) Or, you could have arrested him, alleged that the train tried to pull out, and here’s a thought, throw him under the track, the wheels, and then say he tried to escape. But too late for that….Mobley: Yeah …Mobley: Oh well! Anyway….(Listen to the tape below) ***I’m sitting in a vegetarian restaurant in Montclair, New Jersey with Ojore Lutalo and Bonnie Kerness, the coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) national Prison Watch Project, and a long-term advocate for prisoners’ rights. I’d listened to the recordings several days earlier. My first question for Lutalo is how he felt when he first heard them. Did the content come as a shock? Lutalo shakes his head. “To me, it came as no surprise. I’m a black man in America.”Kerness and Lutalo first communicated in 1986, when he wrote to her from his cell in the Management Control Unit (MCU) at Trenton State Prison (now called the New Jersey State Prison). What Lutalo described shocked her. He told her he had been awakened at 1am and forced to strip naked as police dogs strained against their leashes, snapping at his genitals. Lutalo was undergoing what is now defined as“no-touch torture”: a continuous effort to break him through tactics like intentional humiliation, long stretches of silence or screeching, extreme cold and heat, enforced sleep deprivation, and day after day spent alonein a tiny cage made of steeland concrete. But Lutalo, who was serving time for actions committed with the Black Liberation Army (read his own account of the two offenses here),knew he was being punished for his political beliefs. Now he has the evidence to prove it: a 2008 Classification Decision from prison officials states he was being kept in solitary because his “radical views and ability to influence others poses a threat to the orderly operation of this Institution.” As the years passed, Lutalo stayed sane by exercising, writing, meditating, and making political collages that portrayed his life on the inside. In August 2009, after 28 years behind bars (including 22 in isolation), Lutalo became a free man. The political organizing that had sustained him on the inside would continue on the outside, and land him in jail again sooner than anyone could have expected. In fact, Lutalo’s ugly encounter with the La Junta police occurred just a few months after his release from prison.In late January 2010, Lutalo was traveling back home after speaking at the Anarchist Bookfair in Los Angeles. Rather than risk being harassed at the airport by TSA officers or the Department of Homeland Security, Lutalo bought a ticket on Amtrak. The train departed LA on January 25. All the cars were packed, and Lutalo took advantage of the long trip to catch up with friends. According to court documents filed by Lutalo’s team, on the evening of the 26th he answered a phone call from an activist who wanted advice on refusing to testify before a grand jury. Passenger Sue Blesi strained to overhear Lutalo’s conversation and scribbled down the bits and pieces she found disturbing. As the train approached La Junta, she rose from her seat and handed the note to a car attendant. “It was like a game of telephone,” Kerness said. Local trainmaster James Bullerwell was eating dinner with his family at Pizza Hut when his staff alerted him to an incident. He called the La Junta Police Department and reported that Lutalo had made statements about bombing the train — a claim seemingly pulled out of thin air, since neither Blesi nor anyone else on the train had overheard such remarks. Meanwhile, Lutalo was preparing for sleep, unaware of what was transpiring. When the train pulled into La Junta, Sgt. Mobley and a second officer boarded it and approached Lutalo. One officer had his weapon drawn, the other brandished a taser. In a media interview conducted just shortly after his arrest, Lutalo recalled being awakened by a commotion and opening his eyes: “The next thing I know I’m looking down the barrel of semiautomatic pistols…. They didn’t tell me what I had done, who was supposed to have called, what I was supposed to have done. They didn’t tell me anything.”Lutalo was handcuffed, searched and driven to the La Junta Police Department. That evening, Sgt. Mobley drafted a sworn affidavit of probable cause, repeating the fabricated assertion that people aboard the train had heard Lutalo say “something about bombing this train.” According to court documents, on the same evening Mobley also prepared a custody report stating that Lutalo had been born in Nigeria. (Lutalo was actually born in New Jersey.) This incident took place just weeks after the arrest of the Nigerian “Christmas day bomber."The media had a field day. By the end of the week, the arrest had been covered by Fox News, theBoston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Times and a number of other outlets, each reporting the same lies: that while on the phone Lutalo had mentioned al Qaeda, said he hadn’t killed anyone yet, and asked his supposed partner in crime, "Do they have security on these trains? Are you with me or not?” But the article on Pamela Geller’s website takes the cake: “Chicago-Bound Amtrak Train Stalled by Islamic Terror Threat."Once the media coverage began, so did the threats. Kerness and Lutalo gave me a printout of comments posted on 9news.com article (the comments have since been deleted). Here is some of what was said: “Shoulda threw him from the train!!!”“Should have shot him dead.”“Some people just deserve to be water boarded to protect our people and our country.”“No torture,,, hang him,, then a round to the head for good measure.” Perhaps, these “empty threats” say something about how racial terror circulates today: made publicly but anonymously, they can be easily disregarded, though they are written in black and white. "Rope… tree?” “Lock him up and throw away the key.” ***A few days after Lutalo’s arrest, District Attorney Barta said to Officer Mobley on the phone, “I got a feeling, that our folks in our community ain’t gonna like this asshole. And… you never know, they might find him guilty even when we don’t prove it just because they don’t like the asshole."The two had been chatting regularly about the investigation; both were worried about securing enough evidence to bring Lutalo to trial. Recordings of conversations between the DA and the police department were disclosed in 2010, after Lutalo filed suitagainst the La Junta Police Department —and particularly Sgt. Mobley—for violating his constitutional rights by falsifying an affidavit for arrest (an initial copy of the legal action is available here). The suit was settled in February 2011for an undisclosed sum of money, but somehow, the lawyers for the city never filed a request to withhold the recordings. The clips described and uploaded here are only a fraction of what was released to the defense. Still on the phone, District Attorney Barta continues his line of thought. “We’re gonna have to show that he’s an asshole. [Lutalo’s] talking like he’s a political prisoner.” Barta asks Mobley to look into Lutalo’s criminal history: “[Find] something for me to be able to pin on him for it, to show that he’s a sack of shit… (Laughter)… I think that’s a legal term.”DA Barta explains the next stage of the prosecution: providing sufficient evidence at the preliminary hearing to warrant charges. He seems exasperated at the task. “Oh god, we’re in at now!” Mobley remarks that he should have just let Lutalo go, but Barta disagrees. He initiates an exchange about the manifold ways Mobley could have murdered Lutalo, cited earlier in this article.During one of the last recorded conversations, Barta phones the La Junta Police Department to inform them he’ll be dropping the prosecution. None of the staff or passengers will attest to Lutalo threatening the train. “Therein lies the problem,” he says to the police chief. "Basically, my friend, we got dip[shit].” Lutalo was imprisoned for three days before he was released on bail. Charges were never filed.***Bonnie Kerness wasn’t surprised by the content of the conversations, merely that she had access to them.“How many people have heard on tape something like this from an assistant district attorney? It’s rare, I’ve never heard it before. We’re used to looking at the police and racial profiling, but this is the kind of thing that goes on every single day, at every single level of the justice system," she adds. "These are not shocking dialogues, these are dialogues that happen with great regularity… It’s a validation of things that me and people like me, and people [on the] inside, have been saying always.” Kerness remembers how worried she was when Lutalo was arrested. “The danger is, if he had been found guilty of this nothing, he’d be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.”In a recent report, the ACLU found that 65.4% of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses are black. There’s plenty of evidence that our criminal justice system is racist, we simply prefer to think it’s not that racist. That’s why these recordings are so powerful and so uncomfortable; they transport us, momentarily, into the mindset of a district attorney (and a police officer) whose racist sentiments seem as mundane as they are monstrous.Lutalo also returns to the notion of the predictable, the expected. “[Police violence is] not shocking anymore. Look what happened to Trayvon…. [Zimmerman] got away with murder… It’s routine, it’s business as usual in America. A black man in America, his life ain’t worth nothing.”The violence against people of color continues, and so do the excuses and the justifications. Renisha McBride, 19, was shot to death after she crashed her car and knocked on the door of a nearby house for help. This past summer, a grand jury in the Bronx refused to bring charges against Officer Richard Haste after he barged into a private home and fatally shot unarmed teenager Ramarley Graham. The 18-year-old was flushing marijuana down the toilet; Haste claimed he thought he had a gun. The examples could go on and on. So why should the words of Barta and Mobley, joking about how to get away with murder, be an eye-opener? To be surprised is to give credence to the rhetoric and logic of the George Zimmermans everywhere—that what white people say or think or feel is anything other the terrible, terrorizing reality of racism in 2013. ***It is a myth of post-racial America that the most violent and sadistic manifestations of white supremacy have been relegated to history or the political fringes of society. This myth helps sustain a structure of white supremacy by rendering invisible its most insidious manifestations.Publishing these recordings carries the risk of having their importance misconstrued, of giving credence to the suggestion that Barta and Mobley are simply bad apples and that what happened to Lutalo is extraordinary or unusual. That’s why we should heed Lutalo’s words:“That tape? People need to hear what’s been said. This is how they think, this is how they operate, behind closed doors. Again, if it could happen to me, it could happen to you. You don’t need to do anything. They kept me in isolation for 22 years just for entertaining thoughts they didn’t approve of. And they put that in writing.”
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