Who sues? Some violent lawsuits

Blessings are upon the head of the just: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked. – The Old Testament, Proverbs 10:6-7

Let me tell you about people I knew as clients, plaintiffs caught up in situations in which you probably can’t imagine yourselves.

One very early morning back in the 1990’s, a number of apartments in a middle-class coop in a New York suburb were raided by a combination of Drug Enforcement Agents and New York City narcs, front line troops in the “War on Drugs.” (Remember  the “War on Drugs?” That was the “War” that preceded the “War on Terror.”) This high-powered task force was acting on info received from a C.I. (confidential informant), a small-time drug dealer they had arrested a while ago and turned into an employee.

The C.I.’s job, for which he was paid around $30,000 a year (our taxes at work), was to scope out and inform on big-time drug dealers. This C.I. had been collecting his salary for a while but not making his target numbers. He had a vital reason: if he actually did inform on big-timer dealers, they’d kill him. So to keep his salary flowing while remaining alive enough to spend it, the C.I. decided to turn in what he swore in an affidavit were some big time drug dealers who operated out of specifically designated apartments in that building. He was lying.

It must have been quite a sight, all these fierce drug warriors dressed in vests with their employers’ names in big letters across the breast, carrying battering rams and heavy weaponry, moving like ghostly pre-dawn avengers outside the building.

The people whose doors the task force battered in were naturally terrified as armed strangers burst into their apartments – none of the invaders identified himself as a cop. Not one of the apartment owners was a drug dealer.

One young woman, who worked for New York’s Environmental Protection Agency, was stripped and body searched. Another, a young mother, an ER nurse, was up early to care for her new baby. Her husband had already gone to work as a Correction Department guard at New York’s huge fortress prison, Riker’s Island. Had he been home when a bunch of armed people crashed into his apartment, he certainly would have grabbed and fired his licensed gun. And the intrepid War on Drugsters would certainly have returned fire.

Two other victims of the raid, an elderly couple, had retired from successful blue-collar work lives. One of them had chronic heart problems.

These people became our clients and filed a lawsuit for every solid reason you can think of. Years later, after many judicial roadblocks, they got a settlement but not a very large one. Our clients never got what they all really wanted: an apology.

Another client, an upper middle class college administrator and playwright who happened to be African-American had her front door – in a classy, mostly white New York neighborhood – broken down by cops looking for guns. She was indignant, furious. We filed a claim for her (the necessary first legal step to be taken against a municipality) and she accepted a small settlement that repaired her expensive door. It wasn’t really money she wanted; it was justice, the conviction that she was righting a wrong done to her.

Such atrocities can happen to you. A solid middle class life will not protect you from the physical and psychological damages cities, states, the federal government and the people they employ can inflict, especially if you’re not white.

But even a tiny white woman can get beaten over the head until bloody by cops because she’d been at a party that got a little loud.  You can be shot by highway patrolmen for the crime of DWB – driving while black. And I know of men killed by cops for no reason whatsoever, leaving behind devastated families.

Even as I write this, dreadful news comes of a young man, a college student and football player, shot and killed by a policeman outside a bar-restaurant in Westchester. The story told by the police makes no sense to me at all. At least not as reported in the Daily News, which takes the police story as fact; the Times headline, at least, suggests that the police story is, so far, only one version of the events. Pace University Student Is Shot Dead, Police Say – NYTimes.com.

We live in times when you must sue for justice. There have always been these times. But luckily, we live in times when you can sue. It’s right for you and right for society: your lawsuit slows down municipal and personal abuses, sometimes even causes the law to change in a way that will block such abuses in the future.

Your lawsuit is a warning to your defendants and future defendants: “You can’t do this.” Your lawsuit marks bad people and often removes them from positions in which they might abuse other innocent people. And it gives you an apology in the form of money.

Money, a papery substance the formula of which contains no ethical ingredient, is often the only symbol of justice we can get. Take this as an early warning: whatever happens with a lawsuit, it will only be satisfying if you stay flexible about the outcome and grasp the larger purpose beyond the symbol of money.

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