Abuse of Power

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Acting upon their sincere concern for the community, Martell Miller and Patrick Thompson, founders of Visionaries
Educating Youth and Adults (VEYA), have courageously taken
the necessary steps toward change. Using a very popular piece
of technology, a video camcorder, these two dedicated gentlemen
began videotaping our law enforcement officials as they
engaged African-American youth on the streets of Champaign-
Urbana during routine traffic stops.
After accumulating hours of footage, the two men decided to
bring the public face-to-face with the reality that exists on our
streets. They made a 40-minute documentary, Citizen’s Watch,
with the intent of creating a dialogue between struggling youth
and frustrated police officers. Instead, it was misunderstood and
resulted in the two men being charged with a class one felony
for eavesdropping. The eavesdropping charges were brought
against the two men after they turned the videotape over to
UPTV (Urbana Public Television) for public access. At this
time, it is unclear exactly how the tape found its way into the
hands of the Urbana Police Department for use as evidence. The
only logical conclusion is that someone from UPTV allowed
the tape to be confiscated by law enforcement. According to an
ex-president of UPTV, the number one “no-no” in public televi –
sion is to give someone’s property away. It is the understanding
of the members of VEYA that if the tape was deemed inappropriate
by the staff of UPTV, then it was their responsibility to
either destroy the tape or return it to its rightful owner. Furthermore,
UPTV may have violated Martell’s and Patrick’s Fifth-
Amendment rights. The Bill of Rights clearly states that no
one’s belongings shall be searched, or seized, without due
Martell Miller and Patrick Thompson are African-American
men from Champaign who spoke up against taser electroshock
stun guns when the police department wanted to purchase them
earlier this spring. Part of their argument in opposition to tasers
was the disparate treatment of African Americans by local
police departments. They did not want police to have another
weapon to use against black residents. Thanks to the collective
efforts of people like Martell and Patrick, the request for purchase
of tasers was defeated.
Soon thereafter, based upon the fact that police seemed
determined to purchase tasers at a later date, Martell and Patrick
informed the Champaign mayor and city manager that they
were going to start monitoring Champaign police stops of
“black folks.” They explained that this cop watch was a way to
document any further abuse of power. There was no response
from either city official.
On August 7, 2004, around midnight, Martell was on north
Bradley Street with his video camera. He filmed a police officer
pulling over a black man on a bicycle—simply for not having a
light on the front of his bike! From across the street, Martell
filmed this “traffic stop.” The police officer left the scene. The
biker then crossed the street and Martell asked him for an interview.
The man agreed and the interview began. The cop who
pulled the suspect over then returned while the interview was in
progress. As Martell was interviewing the biker, the officer
asked Martell if he was taping him (the officer). Martell’s primary objective was to record video and audio of the alleged
suspect, however, based upon the proximity of the officer as
he approached Martell, the officer’s voice was also picked
up by the built-in microphone. Consequently, Martell’s
response was, “No, you’re putting yourself on my tape.”
There was a brief exchange about citizen rights and Martell
asked to talk to a superior officer. The supervisor was called
and upon his arrival informed Martell that he had recorded
the cop without his permission. The officers “seized” the
camera and the tape, yet they did not arrest Martell.
Martell was later summoned to court and charged with
eavesdropping. Judge Heidi Ladd refused to allow the State
Attorney to arrest Martell over the charge and released him
on his own recognizance. Meanwhile, the News-Gazette
reported on the story, and also editorialized against State
Attorney John Piland bringing charges against Martell for a
“crime” that thousands of people commit daily.
The Illinois State law on eavesdropping has been interpreted
by many attorneys, supporters and critics, but no one
has been able to shed light on the subject. Champaign Police
Chief R.T. Finney explained the charges quite clearly and
agreed that the two men technically broke the law, however,
he added that such legal actions could have been prevented
by simply having a meeting with Mr. Thompson and Mr.
Miller. The confusion that ensued undermined the progress
that police and members of the community have made thus
far. Supporters said the law is the law, no matter how trivial
it is and the men should be prosecuted. Critics said if the law
is to be strictly interpreted, it would make felons of thousands
of American citizens. Considering the vagueness of
the law and the sensitive relationship between black citizens
of Champaign County and its police departments, other concerned
citizens asked the State Attorney to exercise some
discretion and oversee a meeting between the two parties in
attempt to resolve this matter in a manner beneficial to the
Amidst intense pressure from organizations, such as C-U
Citizens for Peace and Justice, AWARE, NAACP, and hundreds
of concerned citizens, on September 23, the Champaign
Police Department publicly requested that the State
Attorney drop the eavesdropping charges. Under the microscope
of public scrutiny and a mounting political campaign
to remove him from office, State Attorney John Piland
called a press conference to explain that he had done as he
had been instructed. Mr. Piland revealed that he was asked
by officers on the Champaign police force to press charges
against the two men. Just days later, Mr. Piland dropped all
the charges against Mr. Miller. However, as of publication
date, the charges against Mr. Thompson still stand. Mr.
Piland certainly has the jurisdiction to dismiss the eavesdropping
charges against Mr. Thompson, especially since
the two men were charged for the exact same crime. Furthermore,
even with the dismissal of Mr. Miller’s charges,
neither the camcorder nor the tape seized by the officers has
been returned. These tactics are typical examples of the
abuse of power that the concerned citizens of Champaign
County are no longer going to tolerate.
Champaign County citizens of all political affiliations
are opposed to actions that disenfranchise viable segments
of our population. Everyone realizes that we are at our best
when the community functions as one united body. Henceforth,
it is imperative that the good people of our growing
cities sacrifice personal desires and humbly submit to the
greater good of all people. With the help of VEYA, the
entire community can be properly informed and bursting
with self-esteem. This “dream” can be realized by practicing
forgiveness, empathy and compassion for those in our
human family who show symptoms of pain and suffering,
while simultaneously holding each other accountable for
our words and actions. The integrity and respect that prevails
from such an understanding will allow us to serve the
health, rights, interests, and needs of all people.
This aforementioned information has lead to mass community
education in the form of classes, seminars, and
workshops to begin this mandatory process of dismantling
ignorance. Meanwhile, each of us must search our souls and
discipline ourselves to do what is right—forgive our fellow
man, yet resist the perpetuation of exploitation and ignorance
that is represented by some of our citizens and public
officials. To get involved in the many upcoming events that
have been sparked by Mr. Thompson and Mr. Miller, such as
the tremendous voter registration drive being held throughout
the community, or the Unity March that will take place
on October 23 from 9:00-10:30 a.m. beginning at Scott and
Douglass Parks and converging at the Champaign police
station, please contact C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice at
lifestratinst@sbcglobal.net. BE Peace, BE Just!

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