New Brunswick Activist Discusses Police Issues in Wake of Ferguson

A Q&A With Tormel Pittman

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New Brunswick anti-police brutality activist Tormel Pittman talks with the Hyperlocal Newsroom class at Rutgers, which produces the Raritan River Review.
Photos by Hank Kalet

By Yang Seob Lim

Tormel Pittman, a New Brunswick activist, is no stranger to police shootings. In months that followed the shooting of Barry Deloatch by New Brunswick police in September 2011, Pittman helped lead numerous protests and became the face of the anti-police brutality campaign in the city.

Deloatch was killed by New Brunswick police Sept. 22, 2011. He was unarmed at the time. A Middlesex County grand jury did not indict the officers involved, Brad Berdel and Daniel Mazan. Berdel, who fired the fatal shot, resigned in 2012.

Pittman has remained active on the issue and had made himself a regular at City Council meetings. He helped lead protests recently in the wake of the Missouri grand jury decision not to indict Patrol Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Pittman visited the Raritan River Review and spoke with its student reporters on Nov. 25. Pittman discussed protest, police brutality on minorities, and the need for a checks on police activity. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Pittman opened by discussing why the Ferguson verdict garnered so much attention.

Tormel6Pittman: If you have a thousand people come out for any issue, I don’t care what it is, it’s going to get attention. But if you have 15 people come out, you look out the window and they disperse and it’s like a regular day. So it’s the numbers. Trayvon Martin had the numbers. Ferguson had the numbers. Some people will fight this situation from their living room. They’ll yell at the screen and fuss and cuss but it won’t go out to the streets. They think they can get results from their living room but no you have to take action outside.

Raritan River Review: Do you feel as though the protests and raising awareness are making a difference when these types of situations usually get the same results and same politically correct answers as to why these people aren’t being indicted for killing African Americans?

Tormel8Pittman: Protesting is not just about getting in the streets; protesting is about going to every council meeting, freeholders meeting, board of education meeting, and you protest there also. Any type of way that you agitate the system, that’s considered protest. When you sit there idle, you accept whatever comes. You accept the good and the bad.

Everybody’s confused right now. Everybody has mixed emotions. Some people are upset, some people are not upset, and some people are saying, “Should I be upset? Should I be mad or should I be happy?” There’s a lot of mixed emotion. If you naturally feel one way then you’re not wrong for feeling a certain way. But I think that we all should educate each other more and if you truly feel like some people have law enforcement agents in their family and they can’t see their brother, cousin, uncle shooting someone, unjustly so, that’s their reality so you can’t argue with their reality. They’re not wrong for having that reality because they know a law enforcement agent on a first-hand basis, so you got to take that into consideration also. You have to look at the totality of the situation and realize that there’s a difference and a lot of emotions and a lot of reason to why people will feel the way they feel. A lot of people say, “I think it’s OK that the officer didn’t get indicted.” That doesn’t make them a bad person. But maybe we can have a dialogue where I can understand you more and you can understand me more. That’s growth.

Raritan River Review: I was just curious what you think about the protest in Ferguson with the arson and the violence, and people trying to flip police cars. I want to hear your thoughts about that.

Tormel2Pittman: That’s a distraction. When I would get people together, I would tell them, “Listen, we’re going to protest. We’re going to walk through the streets and we’re going to yell and scream. But I don’t want any rearview mirror cracked. I don’t want anything touched. If you’re going to do that, either get out of this line or pick another day to do that.” You have a lot of people who have ulterior motives. They were going to break and do that anyway. They were looking for the opportunity to take advantage of a horrible situation and I don’t think that should be the reflection of what happened. I was watching CNN today but they just kept playing the same footage of people breaking things, over and over. I have yet to see the people that were actually out there last night (Monday, Nov. 24) protesting peacefully, and that was the majority. So do I think that was right? No, definitely. They burned down different stores and cars. People say they burned down their own community. It’s not their own community. They weren’t business owners. Yes, the businesses got burned down but I think that we should focus also on Ferguson, the people of that community; the blacks should own black businesses in that community. I have never ever been to a predominantly white place where black businesses were established there. I have yet to go to a soul food restaurant in an Asian, Latino, or white community. But, my history from New Brunswick? I bought food from Asians, I bought food from whites, and I bought food from Latinos. So, that’s a culture shift they need to entertain in Ferguson. When black people think of businesses, we only cater to ourselves. We’re like, “We got to think of stuff only black people will buy.” We need to start thinking of stuff that everyone is going to buy because that’s the American way. We need to balance the scale. So I think that when they reconstruct Ferguson they should reconstruct for black people.

Raritan River Review: How do you feel about how the media saying that it’s not a black issue or a racial issue? Do you think it’s a racially driven issue?

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Pittman: It’s definitely a racial issue. One thing we do is that we hide from race in this country. We’re scared to say what it is. We got to admit it so we can correct it. If it weren’t a racial issue, we would have another example. Like in a debate, if you say to a white person, “Well it’s not a black issue.” How about when that black officer shot that white kid? How about black officer that socked that white kid and so and so? We don’t have those kinds of examples. So it is a race issue. Now, is there hatred behind it? It depends. Some officers are put in situation where they’re uncomfortable. If I pick you up and drop you in Newark, a rough area, you might be nervous, right? You’re going to act nervous. So what will happen is when you patrol that community, your safety is going to be first, right? You won’t make the decisions you probably would in your comfort zone. I wouldn’t either. That’s just our natural human nature; that’s our instinct to survive.

Raritan River Review: White cops are signing up to be in those situations. They shouldn’t be uncomfortable. They should be composed in those situations.

Tormel5Pittman: That’s true to an extent, but what if the only place you can get a job is in a black neighborhood? You want to be a police officer but you can’t get one in your community because all the jobs are taken. A lot of cops aren’t thinking about, “I’m going on the police force to shoot somebody.” They’re thinking about their families, their benefits. They’re thinking about getting their kids into college. The corruption comes after they sign up. I’m not going to sit here and beat up police officers and say they join the police force to beat up black people. Honestly, I don’t think a lot of them are. But I think the corruption comes in from them having to keep their jobs, the do-as-you’re-told mentality. You don’t go against the blue wall mentality. I think all of that creates that. They’re definitely put in an awkward position from the door.

Raritan River Review: Do you think that to an extent what people are taught from their parents or their surroundings, that’s why they’re so nervous or think they’re so out of their comfort zone when really we’re all the same people?

Tormel7Pittman: We’re all the same people, but if you take a person out of their comfort zone, it has nothing to do with race. They’re just uncomfortable. I can be a police officer and lock up a person for absolutely nothing. You do have that power. But then you have some that actually want to get into the force and want to be this great cop. Everybody wants to be the cop that everyone looks up to. Once you get into that system, even if you have good or bad intention, you’re going to get tainted. You can grow up with a diverse group of people, but when you enter that system, you change. I have some friends, very down to earth, but once they entered the police force, I don’t know who they are. Not just whites, also blacks. People just paint the picture of white officers and what they do. You’d be surprised what black officers do. You’d be surprised at the type of racial discrimination that black officers do. So it’s the system. It’s the kind of system that trains these men to think and behave in a certain way.

Raritan River Review: What do you think about body cameras for police officers?

Pittman: Body cameras? Excellent. Beautiful idea. I’ll give you an example. Just about a month ago, a guy contacted me and said, “Tormel, the police just broke my window, pulled me out the car, yelled and screamed at me, threw me on the car, and beat me up.” And I said, wow, guess what, he got a videotape of it. I’m looking and everything he said, this is right here in North Brunswick, is correct. I see the police beating him and he’s yelling, “I’m scared” inside his car. They’re beating on his car, shaking his car, bust his window, yanked him out, and they locked him up, and the video cut off. That was his camera recorder that he recorded on. He chopped off the majority of the footage.

So, me as an advocate, I start calling NBC and all these news guys in North Brunswick are getting a story on this and he’s doing interviews. The captain of the North Brunswick Police Department called me and said, “I’d like to have you come in and show you something.” He took me upstairs, and he showed me the camera from the officer and it had audio. What happened was, I’d seen about four minutes of the guy’s footage that he recorded, he showed me four minutes. The videotape was 30 minutes long. The officer was pleading with him. I saw the officer begging him, “Please, get out the car.”

So what happened was that they pulled him over because he was intoxicated and the officer said, “Give me your license, registration, and insurance.” So he gives him his license and registration and he has his insurance in his hands and officer is asking him for it. But he was like, “I’m looking for it.” He said, “Your insurance card is right there. I can see the date and everything. You have a valid insurance. Give it to me.”

Now you have the officer walk back to the car and saying, “listen, he smells like weed and I’m asking him for his insurance but he won’t give it.” I’m hearing and seeing all of this. Then his partner says, “let’s have him step out.” So he goes back to the car and asks him to step out, but the guy is resisting, saying, “for what, for what?” This went on for 10 minutes.

He goes back to the car and says, “I think I have to break his window.” The officer gets on his phone and calls his supervisor and says, “This guy won’t get out of his car. I’m trying everything I can. I’m going to have to break his window.” The supervisor says, “You know what you’re going to have to break his window.” So the officer goes back to the car, start pleading with him some more.

He had every right to break his window, and at some point he does it. What he had couldn’t break the window so he tried and tried again. Another officer came and broke the window. They opened the door, pulled him out, punched him, kicked him, handcuffed him and took him to jail. They didn’t give him bail. They released him on his own recognizance.

So that’s an example that, in a good situation, cameras are good. Because if all I had was his footage, we would be talking about that situation today, because it would’ve been all over the news. I contacted the news and said, “Don’t run that. I saw the whole footage.” I had to go work extra hard to make sure that story didn’t get out. I was blindsided. I didn’t know. But, if that’s all the footage we had, you and I would be watching it. We would be looking at the North Brunswick police officers like animals, so it was fortunate that they had a recording of the entire situation also.

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