Albuquerque Dispatches: Life In The Kill Zone

On Violence and Paranoia – Plus, a Cry for Help

Many of the claims in this article may seem incredible, particularly to readers unfamiliar with American police. We assure you, it’s all true. Click here to see the attached Artefact containing supporting documentation for each segment of this piece.

One

Now, you’re at a crime scene. You talk to the witnesses – glimpses of a man dressed all in black, fast on a bicycle. You think to yourself, it could have been worse. The attacker could have lit the match before he fled. Six months ago, three teenagers beat two homeless men to death for fun. They beat them with bricks until the bodies were unrecognizable. The teenagers bragged to the police that they were responsible for 50 other attacks before they were caught.

But still, there’s the smell, fumes coating your thoughts, gasoline headache. It’s soaked into everything. Clothes, blankets, sleeping bags, shoes, skin.

At home, in bed, eyes open in the dark and you realize a lot of people would have called the cops, first thing. But the thought had never crossed your mind. It didn’t even occur to you as an option. You know too much about them. You know they could only have made the situation worse.

When you went there, you didn’t know you were walking into a crime scene. You thought you were going to visit friends.

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Two

Sometime later, or maybe earlier, there’s a series of explosions. Flashbangs and teargas fired from an armored vehicle. Grenade launchers lighting up the vehicle for a split second before it’s plunged back into midnight darkness. The police are firing these things at a man who’s locked himself in his home, threatening to commit suicide. The grenades break the windows, scar the floors. You’re told, later, that the police apologized to the property owners for the damage. But they didn’t pay to fix it.

Tension pools in the dark street as you brace yourself, wait for more explosions. Everything on high alert, muscles tensed as every second in the darkness stretches on for hours. After what feels like years, decades, of silence, you finally relax. Just before the explosions start again. This happens enough times and you learn not to relax.

Another bang and the vehicle is bathed in white light. The local news isn’t seeing this, of course. Some cops told them where the media staging area was, far away from where you are, far away from any danger or any possibility to see what the police are actually doing tonight. When the officer told them where to go, where they were allowed to film, they said thank you and they went.

Three

It’s daytime and you’re at the fairgrounds. There’s a flea market. Families. Across the street the SWAT team suits up.

There’s a man with a gun locked in a motel room. SWAT rest their rifles on the fairgrounds wall. Later, they bring an unmarked pickup truck and stand in the bed. A family walks by pushing a stroller.

And they’ve got the armored beast again, in the motel parking lot, half a dozen cops huddled behind it for protection. And then they bring out the bomb robot. You used to think the robot was only used for bomb disposal but now you know better. It does lots of things. “Deploys chemical munitions,” for example.

And you’ve found a spot where you can position your camera, straight view of the motel room and the SWAT team. Where you’re standing, the cops call that the Kill Zone. And now you’re being told you have to leave the Kill Zone or you may be shot. You argue the point as long as you can.

You overhear two cops talking: “He doesn’t want to come out. He thinks we’re terrorists.” Well, yeah – look at how they’re acting. Look at what they’re doing. You think they’re terrorists, too.

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Four

It’s the second time the van’s driven by, your small group standing in a dark parking lot, watching. This time, it slows down. You’re on high alert, cop-senses blaring at full volume. The van pulls up. Stops. You call for a friend of yours sitting in a car, eyes up, pay attention to this. It could be bad.

Window rolls down on the van, friendly greeting from the driver. The man says he works for the railroad, saw you standing there, just wants to make sure everything’s ok. He leaves.

He seemed nice enough, sincere enough. But then, an undercover would, right? He wouldn’t tell you he’s a cop…

You watch the van drive away and you realize the effect this is having on you, on your ability to trust, to relate to people as human beings. You can’t be suspicious of everyone. This man, he just stopped to talk. He was just a railroad worker on the night shift.

Unless he wasn’t.

Five

About two blocks from your house, someone attacks a mosque. Grainy security-cam footage shows bottle in hand, lighter, and the fire overloading the nightvision on the camera, turning everything a blinding white. The molotov just misses the window. The guy – the attacker – nearly trips over himself in his scramble to get away. But he gets away.

You drive by that mosque every day. There’s a charred black streak down the side of the building, which you stop noticing after awhile. Unless you have a passenger in your car. Then you slow down, point it out, tell them the story. You want them to know.

You could give a tour of the violence in this city. Where these beautiful mountains rise just off the side of the road here, we call that part the foothills. Right over there, the police shot a homeless man in his back for camping in them. In this park the cops shot another man dead. They chased him first, from maybe half a kilometer that way. I work in this pizza place right here. In that shop right there, two doors down, someone shoplifted, so the owner ran out into the street after him and shot him in the back with a shotgun. A mother was in our pizza shop with her little girl at the time.

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Six

“Eyes up, we’re pushing boundaries!”

And your friend has slipped past the police line, wandering deep into the heart of the Kill Zone, searching for a better angle to film. A better view of the violence.

And the possibilities are racing in your mind, visions of your friend dead in the street, surrounded by cops. They could probably get away with that. He shouldn’t have been in the Kill Zone. He surprised them. They didn’t know who he was, so they shot. Only a criminal would have snuck around behind them like that. What did he think was going to happen, creeping up on the SWAT team?

You realize you don’t really know your friend that well. You met him only a few months ago. But you feel closer to him than many of the people you grew up with, because he’s out here with you. He’s been out here with you.

So many people don’t see this. They see the police tape and find another route. They consider it all just a minor inconvenience.

They watch the TV news report later, so light on details as to be meaningless. A man had a warrant out and the police apprehended him. Nothing in the newspaper, either, about the tear gas you can smell from a block away. Nothing about the military equipment used in a residential neighborhood, or the temporary state of martial law declared in a four-block radius. Some people are locked in their homes. Others are unable to return because the police won’t let them cross through the Kill Zone. Nothing in the news, either, about the fact that more than 40 police vehicles line the blocks, all for one man who doesn’t want to come outside.

And your friend is further into the Kill Zone now, and the cop who’s supposed to be watching the line finally notices. He gets out of his car, walks toward your friend. You try to keep both of them in the frame.

The cop talks to your friend, explains to him politely that he can’t be in the Kill Zone. Asks him to move back. Your friend apologizes for the trouble and retreats.

There’s so many different ways that could have gone. But luckily, tonight, the officer decided to be a human instead of a cop. For once.

Seven

You walk the length of the wall, searching for bullet holes. A man was killed here this week, shot by two different cops at the same time. The story is, he fired first. Allegedly.

You find the holes, tight grouping in the cinderblock. That means he died right where you’re standing. You pull out your phone to watch the video the cops released. Dead body right…about…here. You lie on your back on the exact spot it happened. You imagine taking your dying breath, right here in the dirt, surrounded by police armed with AR-15s. You’re not sure why you’re doing this. It just seems like the thing to do.

They only released the one video. Two cops shot him and they’re both supposed to be recording on their lapel cameras. The video they did release, it looks like the officer turned the camera to the side. You can see his rifle stock, see it kick as he fires, but you can’t see the man he shot directly in front of him. There’s no way to tell from the video if the man fired at the cops first, or even if he had a gun.

The second video, the missing video, you’ve got an idea why it doesn’t exist. An eyewitness told you the officer fired through traffic to hit the suspect. The bullets flew over the roofs of cars, feet or inches above the heads of civilians. You can’t prove this, of course, without the officer’s lapel-camera video.

But given everything you know about your local police department, it’s not at all surprising.

Once again, there’s no mention of this on the local news. They run a series of stories on the dead man’s criminal history. A seemingly concerted effort to convince the public that this man deserved to die. The reporters don’t even seem to notice that there’s only one lapel-cam video.

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Eight

You’re in bed, trying to sleep, cold wind still raging inside your skull. You hear the voice of the SWAT team, blasting over a loudspeaker to be heard blocks away. The voice reassures the man inside the house, repetitive phrasing: We know you’re scared. We don’t want to hurt you. We only want to talk. Come outside and we can talk to you. There’s no reason to be scared. Your safety is our main concern. Then the flashbangs and teargas start again, dull thuds from the gas canisters, louder explosions from the stun bombs.

Your heart is still racing but you need to sleep. Work early in the morning, your dayjob, where they don’t know how you spend your nights and they wouldn’t be happy to learn it.

And just as you start to drift off, as you feel yourself sinking into sleep, there’s a bang and a flash of light. You leap out of bed, trying to figure out where it came from. You’ve got several electronics charging in the same wall socket and you pull them out. You think maybe they overloaded the socket, caused a spark to shoot out, a pop and a flash.

Weeks later and you still don’t use that socket. But you suspect there’s nothing wrong with it. You have no way to be sure, but you think you hallucinated the whole thing.

Nine

Back on the street, and the explosions start again. You lean forward and adjust the focus on your camera. You don’t want to miss this.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Chuck Bowden, a man who was never afraid to tell the truth. I –and many of us – owe him a great debt.

Artefact: ‘Notes on the Kill Zone‘ – view the source material behind these nine scenes. Features photos, video and more original reporting, as well as a comparative analysis of the corporate media’s coverage of these same news events in Albuquerque.

Postscript: A Cry for Help

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I wasn’t paid to do any of the things I’ve described in this article. I did them because I felt I had to. Because I think the police are less likely to kill if they know they’re being watched.

I work two jobs for more than 40 hours a week total, for barely more than minimum wage. I can’t count the number of stories I’ve missed because I was working.

Many of us at ImportantCool are in or have been in similar situations. We plug away at menial jobs to pay rent and we try to do our real work in the few scant hours we have free. This is also true of our colleagues in independent media everywhere. Members of a local independent news site called Burque Media, as well as watchdog group People’s Lapel of Albuquerque, make cameo appearances in this article, doing unpaid work to hold police accountable. I’m sure there are similar independent reporting teams in your area. And I’m sure they’re also struggling to find the necessary resources to continue their work.

If you’re on our site reading this, you’ve probably already realized that the institutional media outlets in nearly every country on earth have completely abandoned all sense of civic responsibility. Police, army, or security forces kill unarmed civilians and mainstream news outlets compete to see who can come up with the best justification for the killings. They one-up each other to see who can most effectively demonize the victims. It works the same way on every issue of any importance – they tell you how good the Keystone XL pipeline will be for the economy, or how those lazy Argentinians just need to pay their damn debt to Paul Singer and his vulture fund. As my fellow IC-er Christian Tym documented, even left-leaning papers like the Guardian distort the truth to serve political and corporate interests.

That’s why it’s so critical to have a robust independent media, separated from the concerns of advertisers and not reliant on official sources. This takes resources. Personally, I need a better night-shooting lens for my camera and a more reliable tripod. As a group, we at ImportantCool need web designers, storage space, editors, photographers, plane tickets, etc. And we’d really, really like to be able to quit our dayjobs and do this full-time. But that dream’s still very far in the future at this point.

Since we will never take money from advertisers, that leaves us our patrons. We feel, and we hope you do too, that the kind of reporting we do at ImportantCool is more necessary now than it ever was. And we can only continue to do it with your support.

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Andy is a journalist living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the home of Walter White and the world capital of nuclear weapons. He has reported first-hand from conflict zones around the world, ranging from occupied Palestine to drug-war-ravaged Mexico. He's covered diverse issues such as the struggle for transgender rights in Istanbul, violations of the Geneva Convention in the Israeli prison system, and of course, the collective psychosis of his hometown's world-famous police department.

He began his career writing for the University of New Mexico's student newspaper, one of the U.S.’s only daily student publications. He then went on to freelance for the Alibi, an Albuquerque-based alt weekly, covering immigration, the drug war, and the Occupy Movement. In 2011 Andy received an invitation to attend the School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico, where he was invited by another course participant to move to and work in the Occupied West Bank. He lived there for nearly two years writing investigative reports on Israeli crimes as well as colorful features on Palestinian arts and culture. Following Israel’s 2012 assault on the Gaza Strip, Andy gained access to the embattled enclave for a feature on the experience of medical professionals in the strip during Israel's eight-day bombing campaign.

Andy has contributed to the Electronic Intifada and VICE magazine on couchsurfing in the Israeli settlements; the Albuquerque Police Department's ill-advised "Police Shooting Contest"; and the ongoing eviction of 40,000 Bedouin residents of the Naqab desert.

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