Serial in Cleveland, Ep. 7 Recap: The Snowball Effect

click to enlarge Serial in Cleveland, Ep. 7 Recap: The Snowball Effect
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It's difficult to believe that Serial's Cleveland-based third season could be nearing it's homestretch, in part because examples of the systemic issues the podcast has exposed feel like they're in infinite supply, but it's true. There are likely only two or three more episodes remaining. The show will be off next week (Nov. 1) and will return the following Thursday (Nov. 8) for what Koenig calls the season's "final episodes."

Episode 7, titled "The Snowball Effect," returns to East Cleveland and the fallout of a case involving Jesse Nickerson. Nickerson was beaten by two police officers at Forest Hill Park after an arrest in 2016. When the officers were held criminally accountable for their actions — gasp! — Nickerson becomes a target of the East Cleveland police, constantly harassed and cited by them in clear retaliatory actions. Just like Ep. 6, this installment demonstrates powerfully that a legal victory, when it's against cops, is hardly a victory at all. 

Host Sarah Koenig interrupts Emmanuel Dzotsi's reporting on Nickerson, briefly, to update listeners on Emirius Spencer, the Euclid man brutally beaten by police officers (including Michael Amiott) at his apartment building in 2016. That case was featured in Episode 3.

Koenig follows Spencer and his attorney as they settle for a plea deal instead of seeking a major civil rights suit. Spencer pleads guilty to weed possession. The other bogus charges are dismissed. The entire farcical hearing proceeds as if it's a celebration of Spencer managing to stop smoking marijuana. What an embarrassment. The elephant in the room, Koenig says, (Spencer's grisly beating which no one bothers to acknowledge in the courtroom), "had shrunk to the size of a bulge."

That's a reference to the "bulge" that officer Michael Amiott said he saw in Spencer's pants before he savagely punched and kicked him, breaking his orbital bone and hospitalizing him. The "bulge" was a lie cooked up by the prosecutor and the officer with the assent of the judge, entirely in keeping with standard practice, to insulate police from punishment. Words like "bulge" and "furtive movements," as described in Episode 3, are part of the post hoc legal maneuvering that allows police officers to commit all the brutality they want on the streets in full knowledge that they'll never be punished. Great system!

But Spencer's life is irrevocably changed after the beating. As Koenig follows up months later, Spencer's personality has taken a dark turn.  He's angrier, more aggressive. He has a desire to "prove that he's a man." As the narrative of the beating plays in his head on a loop, he racks up additional criminal charges, including a domestic abuse misdemeanor. His mother is worried sick. He no longer has any interest in talking to reporters.

Spencer is ultimately awarded a measly $50,000 in damages, thanks to a civil rights suit filed by attorney Paul Cristallo. And while Koenig acknowledges that calculating compensatory and punitive damages is a fairly precise practice, she asks: "How do you quantify the intangible damage a cop does when he kicks your ass?"

She concludes the segment by reporting that an arbitrator, this week, has sided with Michael Amiott in an appeal that will give him his job back. He'll be back on the Euclid Police force any day now, she says.

Back in East Cleveland, Jesse Nickerson is also affected by the beating he suffered at the hands of police, and by the menacing that he endures at their hands in the aftermath. Dzotsi reports that Nickerson has been accumulating criminal charges too. He tracks a case in which Nickerson is pulled over in a borrowed car driving from the hospital where his second child had just been born. He is hit with eight charges after the stop, including driving with tinted windows, driving without a seat belt, weed possession, open container, driving without a license, etc. It's a cornucopia of small potatoes. 

The Euclid judge — Nickerson was stopped in Euclid — is the same one from Emirius Spencer's case. And she lectures Nickerson, who'd arrived late and high, about his behavior. After going back and forth about whether or not to take a plea deal, Nickerson eventually decides he'll tell the judge the truth and appeal for mercy. The judge is unmoved. She gives Nickerson a fine, five days in jail and his 10th driver's license suspension. Dzotsi spends a few minutes describing the cumulative punitive effects of license suspensions in Ohio. (Dzotsi estimates that Nickerson owes close to $10,000 to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and doubts he'll ever get out from under that debt.)

Dzotsi spends considerable time interviewing Nickerson throughout the episode, trying to understand where his head's at and why he interacts the way he does with police. One of the key moments concerns a menacing charge that Nickerson receives after harassing an East Cleveland Police officer in a gas station. Nickerson insults the officer repeatedly and tells him to take off his uniform and fight him like a man in the parking lot.

The officer, David Duncan, had been involved in a July 4 fracas featured in Ep. 6, in which Nickerson was beaten up again and told to get out of East Cleveland. Dzotsi understands, during an interview, that "fighting like a man" means two things to Nickerson. On one hand, he'd told Officer Duncan that police only ever beat him up when he's got cuffs on, so he was challenging Duncan to man up. But also, and more importantly, he wants Duncan to treat him, Nickerson, like a man, to let him fight back.

Nickerson tells Dzotsi, in fact, that the next time the police attempt to beat him up, he will. He's ashamed of running away the first time and now has no qualms about duking it out with an East Cleveland cop. That's troubling, Dzotsi notes, because the situation is headed for an explosion. The officers continue to cite him for minor infractions, making good on an unofficial policy to "handle" Nickerson, to make his life hell because of his legal victory. One cop tells Dzotsi, "the snowball effect will, you know, take effect." They're either trying to force him out of East Cleveland, or force him into violence, at which point they'll be in the clear to fuck him up properly, maybe fatally. 

To quell the gathering storm, a judge has the good sense to speak the truth: that while Nickerson has indeed been misbehaving, he has absolutely been provoked. The judge, Dawson, elects to enroll Nickerson in a program that will teach him how to behave more effectively around police officers. Dzotsi's analysis of the subtext is grim: Dawson hopes that Nickerson will change because he knows the East Cleveland police sure won't.