Early morning, pre-dawn, May 28th. A Habersham County, Georgia, SWAT team executing a no-knock warrant busts in the door of Alecia Phonesavanh’s temporary home. She’d moved there, into her sister-in-law’s house, with her husband and four children after their home in Wisconsin burned down. The children, ages 3, 5, 7 and 19 months, slept together in the living room with their parents. The youngest, Bounkham, was asleep in his crib. Armed with M-16’s, the law enforcers threw a flash grenade into the living room before a half-dozen of them “filed through the house like they were playing war.” The grenade landed and exploded in the infant’s pen while his mother was threatened at gun-point to “sit down and shut up.” She could see his blood. She could hear his screams. She was told he was fine. The police raided the house looking for meth and a suspected dealer, Wanis Thometheva, the nephew of Bounkham’s father. They found neither; the suspect didn’t even live in the home. Hours later, when the family was allowed to visit “Baby Bou Bou” in Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, they found him in the ICU, covered in third-degree burns. His nose was nearly detached from his face, a gash in his chest leaving his ribs exposed.
During the month Bounkham spent in multiple hospitals, he was placed in a medically-induced coma while undergoing several surgeries, including plastic surgery and skin grafts to heal his nose, chest and burns. The total cost for the family, which has no health insurance, has grown to over $800,000.
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On Monday, October 6th, a grand jury admitted that while the raid was, “hurried, sloppy and unfortunately not in accordance with the best practices,” they somehow concluded that there was no evidence of police negligence or criminal intent. In addition to no indictments being handed down against the officers participating in the raid, the Habersham County Board of Commissioners decided the county would not be responsible for any of Bounkham’s medical expenses. The county’s attorney stated, “The question before the board was whether it is legally permitted to pay these expenses. After consideration of this question following advice of counsel, the board of commissioners has concluded that it would be in violation of the law for it to do so.” Well, at least they considered it, but ultimately, the State will always choose to defend and enable the thugs it hires to keep us safe.
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In an article penned for Salon while her son was still in the hospital, Alecia Phonesavanh wrote, “The only silver lining I can possibly see is that my baby Bou Bou’s story might make us angry enough that we stop accepting brutal SWAT raids as a normal way to fight the “war on drugs.” I know that this has happened to other families, here in Georgia and across the country. I know that SWAT teams are breaking into homes in the middle of the night, more often than not just to serve search warrants in drug cases. I know that too many local cops have stockpiled weapons that were made for soldiers to take to war. And as is usually the case with aggressive policing, I know that people of color and poor people are more likely to be targeted.”
Fifty thousand no-knock raids occur in the United States annually, executed by police that are, thanks to the federal government, increasingly using military hardware and tactics. They almost always involve hyper-aggressive SWAT teams (initially conceived for hostage situations and incidents involving active shooters) and are often used to arrest low-level drug offenders. While the Phonesavanh’s story is heartbreaking, it is not unique. Mrs. Phonesavanh has joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to highlight these police crimes and hopefully bring an end to the excessive and needless violence being wrought on the Americans least able to defend themselves.
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