Behind Murder With Impunity

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

The Editors

NEW YORK CITY and Los Angeles have become the model for life under capitalism in general, and in late-twentieth century urban America in particular.  For the affluent are the booming stock and real estate markets; for the poor, a vista of injustice piled on injustice, atrocity on atrocity, serial police murder with impunity.  After Amadou Diallo, Malcolm Ferguson; then Patrick Dorismond: If you are Black in New York you can be shot dead if you stand still, run away, or refuse an offer to sell drugs to undercover cops.

The acquittal of the police who murdered Amadou Diallo was most obscene, perhaps, in its predictability.  With the trial moved to Albany and held a year after the killing; with the prosecution failing even to cross-examine a defense “expert witness” and offering no rebuttal; with instructions from the judge that the jury interpreted as virtually a directed acquittal-with all this, the fix was in on this case almost from the outset.

It’s not our intent at this relatively late date to review the circumstances of this outrage, which have already been detailed and eloquently analyzed in numerous venues.  (Elsewhere in this issue we present the perspective of a Brooklyn community activist on the Diallo murder, as well as several other reflections on the low-intensity war on the young.)  Rather, we offer some observations on the deep roots of murderous police brutality in a class-ridden society.

What official society generally ignores-although communities on the receiving end understand it perfectly-is that police brutality never begins with the rape of Abner Louima or killing of Amadou Diallo, Malcolm Ferguson and Patrick Dorismond in New York, Malice Green in Detroit, Tyisha Miller in Riverside or Johnny Gammage and Maneia Bey in Pittsburgh.  It begins instead in daily acts of petty humiliation, arbitrary stops and searches of young people, motorists pulled over for DWB, mundane drug busts and a hundred other routine expressions of police power.

The reason this daily level of police abuse falls below the official radar screen is not simply that the media don’t notice and the white middle classes don’t generally experience it-although these facts are relevant-but that it is accepted as the modus operandi for controlling “high crime” communities.  Rudolph Giuliani’s “safe streets” are popular among the same socially liberal New York elites who booed him on opening night at the opera over his vendetta against the Brooklyn Museum.

While the tolerance (indeed the enthusiasm) for tough policing and even tougher sentencing of youth works its way upward through the media, the courts and the affluent sectors of society, the response among youth at street level is one of constant hostility toward the police, expressed occasionally in violent acts of resistance, but also in adaptive strategies for survival.

Amadou Diallo, a recent African immigrant, died reaching for his wallet with ID, not understanding what African Americans in that neighborhood know: If confronted by the cops, never go into your pocket.  What passes for effective policing is in fact a state of ever-present low-level terror.

Needless to say, the potential for escalation is present in every such poisoned encounter.  How surprising is it that people often run away, or even, being human, sometimes even fight back (as Patrick Dorismond is alleged to have done)?  And when cops perceive resistance being offered, real or imagined, and when the beating starts or the guns are drawn-well, the thrill of power makes it feel just too good to stop.

That explains why Rodney King was beaten after he was down and cuffed, why arrestees die in chokeholds, why Malice Green was clubbed not into submission but to death, why Amadou Diallo was the target of forty-one police bullets.

But it is perhaps in Los Angeles, where the scandal in the Ramparts division is spreading through the entire LAPD and the county, where the how and why of police abuse is most clearly revealed.  Let’s be clear: The systematic fabrication of evidence, the complicity of the prosecutors’ office in railroading defendants to prison, the whole rotten mess has never been a “secret” to communities of people of color.  (That suspicion of police evidence-tampering is why a majority African-American Los Angeles jury acquitted O.J. Simpson.)

The scandal came to light when Ramparts cop Rafael Perez, bargaining for a lighter sentence when caught dealing cocaine he stole in the line of duty, started to reveal the story.  The costs threaten to bankrupt the city, and Mayor Riordan has suggested using tobacco settlement money to pay, enraging Angelenos who thought the money might go into public health programs.

LA’s anti-gang unit CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) was the cops’ own gang, fighting its own brands of turf war, recruiting as gangs do with their own initiation rites and operating as a state-sponsored paramilitary goon squad.  CRASH targeted people based on race, planted evidence and framed suspects, beat and even shot them, and turned immigrants over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation.

Perez and his partner shot an alleged teenage gang member in the head, but he survived, so they arrested him for threatening to kill them. This was the first case to be thrown out, and the victim was released to live out his life in a wheelchair.  Fifty more cases have been thrown out and hundreds more are pending, involving people now in prison.

Even worse, if that’s possible, CRASH units actively targeted individuals who were trying to broker community peace: Dewayne Holmes, trying to make peace between Crips and Bloods, and Alex Sanchez of Homies Unidos, targeted for deportation to El Salvador because of his efforts at peacemaking and job training to former gang members.

What To Do Next?

It is essential to understand, first, that police abuse against the poor, the oppressed and exploited is inevitable in a system where the formation of wealth depends on the existence of poverty, oppression and exploitation; but second, that this fact must never be an excuse for accepting abuse.  In fact, police brutality in a racist capitalist system cannot be eliminated but it can be reduced by struggles to confront it on the daily level where it begins.

There are certain programs which are truly worthless, in the nature of police-initiated “community relations” exercises or attempts to train young people how to surrender without making some trigger-happy cop feeling “threatened.” A particularly grotesque example is the ordinance in Queens under which it is illegal to sell a “realistic-looking” toy gun (real ones are OK), after a young child was shot holding one the cop thought “looked real” (it was orange).

On the other hand, everyone should support the democratic demands of the “People Justice 2000” Coalition in New York: eliminating the forty-eight hour “police silence” provision, under which police involved in shootings cannot be questioned, allowing plenty of time for cover stories to be constructed and refined; independent prosecutors for cases of homicide by police; and special prosecutors for racial crimes.

There are also meaningful structural reforms around which to build struggle: notably, the fight for independent civilian review boards and genuine police accountability.  In recent issues of Against the Current, we have interviewed activists engaged in the struggle for such accountability in Riverside and Pittsburgh (ATC 83 and 84 respectively).  The key to achieving some measure of success lies in translating outrage into the kind of sustained community organization that will remain persistent in the face of bureaucratic delays, coverups and attempts at cosmetic reform without content.

In some cases federal intervention may be a hope, but a slim one. A federal civil-rights indictment of the officers who murdered Amadou Diallo is vanishingly unlikely as a practical matter, if only because of this year’s candidacy of one H.R. Clinton for Senator.  For the Clintons, why risk a backlash over federal “intrusion,” when all that really matters is that Giuliani has already lost political support by his open indifference to police brutality?

The principle for reducing police brutality is a two-fold one of accountability and democracy.  Ultimately, this would imply that communities should be “served and protected” by people who live there, and who answer to grassroots community councils.  Only in this fashion can the poor and the oppressed free themselves from the life sentence imposed by capitalism: to live in communities where they feel forced to accept either rampant crime or police brutality, and usually in fact have both.

There are no conceivable means of achieving such a solution under capitalism, a society in which concentrations of corporate wealth must be protected by heavily “armed bodies of men” (Engels) from the disinherited.  In that sense police brutality and murder with impunity are symptoms of a diseased system, and will disappear only with the emergence of a completely different society.

That is true of every capitalist society, although it must be acknowledged that the United States of America is particularly diseased, with its policies on capital punishment, incarceration and criminalization of youth that are considered barbaric by ruling parties (and even right-of-center opposition parties) in Europe, and with our prison population now exceeding in absolute numbers (let alone relative terms) that of China.

The symptoms can be resisted, however, with ruthless critical exposure and mass organizing for meaningful reform, most notably oversight bodies with transparent processes and maximum grassroots control, open to the public and completely independent of police influence and manipulation.

ATC 86, May-June 2000