Caught in the act

March 27, 1991

Editorial: Caught in the act

In the last week, people all around the world watched a home video of US police mercilessly beating and kicking a black man. The cops had stopped him for speeding, then, thinking they were unobserved, had passed sentence and meted out punishment: 51 hits with police batons, numerous kicks and a shot at close range with a stun gun. As the shock reverberated through people before television sets in millions of sitting rooms, even a president fresh from authorising the slaughter of thousands of defenceless Iraqis was forced to go on record expressing his disgust at the violence.

This episode seems to reinforce the findings of a recent study that found the US to be the most violent country in the world. But we shouldn't feel any complacency in Australia, where working-class youth and blacks are no strangers to police violence.

A NSW Supreme Court judge has finally ruled on a case that arose in an early morning raid by 135 members of the police tactical response group on the black community in Redfern, Sydney, last year. The street was cordoned off, and armed police, with dogs, smashed down the doors of several houses and dragged the occupants out of bed. Their excuse for this military-style raid was the execution of seven search warrants, all for relatively petty suspected crimes.

Judge Finlay found that four of the seven warrants were invalid and that one warrant was for a man who had already been in police custody for several days!

Shocking as this incident was, the numerous reports from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody now being released tell an even more horrible tale. Murder, torture, criminal neglect and numerous cover-ups are being exposed. All this makes nonsense of the frequent attempts in the mainstream media to dismiss Aboriginal rights issues as simply an expression of white guilt for crimes from a distant past.

Yet even when the truth about police violence is exposed for all to see, will it become a thing of the past? Or is such violence endemic to supposedly democratic societies such as Australia and the US?

The problem is not one of bad cops. Police violence has to be blamed on the society that sets the rules for the use of legitimised violence. As police spokespersons often say in defence, they were only trying to do their job. But what is the nature of this job? Is it to enforce justice or to protect the interests of some sectors of society more than others?

They certainly don't mount dawn raids on suburbs like Toorak, Vaucluse, Woollahra, Peppermint Grove — although they'd probably find billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains stashed away there. The corporate criminals don't get a regular beating to keep them in line.

A major role of the police in societies like ours is to intimidate the rate sections of the population, while the biggest criminals are allowed to get on with their business. It is called "maintaining law and order" (a phrase that politicians serve on tap), but it is the law of the rich and the order of the exploiters. The unspoken rule is that the police can do whatever they think they can get away with when dealing with the poor and blacks. Once in a while, however, they get caught in the act.

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