Letter from the US: Not just 'bad apples' — new report exposes police repression myths

August 28, 2016
Sylville Smith (left) and protests against his killing
Sylville Smith (left) and protests against his killing in Milwaukee.

With the media awash 24/7 with the charges and counter-charges between the two candidates for president from the major capitalist parties, police murders of African Americans and protests against them continue apace — receiving only cursory media attention.

Two such incidents occurred in Milwaukee and Chicago. In Milwaukee, police shot and killed 23-year-old Black man Sylville Smith as he was fleeing from them on August 13. As news of the murder spread, angry crowds confronted the police and began to fight back. The crowd threw rocks at the cops, set police cars on fire and burned down some businesses in a spontaneous mass uprising.

The next day, Black church leader Johnny Winston led a peaceful march to the police station. The crowd raised their arms in the air in the “Hands Up, Don't Shoot!” gesture that has been a feature of many protests.

Some cops at the station, including on the roof, responded by placing their hands on their guns as the crowd approached. Others “jumped out of their cars with rifles and billy clubs,” said Winston. “We just wanted to get our point across. We just want peace. Why do they always have to react by going to the gun first?”

In a bid to justify the killing, the police told media that Smith had a criminal record. They also claimed to have a video of Smith threatening them with a gun, but refuse to release it to the public.

Threat of desk duty

In July, Chicago cops killed unarmed Black teenager Paul O'Neal. In this case, the police did release a partial video taken by police body cameras. The actual murder was not filmed, the cops claim, because the officer who did the shooting somehow failed to have his camera turned on.

The video that was released showed O'Neal lying face down in a growing pool of blood surrounded by officers, who handcuff him and search his belongings while he bleeds. He later died. He was shot in the back, according to the medical examiner.

At the scene, officers can be overheard concocting stories about how they were attacked. One of the officers is heard while walking away from O'Neal, cursing and complaining that “I'm going to be on a desk for 30 goddamn days now. Motherfucker!”

The officer's expectation that he will get only a slap on the wrist for murder is typical. Almost all police involved in such shootings, including well-known cases caught on video, go largely unpunished.

In the United States, police are not subject to the same laws as civilians when it comes to use of force, including deadly force. Police departments establish their own rules in such cases, and these can vary from city to city.

One thing these policies have in common is that police may shoot to kill if they “believe” they are being threatened. The Supreme Court has upheld this standard.

This defence has been used successfully in many cases where the cop says they “thought” that a suspect was reaching for a gun, despite the fact the suspect had no gun and was reaching for identification as requested by the police.

Any cop can claim they felt threatened and it is difficult to disprove otherwise. But in the case of African American victims, Black witnesses are dismissed as “biased.”

Freddie Gray

This policy is only one aspect of the way the legal system excuses police murder. The case of Freddie Gray is indicative. Baltimore police attacked the 25-year-old Black man last year because they claimed he looked at them the wrong way. He was beaten, arrested, and put in a van for transportation to the police station. Upon arrival, Gray was found dead.

An uprising erupted in the city. Frightened by the violence, authorities brought charges against the group of officers. A jury trial for one of the police perpetrators resulted in a hung jury. Then two of the remaining perpetrators opted for trials by judges, who found them not guilty. Charges against the rest were dropped since it was clear there would be no convictions.

The result: The police themselves admit that Gray died at the hands of the cops in the police van. But none are found responsible. It is a peculiar, but typical, form of “justice”.

As a result of the Gray case, the federal Department of Justice investigated the Baltimore Police Department. Its recently released report was, in the words of the New York Times, a “scathing” indictment of the systematic police repression of Blacks.

The report demolishes the myth that police oppression of African Americans reflects the actions of just a few “bad apples” — not most police. On the contrary, the DOJ report found the whole Police Department engaged in systematic repression — it is policy.

The report also found it was not just one police department to blame. It said cities and towns across the country experience the same systematic repression.

Another myth is that the situations that lead to police shootings of Black people could be resolved by having more Black police officers. It is true that having all, or mostly, white departments exacerbates racist treatment. But the Baltimore police are majority Black.

The truth is that all police are trained and disciplined by the police culture to carry out a policy of racist repression — whatever their skin colour. Any officer who objects to this policy, white or Black, is ostracised. If they persist, they are ejected from the force.

'Zero tolerance'

The report blames the pervasive use by police of “zero tolerance” policing. This is the policy of going after small “crimes” such as spitting on the sidewalk, public drinking or begging, ostensibly to prevent bigger crimes. There is no evidence whatsoever this works. Rather, it is another myth to cover up pervasive police harassment and violence.

“Zero tolerance” originated in New York and has spread across the country, the report said. The report avoids the question of why this policy was adopted — and applied to Blacks and other minorities almost exclusively.

For example, in New York from 2008 to 2010, eight citations for riding bicycles on the sidewalk were issued in Park Slope, a predominantly white neighbourhood. In nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant, which is predominantly Black and Latino, 2050 such citations were issued.

Systemic oppression

The report also did not look at the underlying reality that predates “zero tolerance”, and is the context in which the policy is pushed. This is the systematic oppression of Blacks that has been part and parcel of the development of US capitalism from colonial times up to the US's present status as a world power.

The NYT noted: “[T]his week's blistering report from the Justice Department on police bias in Baltimore also exposed a different, but related, concern: how the police in that majority Black city treat women, especially victims of sexual assault.”

The report “painted a picture of a police culture deeply dismissive of sexual assault victims” — especially poor Black women. The report documents police and prosecutors blaming the victims in gross terms, in one case dismissing a rape victim as a “conniving little whore.”

This, too, is not only a Baltimore problem, but is typical throughout the country. This is indicated by one fact: tens of thousands of rape kits sit in police storage and are never tested, and are then thrown out.

It should also be noted that while the DOJ report is important for what it exposes, the DOJ itself does nothing to bring the police perpetrators to justice.

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