Letter from the US: Why police can kill with impunity

October 6, 2016

New reports of police murdering Black people seem to occur daily. Three recent police killings that have sparked huge protests took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Charlotte, North Carolina; and El Cajon, California.

The Charlotte murder and demonstrations have received the most coverage. Before he was shot dead on September 20, Keith Scott, a 43-year-old African American, was sitting in his car waiting for his child to come home from school.

The cops’ ridiculous cover story is that while seeking to arrest someone else, they noticed Scott sitting in his car with a marijuana cigarette and a gun. A video taken by his wife of the scene shows her pleading with police not to shoot him, insisting he did not have a gun and had a traumatic brain injury.

Huge daily demonstrations finally forced the police to release some of their footage of the incident, which they had sought to keep hidden. Their own videos show a confused Scott standing next to his car after police ordered him out. They also show he had no gun. The police then opened fire, killing him.

North Carolina’s ultra-right state legislature and governor just passed a law that shields cops from having to release their footage of confrontations to the public. This law took effect on October 1, a few days after the release of the police videos.

This is the same legislature that passed the infamous law barring cities in the state from passing any ordinances prohibiting discrimination against LGBTI people.

Alfred Orlando

In El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego, police shot dead an unarmed mentally disturbed man, Alfred Orlando, on September 27. His sister had called for help because her brother was acting erratically.

“I called you to help me,” she is heard screaming, “but you killed my brother!” Eyewitnesses said the 30-year-old African American had his hands up when he was Tasered by one cop and shot dead by another.

One eyewitness, Michael Rodriguez, said: “We were leaving out of these apartments right here [pointing], facing north. I see a Black man surrounded by officers with their guns out, which caught my attention. So I tell the others, ‘look, look, look,’ so that we’re all looking, we’re watching.

“The Black man was with his hands up, scared to death, not knowing which way he is going to go … he’s jerking, he’s confused. He runs this way, they discharge boom, boom, boom — five shots right into him.”

In Tulsa, police released their footage of the September 16 murder of Terence Crutcher. Police arrived on the scene after Crutcher’s car broke down.

Footage from a police dash camera shows Crutcher slowly backing away from police with his hands in the air, then putting his hands on the side of his car as he is surrounded by officers. He is then shot down by a police officer standing some distance away.

Crutcher’s twin sister, Dr Tiffany Crutcher, told the media: “We know that there was no gun in the car. We know he was unarmed. We know he was moving slow. We know he didn’t commit a crime… but [we know] my brother is dead.”

The police admit all this.

The white police officer who shot Crutcher, Betty Shelby, has been charged. She says in her defence that she was “scared for her life”. That may well be true, as many whites fear Black people, who have been criminalised as a group by the whole culture.

Of course she was never in any danger. Her victim was.

In Charlotte, it was a Black cop who murdered Scott. In Tulsa, a woman was responsible for the killing. Having more Blacks and women on police forces is not the answer.

Justice denied

Will Shelby be found guilty? Other police who have been charged with killings of Black people have been found not guilty. This was the case in Baltimore when Freddy Gray died while in the hands of five officers — despite it being an open and shut case.

Even if Shelby is found guilty, will she just get a slap on the wrist?

It is not known if anyone will be charged in the Charlotte and El Cajon murders. No charges against killer cops is the norm in the great majority of cases that have sparked the mass Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in recent years.

There are deep roots to the intransigence of capitalist politicians of both major parties and the whole legal system in refusing to curb police violence against Blacks. One aspect has been seen in verbal attacks on the BLM movement.

For example, FBI head James Comey, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to head the FBI in 2013, said BLM protests had demoralised the police and made it harder to carry out their jobs.

What jobs was he referring to? Not those when police do “good” —such as directing traffic, rescuing car crash victims or helping evacuate people from the paths of hurricanes. He was talking about the systematic police repression of Blacks, which has even been documented by the federal government, even if it fails to act on its own evidence.

Bringing police to justice for murdering Blacks, or for the systematic daily repression in the Black community of which police murders are the most glaring example, would weaken a central pillar of US capitalism. Such justice cannot and will not be done.

Systemic oppression

The systematic oppression and super exploitation of Blacks was woven into the very fabric of the capitalist system in the US from its beginning, which took the form of slavery in the British colonies in America.

When the colonies revolted against British domination in the first American Revolution in the late 18th Century, such forced labour was maintained in the new Constitution. It was built into the establishment of the political structure of the US.

The separate colonies became states. The Southern states were most dependent on slavery, with slave labour on large plantations producing raw materials for the developing world capitalist market. This centred on the production of cotton for the British cloth and apparel industry, where modern capitalist production based on machinery originated.

To protect slavery in the South, states were given a lot of power. This was expressed in the phrase “states rights” — a slogan of reaction that helps underpin the undemocratic structure of the whole country to the present day.

The slave system eventually became an obstacle to the development of capitalism based on wage labour, a conflict only resolved in the 1861–65 Civil War, the second American Revolution. The resistance of the slave owners was manifest in the ferocity of the Civil War, which resulted in the largest number of casualties in relation to the total US population of any US war since, including the two world wars.

Except for the brief historical period of radical Reconstruction after the Civil War, the oppression of Blacks and the super exploitation of Black labour was not ended. It simply took new forms. In the Southern states, there was a violent counter-revolution that established legal apartheid, known as Jim Crow.

This counter-revolution was carried out not only by the new capitalist governments of the South, but also by the federal government. In the rest of the country, de facto segregation became the norm.

The Jim Crow system of de jure or legal apartheid was not abolished until the mass Black uprising of the 1960s. This was a major victory that changed the US, but the oppression and super exploitation of the majority of Blacks continued. This has been exposed by the new movement led by young Blacks, with many women in the lead.

The police function in maintaining this system of oppression and exploitation is to keep a lid on the Black community through violence. The police are the enforcers of this whole system of institutionalised racism, which is essential to US capitalism.

Third revolution

This can only be overthrown by a third American Revolution, which will combine a socialist revolution by the whole working class to abolish capitalism with a Black revolution to overthrow institutionalised racism. The recently released platform of Black Lives Matter points in this direction.

Of course, we are far from this new revolution. In many ways, we have been set back. One example is the weakening of the union movement and its betrayal by its class collaborationist leadership.

It will take struggle on many fronts by the oppressed and exploited, which will have ups and downs, defeats and partial victories on the road forward.

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