By Barry Sheppard
For two weeks in the wake of the police's February 4 shooting of Ahmed Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant in New York, daily protests kept the spotlight on police terror against blacks and Hispanics.
A mass civil disobedience campaign organised by Reverend Al Sharpton, former New York mayor David Dinkins (who is black) and others has resulted in the arrest of nearly 1200 protesters, many of them prominent black figures from around the country. The civil disobedience action was called off after the four white officers who killed Diallo were arrested. However, a mass demonstration held in mid-April drew thousands.
An important new feature has been the involvement of sections of the mainstream labour movement. Most New York labour leaders have not traditionally spoken out against police abuse. Moreover, most either supported or didn't oppose the 1997 re-election of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose program of "getting tough on crime" has resulted in police singling out blacks and other minorities for arbitrary searches, arrests, beatings and shootings.
Union leaders in the Diallo protests included Dennis Rivera, president of the 140,000-member National Health and Human Services Workers, Anna Burger of the international executive board of the Service Employees International Union and Lee Saunders, administrator of the largest New York municipal workers' union.
Even the New York Central Labor Council, which supported Giuliani's re-election, has condemned the shooting.
Diallo, who had no police record and was a devout Muslim, was gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets, because he "looked like" a police suspect. What "looked like" means is that he was black. The killing has brought more to the fore the police practice of racial profiling and selective harassment based on race.
Across the Hudson River, which separates New York from the state of New Jersey, blue-blood Governor Christine Todd Whitman has been forced to admit that state troopers indeed have a racial profile of suspects. This admission came after years of Whitman denying it.
She said she was "surprised" to learn that at least 77% of those whose vehicles were searched by the highway police are minorities. Yet black and Hispanic drivers, and even some former state troopers, have testified to the existence of a pattern of racial searches. Dozens of criminal cases resulting from arrests during highway stops are being contested by defendants on the basis that the stops were a result of racial profiling.
Significantly, the New Jersey attorney-general announced that the state would drop its appeal against a State Superior Court ruling that dismissed criminal charges against 17 black defendants who were stopped because of their race.
The report released by the attorney-general and Whitman added another term to the racial profiling lexicon by disclosing the practice of "spotlighting", in which troopers park their patrol cars at a right angle to the highway at night and illuminate each passing car with their headlights. This position makes radar guns ineffective, but allows the cops to see into the passing vehicles to determine occupants' race.
Another cop practice they call "ghosting". This refers to police altering their records to conceal the disproportionate number of black and Hispanic motorists they stop. Two troopers who have been charged with "ghosting" are also under investigation for the shooting of three men they pulled over last year.
The attorney-general's report stated that, in cases where charges were laid by police, 62% involved black people. "Ghosting" means that even this high figure understates the racism involved.