Tag Archives: Trayvon Martin

The Danger of America’s Police is the Mindset, Not Military Weapons

Police impunity in the U.S. is the norm. A study found that 99.8% of 1,500 officers involved in killing civilians were never convicted. 

by Arun Gupta Telesur August 24, 2014

The Aug. 9 killing of a defenseless 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was depressingly familiar. Nearly a hundred unarmed black people are killed by cops every year in the United States. Few stir the national conscience despite the often shady circumstances of their deaths. Police impunity is the norm, with one study finding 99.8 percent of 1,500 officers involved in killing civilians were never convicted of criminal charges.

Dorian Johnson, the primary witness to the shooting, claims Officer Wilson gunned down a wounded Brown who had his hands raised in surrender. Brown’s corpse was left on the street for four hours. Blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, have long decried systematic violence at the hands of a virtually all-white police force. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, has shifted from 74 percent white to 63 percent African-American since 1990, and has been pummeled by the housing and economic downturn for nearly a decade.

Brown’s killing catalyzed these long-simmering grievances into protests. But few were prepared for what came next. Ferguson police outfitted with armored vehicles, sonic weapons, sniper rifles, body armor, and grenade launchers swarmed the streets, firing tear gas, flash-bang grenades, pepper spray balls, and rubber and wooden bullets at civilians. “The police response has shocked America,” wrote the New York Times. Police in full battle rattle leveling automatic rifles at protesters with their hands held up were likened to the streets of Baghdad. After reporters were attacked and arrested, the Washington Post equipped its staff with blue bulletproof vests emblazoned with “PRESS,” the same gear used on Middle East battlefields. One British paper dispatched its Afghanistan war correspondent to Ferguson to cover the violence.

One welcome surprise was that outrage among Ferguson residents continued for two weeks. It’s rare to see sustained defiant protest in the United States. They were fed up with a level of police brutality that is so casual it’s shocking. One cop, in full view of video cameras, pointed a rifle at unarmed protesters and yelled, “I will fucking kill you.”

Images like that led to an outcry to demilitarize the police. Washington has created a grab bag of military aid through the “1033 program,” the Law Enforcement Support Office, and Department of Homeland Security grants, enabling local enforcement agencies to snatch up drones, mine-resistant vehicles, battle gear, and chemical weapons. Much of this came into effect after the September 11 attacks, but some of it pre-dates the attacks, and ending it is not so simple.

Junking surplus military equipment won’t alter the social attitudes that give police so much latitude they are effectively the law. The war on drugs and war on crime attitudes have created a disdain for civil liberties in America, especially the rights of the accused and by extension entire communities. Civil liberties deteriorated even further after September 11. In an atmosphere where the public has been stampeded into trading freedom for security, police violence and lack of accountability flourishes with or without military equipment.

After Brown’s death it was apparent police were violating constitutional rights: freedom of the press, the use of unreasonable force, the right to assemble, and equal protection. Cops from Ferguson and surrounding communities told protesters when, where, and how they could demonstrate, arresting many engaged in peaceful activity. At least 11 journalists were arrested. Police threatened and attacked journalists and protesters who were filming interactions. And there is a documented pattern of Ferguson police using profiling, stopping, and arresting African-Americans.

Given the systematic crimes by Ferguson police, Missouri State Gov. Jay Nixon was complicit in their lawlessness by not replacing them immediately. Nixon dragged his heels and employed half measures, such as bringing in a state police commander with limited powers and deploying National Guard troops to protect the police 10 days after the police violence began. But at no point were local police ordered off the streets. President Obama whose oath of office is to uphold the Constitution laid low before finally dispatching Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson.

Elected officials vacillate because they are afraid to challenge the social power of police. It is a truism that for the police to function the public has to allow itself to be policed. But this truth is startling to many, and what is happening in Ferguson is a rebellion against this order. Most Americans support the police in their explicit function to protect property and implicit function to protect a social order based on racial and class hierarchies. This is not an abstraction. A crowd-funding webpage for Darren Wilson raked in nearly a quarter-million dollars in donations in under a week and was rife with incendiary comments. (A new fundraising site for Wilson was set up with the support of the Ferguson Police Department and netted another ninety thousand dollars in two days.)

One individual who donated a hundred dollars wrote, “I thank all Police, you are the ‘Thin Blue Line’ protecting normal Americans from aggressive and entitled primitive savages.” That sentence succinctly if inadvertently sums up the reactionary view of American history. Only state violence keeps civilization safe. “Entitled primitive savages” crams together three racial stereotypes: the welfare queen, backwards Africans, and uncivilized natives. “Normal” Americans are undoubtedly white as other comments made clear. Brown was a “thing,” a “thug,” and “a waste of good ammo.” “Blacks [use] every excuse in the book to loot and riot.” One person exhorted, “Wake up White America.” Another said, “All self-respecting whites have a moral responsibility to support our growing number of martyrs to the failed experiment called diversity.”

The racially charged aggression reveals the hollowness of the age of Obama. In 2008 Obama presented himself as an avatar of a post-racial America. The more he succeeded, the more it proved America had triumphed over its racist legacy. Liberals embraced this fantasy because through Obama they could see themselves as good, just, and free of bias. But the post-racial ideology made Obama impotent to confront the structural racism that still exists in America. White liberals are no less complicit than white conservatives in supporting and benefiting from the economic and social power they gain from segregated housing, educational and employment. If anything, conservatives more readily acknowledge the role of police is to enforce this order. The two times Obama did speak out about state-sanctioned violence against Blacks, the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for breaking into his own home and the stalking and killing of an unarmed Trayvon Martin by a vigilante, Obama was met with derision by the right and silence by most liberals.

Obama learned his lesson. He had nothing to gain from confronting racism because his power was based on denying, and not confronting, how America is fractured by race and class. If he had successfully challenged it in his first presidential run, which is no mean feat, that would have brought together an organized social base to counter the white reactionary response to Ferguson. Instead, Obama vacationed in silence on Martha’s Vineyard, the summer redoubt for America’s elite, and took five days to issue a statement that was “tone deaf and disappointing.

For Obama to state the obvious—that the police are the architects of the violence in Ferguson, that they act like an occupying army towards the Blacks there, and that unreconstructed racism is alive and well—would provoke a huge backlash among many whites, and a fair number of Asians and Latinos as well.

To reduce the issue of police violence in America to the equipment they use can easily backfire. While it will be a real struggle to shelve the armored vehicles, body armor, machine guns, and chemical weapons that’s a small part of the battle. Removing all the military gear is not going to magically transform the police into officer friendly in a fifties patrol car. The racist policing and profiling won’t end, nor will the wide license society, the courts, and the media give them.

I’ve watched the NYPD in action for 25 years. They rarely rely on military weapons, though they probably have every one imaginable. The New York police brass is savvy. Using tanks, which they once did in 1995 as a show of force against squatters, looks bad for tourism. Using tear gas, rubber bullets, or other “less-lethal” weapons is a no-no given how many bankers and executives might get hit. As observers of Occupy Wall Street witnessed the police used good old-fashioned fists and clubs to bash demonstrators. I talked to one reporter who caught sight of cops bloodying handcuffed activists in the back of a police van during an Occupy protest.

But the most devastating weapon the NYPD has is a policy: stop and frisk. Since 2002 the NYPD has been under court order to collect, compile, and make public data regarding stop-and-frisks. By its own data, the NYPD has violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino males. They are stopped disproportionately compared to whites by every measure: if there is a warrant against them, they have a weapon or contraband, have committed a crime, or are in a high-crime area. The only way to explain the vast disparity is the policy is racist. Stop and frisk assumed Black and Latino males were criminal suspects based solely on their race. In 2010, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly allegedly told New York State elected officials outright that the police deliberately targeted young Black and Latino men because “he wanted to instill fear in them, every time they leave their home they could be stopped by the police.”

During the last decade a movement came together in New York to stop the racist policing that has destroyed tens of thousands of lives by sending innocent men to prison or for nothing more than possessing a little marijuana. More court orders were handed down. Many media outlets called for an end to stop and frisk, and Bill de Blasio won the mayoralty in 2013 by making the policy a campaign issue. Once victorious, however, de Blasio angered many supporters by rehiring Bill Bratton as NYPD Commissioner, who instituted the dubious “broken windows” policing in the 1990s. Stop and frisk appears to have dropped by 90 percent from its peak of 685,000 stops in 2011. But Black and Latino males are still being disproportionately targeted. Moreover, Bratton’s focus on infractions like pan handling, pot smoking, graffiti, and subway fare jumpers deliberately targets minorities as well. In three overwhelmingly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Brooklyn, more than 50,000 summons were issued for biking on sidewalks between 2001 and 2013. I never have to worry about that in Manhattan, where I live. Bikers on sidewalks—of which there are many—in the tony white neighborhoods of Tribeca and the Finance District received only 325 tickets during the same period. Making this “crime” central to policing will mean many more young men of color will go directly to jail.

Once snared in the criminal justice system, Black and Latino men have fewer resources to prove their innocence and are less likely to receive leniency. Tickets often snowball into arrest warrants, jail time and permanent criminal records that diminish employment, education, and housing opportunities. Even if stop and frisk has ended, one racist policing practice has been replaced with another. Bratton’s policy of sending police to look for minor nuisance and imposing quotas on them for arrests, as the NYPD reportedly does, guarantees needless and hostile encounters. On Staten Island, police targeted Eric Garner on July 17 because he was involved in breaking up a fight. At every point the cops escalated the confrontation and eventually piled on him, choking the 43-year-old father of six to death.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says, “We need an end to the kind of philosophy of policing that says it’s OK to engage in preventive, detention-like tactics.”

That’s what really at stake in demilitarizing the police. Undoubtedly military weapons enables greater violence against the public, just as a huge standing army enables U.S. wars abroad. But it was the post-9/11 mindset of preventive war that set all the tanks, planes, and missiles in motion.

The mindset needs to change, one that says police should have latitude and no oversight because whenever “excesses” happen like the killing of Michael Brown occur (or Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and thousands of others), the preventive policing still serves the greater cause of keeping the peace of the existing social order.

Take away the military weapons from Ferguson police and they will still be an occupying army to the Black community there. Many Americans want to keep it that way. They have the mindset Blacks and Latinos are a threat and need to be contained. That’s what enables the police to take to the streets with military weapons and gear. Ending this mentality is what will stop out-of-control police forces, not taking away their toys.

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How I Called the Cops and Almost Got Shot: the Politics of Being a “Threat”

2013_0910gun_

On this national day of protest against police brutality, Reporter Arun Gupta recalls an incident years ago in New York City when he stared down the barrel of a police gun because he “looked like a suspect.” 

By Arun Gupta  September 10, 2013 truth-out.org
It was night. I was winding down, watching “Star Trek” in the living room when Irene yelled in panic from the back of our railroad flat in Brooklyn. A few seconds later, she emerged half-dressed and red-faced. “Some guy tried to climb into my bedroom from the fire escape. But I screamed, and he ran off,” she panted in her Irish brogue.

Grabbing the phone, I dialed 911 and said a guy had tried to break into our apartment but had fled. “They’re in your apartment?” the dispatcher asked. “No! It was an attempted break-in. They’re gone.” I emphasized, “Attempted, attempted. They are long gone.” I walked toward Irene’s bedroom and from her window adjoining the fire escape blue-and-red lights flashed in the dark as a police cruiser rounded the corner.

We shouted to the cops that someone tried to break in but hightailed out because of the commotion. They asked where the prowler was. “I don’t know. They’re probably nearby.” The cops remained in the car, seemingly uninterested in searching for the suspect.

As Irene gave the cops more details, there was pounding on the front door. “I’ll get it,” I said, striding down the hall. Fists hammered on the door. “Who is it,” I asked. “Police. Open up!” I peered through the eyehole, but the figures were obscured. “Step in front of the peephole,” I said. “Open the fucking door,” a male voice bellowed.

Well, I figured, I was the one who called the cops, so who else could it be? I swung the door open and to my side was a black female cop with her gun drawn, pointed upward, and in front of me was a white male cop standing on the stairs in a two-handed shooting stance with his gun resting on the banister pointing directly at my head. As I stared down the barrel of his nickel-plated revolver, the warning from my friend Greg, a born-and-bred Texan, flashed in my head. “Always be wary of a cop who has a nickel-plated revolver. It means they spent $500 on their own gun, and they’re eager to use it.”

“Put your guns away,” I blurted at the African-American cop. With a head shake, she shot back, “Don’t tell me what to do.” Meanwhile the male cop yelled, “Step out of the fucking apartment.”

It dawned on me that they thought I was the suspect.

But they didn’t consider that I was unarmed, barefoot and wearing only underwear and a T-shirt – or why an intruder would open the locked door when there were plenty of windows to escape from in the apartment. I hollered, “I was the one who called 911. I told them the guy fled.” The male cop kept baying, “Get out of the fucking apartment,” and I countered, “This is my fucking apartment.”

At that point Irene entered the three-way fray and exclaimed, “What in Christ’s name are you doing? He’s my roommate.” The cops lowered their guns, and as we continued yelling they looked at each other and then bolted.

“Jesus Christ, they thought you were the burglar,” Irene said as we closed the door. I rolled my eyes, “Fucking pigs.” This is the point in the story where I’m supposed to say I started shaking when I realized my brains were almost turned into modern art on the wall behind me. But I didn’t because I was unscathed. I did figure they flew the coop quickly because they were about to execute some street justice on me and didn’t want us to get their badge numbers.

I was pissed they assumed I was enough of a threat to warrant the possible use of deadly force. I was pissed that what saved my South Asian ass was my female Irish roommate. (And I was pissed I missed the end of “Star Trek.”)

If the cops had killed me, it would have been the word of New York’s finest against my corpse. The story would have been they were responding to a break-in. I was a suspect who was being uncooperative, belligerent, even threatening. In the unlikely event they were charged with a crime, the cops would have been acquitted because their perception was I was a threat. That perception was based mainly on the fact I’m a dark-skinned, broad-shouldered male. I would have been another Trayvon Martin or Amadou Diallo, who was plugged with 19 bullets in 1999 after four cops stopped him in his Bronx apartment building because he “looked like a suspect.”

Like Martin’s, Diallo’s killing spurred a movement against racial profiling, which led to a court order in 2003 forcing the NYPD to release data on stop-and-frisk practices every three months. But my death would have been a footnote, because it would have happened right before Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1993 and aggressively expanded stop-and-frisks. Back then, few people were aware of the lax protocol for police stops. I was certainly clueless in 1990 when I felt the humiliation of a police stop in a subway station because they said I “looked like a suspect.”

The problem with stop-and-frisk is the wide discretion given to cops’ perception, cops whose views are shaped more by centuries of social prejudices than a few months in the police academy. Cops, soldiers, even armed vigilantes can get away with murder by claiming they felt threatened. The law takes stereotypes like black criminals, Mexican gangsters and Muslim terrorists and transforms them from subjective irrationality into objective criteria. George Zimmerman would never have been acquitted if he had gunned down a 17-year-old blonde cheerleader. That’s why I could have been on the roll call that includes Diallo, Martin, Sean Bell, Ramerley Graham, Oscar Grant and hundreds of others.

Stop-and-frisks are known as “Terry stops,” referring to the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, which carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment. It was the first time “the Court allowed a criminal search and seizure without probable cause,” and subsequent case law further loosened the standards for a stop. The court ruled police need only “reasonable suspicion” to stop someone, and the “sole justification” for a frisk is “to discover guns, knives, clubs, or other hidden instruments for the assault of the police officer.”

Terry was shaped in an era of “social upheaval, violence in ghettos and disorder on campuses,” and handed down right after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The liberal Warren Court was under attack from the right for “coddling criminals,” and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign fanned the flames to such a degree that ” ‘Impeach Earl Warren’ signs appeared along highways in most parts of the country.”

The justices capitulated to the law-and-order climate by asserting police conduct involved the “necessarily swift action predicated upon the on-the-spot observations of the officer” drawing on “his experience.” The high court made this explicit 12 years later in United States v. Cortez when it “directly instructed lower courts to defer to the judgment of police.” Given the historical antagonism between an overwhelmingly white police force and ghettoized communities, it made racial fears central to policing. In Cortez, the justices also implied police actions were beyond public scrutiny: “A trained officer draws inferences and makes deductions … that might well elude an untrained person.” So if the police decide inner-city blacks and Latinos are violent or prone to crime, then the courts should defer to the police as the most capable of making and acting on those judgments.

This is why it took 14 years to take a bite out of stop-and-frisk. Of the 4.8 million stops conducted by the NYPD in the past decade, five in six of those stopped were black or Latino. They were more likely to be frisked than whites but less likely to be found with a weapon. Digging into the 685,724 stops in 2011, the New York Civil Liberties Union uncovered two astonishing facts: the “number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared with 158,406), and in six precincts where blacks and Latinos make up 14 percent of the population or less, they accounted for 70 percent of stops. Independent studies have determined “race predicts stop-and-frisk patterns even after controlling for variables like crime rates, social conditions and the allocation of police resources.”

Since 2003, of the 570,000 people arrested or given a summons, nearly 90 percent are black and Latino, creating a circular logic. It’s reasonable for police to stop, frisk and arrest black men and Latinos because they are more likely to be involved in criminal activity because police are arresting so many of them.

That’s the logic of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who claims cops “disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.” Because of Terry, Bloomberg and top cop Ray Kelly have to say they’re taking guns off the streets to justify ratcheting up stop-and-frisks sevenfold since 2002. But cops have had to stop an average of 833 people in recent years to find one illegal gun, and stop-and-frisks are so inefficient that they produce fewer arrests than what police typically achieve at random checkpoints.

Bloomberg’s attitude flows down the command chain and reinforces prejudices that blacks and Latinos are more prone to crime. It’s also codified in the law where reasonable suspicion exists for anyone in a “high-crime area” and who moves away from police. In the 1.62 million stops from 2010 through June 2012, the three most cited factors lack individual specificity: high-crime area at 61 percent, “furtive movements” at 54 percent and time of day at 43 percent. (Multiple factors are usually cited, and the nebulous categories of “evasive response,” “proximity to crime scene” and “changed direction” account for another 65 percent.) But expert analysis finds 86 percent of these stops can still be justified, an additional 10 percent could not be categorized and a mere 4 percent were “apparently unjustified.” So with a few tweaks, the NYPD can still profile entire communities.

This does not detract from the dogged grassroots effort against stop-and-frisk in conjunction with the legal strategy pursued by the Center for Constitutional Rights since 1999. It has won landmark victories like US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s August 12 ruling that the NYPD is engaged in “indirect racial profiling,” which the “city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to” in violation of the Fourth and 14th Amendments. Scheindlin appointed an independent monitor to “end the constitutional violations in the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices,” and the City Council passed a bill authorizing “an outside inspector general with subpoena power to study and make policy recommendations to the department.”

Bigger battles lie ahead beyond the hostility the NYPD likely will mount to many reforms. The next step is to wipe away the stained legacy of Terry, which is essential to the New Jim Crow that consigns many African-Americans to the bottom of the barrel. Since the 1963 March on Washington, the relative status of blacks compared with whites is virtually unchanged in terms of poverty, earnings, wealth and unemployment. When it comes to imprisonment, the rates are worse.

The drug war and an eightfold increase in the prison population since 1970 have forced millions of blacks and Latinos into a shadow workforce. I’ve encountered the results in Niles, Ohio, where striking steelworkers told me the factory owner was using ex-convicts as strike breakers, and in the Chicago warehouse industry, where workers say about half the workers have criminal records and are desperate for any employment, which allows management to force down wages and deny workers basic rights.

I know what it’s like to be a problem. The police have stopped and interrogated me; cops pulled guns on me in my own apartment, and I regularly win the Homeland Security interrogation lottery when entering the United States. But in general my social status affords me protection.

My daily life is not defined by a system that conflates race with danger. My school was not patrolled by scowling cops packing heat. My job options were not limited to flipping burgers or slinging rock. My friends didn’t cycle between prison and parole. My neighborhood isn’t swarming with so many cops that kids lift their shirts to indicate, “There’s no reason to stop and frisk me.”

Yet that night in my apartment, my background didn’t matter: The clichés about a clean record, a good background, an upstanding citizen. The cops didn’t know that, but they knew I willingly opened the door, I was unarmed and in my underwear, I explained I called 911, but I was guilty. I got a nickel-plated taste of how policing reflects social prejudices.

Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama aside, there’s a desperate need for a new Reconstruction today as much as there was 50 years ago, when the tide shifted against America-style Apartheid. The much-needed judicial and legislative victories against stop-and-frisk do not address how individual fears harden into iron bars of segregation. And while the race line has blurred into class, we are still two countries, separate and unequal.

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