Police Brutality: An Anthologyby Jill Nelson, Jill Nelson
In recent years, nothing has blotted the American imagination so starkly as the highway beating of Rodney King, the shooting of the unarmed and innocent amadou Diallo, and the savage torture of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn precinct's bathroom. While many white Americans were shocked by these naked abuses of official police power, many more black Americans greeted news… See more details below
In recent years, nothing has blotted the American imagination so starkly as the highway beating of Rodney King, the shooting of the unarmed and innocent amadou Diallo, and the savage torture of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn precinct's bathroom. While many white Americans were shocked by these naked abuses of official police power, many more black Americans greeted news of these transgressions with an unfazed bewilderment. No one disputes the fact that police brutality is an immense problem, yet never before has it been properly examined and addressed.
With Police Brutality, Jill Nelson, author of the best-selling memoir Volunteer Slavery, has pioneered a work of immense social importance. What causes police brutality? Why has opposition to it grown so suddenly intense? What does it tell us about racism in America at the turn of the century?
The contributors--academics, fiction writers, and professionals--offer unique, incisive, and occasionally iconoclastic interpretations of police brutality. Nelson includes a description of a New York race riot of 1900, placing police brutality in a desperately needed historical and intellectual context. Stanley Crouch argues it as yet another political straw man divisive of America's racial consciousness. Claude Clegg III presents a brilliant history of the FBI's sinister surveillance of the Nation of Islam. Arthur Doyle, a black detective who worked on the streets of New York City for over thirty years, describes chilling instances of hazing by his fellow white officers, allowing us to understand, as never before, the psychological roots of the problem. Flores Forbes relates how an instance of childhood degradation at the hands of San Diego police would bear grim fruit in membership in the Black Panther Party. Distinguished legal scholar Derrick Bell's passionate disquisition on the small humiliations many officers regularly visit upon young black men, interracial couples, and black professionals like himself--instances that only rarely make the front page--offers a disturbing window on the pervasiveness of police brutality in the black community. Historian Robin D. G. Kelley and Nation columnist Patricia Williams offer their characteristically incisive voices as to what, in the wake of the most recent outrages, we as a nation might do next.
A work that is destined to see wide use in classrooms across the country--whether in history, African American studies, sociology, or law enforcement courses--Police Brutality refuses merely to inflame or outrage. No wound to America's racial consciousness has festered untreated for quite so long, and never before have so many prominent voices come together to form such a crucial contribution to eradicating police brutality from American life.
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Read an Excerpt
"Slangin' Rocks ... Palestinian Style"
Dispatches from the Occupied Zones of North America
Robin D. G. Kelley
The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive.... They represent the force of the white world, and that world's criminal profit and ease, to keep the Black man corralled up here, in his place. The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt. ... He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country, which is precisely what, and where he is, and is the reason he walks in twos and threes.
James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (1962)
You can't trust a big grip and a smile
And I slang rocks Palestinian style
The Coup, "The Shipment,"
Steal This Album (Polemic/Dogday 1998)
Memorandum: The Accidental Ethnographer
Great. The 9:07 bus hasn't left yet. Three long blocks to go. I break into a sprint, hearing only the sound of my own footsteps, asthmatic wheezing, books and papers knocking around my oversized legal briefcase. The night is cool and quiet and very dark. No crickets or porch dwellers or porch lights, just a big dog chained to a tree, barking out of habit. Two more blocks to go. Suddenly the sound of helicopters interrupts the rhythm of my feet and breath. An invasion so swift it is like a"Surround Sound" demonstration in a high-tech movie theater Deafening noise. Wind. Lights. My silhouette appears before me, a lengthening shadow extending down the block, almost to my destination. All this is not for me, I thought. Not me.
"Drop the package and put your hands on top of your head, enclosing your fingers! Don't turn around!" The voice is coming through a loudspeaker, probably a patrol car. But I cannot see. What package? My briefcase is all I have, so I set it down carefully and comply.
"Walk backward and do not turn around! I repeat, do not turn around!" My long shadow is now obscured in a flood of lights. It feels bright and hot like the sun. I walk back, slowly, blind as a bat. Drowning in a sea of light. Step one, two, three, four....
Crack! A nightstick crashes down on my fingers and head. One blow is all it takes. On the ground, face crushed against the damp pavement still wet from yesterday's rain, arms twisted behind my back, a man's knee to restrain me. I protest.
"Shut the fuck up!" What did I do? What is my crime.
"I said shut the fuck up or I'll use this nightstick for real."
Moment of silence. I lay still under the heavy weight of this uniformed man, my arms searing with pain. A flashlight shined directly into my eyes. Footsteps, live voices, walkie-talkies, car doors slamming, engines purring. I break my silence. Why did you stop me? What did I do?
"You ran, nigger! Criminals run." I cannot see who said this; I see only lights and shadows and floating red ringlets, most likely produced by the blow to the head and the flashlight pointed directly into my eyes. Besides, I no longer had a reason to run: the last bus from Bellflower to Long Beach left without me.
I ask for badge numbers, but their lips are sealed. Over the din of idling patrol cars and radios, I hear them rifling through my "package" looking for loot. Books and papers yield nothing of interest, no smoking gun, no contraband. So they dump the contents in a shallow pothole half filled with muddy rainwater. My face is wet from the moistened pavement, from sweat forming on my neck and forehead, from uncontrollable tears. No more words. Lights off. Doors slam. Cars drive off in different directions. All I hear now, besides a lone helicopter fading in the distance, is heavy wheezing punctuated by dry coughs. Then voices, some Spanish, some English; some fearful, some angry. Eyewitness to public terror. With kindness, unknown bystanders collect my papers and books, wiping off the mud, putting pieces back together.
I will never forget that autumn night in 1981. The Lakewood Sheriff's Department was known for harassing Black and Latino men and leaving the scene without a trace. And in 1981, police departments throughout the Greater Long Beach area were feeling pressure from community activists for the death of Ron Settles, an African American student at Cal State Long Beach and star football player who was found dead in a holding cell. Settles had been arrested the night before while driving through Signal Hill, a tiny town smack dab in the middle of Long Beach. He was stopped by Signal Hill police officers allegedly for a routine traffic violation, but they arrested him for possession of cocainea strange charge in light of the fact that he had no prior history of drug use. What happened next really isn't much of a mystery, but the official story presented by the Signal Hill Police Department went something like this: high on drugs and possibly distraught, Settles mysteriously obtained a blunt object, beat himself, and then hanged himself in his cell.
My own efforts to file a complaint with the Lakewood Sheriff failed miserably. I had no badge numbers and was told that the department had no record of the incident. I might as well have been in Johannesburg in the days of apartheid or, for that matter, any ex-colonial metropole where the color line keeps the world's darker people under an omnipotent heel. Whether we are speaking of North Africans in Paris, West Indians in London, indigenous peoples in Sydney, Australia, Black people in Birmingham (Alabama or England), or Palestinians in the West Bank, relations between the police and people of color have been historically rooted in a colonial encounter. Some might balk at the Coup's lyrical analogy between African American youths' confrontations with the police and the street battles of Palestinians against Israeli authority, but in my view it speaks directly to the historical foundations of police brutality in America. The clever pun ("slangin' rocks," for those who may not know, also means to sell crack cocaine) not only provides a broader, international political context for violent confrontations between police and people of color, but raises the specter of transformation, of the powerless turning the weapons of self-destruction into weapons for social change.
The Coup represents a long line of hip-hop groups that draw on metaphors of war to describe inner-city communities and relations between police and residents. For at least a decade and a half, beginning perhaps with Toddy Tee's 1985 street tape "Batteram," to songs such as Ice-T's "The Killing Fields," Public Enemy's "Anti-Nigga Machine," 2 Black, 2 Strong MMG's "War on Drugs" and "Ice Man Cometh," KRS-One's "Who Will Protect Me from You," Ice Cube's "Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside)," W.C. and the MAAD Circle's "Behind Closed Doors," Compton's Most Wanted's "They Still Gafflin," Cypress Hill's "Pigs," and Kid Frost's "I Got Pulled Over," rappers have been painting vivid portraits of the ghetto as a war zone and the police as an occupying army. These young artists are not alone. The mainstream media have also employed metaphors of war and occupation to describe America's inner cities. The recasting of poor urban Black communities as war zones was brought to us on NBC Nightly News, Dan Rather's special report "48 Hours: On Gang Street," Hollywood films like Colors and Boyz N the Hood, and a massive media blitz that has been indispensable in creating and criminalizing the so-called underclass.
The position of the police as an occupying army in America's inner cities is not a new phenomenon. It is not a recent manifestation of a postindustrial condition in which the disappearance of jobs in urban areas generated lawlessness and disorder, nor is it the result of the federal government having declared war on drugs, though these things have certainly heightened police-community tensions in urban neighborhoods of color. To understand the roots of this relationship, we need to go back ... way back to the days of slavery and colonial rule.
Dispatches from the Grave:
State Violence in the Context of Slavery and Empire
Run, nigger, run De Patteroll get you! Run, nigger, run, De Patteroll get you! Watch, nigger, watch, De Patteroll trick you! Watch, nigger watch, He got a big gun!
"Run, Nigger, Run" (slave song, n.d.)
The policing of Black, Latino, and Native American communities in the United States initially took the form of occupation, surveillance, and pacification. Even before formal police forces were established in cities at the end of the nineteenth century, people in power relied on "legal" and extralegal violence and terrorism to pacify, discipline, and exploit communities of color. We might point to the colonial wars against the indigenous populations from the time of European settlement up to the end of the nineteenth century. These wars of "pacification" resulted in forced marches, land seizures, the containment of whole societies within reservations, genocide, and the occupation and annexation of northern Mexico. In the antebellum South, the work of "policing" was geared almost entirely to the maintenance of slavery. "Patrollers," or individuals employed for the purposes of tracking down fugitive slaves, were the most visible manifestation of an active police force throughout the South, and virtually any adult White male could be conscripted to help put down a slave revolt. The kind of violent, draconian punishment we now associate with brutality and excess was not only part of the culture but codified in law. For example, a Virginia law of 1705 allowed slaveholders to burn, whip, dismember, or mutilate slaves as punishment for crimes, and a 1723 Maryland law provided for cutting off ears of Africansslave or freewho struck a White person. When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, it guaranteed, among other things, the use of federal armed forces to put down any slave insurrections, a promise reinforced by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.
Once the Civil War brought an end to chattel slavery, most African Americans expected the state to protect them, to provide a safe environment so that they could get on with the work of rebuilding their lives as free citizens. And at times Union troops, whose ranks included Black people, actually defended and protected the newly freed people. But before the momentary rise of Radical Reconstruction, southern Blacks felt the heel of state repression and extralegal violence once President Andrew Johnson was in office, in 1865, and decided to practically hand the South back to the ex-Confederates. In 1866, around the same time the federal government opted to disarm Black militiamen and soldiers, a wave of terror and repression swept the South. The planter class formed terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia, which burned Black homes, businesses, and crops and intimidated, beat, even lynched African Americans who they believed did not know their "place." The ex-Confederate-dominated provisional governments not only looked the other way but contributed directly to the overall atmosphere of terror and subordination by passing "Black codes," a series of laws that sharply restricted landownership, the right to purchase firearms, freedom of movement, and the right to work in independent trades, among other things. Indeed, the codes included various "apprenticeship laws," which bound "unattached" ex-slave children and teenagers to their plantation. "Apprenticeship" was nothing less than a return to slavery; only mass informal adoptions saved many of these young people.
During the era of the Black codes as well as in the period following the end of Reconstruction and the consolidation of White supremacy, informal modes of terrorism and violence became the most pervasive form of policing and disciplining African Americans. Although several cities and counties established formal police forces during the late nineteenth century, this was nevertheless the era of lynch law. Lynching, a practice that also occurred throughout the colonial worldfrom Southwest Africa to the Philippineswas as American as apple pie. Indeed, the United States was busy exporting Jim Crow to the rest of the world. Often described by its defenders as a form of popular justice, lynching in the United States was employed primarily against African Americans. Between 1882 and 1946, there were at least five thousand recorded lynchings in this country. Much more than a mob-style hanging in which the mob appoints itself judge, jury, and executioner, lynching was a form of public torture often involving the severing of limbs and mutilation of genitalia. Sometimes a lynching might draw a large crowd of White families (children included), and the victim's body parts might be sold or distributed to spectators. Lynching was not a substitute for the day-to-day policing of a subordinate group; rather, it was a public spectacle intended to terrorize entire communities. A charred, mutilated body hanging from a tree served as a visible and potent reminder of the price of stepping out of line.
Lynching is essential for understanding the history and character of police violence in the America of the twenty-first century precisely because it reveals the sexual and gendered dimensions of maintaining the color line and disciplining Black bodies. Even though only about one-fourth of the lynchings from 1880 to 1930 were prompted by accusations of rape, and though a significant number of lynch victims were political activists, labor organizers, or Black men and women deemed "insolent" or "uppity" toward Whites, the most sensational and highly publicized lynchings involved a Black man accused of raping a White woman: hence the genital mutilation. (The sexual undertone of racist violence, rooted in slavery and lynching, continues to this daymanifest most recently in the brutal beating and rape of Abner Louima by New York City police officers.) More than anything else, lynching was a means of protecting the purity of White womanhood from Black male rapists. This position was so universally held that even Dr. Daniel G. Brinton, considered the first professor of anthropology in the United States and once president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, implicitly defended lynching as a last resort to protect White women and racial bloodlines. In his Races and Peoples (1890), he wrote,
It cannot be too often repeated, too emphatically urged, that it is to the women alone of the highest race that we must look to preserve the purity of the type, and with it the claims of the race to be the highest. They have no more holier duty, no more sacred mission, than that of transmitting in its integrity the heritage of ethnic endowment gained by the race throughout thousands of generations of struggle.... That philanthropy is false, that religion is rotten, which would sanction a white woman enduring the embrace of a colored man.
At the same time, Ida B. Wells and others exposed the myth of the Black rapist. They demonstrated, among other things, that most interracial rape victims were Black women who endured the assaults of White men for which they were never punished, and explained how these myths affected the lives of men and women on both sides of the color line. As the historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall points out, the myth of the Black rapist allowed southern White males to demand subordination and deference from White women in exchange for their "protection." This is the real meaning of chivalry. A White woman desiring a non-white man was out of the question, so any such encounter was presumed to be rape.
All sexual encounters between White men and Black women, in distinct contrast, were presumed to be not only consensual but even initiated by the woman. The virginal White woman and Black rapist dialectic also produced the myth of the promiscuous Black woman. Black women in such a world could not be raped, because they were deemed natural-born prostitutes. And as prostitutes, they too had to be policed. The lynch mentality created a situation in which police officers assumed that unescorted Black women were engaged in solicitation. In fact, the New York race riot of 1900 began when a Black woman was falsely arrested for solicitation and a Black man came to her defense; she had merely been waiting for her husband. In Atlanta, the police enforced what was called "a sundown law" directed primarily at Black women. Often it did not matter whether the woman was a known prostitute or not, if she was by herself in a restaurant or a club, she was likely to be arrested.
Although most accounts characterize lynching as "extralegal," because it takes place outside of the criminal justice system, we must acknowledge the complicity of both the police and the law in upholding and facilitating lynching in the South. First, throughout this period, every effort to persuade Congress to pass a federal antilynching law failed. Second, not only have police officers and deputies openly participated in lynchings, but it was not uncommon for law enforcement officials to release a Black prisoner into the waiting arms of a lynch mob.
By the turn of the century, it seemed as if the nation was embroiled in a domestic race warone almost as violent as America's imperialist expeditions in Cuba and the Philippines, which became known as the Spanish-American War of 1898. Indeed, a few Black troops in both theaters noted the similarities between racial violence in the States and the treatment of America's new colonial subjects. One Black soldier in the Philippines expressed his utter contempt for the way Whites "began to apply home treatment for colored peoples: curse them as damned niggers, steal from and ravish them, rob them on the street of their small change ... kick the poor unfortunate if he complained, desecrate their church property, and after fighting began, looted everything in sight, burning, robbing the graves."
Black communities during this period had to deal not only with a steady stream of lynchings (in February 1893 alone, there was nearly one a day!) but with a constant threat of invasion by armed, murderous White mobs. In the years from 1898 to 1908, "race riots" broke out in Wilmington, North Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans, New York City, Phoenix, South Carolina, Akron, Ohio, Washington Parish, Louisiana, Birmingham, Alabama, Brownsville, Texas, and Springfield, Illinois, to name but a few. The catalysts for these atrocities varied, ranging from revenge to punishment for a crime for which there were no viable suspects, competition over jobs, suppression of Black voting rights, an assertive gesture by an "insolent" Black person. In most cases, local police officers either stood by as these pogroms unfolded or actively participated on the side of White supremacists.
With the outbreak of World War I, African Americans once again found themselves fighting on two fronts. While 400,000 Black men geared up to defend American democracy in Europe, tens of thousands back home found themselves having to defend their lives, often against the very men hired to protect and serve. The summer of 1917 turned out to be particularly bloody. In East St. Louis, Illinois, police and local militia joined White mobs in their attack on the Black community. Racial tensions were at an all-time high in this river town, exacerbated by the rising number of Black southern migrants, who competed with Whites for jobs. As a result of these tensions, incendiary headlines in the local paper called on readers to "Make East St. Louis a Lily White Town." And try they did. On the night of July 1, 1917, gangs of White men drove through the Black community and began shooting into homes indiscriminately. According to a report by a special congressional committee investigating the riot, the local police "became part of the mob by countenancing the assaulting and shooting down of defenseless negroes and adding to the terrifying scenes of rapine and slaughter." When the smoke cleared, at least 150 Black residents had been shot, burned, hanged, or maimed for life, and about 6,000 were driven from their homes. Thirty-nine Black people lost their lives, including small children whose skulls were crushed or who were tossed into bonfires.
During that same summer, "war" also broke out in Houston, Texas, a city with a reputation for police brutality in a state that led the nation in lynching statistics. Just a year after the gruesome lynching of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington in Waco, the War Department dispatched the all-Black Third Battalion of the Twenty-fourth Infantry to guard Camp Logan, which was still under construction. The presence of Black military personnel intensified an already tense racial atmosphere. As the historian Herbert Shapiro observed in his book Black Violence and White Response, "The hostility of racist Houston to the black servicemen was made clear as soon as the troops arrived in the area. White policemen assaulted and arrested black soldiers for refusing to obey Jim Crow signs. City detectives, early in August, beat two of the new arrivals on a streetcar." Then, on August 23, two Houston police officers beat and arrested a Black soldier, Private Edwards, who had come to the defense of a Black woman they had physically and verbally abused. When Corporal Charles Baltimore approached the officers about the arrest, he too was beaten and shot at before finally being arrested. This was too much for the other members of the Third Battalion to bear. "To hell with going to France," shouted one of the enlisted men, "get to work right here." And they did. Approximately one hundred Black soldiers seized weapons and marched into town to take revenge. A shoot-out erupted between the soldiers, police, and armed civilians; when it was over, sixteen Whites (four policemen) and four Black soldiers lay dead. A lynching was averted, but the U.S. government acted swiftly to punish the men: nineteen were executed and fifty were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Those Black men who did get to Europe to "make the world safe for democracy" returned home to segregation, lynching, race riots, and more police brutality. In what became known as the "Red summer" of 1919, race riots erupted in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Elaine, Arkansas, Longview, Texas, Omaha, Nebraska, and Knoxville, Tennessee. Lynchings took place almost daily. In Georgia alone, twenty-two people were lynched that year, most of whom were returning veterans. The following decade, known to some as the Jazz Age, may be remembered by others less nostalgically as the era of the Ku Klux Klan. No longer limited to the South, the Klan developed strongholds in the West and the Midwest, notably in the state of Indiana. And in the cities police violence rose steadily; according to one study conducted by the sociologist Arthur Raper, during the 1920s approximately half of all Black people who died at the hands of Whites were murdered by the police.
Toward the end of the 1930s, the problem of police violence became more apparent as lynching began to decline. Despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt's refusal to sign an antilynching bill, several factors contributed to lynching's slow demise. First, organizations such as the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, the NAACP, and the Communist-led International Labor Defense waged campaigns that generated worldwide opposition to lynching. Second, southern elites embarrassed by the negative publicity and interested in attracting northern capital, quietly discouraged lynching. In some cases, southern governors began insisting that local police forces keep Black suspects in their custody rather than release them to a mob. However, the decline in lynching did not mean the abandonment of the sexual color line. Even in northern cities such as New York and Chicago, where interracial couples could exist relatively openly, police officers frequently harassed Black men escorting White women.
Dispatches from the Home Front:
Exchanging White Sheets for Rap Sheets
These new pressures did not make the police any more conscientious. On the contrary, the decline in lynching coincided with the expansion of urban police forces and a rise in reported incidents of police brutality. In Harlem, for example, the accumulation of police abuses over the years eventually exploded into a massive riot in 1935. The incident that touched off the uprising was a rumor that fourteen-year-old Lino Rivera had been killed by police after he was arrested for shoplifting. It turned out that he was very much alive, but it didn't matter. The NYPD had terrorized, harassed, and murdered so many Black Harlem residents that the collective anger over police abuses had reached a boiling point. Indeed, a special commission appointed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to investigate the causes of the riot noted that "nothing revealed more strikingly the deep-seated resentments of the citizens of Harlem against exploitation and racial discrimination than their attitude toward the police." Harlemites overwhelmed the commission with testimony of the daily abuses they endured, compelling commissioners to condemn the entire department: "inasmuch as the Police Department makes no effort to discipline policemen guilty of these offenses ... then the Police Department as a whole must accept the onus of these charges."
The situation grew worse during World War II. Urban police not only had to contend with an increased number of migrants, but African Americansespecially the youthadopted a more defiant posture than usual. First, many African Americans were initially reluctant to support the war because they could not forget the unfulfilled promises generated by World War I. This time around, they would fight on two fronts: home and abroad. Amid antifascist rhetoric, daily confrontations with the police, segregation laws, or intolerant Whites took on political significance. As African Americans became increasingly politicized by the war, "Double V," victory at home and abroad, became the cry heard from Black communities. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for example, enjoyed a tenfold increase in membership, while groups like the Nation of Islam (whose members resisted the draft) suddenly became a force to be reckoned with. The period also saw the creation of new organizations, such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), which came into being during the war.
Not surprisingly, police repression became a major issue for African Americans. In Birmingham beginning in 1941, a wave of police homicides and beatings reignited resistance to police brutality. In one incident, O'Dee Henderson, who was arrested and jailed for merely arguing with a White man, was found the next morning in his jail cell handcuffed and fatally shot. A few weeks later, John Jackson, a Black metal worker in his early twenties, was shot to death as he lay in the back seat of a police car. Jackson made the fatal mistake of arguing with the arresting officers in front of a crowd of Blacks lined up outside a movie theater. Reminiscent of those of the First World War, confrontations between Black residents and White policemen occasionally sparked full-scale riots. During the "Red summer" of 1943, when race riots erupted in almost a dozen cities, in New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles police violence was the match that lit the fuse. The Harlem riot of 1943 was almost a repeat of what had happened eight years earlier, and yet like the 1900 riot it began when a Black man, army private Robert Bandy, came to the defense of a Black woman, Marjorie Polite. The police had been staking out Harlem's Hotel Braddock for illegal activities, including solicitation, when a policeman named James Collins arrested Polite after an argument with hotel employees. When Bandy stepped in to protest the officer's actions, a scuffle ensued and Collins shot him. When word of the shooting hit the streets, Harlem roared like a bonfire. It looked as if the war had come home: 6 people lay dead, 550 had been arrested, and 1,450 stores had been damaged or burned to the ground.
In Harlem, Mayor La Guardia called on the police to exercise restraint, and compared with the police in the 1935 conflagration, they seemed much more compliant. In Detroit, however, the police behaved like partisans in a race war. They had already shown their colors one year earlier, when policemen joined White mobs in preventing Black tenants from moving into the Sojourner Truth Housing Project. During the riots, White mobs moved through Black communities relatively unmolested, while African Americans were being arrested and shot at left and right. All seventeen people killed by police were Black. The police refused to use force to stop White assailants, and at one point they besieged an apartment building in an African American community in search of a suspect who had shot a police officer. The officers surrounded the building, fired indiscriminately into the windows, and tossed in several tear gas canisters. They then ransacked individual apartments and, according to some residents, stole money and personal property. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP counsel who reported on police abuses during the riot, said the apartment building "resembled part of a battlefield." In an editorial about the Detroit riots, the Pittsburgh Courier columnist P. L. Prattis spoke for many Black observers when he wrote,
What were the police doing when Negroes were being beaten in the Negro district? Arresting Negroes. What were the police doing when streetcars were stopped by the mob and Negroes mobbed and beaten? They were arresting Negroes. What were the police doing when automobiles bearing Negroes were stopped, turned over and demolished and their occupants beaten? They were arresting Negroes. It is crystal clear that in no American community is the police power going to be used against the majority from which the mob comes to protect the minority from which the victims come.
In Los Angeles during that fateful summer of 1943, young Chicano males became primary targets of racial violence and police repression. These "zoot suit riots" revealed underlying tensions between a growing number of young "pachucos," on the one hand, and White servicemen and police officers in the city, on the other. These young people exhibited a cool, measured indifference to the war, as well as an increasingly defiant posture toward Whites in general. Tensions between the zoot suiters and servicemen came to a head in June 1943, during which White soldiers engaged in what amounted to a ritualized stripping of the zoot. The police chose sides carefully; although the zoot suiters were victims of white racial violence, when it was over six hundred Chicanos ended up in jail and the assailants essentially got a slap on the wrists. The police excused their behavior, explaining that they were "letting off steam." But these so-called riots were just the beginning. More violence followed in the wake of the Sleepy Lagoon case, in which police arrested some three hundred Chicano youths after José Díaz was found dead near the Sleepy Lagoon, a water reservoir in East Los Angeles. Twenty-two of the youths went to trial, and seventeen were convicted of crimes ranging from first-degree murder to assault, despite the lack of evidence. There were no eyewitnesses and no evidence that Díaz had, in fact, been murdered. What evidence did exist suggests that he had gotten drunk, fallen asleep on the road, and been hit by a car. Nevertheless, amid mass anti-Mexican sentiment and pressure to dismantle street gangs, these young men were sent to San Quentin. Two years later, however, the U.S. District Court of Appeals overturned their convictions, acknowledging that they had been railroaded.
In both the Sleepy Lagoon trials and the zoot suit riots, the media contributed to the demonization of Chicano youth by portraying them as bloodthirsty, violent thugs. While large numbers of White gangs roamed the streets of Los Angeles at the time, the press treated the gang issue as strictly a Mexican and a Black problem. After the war, police repression against Chicanos only intensified, especially once the High Court overturned the Sleepy Lagoon convictions. On Christmas day in 1951, for example, a group of police officers removed seven young Chicanos from the Lincoln Heights jail and beat them ruthlessly. Two years later, two LA sheriffs severely beat fifteen-year-old David Hidalgo while other deputies looked on. As the officers thrashed him within an inch of his life, all he could do was beg for mercy.
Dispatches from the Killing Fields of North America:
Notes on Urban Insurrection and Right-Wing Reaction
"Law and order" became a coded battle cry as the police were transformed into an army defending white power and the status quo.
Frank Donner, Protectors of Privilege (1990)
It is astounding that, at least at the outset, the modern Civil Rights movement did not take up police brutality as one of its top priorities. A study conducted by the Department of Justice found that in the eighteen-month period from January 1958 to June 1960, some 34 percent of all reported victims of police brutality were Black. And given the general fear of police retaliation, especially in the South, it is likely that the percentage was actually much higher. Not that Civil Rights activists ignored police brutality cases: the files of the NAACP are overflowing with complaints about police abuses that date back to the organization's founding. However, despite hours of dramatic footage of southern cops beating down Civil Rights marchers and a long and public history of police repression in cities such as Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta, and Columbia (Tennessee and South Carolina), the movement focused most of its energies on the desegregation of public facilities and on voter registration.
Class and ideology may partly explain why police brutality took a back seat to desegregation. Although middle-class African Americans were never immune from police abuse, incidents of brutality and harassment disproportionately affected the urban poor and working class. Indeed, in the 1950s Birmingham's Black middle class often expressed greater concern over the high crime rate than over the police use of excessive force. But this posture did not last long. By the early to mid-1960s, as police violence and rioting escalated in America's urban centers, the problem of racist policing could no longer be sidestepped. Soon after the 1963 confrontation with Bull Connor, Birmingham's Civil Rights leaders began placing the issue of police brutality at the top of their agenda. They had no choice: in the fourteen months between January 1966 and March 1967, ten Black men, the majority of whom were teenagers or young adults, were killed by police. During this same period, there were no White victims or Black female victims of police homicides. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth not only threatened to build alliances with Black militant organizations, but his group distributed a flier proclaiming in no uncertain terms, "Negroes are TIRED of Police Brutality and Killing Our People. Negroes are tired of `One Man Ruling' of `Justifiable Homicide' every time a NEGRO IS KILLED!" During the early 1970s, a number of poor and working-class African Americans joined grassroots organizations that investigated and fought police misconduct, such as the Committee against Police Brutality and the Alabama Economic Action Committee (which investigated at least twenty-seven separate incidents in 1972).
These last two movements, which received very little support from the Black elite, reflected a fundamental ideological shift in thinking about police repression. Radical organizations such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, Community Alert Patrol, the Republic of New Afrika, the Brown Berets, and the American Indian Movement, to name but a few, began to argue more explicitly that urban communities of color constituted "occupied zones" or that they functioned as "internal colonies" vis-à-vis the U.S. nation-state. Many of these organizations focused their activity on armed self-defense and monitoring police activity in their neighborhoods. Because the police were the most direct manifestations of the colonial state, struggles against the police often resembled an anticolonial war. One of the earliest organizations to frame the Black freedom struggle as an anticolonial war was the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), whose members went on to help found groups such as the Black Panthers and the Republic of New Afrika. Founded in 1962, RAM issued a twelve-point program calling for the development of freedom schools, national Black student organizations, rifle clubs, a guerrilla army made up of youth and unemployed, and Black farmer cooperativesnot just for economic development but to keep "community and guerrilla forces going for a while." They also pledged support for national liberation movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as well as the adoption of socialism to replace capitalism across the globe.
RAM had been greatly influenced by Robert Williams, ex-Marine and former NAACP leader in Monroe, North Carolina, who believed that armed self-defense was more effective for dealing with White terrorists than nonviolent resistance. With the help of the National Rifle Association, Williams in 1957 created a rifle club within his NAACP branch and began talking of the need to "meet lynching with lynching." Within two years, Williams was being attacked and disowned by the national NAACP and hounded as a fugitive by local and national law enforcement agencies. In 1961, he fled the country altogether, finding political asylum first in Cuba and later in China. His call for armed self-defense, physical retaliation, and the recognition of "violence as the only language that White America knows and respects" resonated powerfully with RAM militants who believed that Black people were capable of launching a war against the U.S. state. From exile, Williams anticipated Black urban uprisings in a spring 1964 edition of his magazine, The Crusader. In an article entitled "USA: The Potential of a Minority Revolution," Williams announced, "This year, 1964 is going to be a violent one, the storm will reach hurricane proportions by 1965 and the eye of the hurricane will hover over America by 1966. America is a house on fireFREEDOM NOW!or let it burn, let it burn. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!!"
He was not alone in this assessment. A year earlier, the writer James Baldwin had predicted that in the coming years race riots would "spread to every metropolitan center in the nation which has a significant Negro population." The next six years proved them right. Nineteen sixty-four was indeed a "violent" year, with riots erupting in the Black communities of Harlem, Rochester, New York, Jersey City, and Philadelphia. By 1965, these urban revolts had in fact reached "hurricane proportions." The eye of the storm landed on the West Coast in the Black Los Angeles community of Watts. Sparked by residents witnessing yet another Black driver being harassed by White police officers, the Watts rebellion turned out to be the worst urban disturbance in nearly twenty years. By the time the smoke cleared, thirty-four people had died, and more than $35 million in property had been destroyed or damaged. The remainder of the decade witnessed the spread of this hurricane across America: violence erupted in some three hundred cities, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Cambridge, Maryland, Providence, Rhode Island, Hartford, Connecticut, San Francisco, and Phoenix. Altogether, the urban uprisings involved close to half a million African Americans, resulted in millions of dollars in property damage, and left 250 people (mostly African Americans) dead, 10,000 seriously injured, and countless Black people homeless. Police and the National Guard turned Black neighborhoods into war zones, arresting nationwide at least 60,000 people and employing tanks, machine guns, and tear gas to pacify the collective community. In Detroit in 1967, for instance, 43 people were killed, 2,000 were wounded, and 5,000 watched their homes be destroyed by flames that engulfed fourteen square miles of the inner city.
Elected officials, from the mayor's office to the Oval Office, must have seen these uprisings as a war of sorts since they responded to the crisis militarily, followed by a battery of social science investigators, community programs, and short-lived economic development projects. Just as the American military advisers in Southeast Asia could not understand why so many North Vietnamese supported the Communists, liberal social scientists wanted to find out why African Americans rioted. To the surprise of several research teams, those who rioted tended to be better educated and more politically aware than those who did not. One survey of Detroit Black residents after the 1967 riot revealed that 86 percent of the respondents identified discrimination and deprivation as the main reasons behind the uprising. Hostility to police brutality was also near the top of the list.
The wave of urban insurrections had consequences for politics and police practices: in Watts and elsewhere, freeway exits were widened partly to facilitate the movement of military personnel. Numbers were painted on the roofs of houses in South Central Los Angeles so that aerial and ground forces could be better coordinated. In 1968, the conservative Republican Richard M. Nixon won the White House largely on a law-and-order ticket. One of Nixon's campaign promises was to get rid of "trouble makers," especially militant Black nationalist organizations like the Republic of New Afrika, the National Committee to Combat Fascism, the Black Liberation Front, and the Black Panther Partywhich FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once called "the greatest threat to the internal security of this country." Under Hoover's Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), FBI agents on numerous occasions used fake press releases to spread false rumors about movement leaders, hired undercover agents to provoke violence and/or commit crimes in the name of militant organizations, violently attacked competing organizations, and created an atmosphere of tension, confusion, and division within the organizations under surveillance. In addition to covert action, police squads across the country launched a bloody military offensive. In 1969 alone, 27 Black Panthers were killed by police and at least 749 arrested. When it came to protecting the rights of militant or radical organizations, virtually all civil liberties were suspended. The police raided offices and seized documents, sometimes without a warrant. They beat and arrested organizers on trumped-up charges, and even resorted to political assassination, the most notable example being the murder of the Chicago Panther leaders Mark Clark and Fred Hampton in 1969, both of whom were killed in their sleep during a raid coordinated by local police and the FBI.
The police targeted Chicano activists as well. One of the best-known victims was Rubén Salazar, a popular journalist known for his penetrating investigative reporting on police repression and the Chicano community in Los Angeles. Because of his writing, he had received several death threats from police officers. Immediately following the Chicano Moratorium demonstration of August 29, 1970 (organized by the Brown Berets), where police teargassed and shot at unarmed, largely peaceful demonstrators, police surrounded a bar where Salazar and his co-workers had stopped. Claiming they were searching for an unidentified gunman, they filled the bar with tear gas. One of the canisters struck Salazar and knocked him unconscious. Everyone escaped except Salazar. When his co-workers attempted to retrieve him, the police kept anyone from entering the bar, including medical personnel. Two hours later, Salazar was dead.
Faced with urban insurrections and the proliferation of community-based militant organizations, most urban police departments viewed ghettos as war zones. By drawing on methods of surveillance and antiguerrilla tactics developed in Vietnam, the police widened the chasm between themselves and urban communities of color as well as liberal politicians. Indeed, when city officials tried to respond to civilian complaints about police abuses, they often faced a mutiny. In the late 1960s in New York City, for example, conservative, openly racist elements came to dominate the police force, mobilizing in large part in opposition to the liberal mayor John Lindsay, who supported a civilian review board to adjudicate the growing number of complaints of police abuses. The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association became so powerful and contentious that in August 1968 its president, John J. Cassese, told his 29,000-member constituency to disregard orders by their superiors to use restraint when dealing with rioters and protesters. That same year, off-duty cops participated in a mob attack on Black Panther Party members and their supporters in front of a Brooklyn courthouse. They were there to attend a hearing in the case of three Panthers accused of assaulting a police officer. The strengthening of racist elements in urban police departments was not limited to New York. In cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Oakland, groups such as the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan were having success recruiting police officers.
Cops were not the only ones moving farther right. With the exception of Jimmy Carter's fleeting term in the White House, this period marked the beginning of two and a half decades of Republican rule, an anti-Black and anti-immigrant backlash, and a general dismantling of radical organizations fighting for communities of color. As a result of intense police repression, incarceration, internal squabbling (caused in part by paid agents provocateurs), and a national right-wing drift among the populace, most of these movements went down in flames. Fearing that ghetto rebellions would spill into White suburbs, and that their taxes were being used to support lazy colored folks on welfare, White Americans increasingly came to believe that "minorities," particularly African Americans, needed to stop complaining. Black people, they rationalized, no longer had any excuses since the Civil Rights movement had succeeded in abolishing racism once and for all.
Most African Americans, however, knew another reality altogether. The next two decades were characterized by deindustrialization, permanent unemployment, White flight, disinvestment in urban areas, the shrinking of city services, the elimination of state and federal youth and job programs, a rollback of affirmative action programs, cutbacks in housing, urban development, and education, and a scaling back of agencies that investigate and enforce civil rights laws, to name but a few disastrous consequences of the rightward turn. During Reagan's two terms in office, military spending increased by 46 percent, while funding for housing was slashed by 77 percent and education by 70 percent. The number of families eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children was cut back substantially. While pushing for tax breaks for the very rich in hopes of stimulating the economy, the Reagan administration reduced the Federal Food Stamp program by $2 billion and cut back federal child nutrition programs by $1.7 billion.
Racist violence was also resurgent during this period. The number of racially motivated assaults rose dramatically, many of them occurring on college campuses across the country. Between 1982 and 1989, the number of hate crimes reported annually in the United States grew threefold. In 1981, police officers in Florida and Mississippi generated an atmosphere of terror by circulating a mock hunting flyer announcing "open season" for shooting "Porch Monkeys. Regionally known as Negro, Nigger, Saucer Lips, Yard Apes, Jungle Bunnies, Spear Chuckers, Burr Heads, Spooks, and the Pittsburgh Pirates." Other signs pointing to a resurgence of racism in the 1980s include the proliferation of White supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. By the late 1970s, the Klan had tripled its membership and even gained some influence in electoral politics. In 1980, Tom Metzger, the "Grand Dragon" of the Ku Klux Klan, garnered enough votes to win the Democratic primary in Southern California's Forty-third Congressional District. Similarly, David Duke, former Klansman and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives. Despite such electoral affirmation, the Klan did not trade in their white sheets or their guns. In 1978-79, Klansmen initiated a reign of terror against Black people, which included the firebombing of homes, churches, and schools in over one hundred towns and rural areas, and drive-by shootings into the homes of southern NAACP leaders. Very few of these incidents led to convictions, in part because in some instances local police were complicit. Perhaps the worst incident occurred on November 3, 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina, where five members of the Communist Workers Party were murdered by Klansmen and Nazis during an anti-Klan demonstration. Not only did the Greensboro police know of the Klan's plan to attack the demonstration but, just minutes before the confrontation, nearly all on-duty officers were called to the other side of town for a "lunch" break. When the shooting stopped, there was not a cop in sight. Although the entire episode was caught on videotape, the all-White jury concluded that there was insufficient evidence to convict anyone.
Emboldened by the changed mood in America, police violence seemed to escalate beginning around the mid- to late-1970s. Throughout the country, African Americans had become the most likely victims of police violence. According to one study, African Americans constituted 46 percent of the people killed by police in 1975. Out West, the better-known victims of police homicides include Chicanos such as Danny Trevino, murdered by San Jose police in 1976; Jose Barlow Benavidez, fatally shot by Oakland police officers; and Juan Zepeda, blackjacked to death by San Antonio police. Civilians filed so many complaints against the Los Angeles Police Department that when Chicano community activists demanded an investigation and greater accountability, LAPD officials destroyed their files to cover up an obvious pattern of violence against Latinos and Blacks. One incident they could not bury was the 1979 killing of Eula Mae Love. Love, a thirty-nine-year-old woman who stood about five feet four inches tall, was shot a dozen times by two LAPD officers who were called to the scene after she tried to stop a gas maintenance man from turning off her gas. When they arrived, she was armed with a kitchen knife, but the only thing she stabbed was a tree in her yard. Three years later, at least fifteen deaths were caused by chokeholds administered by Los Angeles police officers attempting to subdue suspects. Police Chief Darryl Gates noted, "We may be finding that in some blacks when [the chokehold] is applied the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."
Residents of these communities did not accept police abuse without a fight. The radical movement against police repression was a mere shell of its former self, but as long as the police acted like an occupying army, war was still on. In a predominantly Black community outside of Miami, yet another unjustified police homicide sparked one of the worst urban insurrections in over a decade. It began back in December 1979, when Arthur McDuffie, a thirty-three-year-old Black insurance executive, was beaten to death by police officers in Dade County, Florida. The police said he was driving recklessly and had resisted arrest, but eyewitnesses believed it was a clear cut case of brutality. However, in May 1980, to widespread shock and dismay, an all-white jury returned a not-guilty verdict for all of the officers involved. Local activists quickly took to the streets of Miami and organized a silent protest march of 5,000 to the police department and courthouse in downtown Miami. Not everyone was silent, though; several participants began chanting, "We want justice!" That night, the predominantly Black and poor communities of Liberty City, Brownsville, Overton, and Coconut Grove exploded in angerturning over cars, setting fire to buildings, looting, throwing rocks and bottles at police and National Guardsmen. When the smoke cleared, Miami's gross fiscal losses exceeded $250 million; at least 400 people were injured and several were killed; over 1,250 were arrested; and a fifty-two-square-mile area of Dade County was placed under curfew from 8 P.M. to 6 A.M.
On closer inspection, the Miami rebellion was not just a spontaneous response to an unfair verdict. For the residents of Liberty City and other poor Black communities, McDuffie's death was one of a string of incidents of police brutality and racial harassment that had gone unchecked during the 1970s. The riot was a product of Black frustrations caused by joblessness, economic deprivation, and immigration policies that clearly favored White Cubans over Black Haitians. It also marked the most dramatic example of the growing feeling of political powerlessness among poor and working-class African Americans. In an age when the number of Black elected officials had increased dramatically and Civil Rights leaders had achieved tremendous influence in national policy making, Miami's Black rebels viewed their "leaders" with a mixture of distrust and apprehension.
The Miami uprising and the failure of Black leadership were but forebodings of more ominous times yet to come. By the end of the 1970s, police killings and nonlethal acts of brutality emerged as a central political issue among African Americans. Between 1979 and 1982, protests were organized throughout the country around specific cases of police violence, some of the more highly publicized incidents occurring in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Memphis, Miami, Washington, D.C., Birmingham, Oakland, and Detroit (where the police department was notorious for sexually harassing Black female arrestees). In Philadelphia, for example, police-civilian tensions escalated into one of the most brutal episodes of violence in at least a decade. After Wilson Goode was elected the first Black mayor in Philadelphia's history in 1983, he immediately found himself caught between a White constituency that wanted a law-and-order mayor and a police force with a legacy of corruption and brutality. In fact, in 1986 a federal grand jury indicted seven Philadelphia police officers who had worked in the narcotics division for racketeering and extorting at least $400,000 plus quantities of cocaine from drug dealers.
But the key event was Goode's decision to allow the police to bomb the headquarters of a Black nationalist organization called MOVE in May of 1985. Situated in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Powelton Village, MOVE had attempted to create a rural, communal environment in the middle of the city. As a result of complaints from neighbors and MOVE members' hostile attitude toward police, Mayor Frank Rizzo tried to root the group out in 1978. This culminated in a shoot-out that left one officer dead and several injured on both sides. In a similar standoff seven years later, Goode authorized the dropping of an aerial bomb, which killed 11 people, including 5 children, destroyed sixty-one homes, and left 250 people homeless. The MOVE bombing marred Goode's administration and his relations with Philadelphia's Black community until he left office in 1991. Perhaps the biggest blow to Goode's administration was that the commission appointed to investigate the bombing concluded that racism strongly influenced the actions of the Philadelphia police force. This was absolutely clear from the first words spoken by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, who announced over the bullhorn at the beginning of the assault, "Attention MOVE! This is America!"
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(Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., author of Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Examination of Police Conduct in Minority Communities)
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