You know this already: On July 17, 2014, an unarmed black man named Eric Garner was strangled to death in Staten Island by a white NYPD officer named Daniel Pantaleo, on video, for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Five other NYPD officers watched and aided Pantaleo, yet none of them came to aid of Garner, despite the fact that Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times before dying. In 1993, former NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly banned the department from deploying chokeholds. A coroner ruled Garner’s death as a homicide.
When the grand jury moved not to indict Pantaleo, many were shocked that a police officer sworn to serve and protect could murder an unarmed citizen on camera and not be punished. Not taken to trial. Not even fired. The event weighed that much heavier in many hearts, especially in the wake of the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, just the previous week, which moved not to indict white officer Darren Wilson for shooting to death the unarmed 18-year-old black man Michael Brown with his hands up for the alleged theft of a box of cigars.
Grand juries almost always move to indict, the number is something like one out of 100 that don’t, and in cases with such clear probable cause as these, there should have been no reason why a grand jury wouldn’t move to indict, that is, if the defendants were not police.
All prosecutor New York District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr. had to do to convince a grand jury to indict was play the video of Pantaleo killing Garner. Instead, Donovan brought in 50 witnesses over nine weeks. Half of the witnesses were police and included an extended personal testimony from Pantaleo himself, all unprecedented for a typical grand jury hearing. This actively worked to undermine and cast doubt over his argument to indict; he was basically throwing the fight.
The Ferguson grand jury hearing was similarly dubious. More than half of the witnesses to the shooting said that Brown had his hands up when Wilson fired on him. More than half of the witnesses said that Brown was turned away from or running from Wilson when Wilson fired. But as with the Pantaleo/Garner case, St. Louis D.A. Robert McCulloch seemed to work more in defense of Wilson instead of arguing for indictment.
On December 7, prosecutor Mark Piepmeier pulled the exact same okey-doke to get a Grand Jury in Ohio to move for no indictment for the multiple officers (still unnamed in the media) who shot 23-year-old black man John Crawford III, on video, in a Walmart in August for carrying an air rifle he had picked up off of a shelf in the store and was carrying around, not pointing it at anybody. This is in an open-carry state, it should be noted, where countless white pro-gun “activists” have walked into restaurants and stores with fully loaded assault rifles with no consequence.
It’s important to remember that these are not isolated occurrences. On average, police kill around 400 people a year and only a handful of those cases go to trial, literally the statistical reverse of typical Grand Jury hearings for civilians. The miscarriage of justice here comes from a gross conflict of interest: The police and the prosecuting district attorneys work together on a daily basis, prosecuting D.A.s rely on their local police departments for evidence, testimony, eye-witness accounts, etc. There is an inevitable bias there. To paraphrase Albert Burneko, the system isn’t broken, it’s fixed.
The same day the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the death, was arrested and indicted by Grand Jury on gun charges. Orta asserted these charges are fraudulent and retaliatory and added that police had been following him since the day of Garner’s death. This appears to be less a narrative about a system of “looking the other way” than one of straight up breaking the law, extorting and intimidating whenever seen fit.
Adding literal insult to fatal injury, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton had the nerve to crack a joke about giving protesters “breathing room” the day the move not indict was announced. The police killed an unarmed man on camera with no repercussion and publicly joked about it. This is the sociopathic nature that an inherently unjust system such as ours breeds.
There is also irony in the fact that the grand jury’s decision came on the day the NYPD started using body cameras. Just as I feel that politicians and media were wrong to use the Newtown shooting as a platform to push for civilian gun control in a nation where police gun violence against civilians is unprecedentedly high and goes unchecked (especially when incidents like school shootings seemed to be one of lack of accessible care/resources for the mentally ill), I feel that it is similarly misguided to use the events in Ferguson and, especially, Staten Island to push to add mass surveillance to a law enforcement body that refuses accountability for their actions even when caught on film (and this goes all the way back to Rodney King).
The above mentioned are just a few of the most recent glaring, obvious, heavily reported upon injustices out of countless others that go under the radar. American police have killed thousands upon thousands of people throughout American history (it is impossible to discern exactly how many because no police departments bother to keep consistently accurate records on these statistics). A quick Google search will show you that Wikipedia’s list of American police officers convicted of murder contains only 13 people, mostly mob double agents and the odd serial killer cop here and there. Where is the easily accessible, official legal record of police brutality and excessive force? I couldn’t find one, and not for a lack of brutality but for a lack of record.
While these issues of accountability and fairness affect all races, it’s hard to argue that it’s somehow “not about race.” Officer Pantaleo has been sued twice for “racially motivated police conduct.” Once for an illegal strip search in broad daylight of two black men and another time for arresting a black man with no probable cause, then falsifying police reports to justify the arrest. Similarly, before Officer Wilson worked for Ferguson PD, he originally worked nearby in Jennings, Missouri, on a police force with such infamously bad relations between white police and black citizens that the entire police force was fired and disbanded. That they were even considered still fit to be police following these incidents should have been under serious question.
Again, these are not isolated occurrences. In an interview I did with Ego Trip a few months back, I mention a laundry list of recent cases (Kajieme Powell, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, Jeremy Lake, Omar Abrego, Dante Parker, Jacorey Calhoun, Oscar Grant) and slightly less recent cases (Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo) in which white officers have shot and killed unarmed young black men and men of color. Since then, I sadly need to add to the list 12-year-old black boy Tamir Rice, shot to death by Cleveland Police on camera (mere seconds after their arrival on the scene) for waving a toy gun (the 911 caller mentioned several times the gun “looked fake”) and Akai Gurley shot in his own building in NYC for no cause by a “nervous” rookie cop. While I’m at it, I should add a few more I had missed: 14-year-old Cameron Tillman shot dead in September in Terrebon, L.A. by police for allegedly answering his door with a toy gun at his side, 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton shot 14 times in the back by Milwaukee Police in October for sleeping in a park 18-year-old Vonderrit Meyers Jr., shot in Saint Louis by police in November for allegedly having a weapon when witnesses say he was just holding a sandwich. Yvette Smith, shot to death in February in Bastrop, Texas, by police who later lied and said she had a gun, Shereese Francis suffocated by police in Queens, New York, in 2012, 7-year-old Aiyana Jones killed in Detroit in 2010 by police flash grenade during a home raid, Tarika Wilson, shot in Lima, Ohio, in 2008 by police while holding her infant daughter. Sadly, this is not a comprehensive list.
From 2005 to 2012, white American cops killed on average close to two black people per week. These statistics are higher than those of lynchings in the Jim Crow era south. Blacks and Latinos account for a quarter of the U.S. population but account for nearly 60 percent of its prison population. Blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites. There are more black men in prison now than there were slaves in the antebellum south. Our black incarceration rates and racial wealth gap exceed those of Apartheid era South Africa.
The statistics are stark and clear as day. Cops kill whites and other races, too – like, say, Daniel Saenz, shot this year by cops in El Paso, Texas, on video and while in handcuffs — the majority of these cases are white cops slaughtering black men, women and children and getting away with it. Black people in vehicles are pulled over at a disproportionate rate than whites; judges hand black people disproportionately longer sentences.
These practices are not only the result of the mediated cultural myth of the black man as criminal, they also help perpetuate it. It’s a vicious cycle. In his personal testimony, Wilson not only described Brown as, “like a demon,” he likened to “a five year old” versus “Hulk Hogan.” He believed that, even after being shot several times, Brown was still preparing to attack him and that he feared for his life. Cleveland PD officer Timothy Loehman, after shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death, told the dispatcher that Rice was “about 20.” Milwaukee PD officer Christopher Manney described Dontre Hamilton, an overweight man of below average height, as “big,” “muscular” and “impossible to control if you were one man.”
Whatever biases they held, conscious or unconscious, about the myths perpetuated since slavery of black men as non-human, aggressive, and threatening were not only absorbed culturally, but reinforced by their police peers and their police training. It is from this misinformed and sick haze that white cops shoot indiscriminately at black children, imagine them as demons with super human strength, imagine guns when there are none, to shoot first and make excuses later.
Commentators try to obfuscate the issue by bringing up black on black violence. Yes, the issue of black on black violence is an important one. Slavery and the systemic racism of post-slavery have destroyed African bodies, families, names, languages, and cultures in the United States. To say that black people killing black people has nothing to do with this legacy of white supremacy is foolhardy — but that’s a whole other conversation. These recent cases are about state-sanctioned racism and violence against citizens perpetrated by the very people ostensibly paid to protect them. Fingers are pointed at rioting and looting as counterproductive means of dissent — but again, the destruction of (usually insured) property should be understood as a lower priority than the destruction of black human beings.
According to the U.S. Census, as of 2008, there are just shy of 600,000 Americans employed by local police departments across the United States, with a little over 460,000 sworn officers. The population of the United States is 316.1 million, over 43 million of them black. As of last year, 45 million Americans were living below the poverty line, over half of them black and Latino, at rates vastly disproportionate to their population size. This means the people outnumber the police almost 700 to one; black people outnumber police over 80 to one; poor people outnumber police about 100 to one; and poor people of color outnumber police about 50 to one.
The enormity of this power is hugely underutilized. The police are so frightened of the people realizing and utilizing their power (particularly the black and poor, who have the most to gain and least to lose from this realization) that when the people come out to protest in jeans and T-shirts, unarmed, the police show up in riot gear with shields, batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, etc. This costume is a manifestation of their fear of the people.
Police are people too. They can be deprogrammed and their fear can be unlearned. When you are looking at a row of cops in riot gear, know that behind those plexiglass helmets is a human brain as fragile and irrational and afraid as any other, filled with its own thoughts and emotions and experiences, a brain that, despite years of conditioning otherwise, retains the capacity for empathy, compassion and change. In fact Richmond, California’s police chief Chris Magnus joined the #blacklivesmatter protests yesterday. There are no doubt more police who can, should and will cross the picket line and join the protest movement.
In Thailand last year, police laid down their weapons and joined protests against corruption in their government. During the Occupy Oakland protests, Mayor Jean Quan’s legal advisor Dan Siegel quit in support of the protestors. The Ethical Society of Police, an association of black SLPD officers, has expressed disdain for the way the situation in Ferguson has been handled and for the lack of diversity on the governing board of the SLPD. If they, and other organizations like them, were to organize police strikes, the repercussions might possibly force policy change. Cultural tides can and do change.
Giving, for a moment, the benefit of the doubt that it’s even possible to reform a system as corrupt and innately unfair as this one, what policy change should activists and protestors be asking for? For starters: Third-party prosecutors that are independent of the District Attorney’s office when police are tried for breaking the law. More diversity on police governing boards. No-tolerance policies for excessive force and police brutality. Some have suggested that police living where they work would increase accountability and transparency. There is plenty to be discussed and acted upon on a structural level.
What can the average person on the street do? At the minimum, show up and be counted at protests and marches. Have direct, honest discussions with friends, family, coworkers and on social media. Organize or participate in strikes and boycotts. Withhold money and labor. The Black Friday general boycott helped drop nationwide purchases on that day 11 percent from last year. The Guardian reported on this with the headline: “Black Friday’s fizzle: when the consumer shrugs” making only sidelong mention of the aggressive boycotting campaign that was no doubt responsible for most, if not all, of this decrease. If general boycotts continued, and if the media were to pay them the attention they deserved, real change might yet be possible. But to be a little more real, consider the unfortunate foolhardy optimism of asking a murderous jailer to jail himself.
It’s been well documented that almost all crime is linked largely, if not solely, to economic disparity. High poverty means high crime. This is a fact so old even Aristotle was up on it back in the day, look it up. As radical as it may seem to some, the current institution of police does not have to exist if other aspects of society are functioning properly. In an egalitarian society, police would not be necessary. This is not some foolish pipe dream that’s not worth chasing, it is an actual, possible reality that can and should be worked towards. Marinaleda is a village in Spain who’s mayor actually led a raid of the local supermarket to redistribute food to its then-fast-growing impoverished community, a city that was so economically depressed that it resorted to communism and it worked: the land is communally owned, the unemployment is close to zero (neighboring towns’ unemployment is 20-30 percent), there is wage equality, essentially no police and essentially no crime. This is a functional model that can be studied and replicated. To say this could not be attempted and even pulled off to some degree of success in some of America’s small towns, and eventually its largest cities, is defeatist. It takes organization, communication, understanding, compassion, patience and faith. It takes civil disobedience and courage and some leadership. It might take some targeted destruction of property. It will likely take more suffering. But it can happen, and I believe it will happen, by any means necessary.