'You Should Have Shot the Son of a Bitch': Listen to Police Joke About Murdering a Black Man
The ease of their voices shocked me: a white district attorney and a white police officer shooting the breeze, discussing how they could have killed a black arrestee whose case was causing them trouble.
It was January 2010. Ojore Lutalo, a Black Liberation activist who had formerly spent nearly three decades in prison, was traveling on an Amtrak train back to his home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The woman sitting in front of Lutalo, who was eavesdropping on his conversation, reported hearing alarming remarks to train staff. When the train pulled into La Junta, Colorado, Lutalo was arrested at gunpoint. He spent three days in jail. Meanwhile, town officials had realized they could not substantiate Lutalo’s purported terrorist threats, prompting the embarrassing question of whether charges would even be filed. Assistant District Attorney Barta phoned arresting Officer Mobley to confer about how to salvage the investigation and secure an indictment. (Lutalo was never charged.)
If the circumstances of Lutalo’s arrest were different—if he didn’t have a high profile or access to legal support—we’d probably never know about this incident. The recordings were disclosed during discovery after Lutalo filed suit against the city for violating his constitutional rights by making false claims to justify his arrest. The suit was ultimately settled out of court.
Arresting Officer Mobley: I should have just let [the arrestee] get off the train and go.
Assistant District Attorney Barta: Ah, you should have said that he pulled a knife on you and shot the son of a bitch.
Barta: (Laughter) He pulled something out of his pocket and it looked like a gun... then... it was a goddamn comb, I'm sorry! (Laughter)
Mobley: My bad, I'm sorry! (Laughter)
Barta: My bad! (Laughter)
Barta: (Laughter) Oh well, anyway… (Pause) Or, you could have arrested him, alleged that the train tried to pull out, and here's a thought, throw him under the track, the wheels, and then say he tried to escape. But too late for that....
Mobley: Yeah ...
Mobley: Oh well! Anyway....
(Listen to the tape below)
I’m sitting in a vegetarian restaurant in Montclair, New Jersey with Ojore Lutalo and Bonnie Kerness, the coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) national Prison Watch Project, and a long-term advocate for prisoners’ rights. I’d listened to the recordings several days earlier. My first question for Lutalo is how he felt when he first heard them. Did the content come as a shock? Lutalo shakes his head. “To me, it came as no surprise. I’m a black man in America.”
Kerness and Lutalo first communicated in 1986, when he wrote to her from his cell in the Management Control Unit (MCU) at Trenton State Prison (now called the New Jersey State Prison). What Lutalo described shocked her. He told her he had been awakened at 1am and forced to strip naked as police dogs strained against their leashes, snapping at his genitals.
Lutalo was undergoing what is now defined as “no-touch torture”: a continuous effort to break him through tactics like intentional humiliation, long stretches of silence or screeching, extreme cold and heat, enforced sleep deprivation, and day after day spent alone in a tiny cage made of steel and concrete. But Lutalo, who was serving time for actions committed with the Black Liberation Army (read his own account of the two offenses here), knew he was being punished for his political beliefs. Now he has the evidence to prove it: a 2008 Classification Decision from prison officials states he was being kept in solitary because his “radical views and ability to influence others poses a threat to the orderly operation of this Institution.” As the years passed, Lutalo stayed sane by exercising, writing, meditating, and making political collages that portrayed his life on the inside.