America -- Toward a Police State?
For more than one year, the controversy surrounding the murder of Amadou Diallo had made headlines throughout the world. Everyone knows about the unarmed African immigrant who was fired on 41 times as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. The police officers, all white and wearing street clothes, fired on Diallo and striking him 19 times. Weeks ago, when black New Yorkers heard that the cops were acquitted on all charges for Diallo's death, thousands returned to the streets to protest.We were outraged not only because this use of deadly force was not justified, but that every stage of the handling of the Diallo case was compromised and undercut by racism. The fact that Diallo had no criminal record, and was committing no crime, was found to be irrelevant. The accused cops took full advantage of New York City's 48 hour gag rule, giving officers involved in shootings two full days to coordinate their stories to the district attorneys' office. The Diallo trial was moved from New York City to Albany to ensure that potential jurors would be more sympathetic with the police. In short, "justice" was thrown out the window, and the killer cops remained at large.As disturbing as the Diallo case was, an equally serious example of police brutality has received much less publicity, but may have greater political significance. Less than one year ago in Louisville, Kentucky, an 18 year old black man, Desmond Rudolph, was confronted by two white police officers, Chris Horn and Paul Kinkade, as he was reportedly stealing a sport utility vehicle. The officers fired twenty-two times. Ten bullets pierced Rudolph's body, with six shots exploding in his head. Several months later, a criminal investigation cleared the policemen.However, Rudolph's killing fit a longtime pattern of racial harassment and intimidation, which the black community has experienced in Louisville for decades. According to State Representative Paul Bather, who represents much of Louisville's black community, there have been nearly 60 misconduct claims filed against Louisville's police department since 1986, amounting to $3.3 million in total damages.When Louisville Mayor Dave Armstrong was informed that Officers Horn and Kinkade were among a group of officers to be given honors for valor at an annual police awards banquet, he demanded answers from Chief of Police Eugene Sherrard. Armstrong subsequently fired the police chief, complaining publicly that "a culture" inside the department urgently needed to be changed. "This culture only adds to the hostility of minorities who feel they are treated by the police as second-class citizens, without respect," Armstrong stated.The bizarre response by the Louisville police was reminiscent of the behavior of police in Chile back in 1973, who actively conspired to overthrow civilian authority. Within minutes of Sherrard's dismissal, hundreds of cops dropped everything, and drove to Louisville's police headquarters. In protest, nine police commanders promptly resigned their commands. Hundreds of police and their supporters held a mass demonstration at Jefferson Square in central Louisville on March 17, to demand that the mayor resign instead.As reported in USA Today, longtime Louisville social justice activist Anne Braden characterized these events as a sort of "military coup. If the president fires the chief of staff of the Army, the Army does not march on the White House."Maybe not, in ordinary times. But we no longer live in ordinary times.The construction of a vast prison-industrial complex and the enlargement of private security forces throughout the U.S. have created the preconditions for a politically active, ideologically motivated national police apparatus. Thousands of cops no longer believe that they can leave "justice" to the courts. Many thousands more doubt the capacity or will of most elected officials to curb street crimes. Thus the executions of Diallo, and hundreds of other black, brown and poor people represent a kind of political statement, about how the oppressed should be governed within a capitalist society.Consider the fact that there are now roughly 600,000 police officers, 350,000 prison guards and 1.5 million private security guards. There are about 30,000 heavily armed, paramilitary "SWAT" (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams currently operating in the U.S. The police who killed Diallo were members of New York's Street Crimes Unit, which carried out thousands of stop-and-frisk operations throughout the city. Only two months ago, the New York Police Department initiated a new $24 million effort called "Operation Condor," assigning 500 extra plainclothes and uniformed officers to various "sting" and surveillance operations, especially in poor and minority neighborhoods. It was one of these "undercover," plainclothes police teams on March 16 in New York City that confronted, shot and killed yet another unarmed black man, Patrick Dorismond.It is also instructive, and disturbing, that these widespread examples of police deadly force and the disregard for citizens' Constitutional rights is not opposed by a significant number of white Americans. For example, in the wake of Dorismond's killing, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, currently campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat, made callous remarks about the dead black man. Giuliani illegally disclosed Dorismond's sealed juvenile records, and refused to extend condolences to the deceased's family. All blacks, Latinos and even most whites living in New York City were appalled by Giuliani's racist behavior. Yet according to polls, only 28 percent of upstate New Yorkers and 34 percent of suburban voters disagreed with Giuliani's handling of this situation. Two-thirds of upstate New Yorkers even said that Giuliani should not have to express remorse to Dorismond's family.In effect, millions of white middle and upper class people have made the cold calculation that a certain level of unjustified killings of blacks, Latinos and poor people, is necessary to maintain public order. Yet inevitably they will discover, much to their regret, that when the police and security forces are given a license to kill, that they will not stop at the boundaries of the black community.