Police brutality and failures of American justice are not at all new

Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures.
Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures.

by Larry Geller

Demonstrations against police killings and brutality have continued in many cities across the country on a daily basis—and people are not just marching one day and disappearing, they are coming back repeatedly. In addition to waving signs, they often disrupt traffic as a tactic, and get in our face with the unfolding facts of police brutality and the failures of justice as people of color are repeatedly victimized. Mainstream media demonstrates its own bias through selective reporting or total blackouts on what could be one of the most important social movements of our time.

It’s interesting to check into the history of policing in this country and learn that abuses have remained essentially unchanged over a very long span of time, Oh, police no longer club and shoot workers, but otherwise, they continue to club and shoot minorities and protesters and to lie about it.

Before commenters jump down my throat, I am not forgetting that police also protect us and keep crime in check, but that does not excuse the behaviors in question. Nor does the targeting killing of two police officers in New York this weekend change the other issues at hand.

The current protests, though under-reported in daily newspapers, are not unprecedented, although the newspapers provide no sense of historical context. Those of us alive in the ’60s may recall the urban rebellions of that era.

The Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders reported to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 (from Police Brutality, edited by Jill Nelson):

We have cited deep hostility between police and ghetto communities as a primary cause of the disorders surveyed by the Commission. In Newark, in Detroit, in Watts, in Harlem—in practically every city that has experienced racial disruption since the summer of 1964—abrasive relationships between police and Negroes and other minority groups have been a major source of grievance, tension and, ultimately, disorder…. Police misconduct—whether described as brutality, harassment, verbal abuse, or discourtesy—cannot be tolerated even if it is infrequent. It contributes directly to the risk of civil disorder. It is inconsistent with the basic responsibility of a police force in a democracy. Police departments must have rules prohibiting such misconduct and enforce them vigorously. Police commanders must be aware of what takes place in the field, and take firm steps to correct abuses.

There’s little new under the sun. Although no new commission has been convened, alternative media accounts of major protests relate, for example, that passersby are often rounded up non-discriminately along with demonstrators. The community as a whole is being abused. Commuters on their way to work might find themselves beaten, perhaps injured, and then arrested for no reason whatsoever. Later, they might sue on Constitutional grounds, and taxpayers foot the bill for the police misconduct. The police themselves are not held accountable. Earlier accounts of police misconduct are remarkably similar.

While alternative media have noted the sadism of police practice during demonstrations, for example tightening plastic handcuff bands to the point of causing pain, slamming heads against the sidewalk, walls or into glass doors, or spraying pepper spray directly into the eyes of protesters, the mainstream media often fail to report that misconduct while seeking out and emphasizing whatever incidents of violence may take place on the part of protesters.

More than 100 years of brutality and still counting

The issue is so old that it’s remarkable that it has not been remedied. According to Street Justice,

In the mid-1860s, for instance, the Times ran numerous editorials criticizing police for their rough handling of “gentlemen” and “respectable women” on the streets at night. Such men, the Times noted, had been mere passersby to sidewalk altercations or had been innocently awaiting streetcars…

It was also from about that time that “brutality” was used to describe the excesses of policing. The more modern use of “pigs” or “brutes” to describe police derives directly from accounts of police behavior described as animal-like in that period.

The press started noting police failure to render aid in the late 1870s, according to Street Justice. The author gave as an example the case of the secretary of a German benevolent society who was allowed to die, untreated, in a jail cell, after the police were called to the scene of a robbery. The man was the victim of the robbery, not the perpetrator. The cover was that the police supposedly thought he was “drunk.”

This echoes, somewhat, the murder by police of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., on November 19, 2011, in White Plains, New York when police came to assist him in a medical emergency. Instead of assisting him, they killed him.

Or the death of Eric Garner after police applied a chokehold to him. Police left Garner lying on the sidewalk for seven minutes without performing CPR.

Or the NYPD officer who shot Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn stairwell and was texting his union rep as his victim lay dying. No, nothing new so far.

What is new is the attention paid on social media and in the alternative press to the combined and overlapping issues of police brutality, impunity for their actions, and the multitudinous failures of the American justice system not only in these cases but at every level. This has led to a continuous series of demonstrations since the August killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer.

Police also have historically acted in support of the power structure and to protect it against what the white establishment perhaps most fears: a black rebellion. This is likely related to why the mainstream media prefers not to cover either police brutality or the growing protests against it that have manifested this year. From accounts in other cities, our Star-Advertiser is not alone in choosing to cover anything else but the protest news that is trending on Twitter. For example, a snip from this morning’s Democracy Now headlines:

Dozens Arrested at Michael Brown-Eric Garner Protests in Minnesota, Wisconsin

Protests were also held across the country this weekend. More than 1,500 demonstrators shut down Minnesota’s Mall of America for several hours on Saturday afternoon calling for justice in the cases of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. At least 25 people were arrested. One day earlier, dozens of protesters were arrested in Milwaukee after blocking traffic on a major highway for over an hour. The action centered on the case of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed mentally disabled black man shot dead during a confrontation with a police officer on April 30. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has called up the National Guard to be on standby.

Ferguson Prosecutor Admits Calling Witnesses Who Lied

The prosecutor who oversaw the Michael Brown grand jury has acknowledged knowingly calling witnesses who weren’t telling the truth. In his first interview since announcing the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson last month, Bob McCulloch told a St. Louis radio station he decided to call all potential witnesses, even those who lied….

Protests have occurred on an almost daily basis, and indicate that a broad segment of the US population has decided to work on the combined issues of racism, police brutality, militarization of the police, and failures of justice. It’s happening even if our local paper won’t cover it.

Failures of justice are multi-faceted

It’s not only the grand jury system that fails to indict police officers even though figures from the Bureau of Justice show that grand juries decided to indict only 11 out of 160,000 cases. Prosecutors themselves have been exposed as controlling the process so that cases against the police are dismissed. Prosecutors can short circuit justice through their actions—in the report above, the prosecutor in the Michael Brown case not only put witnesses whom he knew were lying before the grand jury, he brought the potential defendant, the police officer who shot Brown, to testify before the jurors. While the jurors heard his side of the story, no attorney was present to challenge the cop’s version of events.

Prosecutors can also “throw” a case much like a wrestler throws a match, while putting on a good show for the public. We can question whether the prosecution was trying its hardest to convict Zimmerman in Florida.

In New York City, trials of police, when they happen, are routinely moved to upstate Albany, an overwhelmingly white county 150 miles away from the city. Few jurors are non-white, and almost no police are ever convicted.

Justice? Hardly.

Protesters have picked up related issues, such as the disproportionate incarceration rate of blacks nationwide, and the astonishing rate of police killings of black men and teenagers, said to be one every 28 hours. Of course, this is a perhaps predictable result when police can kill blacks with impunity and the justice system is racially biased. In the background is the failure of American system to bring even torturers to justice, nevermind letting financial criminals or those who lie to Congress walk free. Those with money or power are privileged to remain free and alive, while those living with poverty can be killed with no consequences. It is all of one fabric.

There’s news here, and just because we don’t read about it in the daily paper does not mean that it is not happening. With the Internet, we no longer live on an island, of course, but at the same time, most people still get their news from TV or the printed paper, and so “disappearing” the news deprives us of both the ability to reflect on the quality of policing in our own state and makes us orphans of history. We’re not supposed to know what the commercial media don’t want to tell us.

All this is good reason to connect to the Internet, watch Democracy Now, The Daily Show (alas, we’ve lost Colbert), and check out the many alternative websites that do a great job each in their own way. Twitter is an increasingly good resource—you can learn of events as they happen, and often in greater detail than will ever make it into narrow newspaper columns, if it appears at all. If you connect to streaming video, you’re there, you’re on the spot.

So we can get the information we need to be informed citizens, and it’s up to us to join in or let the world pass us by.

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