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A Continuation of the Legacy of Racial Violence
Contemporary Police Brutality and Misconduct
from the Black Radical Congress
[NOTE: The statement below is from an extended background version of the BRC Anti-Police Brutality & Misconduct Petition. A shorter version of this petition, intended for the gathering of signatures, can be downloaded from the web site: http://www.blackradicalcongress.org/]
“Our lives, our homes, our liberties each day are made less secure because of unrestrained and unpunished police brutality.”—National Negro Congress, Petition Against Police Brutality, 1938.
In the late sixties, Jamil Al-Amin (a.k.a. H. Rap Brown) declared, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Al-Amin’s statement underscores the essential role of violence in maintaining systems of racial oppression in the United States. Racist violence was fundamental to the creation of the United States. Moreover, force and violence are not options but necessary to the maintenance of racial oppression. Racist violence is the scaffolding upon which capitalist exploitation and white supremacy are erected.
Racist violence has both structural and physical components and it operates in both the public and private spheres. Structural violence refers to the “impersonal” violence inflicted upon people of color and the poor by profit-oriented enterprises and institutions. It involves the indirect violence caused by institutional policies and programs that produce, maintain, and rationalize poverty, inadequate health care, and substandard housing.
Public racist violence refers to structural and physical violence initiated, perpetuated, and justified by the government. Private racist violence describes the racially motivated physical and structural violence of private citizens and persons. People of color have been the victims of systematic public and spontaneous private violence since the slave trade and the colonial conquest of the Americas. Privately initiated racist violence has taken the form of genocidal invasions, rapacious slaving raids, savage slave whipping, and repressive white capping, lynching, race riots, and hate crimes. Although private violence is crucial to the maintenance of racial oppression, it has always supplemented state-sponsored (government) racist violence.
Over the last 500 years people of color, especially African Americans, have endured a pattern of state-sanctioned violence, and civil and human rights abuse. To enforce capitalist exploitation and racial oppression the government and its police, courts, prisons, and military have beaten, framed, murdered and executed private persons, and brutally repressed struggles for freedom, justice, and self-determination. It has initiated wars of conquest, launched man-hunts for fugitive slaves, suppressed slave revolts, brutalized demonstrators, and assassinated political dissidents.
Police brutality describes “instances of serious physical or psychological harm to civilians.” Contemporary police brutality consists of deadly force, the use of excessive force, and it includes unjustified shooting, fatal choking, and physical assault by law enforcement officers. Police misconduct is inclusive of planting evidence, making untrue statements, filing untrue written reports, condoning untrue statements and/or reports by keeping silent, threatening suspects, arrestees, and witnesses, and committing perjury.
More than half (53%) of the 4,220 persons executed between 1930 and 1996 were Black.
This statement summarizes the United States’ atrocious record of racial repression, specifically State-sponsored violence. It has a dual purpose: first to demonstrate the role of government in initiating and sustaining racially motivated suppression and savagery; and second, to provide a rationale for making police brutality and misconduct federal crimes.
A History of US Racial Repression and Violence
Historically, racist violence, legal and extralegal, and whether state-sponsored or private, has been used to impose racial oppression and preserve white power and privilege.
Racist violence has served five primary purposes:
- To force people of color into indentured, slave, peonage, or low wage situations;
- To steal land, minerals, and other resources;
- To maintain social control and to repress rebellions;
- To restrict or eliminate competition in employment, business, politics, and social life; and
- To unite “whites” across ethnic/national, class, and gender lines.
Federal, state, and municipal law sanctioned the slave trade, genocidal wars of conquest, slavery, and the brutalities inherent in labor exploitation and racial oppression. Genocide and other forms of government sponsored or sanctioned violence have been inflicted upon Native Americans since the country’s beginning. Latino/a people have been the victims of government sponsored or sanctioned violence since the US unleashed a colonial war of aggression against the Mexicano people in the middle of the 19th century. Chinese (and later other Asian Americans) have been assaulted by government sponsored or sanctioned violence since the middle of the 19th century.
Moreover, all branches of government have engaged in violence against workers across color and gender lines or abdicated their equal protection responsibilities during labor disputes.
State-sponsored and state-sanctioned violence has characterized the Black experience since Africans’ forced migration to these shores. The Atlantic Slave Trade (1444–1850) represented the first moment of capitalist globalism. About two-thirds of the nearly 12 million Africans enslaved in the Americas were captured through rapacious raids and kidnapping. During the four centuries the slave trade operated, 100 million Africans may have died from the predatory commercial wars launched by European royalty, the papacy, and emerging European and American capitalists.
British colonial and American governments systematically suppressed Africans’ human rights. Colonial governments enacted special “slave codes” that legalized physical abuse (whipping) and condoned maiming, rape, and murder. After the revolution, individual states preserved and refined antiblack laws, with the support of the federal government.
For its part, the new national government enshrined African American slavery into the US Constitution (Article I, sec.2) and authorized law enforcement agents to assist in the capture and return of fugitive slaves (Article 4, sec. 2 and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793).
Racist violence reached its apogee after Emancipation.
Lynching, the major form of violence used against African Americans from 1882–1910, resulted from the encouragement of law enforcement agents or their abdicating their equal protection responsibilities. Between 1882 and 1930 approximately 3,000 Blacks (mostly male) were lynched.* During the First Nadir (1877–1917), organized gang rape of Black women by white racist mobs and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan was a special form of terrorism reserved for Blacks.
After 1930, extralegal race riots and legal executions replaced lynching as means of social control. All-white or predominately white juries and government officials merely extended societal racial discrimination to executions. More than half (53%) of the 4,220 persons executed between 1930 and 1996 were Black. Despite the history of white men sexually assaulting Black women, 405 or 90% of the 455 men executed for rape between 1930 and 1976 were Black.
In 1972 the death penalty was outlawed partly because of its racist and class discriminatory implementation (Furman v. Georgia, 408 US 238). Since its return in 1976, executions have adhered to their previous racist and class biased patterns.
Police brutality or misconduct has been the “trigger incident” that sparked almost every modern rebellion from the 1935 “Harlem Riot” to the 1992 LA Conflagration.
Thus, people of color have comprised 45% or 308 of the 679 executions in the US. Two hundred and forty-seven or 36% of those executed have been Black. Currently, Blacks on death row are nearly three times their percentage in the overall population (36% to 13%).
The government also bears the responsibility for the actions and non-actions of police officers during race riots and rebellions. Abdication of responsibility coupled with acts of outright brutality and misconduct by law enforcement officers enabled hundreds of race riots (violent clashes between private white and Black citizens) throughout the nation’s history. Police brutality or misconduct has been the “trigger incident” that sparked almost every modern rebellion from the 1935 “Harlem Riot” to the 1992 LA Conflagration. For instance, after the beating of Lino Riveria, a Puerto Rican youth, by New York City police in 1935, three Blacks were killed, 57 people were injured and $2 million dollars worth of property was destroyed in Harlem. A patrolman’s attack on Marquette Frye sparked an uprising in Watts in 1965. The conflict resulted in hundreds of injures, 34 deaths, and the damage or destruction of $35 million worth of property. The savage police beating of Arthur McDuffie, a 33-year-old Black insurance executive, triggered the 1980 Miami Rebellion.
The 1992 LA Rebellion was a response to the March 3, 1991 brutalizing of Rodney G. King by three LA police officers.Twenty-three other law enforcement officers watched as King was beaten, kicked and shocked by officers wielding batons and stun guns.
In contemporary America, police brutality is the preferred form of social control. Several local, state, and federal commissions, particularly the 1967 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) have pointed out the immensity of this problem. The police are as the Black Panther Party declared in the 1960s “an occupying army of repression.”
Police brutality has been a persistent problem faced by African Americans. The failure of government to protect Black people from lawless law enforcement officers forced Blacks to act in their own interests. During the 1930s, the National Negro Congress organized massive rallies against this form of terror. In Washington, DC, over the span of a few months, the NNC collected 24,000 signatures protesting abuse by the DC police department. The Black Panther Party was created to stem the tide of police abuse. In the 1970s the Congress of Afrikan Peoples sponsored the “Stop Killer Cops” Campaigns. Extralegal violence by law enforcement officers has been a primary concern of the Congressional Black Caucus since its formation. The CBC has periodically held public hearings about police outrages across the country over the last 30 years. Yet, extra-legal violence persists as recent police killings of Richard L. Holtz (Fort Lee, New Jersey); Tyisha Miller (Riverside, California); and Amadou Diallo (New York City) attest.
Finally, police administrators have ignored or been lax in using internal department policies and procedures to punish officers who have displayed a pattern of brutality and/or misconduct. Internal department policies are often weak and internal investigations are generally conducted poorly. A Justice Department survey found that nearly 22% of police admit that fellow officers sometimes or often use “more force than necessary.” Moreover, 61% claimed officers do not report instances of “serious criminal violations of abuse of authority” by other officers.
…private civil suits have yet to demonstrate the capacity to reform individual or police departmental behavior…
Civilian review boards are generally under-funded and lack the legal authority to compel police officers’ participation, nor can they enforce findings. To date, private civil suits have yet to demonstrate the capacity to reform individual or police departmental behavior because they do not address the policies and procedures of departments. Although the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorized the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to bring “civil actions” against police departments that evidence a pattern of abuse, they also have not deterred the continuation of police brutality and misconduct.
Moreover, neither the offending officer nor the department is held financially liable for judgements. Finally, criminal prosecutions for police brutality or misconduct rarely occur because few state prosecutors are willing to aggressively pursue abusive officers. This pattern is also true for federal prosecutors, although to a lesser extent.
We believe that existing local, county, state, and federal policies and laws have been ineffective in ending the persistent and pervasive practices of police brutality and misconduct.
Moreover, we believe that because police officers operate under “color of law” civil and human rights violations committed by officers undermine respect for law and government.
Furthermore, we believe the logical consequence of police violence and misconduct is a society ruled by the force of arms, not law. Thus, every act of police brutality and misconduct; every frame-up, every act of illegal surveillance, every “justified” murder erases an article from the Bill of Rights and takes us another step closer to a police state.
*In 1919, the NAACP reported 3,386 incidents of lynching between 1882 and 1918. In a controversial 1992 revision, sociologists Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck argue that duplication of reporting produced an overcount. They claim only 2,805 lynchings (nearly 2,500 of which were of Blacks) can be documented between 1882 and 1930, in 10 southern states. See NAACP, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States: 1889–1918 (New York: Arno Press, 1919), p. 29; and Stewart E.Tolnay and E.M. Beck, Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynching, 1882–1930 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois).
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