Our Umpteenth Effort to End Racial Murder and Abuse

June 28, 2020

I wanted to deliver this last week but Trump’s use of the military against domestic protestors had me fear for the future of our republic and I put this off.

But I want to talk about these horrible scenes of murder of African-Americans by police. People killed who posed no threat, where the police had everything well under control, and it wasn’t even clear if the victim had done anything meriting police attention, let alone murder. Breonna Taylor, an EMT, was killed in her bed in Louisville.

This reminds me of the Civil Rights Movement I grew up with. People in prayer outside boards of election that wouldn’t let them register. 14-year- old Emmet Til killed on a visit to Mississippi relatives, accused of whistling at a white woman. Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker shot in her car. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, an integrated trio of civil rights workers, released by police in front of thugs who followed, murdered and buried them where they were not expected to be found.

The murders and lynchings stayed in front of our eyes until we hurt, just as we are hurting for George Floyd, choked to death in Minneapolis; Walter Scott, over a brake light in Charleston, SC; Ahmaud Aubrey, killed for jogging while Black in Georgia; Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old, in Cleveland; Stephon Clark, killed for holding a cell phone in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard;  Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner, in Staten Island; Tony McDade in Tallahassee; and Trayvon Martin, a teenager, killed by a neighborhood vigilante who thought he didn’t belong, compounded by the jury’s acquittal. Their stories, and so many more, are unacceptable. The police are supposed to protect us. But they kill too. African-Americans have learned not to call the police in order to protect their own families. I can’t forget the acquittal of four officers here in Albany for killing Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, in a barrage of forty-one shots for trying to put a key in his door.

The U.S. Supreme Court enabled a century of lynching in 1876 by holding that a U.S. Attorney had no authority to prosecute the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre.[i] After that, police and the Klan, which also infiltrated the FBI, acted with impunity in much of the country. The Court now does its best to restore the worst abuses of that century of intimidation and impunity.[ii] I recently worked on a brief in support of the family of a Mexican boy, in a cross-border shooting by American officers for playing too near the border. The Supreme Court protected his killer. As Pete Seeger asked, “When will it ever end”?

And yet we can’t get tired, we can’t stop, we can’t let all the abuses this country has tried to stop elsewhere define life for a third of our citizens at home. No one is free when anyone is in chains. I don’t want to have the deaths of thousands of decent people on my conscience. I don’t want my darker skinned friends, colleagues, clients, neighbors, essential workers, athletes, entertainers or any other good people and their families having to worry day and night about eluding people who want to kill them or think they aren’t worth living?

When Yugoslavia started to come apart, we had an exchange student living with us who was from Belgrade. She cried about what was happening to her country – the whole country, Yugoslavia. There was intermarriage, friendship, strong neighborhoods, business partnerships, and none of that protected people. When things start to fall apart, there is no safety. We need to stand up for decent people of all backgrounds. And remember that none of us and none of those dear to us are safe when shooters are empowered, with or without a badge.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on the WAMC Northeast Report, on June 30, 2020.

[i] LeeAnna Keith, The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction (Oxford Univ. Press 2008); Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction (Henry Holt & Company 2008); and United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876), the case that turned a massacre into a century of intimidation and impunity.

[ii] Stephen Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 189-208 (2016).


The Code of Silence and the Stereotype of Bravery

March 8, 2016

It’s hard to explain to most people how serious the problems with the police are. Ideology makes people choose sides and blink reality. Urging change is treated by police as pure hostility. There are many good policemen doing everything they can to protect all of us. Equally clearly there are policemen who are there for the power trip from the uniform or from their weapons.

But their solidarity and their code of silence make it a much more serious problem, making all criticism out of bounds and protecting policemen who commit serious crimes or abuses.

Sometimes victim’s families win civil suits but the city pays, which means you and me pay, while the officers will be indemnified. That’s not nearly good enough.

Some police were so brave that they were terrified by a man reaching for his front door key and pulverized him with 41 shots. So brave that a Black man in a winter coat, walking like he had a bad knee, a limp or a package – suggests a gun to them and the encounter ends with his death. Or they decide to take what they think the law is into their own hands in a deliberately rough a ride before considering a trip to the hospital, recently ending one victim’s life in Baltimore. I don’t buy stereotypes, including stereotypes of the police. My blood curdles when officers who should be brave and careful shoot unarmed and law-abiding Black men in the back saying they were scared.

Of course it’s now legal to carry guns. But not for African-American men. It’s not even legal for African-American men to look like they might be carrying a gun because it scares our policemen and someone often dies. Of course the rest of us are not supposed to react that way – we’d be charged with murder.

We call the police the finest – but many can’t deal with any but instantaneous obedience and agreement. Objections are often met with charges of resisting arrest or interfering with a police officer. My advice to anyone stopped by the police is to sound apologetic and compliant but say absolutely nothing except your desire to talk to an attorney – politely. It’s my advice to stay alive. But too many don’t get the message. They’re Americans who “know their rights” and they’re angry when they’re stopped for no good reason. They don’t respect people who fly off the handle at the first sign of disagreement, using their weapons to get “respect” for the cops.

Boy I’d love to have unqualified confidence in cops and troopers, to respect their bravery, good sense and commitment to police themselves. But fairness, accuracy and justice are far from consistent results of policing. Cops have told me they’d never rat on a brother and would deny what they knew to be true. I’ve had policemen tell me they change the facts to make people guilty of crimes – like convicting Black or young men in the wrong attire of carrying concealed weapons – including hunting rifles in plain view. Judges have told me they believe the police about half the time – they just don’t know which half.

There have been many exposes of police corruption. But when someone tries to stop it, they are ostracized, forced out or worse. Police unions protect police records so that no one, including the press, can get the facts.

That’s the force we have – one that condones bad behavior over codes of decent conduct. That’s not what our Founders dreamed of or what we deserve. It’s not about rogue officers. It’s about the misplaced loyalty that protects bad behavior. I’d lock their guns in the armory until they learned to police themselves and protect us all.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 8, 2016.


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