TRUE DEMOCRACY SPRING 2001 TABLE OF CONTENTS
CONTEMPORARY POLICE BRUTALITY AND MISCONDUCT: A CONTINUATION OF THE LEGACY OF RACIAL VIOLENCE
by Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua for the Black Radical Congress
"Our lives, our homes, our liberties each day are made less secure because
of unrestrained and unpunished police brutality."
--National Negro Congress,
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
Police brutality and misconduct are merely the major contemporary forms of
State-sponsored racist violence. 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, engaging in illegal activities, and committing
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 U.S. 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
1. To force people of color into indentured, slave, peonage,
or low wage situations;
2. To steal land, minerals, and other resources;
3. To maintain social control and to repress rebellions;
4. To restrict or eliminate competition in employment,
business, politics, and social life; and
5. To unite "whites" across ethnic/national, class, and
Domination of people of color necessitated the incorporation and
justification of racially motivated and differentiated violence in the
society's law, custom, and popular culture.
Federal, state, and municipal law sanctioned the slave trade, genocidal wars
of conquest, slavery, and the brutalities inherent 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 and Latina people have been the victims of
government sponsored or sanctioned violence since the U.S. 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. The slave trade was the first international industry; it was a
business venture of European nation-states.
Orderly commodity exchange cloaked the coercion and disorder undergirding
the Atlantic Slave Trade. Raids and kidnapping were the life-blood of the
slave "trade." 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 authored practices that
condoned maiming, rape, and murder. After the revolution, individual states
preserved and refined antiblack laws, with the support of the federal
For its part, the new national government enshrined African American slavery
into the U.S. 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 percent 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 U.S. 238). Since its return in 1976, executions have adhered
their previous racist and class biased patterns. Thus, people of color have
comprised 45 percent or 308 of the 679 executions in the U.S. Two hundred
and forty-seven or 36 percent 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 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 Los Angeles
Conflagration. For instance, after the beating of Lino Riveria, a Puerto
Rican youth by New York City police in1935, 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 the
Watts in 1965 referred to as the Watts Riots. 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 Los Angeles 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 (1955-1975) "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, D.C., over the span a few months, the
NNC collected 24,000 signatures protesting abuse by the D.C. 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 thirty 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 percent of police admit that
fellow officers sometimes or often use "more force than necessary".
Moreover, 61 percent claimed officers do not report instances of "serious
criminal violations or abuse of authority" by other officers.
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 (Section 210402. Data on
Use of Excessive Force), 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" that 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.
Thus, we the undersigned citizens of the United States petition the United
States Congress to make police brutality and misconduct federal crimes. We
believe that police brutality and misconduct should be federal crimes for
the following reasons:
-- Whereas police brutality and misconduct are perhaps the most serious and
recurring violations of U.S. citizens' civil rights; and
-- Whereas police brutality and misconduct are perhaps the most serious and
recurring violations of citizens' and permanent residents' human rights; and
-- Whereas police brutality and misconduct are pervasive across the nation
at all levels of law enforcement, municipal, county, state, and federal; and
-- Whereas race and ethnicity or nationality have been demonstrated to be
major factors in the occurrence of police brutality and misconduct; and
-- Whereas socioeconomic class has been demonstrated to be a major factor in
the occurrence of police brutality and misconduct; and
-- Whereas gender and its intersection with class and race/nationality plays
a major factor in racial profiling; Black and Brown men traditionally have
been the primary targets of racial profiling. However, Black women have
increasingly become targets of racial profiling, especially in airports and
Black women also compose one of the fastest-growing segments of new
-- Whereas existing remedies at the municipal, state, and federal levels of
government have proven ineffective in curtailing the unwarranted use of
excessive force and subsequent cover up of such abuses; and
-- Whereas police brutality and misconduct are serious offenses that
threatens domestic peace and tranquillity, we call upon the Congress of the
United States to pass legislation making brutality and misconduct by law
enforcement agents federal crimes, subject to prosecutions in federal court.
*In 1919, the NAACP reported 3,386 incidents of lynching between 1882-1918.
In a controversial 1992 revision, sociologists Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M.
Beck, argue that duplication of reporting produced an over count. They claim
only 2,805 lynchings (nearly 2500 of which were Blacks) can be documented
between 1882 and 1930, in ten 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
Black Radical Congress
Columbia University Station
P.O. Box 250791
New York, NY 10025-1509
Phone: (212) 969-0348
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