How can police brutality be stopped?

Photo: Bill Hackwell

On June 23, another case of police brutality in Los Angeles made national headlines. Police were caught on videotape viciously beating an unarmed 36-year-old Black man, Stanley Miller, with a large metal flashlight.

Police claim Miller caused his own beating by running a stoplight and leading them on a 30-minute car chase through Compton, a predominately Black community in South Central Los Angeles. But news helicopter footage clearly shows Miller surrendering with his hands in the air. Cops shoved him to the ground, then kicked him in the head and beat him 11 times in the head and neck with a metal flashlight.

The videotape of the Miller beating was aired on local and national television newscasts repeatedly over the next few days. It immediately recalled the horrific videotaped beatings of Rodney King in 1991 and Donovan Jackson in 2002. Notoriously racist top cop Chief William Bratton denied any comparisons to the Rodney King beating, essentially arguing that Miller hadn’t been beaten as long as King had.

Bratton further inflamed African Americans in Los Angeles on July 3, calling Black youth “tribal” and “terrorists.”

In 1991, three LAPD officers brutalized Rodney King, a Black man. Twenty-four other cops stood by and watched as King was beaten, kicked and shocked by batons and stun guns. The cops who perpetrated this crime were acquitted by a majority white jury in 1992.

Donovan Jackson, a 16-year-old Black youth, was punched in the face and slammed onto the hood of a car by an Inglewood police officer while he was handcuffed. We know what happened to Jackson only because a passing tourist with a video camera happened to videotape the incident. The cop who beat Jackson was let off after two mostly white juries failed to reach a verdict.

A national epidemic

The recent police beating of Stanley Miller is the latest racist attack on the Black community in Los Angeles. This incident was caught on tape. But many residents describe living under constant threat of brutal police violence. Countless episodes of this type of attack go on regularly as “business as usual.”

The same thing happens on a daily basis in Black and Latino communities, large and small, across the U.S.

A sample of some of the most egregious cases shows the brutal scope of epidemic racist cop violence:

Twenty-seven year old Terrance Shurn was killed in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 2003 after being chased by cops for supposedly running a stop light. White cops reportedly gave “high-fives” as Shurn lay dead in the twisted wreck of his motorcycle.

In 1999, Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, was shot 19 times at his own doorstep in the Bronx, New York, as he tried to identify himself. The four white cops who shot him walked free, acquitted by a majority white jury.

Weeks after Diallo’s killers were acquitted in 2000, New York City cops killed Haitian immigrant Patrick Dorismond, who had rebuffed an undercover cop’s attempt to sell him drugs.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, white off-duty cops shot and killed 19-year old Timothy Thomas in 2001. Thomas had been wanted for outstanding warrants—for traffic offenses. He was the fifteenth Black man killed by Cincinnati cops in the preceding six years, and the fourth in the preceding six months.

Tyisha Miller was lying in her car sick and semi-conscious after having a seizure in December 1999 when four cops, called to the scene to help her, killed her in a hail of 27 bullets.

Like Stanley Miller, Rodney King and Donovan Jackson, Abner Louima survived his encounter with racist cops in 2001—but not before being brutally tortured in a New York City police station.

Police turn downtown Los Angeles into an occupied zone during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Photo: Bill Hackwell

An occupying army

From these incidents, and many less known others like them, it is abundantly clear that police brutality against Black and Latino communities is the norm, and not the exception. Such a widespread social issue cannot be the result of a handful of a few “bad cops,” nor can it be an issue of “misconduct” as opposed to a mythical “good conduct.”

Noted Black novelist James Baldwin vividly described the situation faced by millions in his 1962 novel, “Nobody Knows My Name.” Police in the Black communities “represent the force of the white world, and that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep that Black man corralled up here, in his place. The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt.”

The white cop “moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country, which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in twos and threes.”

This quote, later picked up and developed politically by revolutionary groups like the Black Panthers, pinpoints the role of police in the most oppressed communities. Cops are not in communities to solve problems like drugs or crime. Rather, they exist to maintain the super-exploitation of these communities.

Marxists have always paid close attention to the role of police and other armed forces of the state. Lenin, drawing on the pioneering work of Frederick Engels, pointed out that a tiny ruling class that draws all its wealth from the exploitation of the great majority can only rule by armed force and other repressive institutions like the police, the army, the courts, the prisons, etc.

In capitalist society, bosses depend on having large numbers of workers unemployed and living in poverty. This “reserve army of unemployed” allows them to pay less in wages, prevent unionization, and generally depress the living conditions of all workers.

Due to the extreme racism of the U.S. ruling class, a disproportionate segment of this super-exploited group is Black and Latino people, and other people of color. Preventing these communities from rebelling, and isolating them from the broader working class, requires a higher degree of day-to-day repression than the “normal” repression of capitalist society, when violence is primarily employed in the context of sharp class struggle.

For that reason, police brutality is a preferred form of social and economic control in the United States. It is institutionalized and as deeply entrenched in capitalist society as exploitation itself.

June 2, 2001, thousands of protestors demonstrate against the police murder of Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati.

Photo: Bill Hackwell

Fighting back

The day-to-day humiliation of racial profiling, police brutality and police murders has historically provoked hundreds of massive rebellions. The famous uprisings in Harlem in 1935 and Watts (Los Angeles) in 1965 were both provoked by police harassment and violence.

When the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted in 1992, the Black community in Los Angeles erupted in justified rebellion. Over 16,000 people were arrested and at least 55 were killed when the U.S. government sent tens of thousands of police, National Guard, Marines and Army soldiers to suppress the insurrection.

Likewise, Terrance Shurn’s killing in Michigan set off a two-day rebellion in the town of 12,000 people.

The thought of these rebellions strikes fear in the heart of the ruling class. They are particularly fearful that hundreds of thousands of people will pass beyond spontaneous uprisings to outpourings consciously directed at the rich—and ultimately, to armed insurrection.

That was why the ruling class so hated the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The Panthers emerged in 1966 in the wake of the Watts rebellion with a program of armed, organized self-defense against police and racist violence. This simple program put the group on a collision course with the capitalist state. Within a decade, the Panthers were destroyed by FBI and police violence.

That’s also why after the beating of Stanley Miller, the big business establishment scurried to placate the anger of the Black community that is regularly terrorized by police by feigning surprise and outrage, and then announcing “investigations” and “internal reform.” For example, on July 14, the city government’s Los Angeles Police Commission called for “better training to stop ‘out of control’ officers.”

This charade is only meant to quell the justified anger of the oppressed, not to fix the root cause of the problem.

All working class and progressive organizations must make the fight against racism and police brutality a top priority. They must stand with the African American and Latino communities in Los Angeles as they demand justice and support every effort within those communities to organize independently and to challenge the LAPD repression.

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