The following is adapted from a talk given at a public meeting of the Party for Socialism and Liberation in New York City on Dec. 1.
On Nov. 25, Sean Bell�s name was added to the ever-growing list of innocent people slaughtered by the New York Police Department.
Bell was a local football star. He was scheduled to be married the next day.
As he was leaving the Kalua nightclub, where he was celebrating his bachelor�s party, undercover cops opened fire, emptying 50 rounds into the car that Bell and his two friends were driving. Bell was killed at the scene. His two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were taken to the hospital in critical condition, where they were handcuffed and shackled to their beds.
The club is in Jamaica, Queens, a primarily African American community.
Thirty-one of the 50 shots came from one lone officer. Accounts in the press have detailed how the officer�s clip jammed. He unloaded, reloaded and emptied his entirely new clip.
Bell and his friends were unarmed. The cops were not attacked in any way.
Yet bullets were �flying in every direction,� according to NYPD commissioner Ray Kelley. Every direction, that is, except in the direction of the firing officers.
One cop was quoted in the Nov. 26 New York Post saying, �It could be like the guy with the wallet��a reference to the 1999 police killing of Amadou Diallo, who was shot 19 times with 41 rounds fired into his building vestibule as he tried to display his wallet identification.
One of the 50 bullets fired by the officers in Jamaica struck an AirTrain elevated platform above 94th Avenue, shattering a window and spraying glass on two Port Authority cops. Although there were six civilians on the platform standing near the shot-out window, none of them were injured. Service on the AirTrain was shut down for seven hours.
There are even reports of bullets fired from officers� guns entering the homes of Jamaica residents, including one man who says that a bullet entered his home and broke a lamp in his living room.
The cop reign of terror did not end there. In the days after the shooting, cops have rounded up hundreds of young Black men in Jamaica, supposedly to find a fictional �fourth man� with the fictional �missing gun.�
Media try to defuse protest
The latest cop shooting came after the 1994 killing of Anthony Baez, 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, the 2000 killings of Malcolm Ferguson and Patrick Dorismond and the 2003 killings of Ousmane Zongo and Alberta Spruill. These killings are still deeply felt in the oppressed African American and Latino communities in New York City.
So when Sean Bell was gunned down, protests broke out immediately. Some 500 people marched from the hospital, where Sean Bell�s two wounded friends were being treated, to the local police precinct on Nov. 26. Sean Bell�s funeral service on Dec. 2 also drew hundreds, where anger mixed with mourning.
Thousands came out for a demonstration called by the December 12th Movement on Dec. 6 at the downtown NYPD headquarters. The same group called for actions to shut down Wall Street on Dec. 22. More moderate forces led by Rev. Al Sharpton called for a mass demonstration on Fifth Avenue on Dec. 16, as well as a day of no shopping.
But as the protests mounted, the media campaign to defend the cops and demonize the victims grew.
A main point in the ruling-class propaganda campaign was that the attack was not racist. Three of the five cops were African American and Latino, although the cop who fired 31 shots was white.
But focusing on who pulled the trigger is not the point. What matters is who gets shot. The fact that the cop operation was carried out in a predominantly African American neighborhood�not in a white neighborhood�tells the whole story. When was the last time that cops shot up a white nightclub? When was the last time that cops fired 50 shots at unarmed white guys coming out of a club at 4 a.m.?
After every incident like this, the mayor and the media will talk about how it is just a �few bad apples.� That is not our view.
The cops who killed Sean Bell were doing their job�they were doing what they were trained to do. Their function in society is to terrorize working-class neighborhoods, especially Black and Latino neighborhoods. The idea that the police exists to serve the public good is just a myth.
The role of cops under capitalism
From a materialist perspective, we understand the role of the police in society not by looking at what motivates working-class people to become cops, or the ideas that this or that cop may have. We begin with the conditions existing that make police forces necessary under capitalism.
Police forces as we know them today were first created in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. They were formed to protect private property. They were protecting factories to ensure that workers could not sabotage machinery or steal the very products they created yet could not afford to purchase.
The police, as well as the courts, the military and any other repressive body of the armed state, actually exist for the exact opposite of public safety. They exist to ensure the safety of the capitalist system, which requires that exploitation be safeguarded.
Today, any time a strike breaks out, the cops still function openly as the armed goons in front of the factory gates. They also patrol the streets and are portrayed by schools, churches and the media as �friends of the community� and �heroes.�
Of course, these obviously militaristic, fascistic and coercive state-terrorist forces are not perceived as �heroes� in the oppressed communities. They are widely seen as an occupying force.
Look at this community. Harlem has been historically occupied. While it was the �roarin� 1920s� downtown, it was already the Great Depression in Harlem�with unemployment, poverty and an all-white police force. Today, white cops patrol these streets, setting up observation towers on 125th Street as a message to terrorize the community.
I live in Jackson Heights, Queens, a predominantly Latino and Asian immigrant neighborhood. The NYPD�s �Operation Impact,� supposedly aimed at the drug trade, is really a massive display of force in the community, with dozens of cops on every block.
The biggest criminals in society�the ones who suck the wealth out of our neighborhoods, who send our family and friends to die in their criminal wars and who kill our class sisters and brothers�they are never jailed. Cops do not arrest them. They protect them. That is their job.
Which way forward?
Many of those who have taken to the streets to protest are looking for justice. Some call for jailing the cops who killed Sean Bell. Others, aware of the history of racism and brutality, are looking to reform the NYPD.
Of course, as long as this society is built on racism and exploitation, cops will do their job of repressing and terrorizing us, especially in the most oppressed communities. No reform is going to change that basic mission.
We should fight like hell to make sure that the family of Sean Bell and the community get the justice they deserve. Killer cops should be jailed. If a group of young people fired 50 shots at the police in an unprovoked attack, they would be facing execution. But the police enjoy a license to kill with impunity.
Every one of the demonstrations against NYPD racism and abuse and for justice for the victims deserves our support. When a community begins to organize, not only can they win, but it is a step forward in the overall class struggle against exploitation and war, against capitalism. It is a step forward for the African American community and really for our whole class. It is essential to build solidarity in the streets.
Communists have a special responsibility in these demonstrations. We can advance political slogans that can point out the real class character of the cops, while at the same time showing the possibility of what can be won�beyond jailing these pigs, which of course they deserve.
For example, one of the most important demands that came out of the national liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s was the demand for the self-organization of the oppressed communities against police occupation. That went far beyond the advisory review boards with no real power that police departments offered as concessions to the mass struggles.
What would that look like? First of all, it would mean neighborhood watch committees to monitor every police action in the communities. The Black Panthers taught us that.
It would mean committees elected by the community that have real power to investigate the cops, and to fire racist killer cops. Why should we have to plead with the NYPD to do the right thing every time? African American community leaders in Jamaica and the city are the ones who can be trusted to conduct a fair investigation, and their recommendations should be enforced.
We will be working hard over the next days and weeks to support the community�s demands for justice for Sean Bell. We need to make sure that every person in the city knows about that protest. We have distributed thousands of flyers and posters building for the Dec. 6 protest.
All of those are steps on the way toward the real solution to racist police brutality: making a revolution against this whole racist system of exploitation.