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Issue 38, May 1999

US Police Brutality

IN AN ACT of savage brutality, on February 4 a 22-year old unarmed immigrant from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, was shot 41 times by four white New York police officers in the hall of his appartment building in the Bronx.

Their guns were semi-automatic, meaning that they had to squeeze the trigger each time: two of the four emptied their magazines. Outrage at this street execution by firing squad has sparked daily protests outside Manhattan police headquarters, leading to the arrest of around 1,000 demonstrators.

This is not the first incident revealing the true character of the New York Police Department's (NYPD) 'zero tolerence' policing policy: in 1997 Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was beaten and sodomised with a plunger in a Brooklyn police precinct rest-room. But Diallo's slaying came at the same time as the Donta Dawson case in Philadelphia, where a judge dropped manslaughter charges against the police officer who killed Dawson, and the recent exposure of 'torture and frame-ups' by the Cook County police in Chicago. These and countless other cases of police violence across the US are provoking revulsion among large sections of the population.

Police violence goes hand-in-hand with an increase in hate crimes and attacks. In June 1998, Afro-American James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, was beaten up then chained to a pick-up truck by three white men. He was then dragged for over a mile, his body decapitated. Last October, in Wyoming, openly gay student Matthew Shepard was beaten and robbed before being tied to a fence and left for dead. He died in hospital.

  On the other hand, Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political radio journalist, activist and former Black Panther member, was framed by a kangaroo court and sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in Philadelphia. He had spoken out about the role of the police, the judicial system and the prison industrial-complex, which now holds 1.7 million people, and had to be silenced. Mumia's life is at the moment in the hands of Pennsylvania's Republican Governor Tom Ridge, who pledged in his election campaign to sign Mumia's death warrant and to comply with the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, signed by President Clinton a year ago.

The cases of Mumia, Diallo, Baez, and the countless other victims of police terror, have shown repeatedly the true role of the police in the US. Ultimately, their function is to protect the property of the ruling, capitalist class and to enforce the policies of the Democratic and Republican parties. With youth unemployment in the inner-cities reaching 50% in some cases, the primary way for the ruling class to maintain 'order' in such circumstances is through criminalising young people, terrorising communities into submission, and silencing activists who speak out for democratic rights, against the war on the poor and the police terrorism in our communities.

Police brutality is an everyday occurance in cities especially where large communities of colour are concerned. Black, Latino and Asian youth are harassed, assaulted and killed on a daily basis. Street vendors, young people and immigrants are easy targets because they have little protection from police thugs who feel they can terrorise and intimidate them with immunity. Under the pretext of the 'war on crime' or the 'war on drugs' there is a war against minorities, the poor, immigrants, young people and workers, to facilitate their ruthless exploitation by the bosses. In many cases, the police, who mostly live in the suburbs, behave like an occupation army in minority areas. This, along with the social crisis in the US, has created the conditions for the epidemic of police brutality.

  Socialists in the USA link the cases of police brutality, police frame-ups, and the use of the racist and barbaric death penalty, with the conditions of poverty and degradation that exist for nearly 50 million people. We explain the need for a working-class programme of action for jobs with union wages and conditions, a national healthcare system, and a break with the politicians of big business who have no solutions to the problems working-class people face. On the issue of policing, we explain the need for police officers to live in the cities they serve, and for the police to be democratically controlled and accountable through labor-community committees, which should democratically maintain public safety.

With few exceptions, the union movement, which should have been at the forefront of the struggle against injustice and oppression and defending democratic rights, is hardly visible in cases that involve police murders and police brutality. Community groups, like the mothers of police victims, in a number of cities are the ones that are taking the initiative to organise campaigns against police brutality.

The mass media and the politicians continue to mumble on about the need to build more prisons and hire more police, even though the 'war on drugs' has been a dismal failure. The liberal politicians argue that if there are a few more minority police, or some toothless civilian complaint review boards, these would solve the problems. The NYPD commissioner, Howard Safir, has quickly drafted a new batch of black and Latino officers into the white-dominated Street Crime Unit, of which the four officers in the Diallo killing were part. But the ever-expanding examples of police brutality reveal the general rottenness of the justice system and of capitalism as a society saturated with corruption, violence, exploitation, racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice - and the need to replace it by a democratic and just socialist society.

  On 24 April thousands of people marched through the streets of Philadelphia demanding a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the end of the death penalty and against police brutality. The case of Mumia has touched hundreds of thousands of people across the country. In New York, the murder of Amadou Diallo has provoked a number of rallies and civil disobedience actions. Such campaigns are preparing the conditions for a movement which will attempt to put an end to the brutality and racism of the capitalist system.

Alan Jones

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