In February 1999, New York City police killed Amadou Diallo in a hailstorm of 41 bullets as he reached for his wallet. Diallo’s murder made the special plainclothes squad these cops belonged to, the Street Crimes Unit, infamous around the world.
Diallo died because of racism, and not just that of the four officers who shot him. He was a casualty of an official policy, zero tolerance policing, that gives cops a wholesale mandate to terrorize people of color and the poor in the guise of a crackdown on crime.
Social conditions spur unleashing of the cops. In capitalist societies, the job of the cops is first and foremost to protect private property and the interests of its biggest owners. And the link between this class role and institutionalized racism is an old one. In fact, the first police force in colonial America was formed to capture runaway slaves.
Police abuse, an always existing problem, worsens at certain times. In the U.S. in the 1990s, the cause was the government’s continued dismantling of the social safety net by President Bill Clinton. With living conditions deteriorating, more crime and more political resistance were bound to result.
The solution? Aggressive police. The justification? The policy of zero tolerance — which originated with the Manhattan Institute, a rightwing think tank founded in 1984 by William Casey, former CIA director, and Anthony Fischer, Margaret Thatcher’s principal mentor. The Institute pushes an ideology that praises the free market and individual initiative while blaming welfare mothers for unemployment and crime.
Zero tolerance flows from an Institute theory that lowering the boom on small, everyday misdemeanors will establish a respect for law and police power among petty criminals that will spread to hardened felons. It’s a “trickle up” hypothesis: by rounding up panhandlers trying to squeegee car windows for a buck, the horror of violent urban crime will ultimately be eliminated.
The plan was first adopted in New York City, where it was implemented with a vengeance by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-Police Chief William Bratton. The immediate result was waves of arrests of the homeless and poor.
By the mid-1990s, the NYC crime rate had fallen, local officials were crediting the change to zero tolerance, and the program was being embraced elsewhere across the country and even around the world; unsurprising, since politicians all over were dealing with the same fallout from the harsh effects of neoliberalism.
Even many mainstream analysts, however, doubt that recent decreases in crime are attributable to zero tolerance. Nevertheless, in 1997, NYC authorities used the “success” of the policy as justification for tripling the size of the Street Crimes Unit.
The mission of the SCU, numbering 400 officers after the boost, was to hit hard against crime, especially gun and drug possession. Squad members roamed the streets, randomly stopping anyone they considered suspicious. Of course, as is the case with the racial profiling rampant throughout the U.S., it was generally poor people of color, especially youths, who struck them as “suspicious.”
In a 15-month period, SCU detained more than 56,000 people. As a crime control method, this mass violation of civil liberties was unproductive. Weapons, for example, were found on less than three percent of those subjected to searches.
During the same time frame, however, reported incidents of police brutality rose 41 percent. In the atmosphere created by giving the NYPD license to ride roughshod over people on the streets, the attack on Diallo was a shooting death waiting to happen.
United against police terrorism. After the Diallo murder and the vicious beating of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant from Brooklyn, the anti-police abuse movement stepped up to a new level. Weeks of mass protests, in which more than 1,200 people were arrested for civil disobedience at NYPD headquarters, led to the indictment of the officers who killed Diallo.
As a participant in these actions, I found it exciting to see the broad solidarity built. People of all colors, students, professors, Jews, lesbians and gays, youth, and immigrants all joined in the battle.
The protests were initiated primarily by the Reverend Al Sharpton and other African American organizers. However, after the indictments were handed down, Sharpton and many of the other leaders worked to shift the accelerating movement into a lower gear by expounding on the need for “reconciliation” and “healing.” They are performing a balancing act: they gain status with the grassroots by marching at the head of the anti-brutality parade, but they pull their punches in order to protect their prized relationships with the Democratic Party machine.
Sharpton, for example, has his eye on running again for NYC mayor on the Democratic ticket and enthusiastically supports Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for U.S. Senate. Bottom line: he is more interested in gaining a “seat at the table” for himself than in creating a broad-based, militant anti-police movement capable of challenging the establishment.
But when the four cops who gunned down Diallo were acquitted, a new series of demonstrations ignited. Protesters demanded that the officers be prosecuted on federal charges of violating Diallo’s civil rights — a legal remedy sometimes sought when local courts refuse to punish racist violence.
Maneouvering by Sharpton and other misleaders notwithstanding, where there is no justice, there can be no peace.
For a world without abuse! The rallies, marches, and sit-ins have had an effect. NYC officials are not touting zero tolerance policing with the same fervor as before. In response to public outrage, some are even advocating a return to a less highhanded, supposedly more community-friendly model of law enforcement.
But not all the sensitivity training and “cultural awareness” in the world can change the essential character of the police and their assigned task: to maintain, by whatever means, the status quo. As long as the extreme gap persists between the rich and the poor internationally, the state will maintain bodies of armed men to safeguard the haves from the have-nots.
Getting rid of cop brutality completely, then, means getting rid of the current system of production for private profit and replacing it with a system of production for shared prosperity. Once working people have achieved that, we will be well on our way to fashioning a world in which police control over humanity can and will be abolished.
But what to do about the abuse that people suffer today? We need to fight for concrete curbs on the power of the cops, starting with civilian review boards.
In many cities where review boards have been put in place, however, they have been set up as shams with no authority. In order to give them teeth, they must:
- be composed of people elected from the community — not “yes men” appointed by city officials;
- be administratively and financially independent of the police;
- have the power to conduct independent investigations and subpoena witnesses, not just review internal police investigations; and
- have their findings and sanctions enforced, rather than serving as “advisory bodies” the cops can ignore with impunity.
The purpose of demanding police review boards is twofold. Review boards can bring the community a degree of control over the police and so at least reduce the number of victims of cop assaults. At the same time, insisting on the people’s right to police accountability exposes the inability of capitalism to deliver on this basic question — and thus shows the need to create an entirely new kind of society.
Leon Trotsky described transitional demands such as the call for review boards as a “bridge between the present situation and the workingclass solution.” We fight for these reforms both to develop a movement of educated, committed fighters and to win the best relief we can here and now — because police abuse is a life-and-death issue, here and now. Stop killer cops!