It’s easy to forget about how many Iraqis and Afghans are killed by the U.S. military each day – they’re halfway around the world and we can always change the channel if some nasty images pop up on TV.
Doing so is a bit harder when the chaos occurs in your own backyard, and is caused by the very people sworn to uphold the law and protect you. To add injury to insult, these same people can and do get away with murder.
On April 25, the three New York Police Department detectives whose 50 shots killed Sean Bell and wounded two of his friends were acquitted of all charges by a judge, having waived their right to trial. Although there was ample evidence to convict these detectives, the Queens District Attorney gave a sterling example of the courts’ complicity in police misconduct, subjecting dubious witnesses to cross-examination by the defense while refusing to call the three detectives to the stand for the same treatment.
There have been large, vociferous, and peaceful protests across the city following the verdict, and more are expected throughout a long, hot summer. There is a movement to press Albany to appoint an independent prosecutor for cases of police misconduct, and the Justice Department is deliberating a civil rights suit against the NYPD.
Some have argued it will be hard to prove the police intentionally set out to violate Sean Bell’s rights. Last time I checked, racial profiling was a violation of said rights, and the record number of stop-and-frisks conducted by the NYPD in the first quarter of 2008 back that record up.
Of course, Sean Bell’s murder does not exist in a vacuum. The increased militarization of American law enforcement, begun during the Reagan era as part of our failed War on Drugs (anyone who debates this point, please watch The Wire), has exacerbated this country’s long history of racism and placed minority communities in the firing line.
Take, for example, the beating of three unarmed black men by Philadelphia cop last week. Though not as close up as the Rodney King footage, the events are no less savage. Police say they were suspects fleeing the scene of a drug-related shooting. No gun was found in the car and the men have yet to be charged with any crime, though officers claim a “fourth man” bailed out of the vehicle prior to their arrival (anyone remember the NYPD pulling the same stunt in court this winter?)
We get this sort of profiling and hair-trigger response coast-to-coast as well. Last Sunday, LAPD officers shot two unarmed 19-year-old black men in Inglewood whom they suspected of being involved in a nearby shooting. One, Michael Byoune, died. As it turns out, neither Byoune nor his wounded friend were involved in any such incident, nor was a gun found.
This is the end result when you combine America’s draconian attitude towards drug policy and the plight of its post-industrial working class with the post-9/11 decimation of our civil liberties. When the LAPD’s abuse of Rodney King aired in 1992, there were riots. If anyone tried the same thing today, the Air Force would drop cluster bombs on Queens or South Central. Something has got to give.