In the late sixties, Jamil Al-Amin (a.k.a. H. Rap Brown) declared, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Al-Amin’s statement underscores the essential role of violence in maintaining systems of racial oppression in the United States. Racist violence was fundamental to the creation of the United States. Moreover, force and violence are not options but necessary to the maintenance of racial oppression. Racist violence is the scaffolding upon which capitalist exploitation and white supremacy are erected.
Racist violence has both structural and physical components and it operates in both the public and private spheres. Structural violence refers to the “impersonal” violence inflicted upon people of color and the poor by profit-oriented enterprises and institutions. It involves the indirect violence caused by institutional policies and programs that produce, maintain, and rationalize poverty, inadequate health care, and substandard housing.
Public racist violence refers to structural and physical violence initiated, perpetuated, and justified by the government. Private racist violence describes the racially motivated physical and structural violence of private citizens and persons.
People of color have been the victims of systematic public and spontaneous private violence since the slave trade and the colonial conquest of the Americas. Privately initiated racist violence has taken the form of genocidal invasions, rapacious slaving raids, savage slave whipping, and repressive white capping, lynching, race riots, and hate crimes. Although private violence is crucial to the maintenance of racial oppression, it has always supplemented State-sponsored (government) racist violence.
Over the last 500 years people of color, especially African Americans, have endured a pattern of State-sanctioned violence, and civil and human rights abuse. To enforce capitalist exploitation and racial oppression the government and its police, courts, prisons, and military have beaten, framed, murdered and executed private persons, and brutally repressed struggles for freedom, justice, and self-determination. It has initiated wars of conquest, launched man-hunts for fugitive slaves, suppressed slave revolts, brutalized demonstrators, and assassinated political dissidents.
Police brutality and misconduct are merely the major contemporary forms of State-sponsored racist violence. Police brutality describes “instances of serious physical or psychological harm to civilians.” Contemporary police brutality consists of deadly force, the use of excessive force, and it includes unjustified shooting, fatal choking, and physical assault by law enforcement officers. Police misconduct is inclusive of planting evidence, making untrue statements, filing untrue written reports, condoning untrue statements and/or reports by keeping silent, threatening suspects, arrestees, and witnesses, engaging in illegal activities, and committing perjury.
This statement summarizes the United States’ atrocious record of racial repression, specifically State-sponsored violence. It has a dual purpose: first to demonstrate the role of government in initiating and sustaining racially motivated suppression and savagery; and second, to provide a rationale for making police brutality and misconduct federal crimes.
A History of U.S. Racial Repression and Violence
Historically, racist violence, legal and extralegal, and whether State-sponsored or private, has been used to impose racial oppression and preserve white power and privilege. Racist violence has served five primary purposes:
- To force people of color into indentured, slave, peonage, or low wage situations;
- To steal land, minerals, and other resources;
- To maintain social control and to repress rebellions;
- To restrict or eliminate competition in employment, business, politics, and social life; and
- To unite “whites” across ethnic/national, class, and gender lines.
Domination of people of color necessitated the incorporation and justification of racially motivated and differentiated violence in the society’s law, custom, and popular culture. Federal, state, and municipal law sanctioned the slave trade, genocidal wars of conquest, slavery, and the brutalities inherent labor exploitation and racial oppression. Genocide and other forms of government sponsored or sanctioned violence have been inflicted upon Native Americans since the country’s beginning. Latino/a people have been the victims of government sponsored or sanctioned violence since the U.S. unleashed a colonial war of aggression against the Mexicano people in the middle of the 19th century. Chinese (and later other Asian Americans) have been assaulted by government sponsored or sanctioned violence since the middle of the 19th century.
Moreover, all branches of government have engaged in violence against workers across color and gender lines or abdicated their equal protection responsibilities during labor disputes.
State-sponsored and state-sanctioned violence has characterized the Black experience since Africans’ forced migration to these shores. The Atlantic Slave Trade (1444-1850) represented the first moment of capitalist globalism. The slave trade was the first international industry; it was a business venture of European nation-states.
Orderly commodity exchange cloaked the coercion and disorder undergirding the Atlantic Slave Trade. Raids and kidnapping were the life-blood of the slave “trade.” About two-thirds of the nearly 12 million Africans enslaved in the Americas were captured through rapacious raids and kidnapping. During the four centuries the slave trade operated, 100 million Africans may have died from the predatory commercial wars launched by European royalty, the papacy, and emerging European and American capitalists.
British colonial and American governments systematically suppressed Africans’ human rights. Colonial governments enacted special “slave codes” that legalized physical abuse—whipping—and authored practices that condoned maiming, rape, and murder. After the revolution, individual states preserved and refined antiblack laws, with the support of the federal government. For its part, the new national government enshrined African American slavery into the U.S. Constitution (Article I, sec. 2) and authorized law enforcement agents to assist in the capture and return of fugitive slaves (Article 4, sec. 2 and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793).
Racist violence reached its apogee after Emancipation. Lynching, the major form of violence used against African Americans, from 1882-1910, resulted from the encouragement of law enforcement agents or their abdicating their equal protection responsibilities. Between 1882 and 1930 approximately 3,000 Blacks (mostly male) were lynched.* During the First Nadir (1877-1917), organized gang rape of Black women by white racist mobs and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan was a special form of terrorism reserved for Blacks.
After 1930, extralegal race riots and legal executions replaced lynching as means of social control. All white or predominately white juries and government officials merely extended societal racial discrimination to executions. More than half (53%) of the 4,220 persons executed between 1930 and 1996 were Black. Despite the history of white men sexually assaulting Black women, 405 or 90 percent of the 455 men executed for rape between 1930 and 1976 were Black. In 1972 the death penalty was outlawed partly because of its racist and class discriminatory implementation (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238). Since its return in 1976, executions have adhered their previous racist and class biased patterns. Thus, people of color have comprised 45 percent or 308 of the 679 executions in the U.S. Two hundred and forty-seven or 36 percent of those executed have been Black. Currently, Blacks on death row are nearly three times their percentage in the overall population (36% to 13%).
The government also bears the responsibility for the actions and non-actions of police officers during race riots and rebellions. Abdication of responsibility coupled with acts of outright brutality and misconduct by law enforcement officers enabled hundreds race riots (violent clashes between private white and Black citizens) throughout the nation’s history. Police brutality or misconduct has been the “trigger incident” that sparked almost every modern rebellion from the 1935 “Harlem Riot” to the 1992 LA Conflagration. For instance, after the beating of Lino Riveria, a Puerto Rican youth by New York City police in 1935, three Blacks were killed, 57 people were injured and $2 million dollars worth of property was destroyed in Harlem. A patrolman’s attack on Marquette Frye sparked an uprising in the Watts in 1965. The conflict resulted in hundreds of injures, 34 deaths, and the damage or destruction of $35 million worth of property. The savage police beating of Arthur McDuffie, a 33-year-old Black insurance executive triggered the 1980 Miami Rebellion.
The 1992 LA Rebellion was a response to the March 3, 1991 brutalizing of Rodney G. King by three LA police officers. Twenty-three other law enforcement officers watched as King was beaten kicked and shocked by officers wielding batons and stun guns.
In contemporary America, police brutality is the preferred form of social control. Several local, state, and federal commissions, particularly the 1967 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) have pointed out the immensity of this problem. The police are as the Black Panther Party declared in the 1960s (1955-1975) “an occupying army of repression.”
Police brutality has been a persistent problem faced by African Americans. The failure of government to protect Black people from lawless law enforcement officers forced Blacks to act in their own interests. During the 1930s, the National Negro Congress organized massive rallies against this form of terror. In Washington, D.C., over the span a few months, the NNC collected 24,000 signatures protesting abuse by the D.C. police department. The Black Panther Party was created to stem the tide of police abuse. In the 1970s the Congress of Afrikan Peoples sponsored the “Stop Killer Cops” Campaigns.
Extralegal violence by law enforcement officers has been a primary concern of the Congressional Black Caucus since its formation. The CBC has periodically held public hearing about police outrages across the country over the last thirty years. Yet, extra-legal violence persists as recent police killings of Richard L. Holtz (Fort Lee, New Jersey); Tyisha Miller (Riverside, California); and Amadou Diallo (New York City) attest.
Finally, Police administrators have ignored or been lax in using internal department policies and procedures to punish officers who have displayed a pattern of brutality and/or misconduct. Internal department policies are often weak and internal investigations are generally conducted poorly. A Justice department survey found that nearly 22 percent of police admit that fellow officers sometimes or often use “more force than necessary”. Moreover, 61 percent claimed officers do not report instances of “serious criminal violations of abuse of authority” by other officers. Civilian review boards are generally under-funded and lack the legal authority to compel police officers’ participation, nor can they enforce findings. To date, private Civil suits have yet to demonstrate the capacity to reform individual or police departmental behavior because they do not address the policies and procedures of departments. Although the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorized the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to bring “civil actions” against police departments that evidence a pattern of abuse (Section 210402. Data on Use of Excessive Force), they also have not deterred the continuation of police brutality and misconduct.
Moreover, neither the offending officer nor the department is held financially liable for judgements. Finally, criminal prosecutions for police brutality or misconduct rarely occur because few state prosecutors are willing to aggressively pursue abusive officers. This pattern is also true for federal prosecutors, although to a lesser extent.
We believe that existing local, county, state, and federal policies and laws have been ineffective in ending the persistent and pervasive practices of police brutality and misconduct.
Moreover, we believe that because police officers operate under “color of law” that civil and human rights violations committed by officers undermine respect for law and government. Furthermore, we believe the logical consequence of police violence and misconduct is a society ruled by the force of arms, not law. Thus, every act of police brutality and misconduct; every frame-up, every act of illegal surveillance, every “justified” murder erases an article from the Bill of Rights and takes us another step closer to a police state.
Thus, we the undersigned citizens of the United States petition the United States Congress to make police brutality and misconduct federal crimes. We believe that police brutality and misconduct should be federal crimes for the following reasons:
- Whereas police brutality and misconduct are perhaps the most serious and recurring violations of U.S. citizens’ civil rights; and
- Whereas police brutality and misconduct are perhaps the most serious and recurring violations of citizens’ and permanent residents’ human rights; and
- Whereas police brutality and misconduct are pervasive across the nation at all levels of law enforcement, municipal, county, state, and federal; and
- Whereas race and ethnicity or nationality have been demonstrated to be major factors in the occurrence of police brutality and misconduct; and
- Whereas socioeconomic class has been demonstrated to be a major factor in the occurrence of police brutality and misconduct; and
- Whereas gender and its intersection with class and race/ nationality plays a major factor in racial profiling; Black and Brown men traditionally have been the primary targets of racial profiling. However, Black women have increasingly become targets of racial profiling, especially in airports and Black women also compose one of the fastest- growing segments of new incarcerations; and
- Whereas existing remedies at the municipal, state, and federal levels of government have proven ineffective in curtailing the unwarranted use of excessive force and subsequent cover up of such abuses; and
- Whereas police brutality and misconduct are serious offenses that threatens domestic peace and tranquillity, we call upon the Congress of the United States to pass legislation making brutality and misconduct by law enforcement agents federal crimes, subject to prosecutions in federal court.
*In 1919, the NAACP reported 3,386 incidents of lynching between 1882-1918. In a controversial 1992 revision, sociologists Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, argue that duplication of reporting produced an over count. They claim only 2,805 lynchings (nearly 2500 of which were Blacks) can be documented between 1882 and 1930, in ten southern states. See NAACP, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States: 1889-1918 (New York: Arno Press, 1919), p. 29 and Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynching, 1882-1930 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois)
Essays in this series…
Capitalism, the Absurd System: A View from the United States
(June 1, 2010)
South Africa’s Bubble Meets Boiling Urban Social Protest
(June 1, 2010)
Political Reawakening in Zimbabwe
(April 1, 1999)
April 1999, Volume 50, Number 11
(April 1, 1999)
The Financial Power Elite
(May 1, 2010)
July-August 2010, Volume 62, Number 3
(July 1, 2010)
Foreword to the Summer Issue
(July 1, 2010)
Awakening in Oaxaca: Stirrings of the People’s Giant
(June 1, 2010)
Time to Pay the Piper
(June 1, 2010)
Sartre: Conversations with a “Bourgeois Revolutionary”
(June 1, 2010)