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Perhaps nothing illustrates the lawlessness of law enforcement in the USA more than the spectacle of cops in St. Louis shouting “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they arrested people protesting the not guilty verdict of white police officer Jason Stockley, who had been recorded telling his partner that “we’re killing this motherfucker, don’t you know,” just minutes before firing five bullets into the body of an African-American youth named Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. It did not matter to the judge that Stockley had fired his pistol at Smith, whose car he had overtaken in a drug bust pursuit, just six inches from his body—a clear indication of premeditation. Nor did it matter that the pistol that had been found in Smith’s car was likely planted since it only had Stockley’s DNA on it. Since Stockley had waived the right to a jury trial, it was up to Judge Timothy J. Wilson to render a verdict: not guilty. Considering Wilson’s reputation for being fair, you can only conclude that he was simply adapting to the racism that pervades American society, especially the criminal justice system.
Two recent films help to place this by now predictable outcome into perspective. Both put a spotlight on the police forces in Los Angeles and Oakland. Despite California’s liberal reputation, its cops act as if they are reporting to Bull Connor. As Malcolm X once put it, “There’s no such thing as a Mason-Dixon Line—it’s America. There’s no such thing as the South—it’s America.”
John Ridley’s “Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” aired in theaters in April this year and has just become available as VOD for $9.99 on iTunes and Amazon. It is a 144-minute kaleidoscope of interviews and television news footage that climaxes in the riots that followed the acquittal of four cops who were captured on home video by a man named George Holliday as they were beating Rodney King with steel batons. Holliday brought the tape to a TV station, which led with it on the evening news. It produced the same kind of outrage that have become a regular occurrence through exposure on YouTube and the almost universal availability of smart phones or inexpensive, miniaturized camcorders. Like Ava DuVernay’s “13th” last year, Ridley’s film will likely earn an Academy Award nomination since it is a powerful treatment of the racial oppression that remains a constant in American society more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War.
Opening tomorrow at Sunshine Cinema in N.Y. is a cinéma vérité documentary titled “The Force” that examines the intractable racism of the Oakland police department that has been under federal oversight ever since 2003, when it was discovered that it shielded a Klan-like body called the Riders that had made false arrests, planted evidence and used excessive force over a four-year period. That its leader was a Mexican-American who fled to Mexico to avoid arrest might indicate that police departments are incubators of racism so profound that even minorities within the force act just as venally as the whites. “The Force” is directed by Peter Nicks who gained unprecedented access to the police department that perhaps decided that the film could serve as good PR given the sweeping reforms that had been instituted when he began filming. To the surprise of the director, the reforms did not reach deep enough. His stunning climax yields the conclusion that reform of the police is impossible. Only a revolution can defang the racist beast that has been at the heart of American capitalism since its inception. Although the film does not go into the early history of the Oakland police department, it began to heavily recruit cops from the Deep South during WWII as African Americans streamed into the city to work in the shipyards.
The villain in “Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” is none other than Daryl Gates who was about as controversial in his day as former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who Donald Trump just pardoned. Unlike Arpaio who ruled over a largely rural county, Gates was in charge of law and order in America’s second largest city. Despite L.A. having a Black mayor—Tom Bradley—nothing got in Gates’s way. Like Arpaio, Gates was prone to making outrageous racist statements. One of his innovations was the chokehold, the same tactic that took the life of Eric Garner in N.Y. After Black people in L.A. kept ending up dead as a result of chokeholds, Gates explained that it was the result of their arteries not opening as fast as they do in “normal people.”
Despite its length, “Let it Fall” is not a minute too long. Tolstoyan in sweep, it includes all the principal players in the dark social drama that unfolded in the riots over Rodney King:
African-Americans: Ridley includes men who took part in the uprising between April 29 and May 4, 1992 as well as those who came to the aid of those who were the victims of random acts of revenge. This included a Korean grocer who was rescued from a beating by a Black man who was a regular customer, as well as the much more infamous attack on a truck-driver named Reginald Denny who was dragged from his cab by rioters who beat him within an inch of his life. He was rescued by a fellow truck-driver named Bobby Green who sped to the scene as it unfolded on live TV. He pushed aside the attackers and drove Denny to the nearest hospital just minutes before he would have died, according to the doctors.
Koreans: Just 13 days before the Rodney King beating, a 51-year old Korean woman shot to death a Black teen-age girl during an altercation over her supposedly shoplifting a container of orange juice. Despite being found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the clerk did not spend a day in prison. There was also longstanding resentment toward Korean shopkeepers because they were in the habit of following around Black customers. So when the riots broke out after the cops were acquitted, Korean shops were targeted. This prompted the proprietors to arm themselves and fire on looters. One of the victims was a Korean youth who was standing in front of his father’s store. His sister provides nuanced observations on the culture clash between Blacks and Koreans.
Cops: A number of cops weigh in on the uprising who are sharp critics of Gates even if they generally follow the party line on police department behavior, including the beating of Rodney King. No matter how sensible they sound, you cannot help feeling that if these are “good cops”, god help us from those “bad cops” who do not live up to their standards—the overwhelming majority in all likelihood.
Sean Whent was exactly that kind of “good cop” when he became chief of police in Oakland in May 2013. For liberals, he would appear to be the savior of any department. In vérité fashion, we see him speaking to police cadets on graduation day warning them sternly that the blue wall of silence is over. Not only does he expect them to avoid the bad behavior of the past but to inform on those cops who break departmental rules. Failure to inform will be seen as a violation in itself, subject to disciplinary action—including termination.
Under Whent’s tenure, the department became seen as a model for cities everywhere. On May 9, 2015, the Contra Costa Times reported that use-of-force incidents in Oakland had dropped to 611 in the prior year, a dramatic reduction from the more than 2,000 incidents in both 2008 and 2009, a lot of that attributable to cops being forced to wear body cameras. Complaints dropped as well, 500 fewer than in 2013 and well below the peak in 2012, when 2,598 complaints were lodged, many because of ham-fisted actions against Occupy Oakland activists. Most importantly, instead of the average number of eight incidents when cops used firearms, there was not a single fatal shooting since 2013.
However, just after the Contra Costa Times article was published, things got back to normal (or abnormal from the standpoint of civilized behavior). There were multiple cop shootings that were captured by Peter Nicks’s cameras and lame attempts by Sean Whent to defend them, just as John Ridley’s “good cops” defended the beating of Rodney King.
But none of this prepared him nor the citizens of Oakland for a sex scandal that forced the resignation of Whent and a revolving door of appointments to replace him that kept spinning. After a prostitute was arrested, she was offered immunity if she agreed to offer her services for free to a cabal of Oakland cops. In acting as her pimp, the cop demonstrated that Whent’s speeches went in one ear and out the other.
Peter Nicks, like John Ridley, is an African-American. Their work, like that of Ava DuVernay and Raoul Peck, reflects an emerging film vanguard that rejects the commercialism of Hollywood as well as demonstrating a mastery of cinema as art. I strongly recommend both films as a way of getting a handle on the cancer in blue uniforms that has been metastasizing in the body politic for hundreds of years.
Are Black cops the answer? James Foreman Jr., the son of the famous SNCC leader, has a widely acclaimed new book titled “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” that makes the somewhat provocative argument that having elected Black officials resulted in deeper repression against Black men and women since the “criminal element” was supposedly undermining the gains of the civil rights movement. Specifically, this meant throwing the book at nonviolent drug offenders and supporting other Draconian measures, especially in Washington, DC, where Black elected power was unsurpassed. In an interview with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Foreman said he was prompted to write the book because in Prince George’s County, which had a preponderance of wealthy Blacks, also had brutal cops—both Black and white. One hopes that James Foreman Jr. might eventually write a book about the Obama presidency since he symbolizes this trend more than any other Black politician, especially with his hiring of Eric Holder as Attorney General, a lawyer who epitomized the Black elite in Washington, D.C. During the mid-90s, When he was the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, he started Operation Ceasefire, a Daryl Gates-like program that gave Washington cops stop-and-frisk powers. Speaking before a Black audience in 1995, he stated “I’m not going to be naïve about it. The people who will be stopped will be young black males, overwhelmingly.”
Although it is easy to think of the police as having been part of organized society from the time of Aristotle, it is a relatively recent social institution that is concomitant with the origin of the modern capitalist state. By giving the cops a monopoly on the use of violence, it helped to keep society from descending into the kind of anarchy Thomas Hobbes warned against. Needless to say, when a society is organized around the production of use values, there is less of a need to police people. Suffice it to say that the Sheriff of Nottingham had his hands filled much more with poachers than bank robberies. In a feudal manor, a serf was expected to produce the crops that kept his master’s army’s belly filled. Once he got his “freedom” under the Enclosure Acts, he was on his own to earn a wage, and short of that tempted to take the law in his own hands.
When I was in Nicaragua in 1989 on a Tecnica delegation, the executive director–an economist named Michael Urmann who died in 2012–returned to our quarters late one night with a group of volunteers he was introducing to state agencies. He chuckled and said that you knew you were in a country that had a revolution after the experience he had minutes earlier. Traveling around in a car in Managua will often get you lost since the streets lack names. When you are looking for someone in particular, you would approach a Nicaraguan and ask if they knew where they lived since maps were useless—not to speak of a geolocation that was years ahead in the future. The answer would inevitably be something like “it’s the third house down this road, just after the big tree that fell down in the earthquake.”
Traveling around in circles, Michael finally saw a Nicaraguan cop. He said that when he discovered that they were American revolutionaries, he smiled warmly and pointed them in the right direction, but only after spending 15 minutes or so discussing Ronald Reagan, the struggle against apartheid and Nicaragua’s hopes for a socialist future. That’s the kind of cop we need, comrades.