The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 65 (Fall 2002).
At the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the lines of class exploitation and racial oppression that cut through American society were becoming more recognized. The working class and poor were seeing the end of an economic “boom” that left them working longer and harder for less, while big businessmen got fatter than ever. Politicians were increasingly viewed as corrupt liars who smile into cameras while selling policies to corporate lobbyists in back rooms.
The state too was increasingly distrusted. Scandals of police brutality and racial profiling and massive protests against them by Blacks, Latinos and immigrants had won a broad recognition that the police could be systematically racist and terribly brutal. This outrage forced politicians to line up to condemn racial profiling as a very bad thing.
The September 11 terrorist attacks gave Washington and its media whores an unprecedented opportunity to begin to reverse this development of popular consciousness by rallying the masses to the nationalist cause. But it is an iron law of history that national unity only unites the exploited and oppressed behind their rulers, strengthening the latter’s powers of oppression. And so it has been since September 11.
The patriotic fervor allowed the Bush Administration to survive a series of outrageous financial scandals that would have shaken, if not toppled, it at any other time. It has enabled it to massively escalate its imperialist military aggression, promising to follow its war on Afghanistan with a war against Iraq. And the ruling class went to great efforts to use the September 11 terrorist attacks to rehabilitate the image of the nation’s police forces and greatly expand their repressive powers.
Along with masses of white workers, many Blacks and Latinos, the most exploited and oppressed in this society, responded to the patriotic call. Perhaps, many thought, September 11 would mark the beginning of a time when all Americans would stand together in unity and equality. As the politicians passed new laws like the “USA Patriot Act” that greatly expanded police powers to spy, arrest and interrogate suspects, they suggested that these laws were not aimed at Americans but rather at foreign enemies. Having been treated as dirty words not long before, “racial profiling” suddenly gained mainstream acceptance as thousands of Middle Eastern and Central Asian immigrants were rounded up and jailed without ever being even charged with crimes.
But the capitalist class rules America by dividing the working class with racism, oppressing and super-exploiting Blacks, Latinos and immigrants. The make-over of New York City’s arch-racist Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his appointment by the media as “America’s Mayor” was a sign of things to come. The glorification of cops as heroes, the massive expansion of their powers and the rehabilitation of racial profiling could only mean a deadly threat to all people of color, and a dangerous forewarning to all workers.
From the barrels of their guns and the ends of their nightsticks, on the streets and in the dark cells of police precincts, police across the country have been delivering a bloody lesson in their true nature. The cases of police brutality and murder are too numerous to list in their entirety, and of course many horrendous incidents are never reported. But a list of some of the more prominent cases from New York City provides an indication of the wave of cop terror that has stretched across the country since September 11.
Outside of New York City, two cases of police brutality gained national attention within days of one another because they were both captured on videotape:
Firestorms of community outrage have also flared over police shootings in Minneapolis, Seattle and Boston. But they have received little attention beyond local media coverage. And in each case, with the exception of those caught on videotape, prosecutors have quickly dismissed all charges against the cops.
The pro-cop atmosphere fostered after September 11 gave the police a green light to beat, shoot and kill without fear of punishment or even much attention. The courts were an important factor in this. They work hand in glove with the cops in their day-to-day work, although mass struggles have sometimes succeeded in forcing them to press charges against the most outrageously brutal and murderous cops. After September 11, the courts went above and beyond their usual efforts to protect the police, not only refusing to even file charges in almost all of the cases of police brutality, but even going back in time to free cops previously charged with crimes. Two cases stand out in this.
Following the murder of unarmed Black youth Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati by a white cop in 2001, thousands of Black working class youth protested and then rioted against the police. (See Lessons from Cincinnati: Rebellion Against Police Terror in PR 63.) The rebellion was crushed by the police, but mass protests forced the courts to press charges against the killer cop, officer Stephen Roach. (The federal Justice Department had already been compelled to step in to negotiate a toothless oversight of the Cincinnati police; see box below.) But immediately after September 11, the Cincinnati courts dropped even the meager misdemeanor charge that had been pressed against Roach.
Then, in February, the courts began their efforts to free the cops accused of directly assisting and covering up the 1997 torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in New York.
Officer Charles Schwarz had already been found guilty of holding Louima down in the bathroom of the 70th Precinct station house while officer Justin Volpe sodomized him with a stick. But an appeals court overturned this conviction on preposterous grounds. Since Schwarz’s lawyer was contracted by the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA) union, the courts argued that he had a conflict of interest, since he also had to protect the PBA from possible charges and that could pressure him to allow Schwarz to take the full blame for the incident and thus spare the PBA from responsibility. But the courts had explicitly warned Schwarz of this conflict at the beginning of the trial and Schwarz rejected the warning, declaring that he understood it but still wished to use the PBA lawyer. The appeals court nevertheless ruled that Schwarz was “not a rational man” when he made this decision and threw out the assault conviction.
Having overturned Schwarz’s assault conviction on a flimsy technicality, the court then moved to overturn the perjury and obstruction of justice verdicts that had been found against Schwarz and two other cops, Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder, on even more ridiculous grounds. The court found that the three cops had lied and sought to cover up the crimes committed against Louima. But the judges said that the cops had sought to mislead state and federal investigators, not specifically the grand jury that later heard the case and which they were charged with misleading. So the court threw out all the charges against them!
If any court ever decided to free a convicted Black man on grounds like these, the media would be whipping up a racist frenzy of outrage. But when the beneficiaries were three white cops, the tabloids spared no effort in sensational headlines proclaiming their “innocence” after the appeals court supposedly cleared them. In the aftermath of September 11, brutal lying cops are hailed as heros. For this ruling class, they are a moral inspiration and profile in courage.
Prosecutors didn’t even bother to press any further charges against Wiese and Bruder. And when Schwarz was retried in June, the predominantly white jury found him guilty on only one count of perjury and deadlocked on the other three counts, including assault. Another jury had been selected and a re-trial was about to begin, when the prosecutors and Schwarz’s defense struck an unprecedented deal.
All outstanding charges against Schwarz were dropped; in return he agreed to accept a five-year sentence for one perjury conviction. He had faced 15 years for his original convictions and could have gotten another 15 years if convicted on the other perjury and civil rights charges. Besides waving his right to appeal there was very little substance to Schwarz’s “concession”: since when does a convicted criminal have to “agree” to be punished?! Also, unlike a standard plea-bargain, Schwarz did not have to plead guilty or admit any wrongdoing!
What made the deal unprecedented was its explicit effort to end all inquiry into who was responsible for the torture of Abner Louima. The agreement included a gag order according to which the prosecution agreed with Schwarz, his wife and his lawyers to never publicly discuss what his role was or wasn’t in Louima’s torture. In return for this agreement, Schwarz’s sentence would be reduced by another 13 months! Clearly the prosecutors’ priority was not bringing Schwarz to justice but to suppress the entire embarrassing case. As chief prosecutor Alan Vinegrad put it: “The purpose of today’s resolution is to put an end to the continuing debate about whether or not Mr. Schwarz was in the bathroom.”
Even the racist New York Daily News felt compelled to comment skeptically on the gag order, in a news story entitled “It Ends With a Vow of Silence”:
[Judge] Raggi had some things to say about how seriously she took the perjury conviction in a case involving such an horrific assault in a police stationhouse. “A civilized society demands that those responsible be held accountable,” she said.
Only this was the very issue that would never be fully resolved. What actually transpired in the bathroom was no longer at issue. What mattered was that neither side embarrass the other by talking about it in public, the defendant’s wife included.
The most heinous case of police brutality in city history was being settled like a messy divorce or a product liability case, with both parties pledging eternal silence.
“Forever,” Vinegrad would later note.
The courts made clear their intention to protect the police department long ago by not prosecuting the entire 70th Precinct for attempted murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice since all were involved in allowing the torture of Louima to take place and covering it up. And few illusions should have remained in the courts’ willingness to prosecute racist cops after a weak prosecution not long ago allowed the cops who murdered Amadou Diallo to walk scot free. But the courts’ failure to bring to any sort of justice the cops most directly responsible for Louima’s torture was a new low, made possible by the pro-cop atmosphere generated after September 11.
Responsibility for these injustices and the new wave of cop terror goes beyond the ruling class and its forces of repression. White political, union and other figures have long remained silent on police brutality. Their record is so bad that no one would expect them to speak out on the issue. However, there are many Black and Latino community and political leaders who have been expected to raise their voices in protest.
But since September 11 they have, without exception, fallen in line with the pro-cop, patriotic shift in mainstream capitalist politics. It has long been known that brutal and racist cops were surrounded by a “blue wall of silence”—a police force dedicated to hiding the truth. Now even prominent “community leaders” have joined the government, the courts, the media and the entire political spectrum in rallying to the cops and the patriotic cause, forming a new “red, white and blue wall of silence.”
Black leaders from the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton protested more in one week over a couple of harmless jokes about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in the movie Barbershop than they have in a whole year about scores of police killings and beatings. Indeed tellingly, they failed to even mention another joke from the same movie which suggested that Rodney King deserved the beating he got from police that later fueled the Los Angeles riot.
As the most prominent political leader in the country who has built his career on speaking out against police brutality, Sharpton’s role must be examined in particular. Since September 11, Sharpton has fallen almost totally silent on the issue. He did not speak out on the cop murder of Georgy Louisgene, despite pleas for him to do so. Nor has he addressed any of the other murders and beatings by police.
Sharpton did focus some attention on the injustice of the Schwarz verdict. But he did not call for, or organize, a single mass protest to pressure the court either before or after its decisions. In fact, the one “Action Rally” he did call after the appeals court decision in the Louima case had a clearly pro-cop message. In an article entitled “Sharpton and Community Rally Around Louima,” the newsletter of Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) described it this way:
First he [Sharpton] introduced the other speakers who included Eric Adams, the head of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement; Charles Billups, Chairperson of the Grand Council of Guardians; Anthony Miranda, Executive Chairman of the Latino Officers Association; and James Davis, Councilman from Brooklyn and a former police officer. “Let me say at the outset,” Rev. Sharpton began, “that we have every ‘minority’/majority police association in New York City here this morning.”
It is telling that Sharpton mentioned no one other than this gaggle of disgruntled cops, because besides them and a few NAN flunkies, no one else was invited. The “community” was nowhere to be seen except in the headline of NAN’s report.
Sharpton’s speech went on to make clear that while protesting the court’s decisions, his real concern was not to appear anti-cop:
The positions that we are taking are not anti-police; they are anti-police brutality. The media must stop promoting the notion that the Black community is against the police.
When the media paint Sharpton and the entire Black community as anti-cop, it is a racist lie. They’re trying to suggest that it is their attitude that provokes hostility from cops and accounts for what they see as “excesses” by the occasional “rogue cop.” It’s a racist example of blaming the victim.
The police regularly harass, beat and kill Black people for no reason other than the color of their skin. This has won the cops widespread hatred among Blacks and all people of color, even though many at the same time see no alternative to protect them from the threat of crime. Thus there is a lot of truth to the suggestion that the Black community is against the police. To one extent or another, many realize the truth that Sharpton and every other pro-capitalist political leader tries to hide—that racist brutality is not an exception to the police norm, that it is not accounted for by a “few rotten apples” who make the whole police force look bad. Rather, racism, harassment and even murder are part of the cops’ unofficial job description.
The police exist to “serve and protect” the ruling class from the working class “community,” and that means day-to-day brutality. As a result, any attempt to separate police brutality from the police and reform the force is doomed to fail.
Sharpton’s concern that he not be viewed as anti-cop not only expresses his desire to be an accepted figure in mainstream politics. He is dedicated to the capitalist system. His political perspective expresses the needs of the Black middle class who are threatened by racism and want to mobilize mass support to protect their interests from racist attack and even expand their power, and yet do not want to encourage struggles that threaten the system. If Black workers were to go beyond their leaders’ reformist program and threaten the system, the middle classes would be left with no role to play as brokers between the masses and the ruling class. They are thus dedicated to maintaining the pillars of capitalist rule: the capitalist electoral process, and if at all possible, the Democratic Party, the courts and the cops.
Mass struggles may yet force Sharpton to return to his old rhetoric of the past, the better to maintain his influence and the system he serves. But the post-September 11 patriotic frenzy took place as Sharpton was already distancing himself from his more radical protest-leading past.
By the time of September 11, Jesse Jackson continued to occupy his position as the country’s most prominent Black political leader only because of the lack of a prominent challenger. Jackson rose to the position through two popular though unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. Despite his craven support for the Democrats, notably Bill Clinton, his total lack of influence over the party’s policies had already discredited him. The scandal that he had fathered a child with his mistress seemed like the final nail in his political coffin.
It was only a matter of time that Sharpton would announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination and thus signal his bid to replace Jackson as leader of Black America. And so he did. But to succeed Sharpton knows that he must win the support of the not insignificant Black capitalist and upper middle classes, who are hostile to the Black masses and their struggles. Thus Sharpton is looking to avoid not just protests against police brutality, but any connection with mass struggles and their radical potential. He wants to appear as a “responsible” mainstream political leader.
In May of this year Sharpton made some key appearances, speaking to the National Press Club and appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press. On both occasions Sharpton did not once mention the Louima case or any other instance of police brutality and signaled his shift from past left-wing rhetoric. In an exchange with Meet the Press host Tim Russert, Sharpton made this clear:
Russert: “The Democratic Party’s moved too much to the center. You want to push it—what?—back to the left?”
Rev. Sharpton: “No, you said center. I said right, nor did I say I’m trying to move it to the left. I would argue that I would try to move it toward the center. I think that’s where I am[and] many Americans are; and I would argue most Democrats are.”
“Left” here means more radical policies that respond to the masses’ needs and challenge the capitalists. Sharpton was pledging to not get into policies that would destabilize the system. Indeed Sharpton has long viewed his role as being to curtail the system’s most excessive oppression and exploitation in order to avoid sparking mass struggles that could go too far.
Sharpton provided a perfect example of this perspective in his testimony to a New York City Council hearing. As the NAN newsletter explained, in an article entitled “Reverend Sharpton Gives Testimony at Hearing on Louima Case and Police Brutality”:
Rev. Sharpton began his testimony by stating why he believes it’s crucial for the good and welfare of the City that the Council address the issue of police brutality. Referring to what happened after the acquittal of the officers in the Rodney King beating, he said, “The reason New York City didn’t face the violence that LA did is because there were responsible people here who gave the community an outlet for rage.”
But the L.A. rebellion was not just an outburst of mass violence. It was a massive uprising of the oppressed, which included protests and battles with the racist police. In the absence of leadership and organization that could direct the rebellion into a focused struggle against the ruling class, riotous looting and property destruction came to dominate it. The answer is not to repudiate such rebellions but to go beyond them by creating mass organizations of struggle and a political leadership that is prepared to take on the system. (See PR 41 for more on the L.A. rebellion.)
As Sharpton’s testimony explains, reformist leaders since then have been concerned to direct mass outrage against police brutality away from rebellions and toward reforms within the limits of the system. That has meant promoting the illusions that the courts would deal justice to the brutal cops and their victims, that the Democratic Party would deliver reforms. If the experience of the last fifty years was not enough, the last twelve months of court injustice and police brutality should prove that this strategy is utterly bankrupt.
The reformist perspective of Sharpton and the whole layer of political figures who claim leadership of the masses through unions and community organizations is in crisis. These leaders support the capitalist system and enjoy a privileged position in it as brokers between the ruling class and the workers. But the capitalist system is lurching into deeper crisis. Far from granting new concessions to the masses to quell their struggles, the ruling class must look to intensify its exploitation to save its profit rates. As part of this, the racist divisions of the working class and the oppression of Blacks, Latinos and especially immigrants must be intensified. That means police brutality will worsen, as the cops play an ever more intimidating role. Increasingly, Sharpton and the other leaders will have nothing more to offer than the hollow rhetoric of Jesse Jackson: “Keep Hope Alive.”
Police brutality is an inescapable part of capitalism, a system based on exploitation and oppression. Mass struggles that threaten the ruling class can force the cops to temporarily back off their reign of terror. They can even force concessions from the courts and the politicians. But such struggles need a leadership that is prepared to challenge the system because it is dedicated to its overthrow: a revolutionary socialist leadership.
The League for the Revolutionary Party is dedicated to building that leadership in the course of all struggles by workers and the oppressed. In the struggle against police brutality we seek to build protests and other outbreaks of struggle into mass struggles of the working class and oppressed. We seek to link the struggle against growing police brutality to the struggle against the capitalists’ economic attacks. We promote the idea of a general strike to unite the working class against these attacks and against the ruling class that fuels them. In the course of mass struggles, we also promote the organization of mass armed self-defense against cop terror. Through these struggles we seek to convince more and more workers that our class has the power not just to fend off the capitalists’ attacks but to make a revolution that overthrows their system and builds a classless world of freedom and plenty: a socialist world.
Beneath the temporary triumph of the ruling class’s “United We Stand” propaganda, there is a growing sense of anger among the working class and oppressed, and distrust in all their established leaders. Mass struggles against police brutality are on the horizon, as are explosions of working-class struggle against the intensifying capitalist attacks. But without a political leadership prepared to challenge capitalism and present an alternative to its exploitation and oppression, there is no one to give voice to this sentiment.
Sooner or later this sentiment will explode. When it does, it will leave the Sharptons of the world in a precarious position. But even when their containment efforts fail, which they inevitably will, that in itself will not be enough for the mass struggles to succeed. Leadership is necessary to give political direction. But it must be a leadership that is built by and composed of the most politically advanced workers and oppressed themselves; that has lived and breathed and grown out of their struggles, both mass struggles and the everyday struggles of life; that has learned the revolutionary lessons of those struggles and is dedicated to teaching those lessons to its class brothers and sisters in the struggles to come. In other words, what is needed is a revolutionary party of the vanguard of the working class. As the great Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote in his History of the Russian Revolution:
Without a guiding organization the energy of the mass would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston, or the box, but the steam.
A piston box converts energy into a motor force that can power an engine. The revolutionary party creates the creative energy of the masses into a conscious force that can power a revolution. Just as one cannot wait to build the piston box until the water is already boiling over into steam, so we cannot wait to build the revolutionary party. If our class is to succeed in the coming battles, that must be our most urgent task.
Readers of Proletarian Revolution will recall our coverage of the massive rebellion against police terror by thousands of working-class Black youth in Cincinnati in April 2001. (See PR 63.) The rebellion was sparked when unarmed 19-year-old Black man Timothy Thomas was gunned down by a white cop.
Thomas was the fifteenth Black man killed by cops in six years by Cincinnati’s exceptionally racist police department, and the fourth in less than six months. After each previous atrocity, the politicians and media would join to excuse the killing as justified while the establishment Black community leaders, led by Rev. Damon Lynch III, would appeal for calm and advocate hopeless reforms. Soon the city would return to normal.
The rebellion was an explicit rejection of these leaders’ calls for peace. It was marked by many radical political actions that took aim at the city’s seats of power, including the occupation of the City Council chambers and battles at police headquarters. It was an appeal for a new strategy and leadership for fighting not just police brutality but all forms of oppression and exploitation. But in the absence of a revolutionary leadership and strategy that could take the rebellion forward, it degenerated into rioting and was eventually crushed by the police.
On the grave of the rebellion they had tried to prevent, Cincinnati’s establishment Black leadership promised to force major reforms on the police department that would regain the masses’ trust in peaceful solutions. They launched a lawsuit that sought to make the federal Justice Department bring action against the Cincinnati police for a “pattern or practice” of racial discrimination, and enforce a close monitoring of its policing.
As we discuss in detail in our pamphlet Fight Police Terror! even when such court cases have successfully won federal monitoring of police forces, they have done nothing to reduce police racism and brutality. But the establishment leadership in Cincinnati didn’t even go this far. Instead of pursuing their court case, they agreed with the Justice Department to pursue mediation with the City Council, the mayor—and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). So instead of even bothering to appear to legally fight the police and government, the leaders agreed, in a “can’t we all just get along” spirit, to work out a deal that everybody would be happy with.
Predictably, when an agreement addressing “community/police relations” was reached, it was a cruel betrayal of the struggle. The infamously racist attorney general John Ashcroft traveled from Washington to Cincinnati to announce the deal. It offered some window dressing, in which the police department agreed to change its use-of-force rules and implement a computerized system to track the behavior of individual officers. The two citizen bodies that had earlier been established to oversee the police—the Citizens Police Review Panel (created in 1998) and the Office of Municipal Investigation (created in 1981)—would be replaced by a new Citizen Complaint Authority, without giving the community any reason to think this would be any more effective in preventing further cop atrocities.
And while the rebellion aimed in part at driving the police out of Black neighborhoods, the agreement called for the city to “have police walk more foot patrols, attend community meetings and work with residents to develop strategies for fighting crime.”
The FOP put the settlement in perspective on the day it was signed, as the Cincinnati Post reported:
Police union leaders insisted that the FOP’s approval doesn’t mean it admits any wrongdoing or that its officers have engaged in racial profiling. Also, the agreement focuses on improving police-community relations and doesn’t involve racial profiling, they added.
That’s about what you can expect when you invite the police to police the police.
This didn’t stop Rev. Lynch from hailing the agreement: “We think we have an agreement that will be a landmark for this city. For this nation.” But when he had to face anti-police brutality protesters at an April 7 march to mark the one-year anniversary of the murder of Timothy Thomas, Lynch struck a somewhat more radical pose. He gave credit to the rebellion a year earlier, saying that “The reason the Justice Department came into Cincinnati was because of the 9th to the 11th.”
But Lynch could not point to any real change that would result from his deal. On the contrary, he had to admit that the agreement did nothing for the more than 800 Black people who were arrested by the police during the crackdown on the rebellion. “We cannot turn our back on the brothers and sisters who hit the streets April 9-11.” But in reality, the rebellion had served Lynch’s and the other community leaders’ aim of elevating them as brokers with the ruling class, and they now offered the masses nothing more than a few words of concern.
Even worse, other Black political misleaders are now trying to hold up the Cincinnati settlement as a model to be extended to other major cities where the police are terrorizing people of color. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) held a meeting in Detroit on August 30, where Rev. Lynch came to tout the Cincinnati settlement, joined and supported by Michigan NAN President Rev. Horace Sheffield III and Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality.
The NAN press release promoting the press conference and forum in Detroit suggests that “the same type of action that was taken in Cincinnati should be taken in Detroit.” Of course, they don’t bother to mention any specific accomplishments achieved in Cincinnati—there were none—nor the fact that it was approved by the racist FOP.
Rather than exporting to the rest of the country the shameless betrayal in Cincinnati, we need to export the inspiring example of the 2001 rebellion. In particular, we need to spread the rebellion’s main lesson: that revolutionary party leadership must be built by the most politically advanced workers and youth to oppose the betrayals of the reformist leaders and mobilize the masses. We need a struggle that can challenge the capitalist system that breeds racism and police brutality.