Police Brutality – Historic Pattern Continues

August 3, 2012

Police Brutality – Historic Pattern Continues (written August 3, 2012 by SBW)

A July 2012 report published by the Global Justice Clinic (New York University School of Law), and the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice (Fordham Law School), details from September 2011 to July 2012 how the New York City Police Department systematically violated the rights of participants in the Occupy movement. It revealed nearly 100 examples of use of “bodily force” where individuals were shoved, tackled, thrown forcefully backwards, thrown to the ground, thrown against a wall, dragged along the ground, had their hair pulled, were hit or punched including in the face, or kicked.

One headline asked, “Did the NYPD Break International Law in Suppressing Protest?” But a review of historical data easily discovers decades worth of countless reports of egregious police around the country, all or most of which violated domestic and international law. In 2007, Nick Turse wrote an essay on Tomdispatch.com (October 1, 2007), entitled, “New York City’s Explosion in Police Repression and Surveillance  Is a Threat to Us All,” concluding that this is “what happens when the War on Terror comes home.”

But as a criminologist I think it instructive to place today’s police brutality in its historical perspective (meaning that this totally unacceptable and egregious police behavior is really not an aberration in US history). I want to cite just two examples.

(1) The 1968 “Walker Report: Rights in Conflict” examined the civil disturbances (“rioting” at the Democratic National Convention/DNC) in Chicago, August 22-29. It took more than 20,000 pages of statements from 3,437 eyewitnesses and participants, and examined 180 hours of film and over 12,000 still photographs. The Report essentially concluded that disorders resulted primarily from refusal of authorities to grant permits and from the subsequent systematic brutal and indiscriminate attacks by Chicago police on demonstrators, most of whom were peaceful. So, in effect, we witnessed government brutal violence against US Americans protesting in our homeland an illegal war abroad, while that same government was committing brutal violence against Vietnamese in their homeland who were protesting the illegal war waged against them. It was the police, in effect, who had rioted against the people. The Walker Report cited “ferocious, malicious and mindless violence” and “gratuitous beating” by the police.

Many years later it was discovered that “almost one in every six demonstrators was an undercover agent” [see Myra MacPherson. (2006). ‘All Governments Lie’: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone. New York: Scribner, p. 421].

(2) The 1931 (Hoover) Wickersham Commission’s Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement concluded that the “third degree,” the willful infliction of pain and suffering on criminal suspects, was “widespread.” The commission discovered that “official lawlessness” by police, jailers, judges, magistrates, and others in the criminal justice system was widespread in many jurisdictions, including major cities. It investigated illegal arrests, bribery, entrapment, coercion of witnesses, fabrication of evidence, “third degree” practices, police brutality, and illegal wiretapping. It defined “the third degree” as employment of methods which inflict suffering, physical or mental, upon a person, in order to obtain from that person information about a “crime”, saying it was “widespread” and “secret.” It called the torturous practice “shocking in its character and extent, violative of American traditions and institutions.” It catalogued some of the “third degree methods”: “physical brutality, threats, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme cold or heat–also known as ‘the sweat box’–and blinding with powerful lights and other forms of sensory overload or deprivation.”

Of course, the New York Police Department (NYPD) broke the law – both domestic and international –while violating the U.S. Constitution. Not to be callous, but I ask, “so what?” They do it all the time, and always have been doing it. Not just New York police, but most police everywhere throughout our history. It is totally unacceptable, but our oligarchic political economy needs to make it clear to all that when popular democracy begins to break out, such sentiment and behavior must be suppressed or repressed at any and all costs.

Unfortunately, this behavior IS very much part of the (US) American tradition and institutions. We need to unravel from the mythology about the U.S. founding and its continuing “exceptionalism.” Exceptionally diabolical, perhaps. This is why the Occupy encampments and movement around the country, indeed around the world, have been so important. We are again reminded of our need to develop nonviolent revolutionary strategies of noncooperation, withdrawing support from dependency upon the system while radically downsizing into cooperative, locally food sufficient communities.


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