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November 30, 2006 - Chicago Sun-Times (IL)

Column: 150 Years Of Precedents Paved Way For Blatant Police Brutality

By Mary Mitchell, Sun-Times Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

We don't have a black and white problem as much as we have a black and blue problem. While the race of police officers who have been involved in questionable, high-profile shootings have been black, white and Hispanic, the race of the citizens who have been shot by police have been the same: black. In most instances, those citizens have also been males.

Whether we're talking about police shootings in L.A., Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta or New York, the common denominator has been race.

On Tuesday, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called the 50 shots that killed Sean Bell, 23, on his wedding day, and critically injured two of his friends "inexplicable" and "unacceptable."

But that's PR talk meant to appease black leaders.

Firing 50 shots at unarmed men should be called what it is: extreme brutality.

Worse yet, the only reason six undercover New York Police Department officers -- who by the way, were black, Hispanic and white -- could even think they would get away with such a barbaric act is because of what happened in the shooting case of Amadou Diallo.

In 1999, the unarmed African immigrant was shot 41 times by NYPD street crime officers because they "thought" he had a gun. All Diallo had on him was keys to his apartment.

Despite the brutal nature of the shooting, the four officers involved were found not guilty of committing a crime.

That jury verdict may very well have made matters considerably worse for America's blacks.

In fact, police brutality against black people is just more evidence of how some things don't seem to change.

An Infamous Precedent -- 150 Years Ago

Last week, Conrad Worrill, founder of the National Back United Front and one of the early supporters of reparations, asked me to take another look at the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Dred Scott was a Missouri slave whose master had taken him to live in Illinois and in the northern part of the Louisiana Territory.

Scott sued for his freedom, on the grounds that living on free soil had liberated him. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Scott "was not a citizen and therefore could not bring suit in the courts."

Indeed, language by the court was clear: the "negro" had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

As noted by historian John Hope Franklin, that ruling -- from the nation's highest court -- not only further divided the North and the South, it ensured that only a "social revolution" could bring about an end to slavery.

The Diallo case created a similar precedent.

If police officers can be cleared of wrongdoing in one of the most egregious cases of cop brutality, then there's little chance that officers in other brutality cases will be held criminally accountable.

Although police departments are allowed to fire trigger-happy cops, it is not enough.

By not prosecuting these cops as criminals, we are reinforcing the notion that black people deserve this brutality.

Brutality Cases Settled, While Cops Go Free

And it is outrageous that taxpayers -- black people included -- must finance police brutality. Local governments routinely pay defendants millions of dollars to settle brutality cases without ever acknowledging that the officers did anything wrong. I understand that police officers who patrol high-crime areas are putting their lives at risk.

But there are decent, law-abiding citizens in those communities, and they are at the mercy of cops who just don't give a damn.

For example: How could police shoot an 88-year-old woman to death?

Last week, Kathryn Johnston of Atlanta was killed by officers who came to her apartment looking for a man who had allegedly sold an informant crack from Johnston's home.

According to the New York Times, Johnston met the officers at the door and began firing. The officers had entered her apartment by cutting the burglar bars, and forcing open the doors before announcing themselves.

Now think about that for a minute.

If you're an elderly woman stuck in a crime-ridden neighborhood and you own a gun, and bunch of men cut the burglar doors off your door, would you wait around to see if they were really police officers?

Instead of retreating, the officers gunned down the old woman in a hail of bullets -- to allegedly retrieve two bags of crack and three bags of marijuana as evidence in a drug sting.

It is highly unlikely that those cops would have exchanged gunfire with an elderly white woman over that small amount of drugs.

Yet, this is the blatant brutality that goes on in black communities.

I'm afraid that just as the Dred Scott decision affirmed slavery, the Diallo ruling justified cop brutality.

Until reckless cops are prosecuted as criminals, black people won't have any rights that cops are bound to respect.

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