As a nation, we've become rather blase about the issue of police brutality.
Unless the incident triggers an explosion, as it did last month in Cincinnati,
or involves extremes, like the 41-bullet slaying of Amadou Diallo in New York
City, Americans are not likely to spend much time pondering the racial profile
of police brutality.
That's a major mistake. Reactions to abusive police have provoked major
urban riots. Commissions formed to investigate the causes of these
disturbances have often found that police brutality, or perceived brutality,
was a trigger.
Most of these commissions were announced with great fanfare and promise.
They recommended we make a bold commitment to eliminate the racial disparities
bequeathed to us by our racist past, and that we take serious steps to reform
rogue police practices. Ultimately, of course, their recommendations were
Cincinnati Mayor Charles Luken announced that he, too, will form a
commission to investigate the unrest that shook his city in April, following
the police killing of an unarmed black man. It's likely that Luken's
commission will reach conclusions that also will be ignored--until another
explosion, that is.
The beat goes on until America is beaten down.
Charges of police brutality echo from virtually every American city with a
significant black population, yet official America seems deaf to the din. Many
African-American activists, on the other hand, are expressing fears that
Cincinnati may be a distressing portent.
"We have to remember that almost every [racial] uprising in this country
since 1965 has been caused by police misconduct," said the Rev. Paul Jakes Jr.
Jakes is president of the Chicago-based Christian Council for Urban Affairs,
and a consistent critic of abusive police. He is worried about the explosive
potential of the increasingly rancorous relationship between cops and black
youth. And he's not alone.
The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives recently
released a report warning that many American cities are in danger of exploding
into violence. "There are numerous cities throughout the nation in
crisis--powder kegs waiting to be ignited by a single incident," noted the
33-page report, which was widely distributed to federal agencies and lawmakers
during a May 3 conference on racial profiling in Washington, D.C.
It was the advent of the war on drugs that exacerbated the traditionally
tense relationship between African-Americans and the police and resulted in
historic numbers of African-Americans becoming entangled in the criminal
Study after study has confirmed the disparate treatment African-Americans
receive in the criminal justice system. The most recent, released April 19 by
Building Block For Youth, revealed African-Americans are 85.5 percent of youth
automatically transferred to adult court for drug crimes in Illinois though
they are just 15.5 percent of the state's youth population. This disparity is
true, the study notes, despite the fact "white youth sell and use drugs at the
same, or higher rates than youth of color."
These kinds of racial disparities have debilitating effects on the
African-American community. As soldiers in the drug war, police departments
are in the front line of this biased treatment. Some officers see black youth
as the enemy, and in any war, the enemy eventually fights back.
Despite the serious dangers involved in this issue, few in national
leadership seem concerned. There is a growing concern elsewhere, however. The
international human-rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch
have authored studies that severely condemn some police practices in the U.S.,
particularly as they pertain to the treatment of racial minorities. The
European Union also has become increasingly vocal in its condemnation of
racial biases in death-penalty cases.
This growing global interest also is prompting African-American activists
to look outside the country for assistance in their struggle against biased
policing. Several U.S. advocacy groups are preparing to present their case
against police brutality at the upcoming UN World Conference Against Racism,
to be held Aug. 31 to Sept.7 in Durban, South Africa.
Unfortunately, we need all the help we can get.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times
Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune