Missing from the gun control debate: Police shootings of unarmed people of color
Gun violence is rarely discussed except for when a horrific mass shooting takes place. Still, even with the nation’s eyes focused on this particular issue, there is one kind of gun violence that is continually ignored: Police killings of unarmed citizens.
In my experience, liberal gun control advocates are the most silent on this issue. I’m not sure why but if I had to guess I’d say it’s because they are predominantly white middle and upper class folks, so for them, police are good guys who they trust to protect them.
It’s quite the opposite in poor communities of color. Just ask Rekia Boyd, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, Alan Blueford and Manuel Diaz, all people of color who were unarmed when killed at the hands of police officers.
In June of this year, I attended a panel at Netroots Nation titled, “Gun Politics after Trayvon and Tuscon: New Life for a Deadly Issue.” Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) was one of the panelists.
Though Trayvon’s name was used in the title, the panel failed to address the violence perpetrated against young men of color by police, who they often fear just as much and sometimes even more than they do other types of violence, with good reason. This legitimate distrust of police has led to a “stop-snitching” culture that impedes murder investigations and discourages some residents from calling the police in instances of domestic violence.
It was in this context that my friend and Truthout outreach director, Joe Macare, asked the Netroots panel to address police gun violence, highlighting the shooting death of Rekia Boyd by an off-duty Chicago police officer. The panel responded with stunning silence until Mark Glaze spoke up and dismissed the question as having nothing to do with the larger issue of gun violence.
Macare followed up by citing the time New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.” Glaze laughed at Macare, saying something along the lines of “that didn’t really happen,” even though it definitely did. Ironically, the organization that Glaze directs was co-founded by Mayor Bloomberg, who also happens to be its largest funder.
The NYPD (Bloomberg’s private army) is notorious for shooting unarmed people of color with near impunity (i.e. Ramarley Graham, Noel Polanco, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Shem Walker, Reynaldo Cuevas). The same is true of the Chicago Police Department, the Oakland Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Anaheim Police Department and so on. While it’s great that U.S. mayors have collectively organized against gun violence, they defend, in the same breath, the deadly use of force by their police departments. With this in mind, it’s hard to take Mayor Bloomberg seriously when he calls for action against the “epidemic of gun violence.”
As Collin Benjamin at the Black Star News put it, ”isn’t the mayor being a little hypocritical here when he says not one word regarding the shoot-Black-men-dead then ask-questions-later policy that far too many have in the New York Police Department?”
A question or two later, Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, slammed the panel for their disrespectful response to Macare’s legitimate question and criticized them for using Trayvon’s name in the title of the panel in light of their failure to address the systemic racism (racial profiling), very much prevalent among police, that led to his murder. The crowd showed their approval of Jackson’s remarks with loud applause but again, the panel changed the subject.
Just because gun violence inflicted by armed citizens outnumbers police violence, it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to ignore the routine killing of unarmed people of color nor does it do anyone any good to pretend it’s not a serious problem with serious consequences.
An investigation published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) earlier this year found that in the first half of 2012 at least 120 black men, women and children, the majority of whom were unarmed, were killed by police, security guards or self-appointed law enforcers. That’s one black person killed every 36 hours by “good guys with guns”, as the NRA like’s to call them.
Perhaps more significant than the actual killings is the sheer lack of accountability for these executions. According to the report, less than 9 percent of those responsible for the deaths have faced charges (four police officers and six security guards and self-appointed law enforcers).
The report’s authors describe how police impunity is largely a result of a common pattern of events in the aftermath of a police shooting:
“The standard procedure in most jurisdictions is for police involved in fatal shootings to be given paid ‘desk-duty’ while the department conducts an investigation of itself. The press applauds their fine records while it screams about the criminal records of the deceased. Almost all killer cops are routinely exonerated and quickly return to the street. Grieving families who invariably ask the modest question, ‘why did he have to die?’ are ignored. If there is some demonstrated community outrage the case may be further investigated. The legal system almost never charges these executioners and even if they do, the killing continues.”
With gun violence finally receiving the much-needed attention it deserves, let’s not forget that police around the nation are armed to the teeth. But this police state is directed almost exclusively at two groups of people: activists engaged in civil disobedience (i.e. Occupy Wall Street) and poor communities of color.
In fact, many of the members of MAIG are often the same mayors who use their police forces to suppress peaceful protests (Michael Bloomberg all the time, Rahm Emanuel during the NATO summit, Jean Quan during Occupy Oakland, etc.) while shielding their most abusive officers from any accountability for countless killings in minority communities. I’m amazed they’ve been able to find time in between to organize against illegal guns.