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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 BellAmadou DialloShem WalkerReynaldo 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.

  1. peter hindrup #

    Don’t expect ‘gun control’ to do anything in the direction of reducing police killings. Here in Australia the New South Wales (state) police, while I have seen no figures on this, seem to have killed more people since the much vaunted ‘gun laws’ came in, than was the case previously.

    Certainly Police Commissioner Andrew P Scipione has been quoted as saying: ‘Make no mistake about it, we are a paramilitary outfit’.

    Victoria, another Australian state appears to be in a similar position to NSW.

    What is certain is that it is no more difficult to get weapons that were always illegal in Australia, than it has been in the past.

    Drive by shootings, or shootings at houses again seems to be far more a regular feature than before the ‘gun laws’ were introduced.

    Australia was of course never as wide open for guns as is the US, but there have always been weapons up to light military weapons available to those who had the want and the cash.

    Police here carry Glocks, Tasers, Pepper spray and modern extendable batons. Pepper spray, Tasers and boots against a cuffed suspect by multiple police is all too common. The result is, on occasion, predicably death. The police then line up to explain how the victim was displaying ‘super human’ strength, and swear that they were afraid for their lives.

    December 22, 2012
  2. Just pure laziness, if a suspect isn’t armed, then get off your ass and do the job that you are paid to do without killing!!!!!!!!

    December 23, 2012
    • Nice reading on children killed in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, US and elsewhere.

      December 23, 2012
  3. There’s another way to view the Newtown massacre.

    Given the inhumane conditions imposed on us, it’s surprising that more people don’t go berserk and become predators on their own kind. That’s what capitalism does to us, and we break at the weakest links.

    Banning guns is a pseudo-solution.
    American Police murder a Black person every 36 hours – that’s more than 240
    people a year.
    Gun control would not disarm these killers.

    The US is the number one weapons manufacturer in the world.
    Gun control would not stop the flow of these weapons.

    Public safety requires much more than an absence of weapons.
    It requires a humane society that meets people’s emotional, physical, medical, educational and social needs.
    Susan Rosenthal

    December 23, 2012
    • woodNfish #

      You should seek psychiatric help. You are obviously a very delusional person.

      March 28, 2013
  4. Don Parkinson #

    Good piece, hits many of the same points as this article.

    December 23, 2012
  5. Cleveland Lee Sr. #

    Knowledge is power, so what are we going to do about guns and killings?

    December 24, 2012
  6. December 24, 2012
  7. Ed #

    While I agree with the article with regards to police abuse towards colored people, I feel this is not part of the gun control debate. Being armed is part of being a cop…thus the issue here is police racism and violence, and it is indeed a very serious problem. As said by a comment above, gun control will not disarm the cops. Precisely..because they are cops. It’s part of their job to be armed

    The gun control debate is about the proliferation of guns among civilians. I read somewhere that even some American cops are wary of using their guns in the line of duty because civilians can get hurt. If trained cops are aware of this danger, won’t it be more dangerous for non-cop civilians to carry arms so as they can defend themselves at all times?

    If people say that banning or controlling guns is a pseudo-solution, or unrealistic, or too hard to do, then do we give in, accept this and do nothing? Gun control advocates never claimed that they can completely control or ban guns. They just want to dramatically bring down the number of armed civilians. They want to ban civilian use of assault rifles and other automatic weapons. They want civilian gun ownership to be very difficult, very strictly processed.

    Now some people will say, how can we defend ourselves against criminals with guns? Then stricter gun controls should greatly reduce the number of armed criminals. But there are already so many guns, legal or not, that are out there. Then the cops have their hands full in retrieving them.

    Now if the gun-crazy Americans cannot trust the police or other state authorities to round up these loose guns and be the main armed defenders of peace, then the U.S.A. really has a problem. They might as well go back to being the wild west. Theirs is a gun culture..other countries do not have this.

    December 25, 2012
    • The right to keep and bear arms was written in our constitution to protect American Citizens from tyrannical government. A concept those out side the united states find difficult to grasp having always been in subjugation to one tyrant or another. Kings and queens, tyrannical governments and dictators. I suggest this is because THEY KEEP THE MASSES UNARMED. When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns. Tyrants want all guns registered either to tax them (which was done at point of sale) or take them from law abiding citizens. Why would the government want to disarm the citizens? To enslave the citizens of the united states like the rest of the world has ALWAYS done. If you are not a citizen of The United States of America, OUR RIGHT TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.
      thanx for letting me share.
      xo . s

      April 13, 2013
  8. Maiz #

    Be clear about your positions. You either stand for freedom or you do not. There is no spectrum here. Accept what freedom truely is. I was born free, I stand for freedom, I will not ask permission or create laws to justify my postion inthis world and i will especially never take away the life and liberty of anyone who respects the peace and dignity of their neighbors. If you are an authoritive figure in the united states please remember your oath(s)to the US constitution. If your someone of integrity and consider yourself honorable, know your place. And when your supperiors ask you to enforce any other agenda which threatens our liberty you have a duty to expose enemys foreign or domestic and hold these tyrants accountable for tyranny, period. If you suspect your supperiors have gone rogue, look too other lawenforcement and soldiers who are waking up at,

    December 25, 2012
    • TJ #

      If there’s no spectrum for freedom, I believe laws in general shouldn’t exist, if everyone is entirely free to do as they please. I’m sure you like property laws and noise laws and other laws that allow you to pursue action should someone encroach on your space or peace, but that’s beside the point, I guess.

      January 9, 2013
  9. Yes, police killings are missing from the gun control debate. And it’s a bigger issue, since police kill more people in the U.S. than “mass murders”. Below are the links; the numbers are that of the roughly 16,000 victims of homicide in the U.S. per year, 1,600 were in cases in which there were two or more victims, and 1,200 were in cases in which there were exactly two victims. If we take the definition of “mass murders” (although really that term should be reserved for heads of state and/or generals who launch and/or wage wars) to be cases in which there were three or more victims, there’s “only” about 400 such deaths in the U.S. per year. Meanwhile, police in the U.S. kill about 1,000 people per year. If you doubt it’s that high, the FBI’s own count of “justifiable” homicides by police is about 400 per year, and it’s anybody’s guess how many it would be if they included the “unjustifiable” ones. Wikipedia has a few pages dedicated to documenting police killings, and for 2012 they list 531 cases – and by their own admission, their list is incomplete; I myself have found over a dozen cases in Washington state alone that aren’t listed. But regardless of the actual number, it’s a fact that police are more lethal than the “mass murderers” they’re supposedly protecting us from. So why no call for taking guns out of the hands of police?

    December 28, 2012
  10. This is how I feel about it. I put this sign up in my yard:
    My front yard sign

    December 31, 2012
  11. Peter Hindrup #

    Ed #

    ‘I feel this is not part of the gun control debate. Being armed is part of being a cop…’

    ‘Precisely..because they are cops. It’s part of their job to be armed’

    In Australia too, Cops are armed: as I said in an earlier post cops carry an arsenal while on regular duties — again, Why?

    Recently in England the decision for cops on regular duties to be unarmed was again reaffirmed. Is anybody suggesting that they face, or potentially face, less dangerous people than do the cops in Australia or the US? If the answer is yes, then both the US and Australia ought to be looking very hard to find out as to ‘why’?

    New Zealand too has unarmed police on the beat. I know, because I was born there, that the hard men there were every bit as hard as the hard men in Sydney, when I first came. In Kings Cross, where the criminal element then gathered, I was told to watch out for certain people, hard, dangerous men I was told. Friends couldn’t comprehend my laughter. Some of those pointed out (Nzers) couldn’t get a job bouncing in the rough joints in Wellington, they were not good enough.

    Arming cops makes them arrogant and lazy. A gun walking the street with a man attached. Armed cops are there to make, or cause trouble — err, and at times to deal with trouble.
    ‘Additionally, officers, chief constables and politicians alike are wary of upsetting an equilibrium that has been maintained throughout Britain’s 183-year policing history.

    “There’s a general recognition that if the police are walking around with guns it changes things,” says Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.’

    Armed police see themselves as an ‘authority’, unarmed cops see themselves as part of the community, a much more pleasant and effective model.

    December 31, 2012
  12. woodNfish #

    While I agree with most of your piece. Trayvon Martin was a thug in training and the police had nothing to do with his death. He brought that upon himself.

    March 28, 2013

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