Race and Class: Cops and Videotapes

— Malik Miah

ONCE AGAIN AN amateur's videotape is spoiling the “lawful” deeds of cops in Los Angeles County. In 1991 it was the beating of Rodney King. Today it is a teenager. Unbeknownst to the cops videotapes expose the men in blue doing their job: beating up innocent civilians of color.

Fortunately for the public, the tapes were shown on national and international television.

Yet what will come of the new concern? Will the cops actually be convicted and the victim vindicated? Or will the King drama be revisited, where a pro-police jury in white Simi Valley acquits those indicted and vilifies the victim and the Black community as dangerous?

King eventually won a civil settlement when the white establishment feared more far-reaching developments if nothing was done to appease the public outrage after the cop acquittals. But ten years later racist cop attitudes and police violence are still a reality.

The Facts

On July 6 in the predominantly African-American community of Inglewood, sheriff deputies and Inglewood cops brutalized a 16-year-old teenager.

Donovan Jackson was pummeled and choked into unconsciousness for allegedly resisting arrest after his father was pulled over at a gas station with an expired auto registration tag. After peacefully obeying the cops' instruction to be patted down, Jackson was handcuffed and picked up like a rag doll and thrown down on top of the cop car.

Jackson told a grand jury that he cooperated with the cops. Cops said he resisted arrest. Two cops were indicted by the grand jury for felony assault and falsifying a report and face prison terms up to three years.

The response to the violence was immediate condemnation in Inglewood and nationally. The city elite condemned the cops' actions. Attorney General John Ashcroft initiated a federal probe and sent his top civil rights attorney to investigate.

The concern was not the youthful victim, but what could happen with inaction. After the LA cops were acquitted in 1992, riots occurred.

Yet Inglewood in 2002 is not Los Angeles in 1992. The police chief is Black, not a racist like LA's Darryl Gates. Inglewood is a majority Black suburb of Los Angeles. There are some 130,000 people, over ninety percent African American.

Inglewood reflects some of the changes in Black communities across the country. The mayor, city administrator, city attorney and police chief are Black. In fact, the city's elite is Black. There is a sizable middle-class layer -- median family income is $34,000 -- and a growing business community.

The Jackson beating, while no “accident,” is seen by some as a “rogue” action by cops (their color being irrelevant) who have a history of violence. Most Inglewood residents hope for better times even though they have experienced racism.

Crisis of Leadership

Moreover, there is a post-9/11 sentiment in the African-American community. Middle-class Blacks especially are more patriotic and don't want things to get out of hand. They want justice and prosecution of the wrongdoers just as whites and Latinos do.

An article by Steve Lopez in the July 12 Los Angeles Times reports on these mixed sentiments of the community, under the headline “Activists Silent on beating.”

Lopez quotes one community activist, Najee Ali, head of the Project Islamic Hope, who explains, “We're in a crisis in Black leadership in Los Angeles. They're more concerned with making money, and a lot of the time, our so-called Black leaders are poverty pimps.”

The Black activist and journalist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, also from LA, said groups like the NAACP, the Urban League and Black professional groups only speak out when fire is lit under them by activists like Ali. Hutchinson pointed out that the government only acts when there are cameras rolling.

“The reluctance of federal prosecutors to go after cops who overuse force,” Hutchinson wrote in a commentary July 14, “perpetuates the dangerous cycle of racial confrontation and deepens the cynicism of Blacks and Latinos toward the criminal justice system.”

“Rogues”?

Both observations by Ali and Hutchinson are valid. But why? Ten years ago the community was united in demanding far-reaching change. Today there is a narrower focus: deal with the rogue cops.

The change reflects more than a further decline of traditional civil rights groups and their limited aims. It reflects the “progress” made by Black people in being more integrated into society.

The suburbs are no longer all white, and many more African Americans are well off. There is “Black flight” from inner cities and calls to deal with social outcasts and resentment, even if it sounds similar to what racist whites are demanding.

It is not an accident, furthermore, that a Black man, Ward Connerly, led the campaign to end affirmative action in California and has a new initiative on the 2003 ballot to eliminate the collection of data based on race. (See the author's column, “The `Color-Blind' Pretense” in ATC 99, July-August 2002.)

The Bush White House's top two foreign policy experts are Black -- Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell. They are not tokens but real players.

The crisis of leadership reflects the class division in the African-American community. The Black middle class in fact has more in common with their white brothers than with poor layers of African Americans. The role of the police force -- of all colors -- is to enforce the laws protecting property and the powerful.

Why Cop Violence?

The only truism is that cops don't ask you for a job resume or your net worth before beating you up. People of color are more likely than whites to be stopped due to racial profiling and general racist attitudes.

As a resident put it, “Let's be frank: Anytime a city is heavily populated with minorities, people get the subliminal message that it's a bad place to be.”

A July 27 LA Times editorial echoed that point: “Cops and others who have rallied to [indicted cop] Morse's defense use Inglewood's high crime rate to argue that the public doesn't understand the dangers officers are up against.”

The editorial continues:

“But that raises the second question Inglewood needs to ask itself: How are Inglewood cops trained to approach a scene so that things won't escalate, to differentiate between a scary 16-year-old Crip [gang member] and a scared teenager who may be slow to process their commands?”

Violence, racism and cops in fact go together because that's the social function of the police under capitalism. Amateur video recordings simply capture what is typical, and show us why defenders of civil rights and civil justice must remain vigilant.