The Blue Wall of Terror

National Protest Puts Police Brutality Back on the Agenda

Just as they'll take to the streets this week nationwide, they took to the streets last year, protesting abuse of citizens by cops. But in New York, with the World Trade Center ruins still smoking, people weren't receptive to any criticism of the police. The 400 black-clad marchers—far fewer than the 1200 who usually show up for the annual October 22nd Coalition protest—were scorned, booed and scolded by onlookers, even by people who had marched in previous years. No one, it seemed, wanted to challenge the heroes of 9-11.

Then in July, a video surfaced of 16-year-old Donovan Chavis-Jackson being beaten senseless in an unprovoked attack by two California police officers. Suddenly, the issue of police violence came back to light, after a year of being taboo. Suddenly, if only for a moment, the world knew what the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation never forgot.

Tuesday, they'll remind the world again. The coalition, also known as 022, has marches and rallies planned in New York City, Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, Detroit, Milwaukee, Portland, and other cities across the country. The aim this year is to reignite awareness of police brutality—an issue that has been marginalized almost as much as its victims, largely young black and Latino men.

"When [Donovan Jackson] happened we got a lot of calls from mainly media, and people were asking us, 'Well isn’t it the case that mostly police brutality had gone away, and are you shocked?' " says Kathryn Lee, an organizer at the coalition's national offices in New York City. "And we had to say, ‘Well actually, unfortunately, it did not,’ because we’d been tracking it all along."

The coalition arbitrarily chose October 22 for their yearly demonstrations in 1996. Members attempted to unite the work of smaller and more localized anti-police brutality groups and the less politically active families of victims. That single effort was so well received it led to a call for annual protests. 

Lee explains that incidents of police brutality—shootings, fatal beatings, suffocation, and in one Chicago case the alleged pushing of a suspect off an elevated train platform—have actually gone up in the last year. The coalition reports that, nationwide, at least 140 cases of excessive force or misconduct causing death have been reported, 33 of which were in the New York/New Jersey area. Many of these are under investigation, though even that route has long proven a dead end for many families.

Civilian review boards, which are supposed to be the official watchdogs on misconduct cases, often don’t help. Take, for example, New York City’s own Civilian Complaint Review Board, most of whose members were picked under Rudy Giuliani’s administration. Testifying before the City Council in September, a resigning investigator accused the board of taking police versions of events at face value, and retaliating against investigators by blocking promotions if they refused to alter their reports to favor police.

Then there’s the problem of media coverage.

"There is clampdown," says Lee, who argues that a lot of cases have just not been reported. She cites the story of 25-year-old Gonzalo Martinez, an American-born Californian raised by Argentinian parents, who was shot 34 times by officers in Los Angeles. Lee's is a sentiment shared by activists coast-to-coast, who refer to a media "blackout" or "whitewashing" of stories that cast police in anything other than the limelight.

Matt Rothwell, an organizer with the Chicago chapter, says the media generally sweep police brutality under the rug, although last year they came to his group's defense after officials claimed the march had security problems. "The city revoked our permit," says Rothwell. The protesters went ahead anyway, and brought "the whole civil liberties issue to the front pages of the newspapers," he says.

Top on this year's agenda is the case of three officers disciplined for the 1999 shooting of a 26-year-old, unarmed black woman, LaTanya Haggerty, who was riding in a car stopped for traffic violation. They mistook her cell phone for a weapon. One cop was suspended and the others fired, but in June a judge overturned the suspension and recommended that the city give the fired cops back their jobs.

"They’ve been politically rehabilitated," says Rothwell. "It's part of the climate."

Rothwell expects a strong turnout, but says they've lost organizers to the upcoming anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, organizers say one protest only fuels another. There, demonstrators will gather in Oakland, at the Alameda County Courthouse, where four former officers are on trial. The Oakland Riders, as the four called themselves, have been charged by the city with having trained new cops to brutalize and detain men within their West Oakland beat solely to fulfill quotas. They allegedly taught rookie colleagues to plant drugs on suspects and then lie on police reports.

Horrific as the charges are, say the organizers of October 22, the one good aspect of the Oakland case is that the city brought these officers to trial. Maybe whitewash doesn’t cover certain shades of blue so well.

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