Given the rising agitations against police brutality in the wake of Abner Louima’s sexual torture in a precinct house bathroom and this year’s acquittal of the four white officers who executed Amadou Diallo on his front doorstep, this anthology is perfectly timed. Police Brutality draws on a variety of black voices—both academically trained and community-based, famous and obscure—to educate the reader about the historical context of state violence against minorities, and the more deracinated ways in which the legal system and society itself perpetuate injustice while absolving the guilty of responsibility.
Rather than simply responding to each new atrocity with more protests and more angry meetings, editor Jill Nelson undertook this anthology as a way of ratcheting up the pressure to curb police violence. She explains in the introduction: “I felt that by examining the issues in this sort of literary manner, I could make all Americans more aware of these divisive and deeply entrenched problems. After all, recognition is the first step on the long road of transformation.” Organized in four parts—”Historical Perspectives,” “The Politics of Police Brutality,” “Policing the Police,” and “Repression and Resistance”—the anthology both explains how America came to this pass and offers practical solutions for extricating it from the morass.
The most illuminating essays, even for those thoroughly grounded in the subject, are to be found in “Historical Perspectives”; they put in context society’s attitudes toward law enforcement, police violence, and minorities, from slavery to the present. Claude A. Clegg’s thought-provoking exegesis of COINTELPRO’s illegal surveillance and sabotage of the Nation of Islam as an instance of police excess is particularly arresting. The one thing this section makes blindingly clear is that society’s commitment to controlling minorities, with whatever level of violence necessary, has never wavered. In detailing white vigilante violence against blacks from Reconstruction through the 1930s and the rise of the early civil rights movement to combat it, historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes: “These new pressures did not make the police any more conscientious. On the contrary, the decline in lynching coincided with the expansion of urban police forces and a rise in reported incidents of police brutality.” In other words, the white folks found a way to keep the darkies down and keep their hands clean at the same time.
Nelson’s inclusion of a sizable excerpt from a booklet of affidavits called Persecution of Negroes by Roughs and Policemen, in the City of New York, August 1900 makes for chilling, and all too reminiscent, reading. Police tried to arrest a black woman who was waiting for her husband (lone black women were routinely deemed to be prostitutes). Her husband appeared to defend her with a small penknife; a policeman later died from his wounds. In the wake of this incident, whites and police rioted for days, attacking blacks young and old, male and female, indoors and out. Fleeing the mob, one man asked a policeman for protection—the officer thereupon clubbed the “black son of a b——.” “I come over to you for protection, and this is what I get,” Robert Myrick wailed incredulously as he was beaten and arrested.
Providing equal opportunity for dissenters, Nelson includes thinkers like Stanley Crouch, who in Part II, “The Politics of Police Brutality,” condemns police brutality and recounts his own harrowing experiences growing up in South Central L.A. Crouch makes the legitimate point that police violence pales (in body count, at least) to minority-on-minority crime and violence. But “does this mean that, when the cops go across the line, we should just look at some statistics and forget about it? Not at all. What it means is that we need new angles of discussion; and we have to face the fact that antipathy between the community and the police works to the advantage of criminals with and without badges.” Crouch argues that, contrary to the protestations of antipolice activists, the rank and file are willing to tolerate cops’ harassment of youths, up to a point, if it will keep crime down. That’s an inconvenient reality Nelson is to be commended for acknowledging.
While Part III, “Policing the Police,” consists of only one essay and makes the book somewhat unbalanced, retired police lieutenant Arthur Doyle’s 29 years on the force make him especially well-suited to talk about the police’s attitudes toward those they police. Doyle is candid in discussing police norms of acceptable and unacceptable violence. For instance, he writes, “One rule I learned was that any suspect who assaulted a police officer in any way was never supposed to be able to walk into the station house on his own. He was supposed to be beaten so badly that he couldn’t walk.” While a refreshing validation of the urban experience, this section could have benefited from more insider perspectives. How are police officers trained? What is the official explanation for, say, how a man in a police cruiser with his hands cuffed behind him came to be shot 14 times? The officers in this particular case claim Archie Elliott “managed” to get his hands on a gun. How? There must be reports—why not reprint some of them? Shouldn’t the police have the opportunity to rebut the activists’ charge that they kill for sport, for spite, and in cold blood? Either their defenses will bear weight or they won’t, but in either event the fair-minded reader deserves to hear all sides.
Flores Alexander Forbes’s recollection of the police abuse that drove him to join the San Diego Black Panther Party in 1968 is perhaps the most riveting offering in this compendium. When he was 12, police had thrown him, sans explanation, in their cruiser and taken him to be viewed by a white couple who’d apparently been robbed; police called his mother a “black bitch” when she protested. When he was 14, they’d come upon him jogging on the high school track, and seeing a running black man, had beaten and nearly arrested him. Maddened beyond endurance by these and other atrocities, Forbes joined the Party and tells here of police drive-bys, gang beatings of Panthers, and living in sandbagged Party facilities whose foundations had been dug out and bunkered.
Given the strident, frontal attack of Police Brutality on police brutality, one can only hope that it will do more than preach to the choir. Hopefully, it will convert a few along the way.