In the Albany County courtroom on Friday, 22 February, the four cops tried for the murder of West African immigrant and Bronx resident, Amadou Diallo, were acquitted on all charges. Soon after the verdict chanting protestors took to the streets in Albany and the Bronx, wallets held high in a ritual of solidarity with the innocent last gesture of the unarmed victim; a gesture which the cops' lawyers had claimed justified the 41-bullet fusillade that extinguished this 22 year-old man's life.
The verdict was hardly a surprise--cops routinely get away with murder. In fact, no New York City police officer has ever been convicted of murder for a killing that occurred while on duty (New York Times, 2 April 1999). Even after massive popular upheavals in Los Angeles in 1992 forced the retrial of three cops in the savage beating of black motorist Rodney King, the perpetrators all received less then the federally-mandated minimum sentence for the civil-rights violations for which they were convicted. And even that time was served in "Club Fed," country-club jails where the justice system sends its own when their crimes are just too egregious to ignore.
Such occasions are rare--135 years after Sherman's celebrated march to the sea through the heartland of the Southern slavocracy, and three decades after the civil-rights movement reversed the most blatant manifestations of Jim Crow segregation, black Americans remain a caste integrated into the U.S. economy, but overwhelmingly concentrated at the bottom. White-supremacist ideology has served the masters well through the years, rationalizing slavery and subsequently hobbling a potentially powerful insurgent labor movement. The cancer of racism is manifest throughout American society, from the universities where "scholars" produce books like The Bell Curve arguing that the oppressed are genetically inferior, to the workplace where blacks are traditionally the last hired and first fired.
American Justice: Racism and Repression
Liberals typically portray every incident of racist terror by police officers as the work of a few "rogue" cops. But the problem is much more profound--the entire system of capitalist "justice" (the cops, the DAs, the judges and the screws) exists to protect a social system based on exploitation and inequality. The police cannot be reformed because racism is inextricably woven into the fabric of the capitalist social order in America, it always has been and always will be.
The simple fact is Amadou Diallo was executed because Mayor Rudy Giuliani's hit squads have a license to kill. While black and other minority youth are the first and most obvious targets, the growth of the state's repressive apparatus, symbolized by New York's street crime squads and the rapid growth of police paramilitary units across the country, pose a threat to the democratic rights of all working people. America today is characterized by stark and growing social inequality:
The privileged elites are seeking to secure their positions by reinforcing their praetorian guard, curtailing political and legal rights and restricting the constitutional right of citizens to bear arms.
The cops who murdered Diallo got the best attorneys, as well as the automatic sympathy of a judicial system of which they are an integral component. Black youth rounded up in the "war on crime" are jailed with barely a pretense of a trial. America's death rows are full of innocent people whose only crime is not being rich enough or well connected enough to defend themselves effectively. As they say on the street, capital punishment means that "If you don't have the capital, you get the punishment."
The campaign to hold Diallo's killers accountable was an uphill struggle from the start. The police brass would have preferred to sweep the murder under the rug, but the angry protests in the Bronx, including the thousands-strong march across the Brooklyn Bridge on 15 April 1999, and weeks of civil disobedience outside One Police Plaza eventually forced the District Attorney's office to take the case to court.
At almost every major juncture, the judges and prosecutors undermined the chances for a murder conviction. First there was the motion to move the trial from the Bronx. The defense did not want to appear before Judge Patricia Williams, who is black, nor did they trust a jury of Diallo's peers--poor and working-class blacks and immigrants--to acquit the killer cops. In moving the trial upstate, the cops could count on a predominantly white jury less likely to view the street crimes unit as a racist death squad and more willing to swallow bogus claims about "self-defense." The four black women who did end up on the jury were there to lend credibility to the proceedings.
The prosecution's opening convinced some that the state might actually be seeking the conviction of the four trigger-happy cops. The defense also appeared to be in some trouble after their first (hostile) witness testified. But things began to shift with the sympathetic media coverage of the obviously rehearsed, teary-eyed testimony of Diallo's executioners. The prosecution made only token attempts to discredit these cynical performances, and passed up a major opportunity when the defense cited the prior records of the police officers which the judge, in a key pre-trial ruling, had ruled inadmissible. The jury never heard that officer Boss had shot and killed a man in 1997, that two of the other cops (McMellon and Carroll) also had prior shootings on their records and that all three had multiple complaints filed against them.
Defense attorney Stephen C. Worth's outrageous and widely publicized comment that in the course of the trial, the "racism nonsense will be put to rest" (Albany Times Union, 3 February) went unchallenged in the courtroom. Diallo's murder was a textbook example of the racist reality of the supposed "war on crime." As the trial unfolded it became painfully clear that the Bronx DA's office was not prepared to criticize the functioning of the New York City police department in general nor the elite street crimes unit in particular. Nor was it prepared to attack the racial profiling used by police to haul in black and other minority youth. This is hardly surprising, as most of the daily quota of convictions recorded by the DA's office result from the use of such methods.
The cops' lawyers made two arguments. The first was the absurd claim that the gunmen had acted in self-defense--something that could only have been true if they had all been subject to a synchronized hallucination. The second tack taken by the defense was to assert that these cops had followed police protocol when they emptied their magazines into an unarmed, prostrate and inert victim. This only serves to highlight the murderous character of Giuliani's "law-and-order" drive. The attempt to claim immunity from prosecution on the grounds that one was only following orders (or in this case, "procedures") was rejected by U.S. prosecutors at the Nazi war crimes trials after World War II, but it was accepted without demur in the killing of Diallo.
Judge Teresi's instructions to the jury were practically a recommendation for an acquittal. He hammered hard on the necessity of the prosecution proving its case beyond reasonable doubt--something the Bronx DA's office had clearly failed to do. Richard Emery, a defense lawyer who specializes in police abuse cases observed:
Jail Killer Cops!
Of course a murder conviction for these killer cops would not have ended police brutality nor resurrected Diallo. But whenever a few cops can be held accountable for a few of their crimes it is a small victory for their victims and a small setback for the proponents of the racist, "shoot first, ask questions later" style of "crime-fighting" pushed by Giuliani and his ilk. Conversely, the fact that Diallo's killers were acquitted only encourages further abuses. This month NYPD hit squads have gunned down another two unarmed black men: Malcolm Ferguson on 1 March and Patrick Dorismond on 16 March.
Revolutionaries support demands to jail individual cops guilty of murder, while combating illusions in the possibility of reforming the police. The once-Trotskyist Spartacist League (SL), which historically took such an approach, has recently changed its tune:
While the SL stops short of chastising itself for having raised similar demands in the past, we note that this new "leftist" posturing parallels other recent line changes, including rejection of both the general strike demand and the united front.
If calling for jailing killer cops only creates illusions in the capitalist state, one might imagine that this would also be true of demands for freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal or abolishing the racist death penalty. Yet Workers Vanguard reprints a March 1st letter from the SL's legal arm to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and San Francisco DA Terence Hallinan raising both of these. Go figure.
Break with the Democrats--For a Revolutionary Workers' Party!
The cops and courts are two agencies of a social system that, despite democratic trappings, rules over the many in the interests of the few. For the hundreds of thousands of people in Diallo's neighborhood and other ghettos and barrios across the U.S., who carefully followed the case on Court TV and other broadcast specials, what was on trial was the system itself. The acquittal of the four killer cops only confirms the impossibility of getting real justice from the rigged structures of capitalist law and order.
Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the rest of the black misleadership occasionally talk tough, but their strategy is to channel the anger of the victims of racism into the dead-end of Democratic Party electoralism. When Diallo's killers walked, these demagogues offered sermons, prayer vigils and appeals to the Clinton administration to intervene and press violation of civil-rights charges. There is no reason to expect that the feds will lay such charges, but even if they do, a conviction would have minimal impact.
In reality there is very little, apart from rhetoric, separating Democrats like Clinton from Republicans like Giuliani. They agree on increasing the numbers of cops on the streets to harass black and Latino youth. Under Giuliani's Democratic predecessor, David Dinkins, the NYPD expanded by 6,000. Democrats and Republicans agree on slashing welfare and on using "workfare" as a battering ram against organized labor. Since Reagan, the Republicans have cracked the Democrats' electoral hold on the South, but Malcolm X's 1964 observation remains true: "When you keep the Democrats in power, you're keeping the Dixiecrats in power."
In the immediate aftermath of Diallo's shooting, mass anger was palpable, and the protests were so large that some New York union leaders were forced to publicly denounce police brutality, and even participate in the march across the Brooklyn Bridge. But when the killers walked, there were no reports of objections from any labor bureaucrats. Like Sharpton and the rest of the black misleaders, the capitalists' labor lieutenants don't want to rock the boat for their Democratic friends.
The key to successful struggle against cop attacks lies in unlocking the power of the labor movement through a political struggle within the unions to forge a class-struggle alternative to the present pro-capitalist bureaucracy. Such an alternative leadership would have to be firmly commited to a revolutionary program of replacing production for profit by a rational, socialist, planned economy. The only way to eradicate racism, poverty, sexism and every other form of social oppression, is by uprooting the economic system which creates and perpetuates them.
Justice for Amadou Diallo! Jail the Killer Cops!