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The Black Death Stalks the USA

Are police killings of unarmed citizens a matter of race, class, or both?

by Joe Hopkins



5 min read

There is a Specter stalking the United States. It has come to be known as the Black Death by White Cop. In the ‘Land of the Free’ police forces behave like occupying troops fighting an insurgency. The primary target of lethal police action seems to be dark-skinned American citizens. There truly is a racial aspect to this phenomenon, although upon closer examination this is arguably a popularly contrived interpretation, perhaps deliberately intended to obfuscate its more deeply rooted class origins.

This essay will first focus on the racial profiling and targeting idea that meets the eye and is reported in the mass media. Then we’ll pull aside the curtains to look at how politics in general, and the politics of fear in particular, coupled with the economic system that structures society, have fostered the conditions that have not only allowed but perhaps also generated the repressive policies and practices that are being used to intimidate and pacify primarily the lower stratum of the American working class – an apparent self-justification of police violence.

In February of 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford Florida at about 9 on a rainy evening. Zimmerman, a wannabe cop, had volunteered to be part of a neighborhood crime-watch program. The evening that Trayvon was shot to death by Zimmerman, Trayvon was only 17 years old and returning to his father’s home, in one of Sanford’s gated communities, from the store where he had bought a package of Skittles brand candy and a can of Nestea, a commodified brand of mass-produced iced tea drink, to rinse it down with.

Trayvon had pulled his hoodie up to protect his head from the drizzling rain. Zimmerman, as it turns out, had made a number of calls to 911 over the previous months to report on suspicious characters in this same neighborhood and the common denominator was that, like Trayvon Martin, all of them had black skin.

Zimmerman began to follow Trayvon down the street in his private SUV. He crept down the street at approximately two miles per hour behind Trayvon while speaking to 911 Dispatch on his personal mobile phone. Trayvon had called his girlfriend on his mobile phone too, to tell her he was frightened that some white guy was following him in a truck.

Trayvon took off running, and Zimmerman told 911 that he was going to chase down the black man wearing the hoodie who was fleeing the area. 911 Dispatch told Zimmerman not to chase or follow the ‘suspect’ and to wait for the police. Zimmerman chased Trayvon down, there was a struggle, and Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death. (Information pertaining to this 911 phone call from Zimmerman to 911 Dispatch was taken from the actual recorded phone call broadcast on 89.1 WUFT — National Public Radio, located in Gainesville, Florida.)

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was walking in the street in a neighborhood that he frequented in his home town of Ferguson, Missouri, with his friend Dorian Johnson. A police van pulled up and the lone cop who is driving tells the men ‘Get the fuck on the sidewalk!’ Michael Brown retorts: ‘Fuck what you say!’ as they walk on. Officer Darren Wilson zooms the police van up next to the two ‘black’ men and in his efforts to dismount the vehicle opens the door so violently that the door strikes Brown hard enough to bounce back closed again before Wilson could exit.

Within seconds Brown is running away and Wilson is shooting him. A bullet strikes Brown in the back and Brown turns, raises his hands and says ‘Hands up, don’t shoot!’ Officer Wilson then shoots Brown six more times. Michael Brown had in fact shoplifted a package of Cigarillos cigarettes from a store earlier but nothing (including his own testimony) indicated that Officer Wilson had any knowledge of this previous petty crime when he gave Brown and Dorian Johnson the order to ‘get the fuck on the sidewalk.’

On the day that Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death, Michael Brown was 18 years old and going to begin his first year of college in two days.

Eric Garner was 43 years old in July 2014 when he was strangled to death by a white New York City cop (while three other white cops held Mr. Garner down on the sidewalk) for selling loose cigarettes. The cop who strangled Eric Garner to death was using a chokehold that was and still is forbidden by formal police policy throughout the NYC police department. A passerby recorded the entire episode on a smartphone. The audio and video recording proves that Eric Garner gasped ‘I can’t breathe!’ eleven times before he died. Eric Garner had black skin.

Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man, was killed by a white-skinned policeman as he entered a darkened stairwell to walk up to his apartment because the elevator was out of service. The stairwell was dark because the poorer tenants in the building had taken the stairway lights to replace the burnt-out bulbs in their apartments and none of those borrowed had yet been replaced.

Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child playing with a toy gun at a public park in Cleveland, Ohio on November 23, 2014, was shot to death by a police officer within two seconds of his arrival. Little Tamir Rice was dark-skinned. A wrongful death suit was settled out of court; no charges were brought against the officer.

On August 5, 2014, John Crawford lll, a 22-year-old black man, was shopping at a Walmart store in Beavercreek, Ohio. Mr. Crawford had selected a toy BB gun, which he was cradling in the crook of his arm, muzzle downward, in the store aisle as he made a call on his mobile phone. Three young white children were playing on the floor nearby while their mother watched over them as she shopped. Neither the mother nor her children seemed in any way distressed or disturbed by John Crawford.

However, a customer named Ronald Ritchie, who happened to be in the store at the same time, apparently did become quite distressed and disturbed at the sight of a young black man walking around with a toy gun on his arm as he spoke into his mobile phone. He called 911. According to what Ritchie said at the time, Mr. Crawford was ‘pointing the gun at people and at children walking by, and messing with the gun.’

When the Beavercreek police ‘stormed’ the Walmart store they shot John Crawford dead on sight without exchanging a single word with him. The tragic death of this innocent and unarmed black man — slain for no apparent reason other than because he was black-skinned — is compounded by the fact that Angela Williams, the mother of the three children playing on the floor in the aisle where John Crawford was first spotted by Ritchie, died at the scene from a heart attack.

The immediate after-action report written up by the police at the scene said that ‘Crawford did not respond to commands to drop the BB gun/air rifle and lie on the ground’ and ‘began to move as if trying to escape… Believing that the air-rifle was a real firearm, [one officer] fired two shots into Crawford’s torso and arm. He died of his injuries shortly afterwards.’ The cops involved in killing Mr. Crawford (and the mother) were all white.

The shooting of Mr. Crawford was recorded by the Walmart in-store security video. It shows that Mr. Crawford was talking on his mobile phone while holding a BB/Pellet air rifle when he was killed by the police. The video shows that the officers fired immediately without giving any verbal commands.

In December 2014 The Guardian revealed that right after the shooting of John Crawford the Beavercreek police aggressively interrogated Tasha Thomas, John Crawford’s girlfriend, about her version of events on the day that John Crawford was killed. The police threatened her with jail time on more than one occasion during the interrogation.

The killing of John Crawford lll was covered intensively and extensively by local, national, and international media. Most of the coverage focused on connecting the Crawford killing in Beavercreek, Ohio with police killings of other black men and children across the United States, such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice.

In 2016 Anton Williams was murdered when a white Chicago cop shot him 14 times as he was walking away from the cop. The murdering policeman claimed that Anton was charging toward him with a drawn knife in his hand. 

Four years later the footage of the body camera that the cop was wearing was released to the public. It showed clearly that Anton was walking away from the cop down an open street when he was shot in the back. The cop continued to pump round after round into Anton’s body as he lay dead in the street. Some of the bullets could be clearly seen striking Anton in the wrist, legs, and feet.

This is very far from a complete list of police killings. Such a list would fill a thick book cover to cover. 

How did it come to pass that cops could wantonly kill these people and literally get away with murder, even though none of the victims were armed or committing any crime apart from ‘breathing while black’? 

To answer this question we would have to dig deep into the history of the ‘black racial experience’ in the United States and its contemporary consequences. But bear in mind that all these incidents occurred during the administration of America’s first black president — Barack Obama.

As I suggested above, there may be more than ‘race’ involved in this epidemic of ‘racially motivated’ killings performed by the armed guardians of the capitalist state – the most commonly encountered branch of its coercive apparatus, the police. The victims were all black people, but people are always more than one thing at once. Most if not all of the victims were not just black but also poor and/or working class. This is a component part of the continuing War on the Poor, itself a component part of the Class War.

A statistical analysis of all recorded cases of police killings reveals the categorical fact that the great majority of the victims are ‘poor’ and ‘working class’ as those terms are commonly understood. A disproportionate number are indeed black, but many are poor whites in small towns and rural areas. People with mental disabilities are also at special risk of getting shot by police, because they behave in ‘strange’ ways and are slow to understand and respond to commands.  

Tags: police killings

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