By MARTY GOODMAN
— NEW YORK, Dec. 4 — The horror of Ferguson was repeated on Dec. 3 when a 23-person grand jury in Staten Island, N.Y., failed to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Black man. The cause of death was ruled a homicide by chokehold by the medical examiner. Garner was being arrested for selling single untaxed cigarettes.In the cellphone video of the July 17 attack, Garner was heard repeatedly crying out, “I can’t breathe!” as Pantaleo choked him and five more cops pinned him down. A peaceful protest of thousands followed on Staten Island.
At Socialist Action’s press time, hundreds of outraged protesters marched through Manhattan, conducted a die-in within Grand Central Station, blocked the West Side Highway, and blocked off Times Square. Garner’s stepfather, Ben Carr, said, “It’s like being stabbed in the heart.”
“I will fight until the end,” Eric’s widow, Esaw Garner, vowed. “I am determined to get justice for my husband because he should not have been killed in that way.” She also spurned the statement of sympathy released by Daniel Pantaleo following the grand jury’s decision, stating, “The time for remorse was when my husband was living and breathing.”
More protests are to follow. The Rev. Al Sharpton has announced that he is seeking to organize a march on Washington, D.C., on Dec. 13.
Outrage erupted coast to coast at the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white cop who murdered Michael Brown, an unarmed African American youth, on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. Brown, 18, was shot six times, twice in the head. In testimony and interviews, Wilson says he has no regrets.
As the decision was announced on the evening of Nov. 24, an enraged crowd gathered outside the Ferguson police station. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, pointed to the cops, “Y’all know you’re all wrong!” She continued with tears in her eyes, “Everybody want me to be calm; do you know how many of them bullets hit my son?” Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., later told CNN, “I feel like they killed him again.”
The announcement of the grand jury decision by Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch contained too many half-truths and prejudicial statements for people to swallow. Immediately after the decision, protests and clashes with police broke out in Ferguson and over 120 U.S. cities, as thousands upon thousands of African American and anti-racist activists, mostly youth, poured into the streets.
Across the nation, major roadways were blocked and bridges seized, some for hours, by protesters stirred to a molten rage by the decision. In New York City, protesters closed down three major bridges and the Lincoln Tunnel.
Not since the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, a Black teen shot dead by racist vigilante George Zimmerman in Florida, has mass outrage been so deep. Said one protester in Ferguson, “The system failed us again.” A New York driver stuck in a Midtown protest told reporters, “I’m a Black man. I have two Black children—and enough is enough!”
Veteran New York police brutality activist Jose Lasalle, a member of the Cop Watch Patrol Unit, told Socialist Action, ”When someone is killed, we’re going to take any step that is necessary.” After the Ferguson decision, Lasalle participated with hundreds of others in shutting down FDR drive, a major highway, and later marched from Times Square to Harlem, where protesters closed the Triboro Bridge. As for the role of the Rev. Al Sharpton and other Democrats, Lasalle warned, “They’re really just pacifying the people. We need to rely on our own people.”
On Dec. 1, thousands of students nationwide, including in Ferguson, ignored the rules and walked out of class to protest the grand-jury decision. It is clear that a whole new generation of anti-racist activists has proven that it is up to the challenge!
At our press time, the protests are continuing unabated. On Nov. 30, five players for the St. Louis Rams football team captured national attention when they entered the stadium displaying the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” gesture that has been repeated in protests across the country. Although they have had to endure condemnation in the media for their action, the Rams players affirm that they wished to show solidarity with their community.
“Prosecutor” defends Wilson
Ferguson, a city of 21,000, is 70% Black. The police department is 94% white. The grand jury in the case was made up of six white men, three white women, two Black women and one Black male. Grand juries are conducted without cross-examination and are usually considered easy to obtain an indictment from—if prosecutors really want to.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch is a “tough on crime” Democrat; his father, a cop, was said to have been killed by a Black man. Tens of thousands signed a petition demanding that McCulloch step down in favor of a special prosecutor. But Gov. Robert Nixon (Dem.) brushed aside the demand, and McCulloch refused to step aside. The wheels of racist injustice kept turning.
Numerous legal observers have said that Darren Wilson needed to be tried for the simple reason that he shot an unarmed man. During deliberations, however, McCulloch acted like a defense lawyer for the police officer. McCulloch put much of his focus on undermining witness accounts. In addition, he took the highly unusual step of not suggesting a specific charge. Noah Feldman, who teaches constitutional law at Harvard, said, “The prosecutor didn’t want an indictment … and didn’t want to be blamed for not getting one.”
Outrageously, Michael Brown’s body was left to rot in the sun for four hours by police as a symbol—just as the Klan used to do. The Ferguson police investigator didn’t even photograph Michael Brown’s body due to “dead batteries,” leaving items like the position of the body and the location of the spent cartridges unavailable for detailed study. The investigator even said that he had discarded much of his own notes of the murder scene!
On top of it all, Officer Wilson was permitted to drive himself back to the station unaccompanied and then wash the blood off his hands. He was also allowed to carry his gun to the police station himself, eject the magazine, and place it in an evidence bag without any supervision. Incredibly, fingerprints were never taken from the weapon.
The story line given by Wilson to the grand jury was vague and inconsistent—as well as being contradicted by witnesses—and demonstrates why a court trial is so necessary. Wilson testified, for example, that he thought Brown had hit him with his right hand, although he did not have a clear view since he was shielding his eyes with his arms. Yet he told the prosecutor a moment later he was certain that Brown was holding a box of cigarillos in the same hand as he hit him..
A member of the jury asked Wilson whether, since his vehicle’s engine was running, he had thought of driving away from the confrontation with Brown. His answer, which sheds light on his state of mind at the time, quite likely would have been explored further if he had been indicted: “No, I didn’t. … You know, we’re trained not to run away from a threat, to deal with a threat, and that is what I was doing.” Added to that, Wilson described Brown to the grand jury as “a demon” from a “not very well-liked community.”
After Wilson shot Brown at the police car, Brown ran away while Wilson chased him with his gun drawn. Suddenly, said the police officer, the youth turned and faced him. Sixteen witnesses testified that Brown had his hands up, although Wilson’s testimony made no reference to it. According to Wilson, Brown then “charged” into his smoking gun, only to be shot many times: “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
There is no indication in Wilson’s testimony that he had bothered to consider that Brown might have been gravely wounded at that point, and in pain and shock. The final shot, apparently while Brown was bent over deeply at the waist, was one that Wilson aimed at the young man’s head.
The (in)justice system in action
In Ferguson, where protests were ongoing since Aug. 9, Gov. Nixon, an anti-abortion, pro-death-penalty Democrat, declared “an emergency” and a “no fly zone.” He sent in the Missouri National Guard to supplement Ferguson’s racist cops. Rep. John Lewis, once a civil rights activist and now a Democrat, had called on Obama to declare “martial law” in Ferguson to “protect people as they protest.” The Democrats got their wish!
Under martial law, Ferguson looked like Iraq under U.S. occupation. Armored trucks, with sharpshooters perched on top, rolled down Ferguson streets, using military equipment supplied by the Obama administration to police departments across the U.S. Tear gas flooded the streets.
Although most protesters were peaceful, some cop cars and businesses, several of which sucked wealth out of the community, were torched. The white mayor, Democrat James Knowles, said, “We’ve never seen this kind of … tension between the races. I know we’ve always gotten along.” Knowles blamed violence on “outside agitators,” echoing the racist cry of Southern segregationists during the civil rights era.
On the first night alone, dozens were arrested in Ferguson. Between Aug. 13 and Oct. 2 alone—before the decision—at least 19 journalists were arrested or harassed. Police shot at least two journalists in the back with rubber bullets.
The entire metropolitan St. Louis area is one of the most segregated in the country. In the area around Ferguson, unemployment is 20% higher for Blacks than the 6.2% rate for whites. In Ferguson, the poverty rate is 22%, ten percent higher than the county average, and 51% of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Despite the Black majority, the mayor is white, and five of the six city council members are white.
Studies have shown that Ferguson has the highest rate of warrants issued in the state for a city of its size, as well as fines collected and non-traffic violations filed. According to a Reuters report, “Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue, and at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.” In other words, the city’s white rulers exist by ripping-off African Americans, with Ferguson’s cops playing the leading role!
A human rights report by Amnesty International in Ferguson, conducted from Aug. 14 to Aug. 22, found that “numerous human rights abuses” included the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and high-frequency acoustic devices to disperse crowds—which can cause the loss of balance, ruptured eardrums, and nausea.
The Amnesty report called on the U.S. government to “do much more to address systemic racial discrimination and ensure policing practices nationwide are brought into line with international human rights standards.” The report also noted that Ferguson cops kept their guns pointed at the Amnesty delegation.
In the meantime, the Obama administration has remained neutral in the struggle against racism in Ferguson, despite the strong support that the president still garners in the Black community. Inaction by his appointee, outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, represents a new low in the Democratic Party’s betrayal of its key constituent. In fact, Democratic politicians, Black or white, fashioned their November campaigns specifically to avoid all reference to Ferguson in campaign speeches!
Holder has stated that Wilson will not be tried on civil rights charges. The Attorney General instead promised to launch a civil rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department—even though the Obama administration has been reluctant to prosecute police on human rights charges.
The death toll from racist police violence across the U.S. grows with mind-numbing regularity. Whether it’s the racist “Stop and Frisk” or the “Stand your ground” law in Florida, coast to coast it’s all the same. A study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, conducted after Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida in 2012, found that a Black person is killed once every 28 hours by a cop, security guard, or vigilante.
In this era of economic crisis, the capitalist state is tightening its noose on democratic rights. The Edward Snowden and Wikileaks revelations brought that home to hundreds of millions worldwide. First in its sights will be the oppressed communities.
In the capitalist courts, the game is rigged against the working class and in favor of cops. To prove a civil rights violation, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a cop did so “willfully.” Even murkier Missouri law adds that cops can use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” that the person to be arrested has committed or “attempted” to commit a felony, or is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon, or “may otherwise endanger life” or inflict “physical injury” unless arrested without delay. Essentially, the high bar set by the law gives cops, especially in Missouri, free rein to kill.
In 2013, the FBI tallied 461 “justifiable homicides” committed by law-enforcement authorities in the United States. This was the highest number in two decades, even as the overall homicide rate continues to drop. A USA Today analysis of the FBI database over seven years found an average of about 96 homicides a year in which a white officer killed a Black person.
On Nov. 20, yet another African American, Akai Gurley, 28, was shot dead by one of two cops in an unlit Brooklyn stairwell. The NYPD said it was an “accident” and admitted that Gurley was completely “innocent.” Gurley was in the stairwell with his girlfriend because of a faulty elevator.
What must be done? Ultimately, to multiply our forces, we need to build a mass united national front of all principled organizations that oppose police brutality and racial profiling. Jail for Darren Wilson and all killer cops! Cops out of all Black communities!”
There can be no solution to police brutality with the two parties of the 1%. We say organize, mobilize, and stay in the streets! Socialists blame the capitalist system of greed for racism, police brutality, poverty, unemployment, and war. We need a revolution!
Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action