Watching the police response to the nationwide uprising against police brutality is by turns infuriating and depressing.
It hardly matters whether or not it’s a minority of police officer who are behaving as the “pigs” we used to call them back in the 1960s and ‘70s, because if they can do the kinds of things we see, thanks to the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, and the so-called “good cops” on police forces don’t immediately act to stop the actions of bad cops, the whole system is rotten.
Today, it’s personal for me, as I watch a video of militarized cops and camo-clad troops sweeping a street and the sidewalks straddling it of pedestrians. As they march along like advancing Nazi stormtroopers, they come on Martin Gugino, a tall thin elderly white man of 75 who is standing facing them. Described as a “protester” in reports, Gugino, a veteran peace activist in Baltimore, ambles towards one of the officers, arms down and hands empty, and begins talking calmly. Instead of responding or ignoring and walking around him, the cop he’s addressing just suddenly shoves him hard in the chest so he falls backward and down hard, banging his head on the concrete and, apparently, losing consciousness while blood pours from his ear.
As the police, including his attacker, march on past the injured man, one officer stops, turns and starts to bend over to check on the victim, but the cop walking along just behind him pushes him to make him move on, after which the other officers following just keep walking on by the man, while other cops can be heard yelling at bystanders who clearly are trying to cross over the sidewalk to help the injured and bleeding man, telling them to “Get back! Get back!”
This entire incident was videotaped by a local WKBW TV crew, and the station reports that the injured man is now in a hospital where he’s listed in “serious but stable” condition. It also reports that Buffalo’s Mayor Byron Brown says two cops involved in the incident — presumably the thug who pushed the man for no reason and walked on, and the cop who prevented a colleague from stopping to help — have been suspended without pay based upon the video footage, which belies the Police Department’s blatant lie that the shoved man “apparently tripped” and fell.
It’s the same story over and over, I know, and many police victims, especially this who are black, have had even more serious consequences, but this case could have been me so it hits home harder. I’m 71 and, like this victim of police abuse, I’m white.
This horror of police brutality and police privilege and invulnerability is a cancer that affects all of us in this country.
I’ve been a protester since I turned 17 and became an anti-war activist. I first experienced “police” brutality a year later for the first time when I was arrested while peacefully protesting the Vietnam War during a march on the Pentagon. At that demonstration in front of the huge war machine headquarters building, I was yanked from a seated position by federal marshals, and, while being carried, spread-eagled on my back, by four of these uniformed thugs, was beaten about the torso by wooden batons as I was carried to a wagon to be delivered to a federal prison in Occoquan, VA.
The beating was gratuitous, since I wasn’t resisting, and with my arms and legs being held, couldn’t have resisted if I’d wanted to.
It was a lesson that made me understand early on what policing in the US is about: not law enforcement or crime prevention but intimidation.
That was 52 years ago, and after over half a century, 48 of them spent as a journalist often covering police and their actions, including the murder of unarmed citizens in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Orlando and elsewhere, I have to sadly report that nothing has changed. In fact, because of an increase over the years in the number of cops in the US, in the power of the weaponry they are provided with (including AR-15s in virtually every police squad car and SUV in the country), and a proliferation of SWAT teams used widely even for serving warrants for missed court dates, and most importantly to a 1982 US Supreme Court decision granting police “qualified immunity” against prosecution for their aggressive actions, even including the killing of unarmed suspects, the situation has gotten much worse.
George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man killed so casually by a white Minnesota police officer who pressed his knee on his prone and mobilized captive’s neck for almost 9 minutes until he was dead of asphyxiation, is all of us. That’s why the phone videos of his dreadful lynching-by-cop, executed as several of his partners looked on calmly without stopping him, has sparked this wave of uprisings in cities and towns across the nation.
Until we as a nation decide that this is not the America we want to live in, until we demand that police be deprived of the weapons and training used in war, and instead learn to practice de-escalation tactics, not the escalation and intimidation tactics now prevailing, until we vastly reduce the number of police in our communities so the resources can be better spent solving underlying social problems, until we end “qualified immunity” for police officers so they have to face the consequences for their actions, until we end the political power and influence of the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, to prevent the sacking of brutal and corrupt cops, and until we fully integrate the police forces that remain after all those reforms, this cancer of a creeping police state and of rampant brutality in our communities will continue and grow worse.
We’re being deluged these days with images of police brutality and over-reaction. More people are being injured and killed by men with badges and legal immunity for their actions.
Our call must be “Not one more!”
UPDATE: On Friday, 57 members of the so-called Buffalo Police Emergency Response Team, kind of a giant SWAT unit apparently, which the two suspended officers were a part of, resigned from that unit in protest against the disciplining of their two compatriots. As Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of Counterpunch magazine says, in resigning those other officers “are proving they shouldn’t have been on the force in the first place,” adding, “I hope many more of them resign. And soon.”
Jeff is right. The Buffalo Police department is clearly filled with sick violence-addicted bullies with anger-management issues.
In response to a Facebook posting of this piece of mine, I got a comment from a Kim Stevens, who wrote: “You see what you want to in this video. As an old white man myself, I am smart enough that riots are not spectator sports.”
My response to Kim is that he apparently must “want to see a riot,” because in fact there was none, as a full viewing of the video shows. Scanning the street in both directions, the cameraperson was unable to show any riot, or even many protesters, who appeared to be standing placidly on the sidewalks.
There was no “emergency,” no need for an “Emergency Response Team” and no reason for violence by the cops. The only violence was the cops.