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Equating Police Brutality with Domestic Terrorism
29 July 2002
Last week a producer for Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" invited me on the program to talk about statements attributed to the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the July 23 edition of the Washington Times.
"There is a pattern of African-Americans being beaten by the militia and killed by the militia," Jackson told the newspaper, apparently referring to police forces as the militia. "Unarmed citizens being beaten and killed by the militia is an act of terrorism," he said.
I declined the invitation to appear on the show. As an occasional participant in panel shows on various media, I know the drill: I'd be labeled a Jackson partisan and forced to spend my brief time on air fending off, or trying to contexualize, outrageous charges flung by Bill O'Reilly, the show's voluble host.
Confrontational shows like O'Reilly's raucous shout-fest may be entertaining, but they tend to bring too much heat to issues more in need of light. When such programs masquerade as venues of serious discussion, they do a disservice by distorting the discourse.
That distortion potential is never greater than on issues of race and policing. Anti-black biases are so tightly woven into the fabric of American law enforcement, they often are invisible to all but the victims. When white Americans call for more law and order, many black Americans have learned to expect increased racial profiling.
The issue of police brutality is one that is particularly susceptible to differing racial perspectives. Attempts to understand these divergent views require reasoned dialogue and nuanced debate--two features decidedly lacking on "The O'Reilly Factor."
The Times' article amplified a quote that appeared in N'Digo, a Chicago weekly, in which Jackson said, "if terrorism is shooting or killing innocent people, then the police that recently shot at an innocent black couple here [in Blue Island] and were acquitted, despite being under the influence of alcohol, were terrorists."
Jackson's statement is self-evident to many African-Americans, but considered controversial to the mostly right-wing arbiters of talk radio or cable news shows like O'Reilly's. Most blacks still find it incredible that juries found innocent the white cops who pummeled Rodney King and those who fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, killing the unarmed black man at his own front door.
And now, the videotaped arrest of 16-year-old Donovan Jackson in Inglewood, Calif., has once again put the racial gap in perspective. The tape shows a police officer lifting the handcuffed Jackson off the ground and slamming him onto the hood of a patrol car before punching the teenager in the face.
There may be some legal doubt as to whether the officer, Jeremy Morse, was adhering to police regulations regarding the use of force. But there is little doubt that he was acting cowardly.
That such a large, well-armed officer found it necessary to manhandle a skinny, unarmed teenager after handcuffing him bespeaks an unusual amount of fear.
That same fear was apparent in the 1991 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, when four white cops claimed they continued beating the unarmed, incapacitated motorist for fear he would suddenly stand and attack them.
The four white New York plainclothes cops who fired the fusillade at Diallo successfully argued they feared he would "shoot" them with his wallet.
In fact, an examination of some of the most egregious examples of police abuse include the local atrocity to which Jackson referred in which a black couple was chased by five off-duty Cook County sheriff's deputies and terrorized by gunfire from the officers' vehicle. The deputies were later acquitted.
Some juries, and some judges like Cook County Criminal Court Judge Clayton Crane, seem eager to give the benefit of the doubt to cops who say they were frightened by the prospect of violence from their black victims--even if the potential perpetrators were handcuffed, immobilized or even fleeing.
These disparities in perception are magnified when the police abuse has been videotaped. While black Americans tend to see videotaped accounts as flagrant examples of brutality, whites are more likely to accept the police version of events.
A Harris Poll conducted this year revealed that 80 percent of African-Americans believe that police brutality against minorities happens "occasionally" (or more often) in their communities more than it does in white communities. Sixty-one percent of whites believe their local police treat all races fairly.
Jackson's comments express the fears and anxieties of many African-Americans who remain terrorized by traditions of racial profiling that still characterize American policing.
If videotaped evidence fails to convince Americans there are reasons for that terror, what else does it take?