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Acknowledging the Reality of Police Brutality

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FERGUSON
ASSOCIATED PRESS

As recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, move from headlines to history, I would like to say a few words about two very sensitive subjects: police brutality, and racism.

As we all know, recently a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri killed an unarmed African-American teenager. The police officer shot him somewhere between six and eleven times. According to some eyewitnesses, the victim, Michael Brown, was shot in the back. Then Brown turned around, with his hands up, and shouted "I don't have a gun -- stop shooting!" At which point the officer allegedly shot him several more times, and killed him.

Since I grew up in the Bronx, I have some general familiarity with that scenario. In 1978, a Bronx police officer was convicted of beating a Puerto Rican to death -- while he was in custody.

In 1994, a young man in the Bronx was arrested for accidentally hitting a police car with his football. His brother expressed dismay to the officer about that arrest, crossing his arms across his chest. The officer then arrested the brother, for "disorderly conduct," and literally choked the life out of him; the coroner listed the cause of death as "compression of his neck and chest."

In 1996, a Bronx police officer frisked an African-American male, Nathaniel Gaines, on the "D" Train, and found that he was unarmed. One stop later, at 167th Street, overlooking the Grand Concourse on the southbound platform, one stop before Yankee Stadium, the officer ordered Gaines to disembark. The officer then shot at Gaines five times, including four times in the back, and killed him. Gaines was a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, he had no criminal record, and he had never been arrested.

In 1999, four Bronx police officers approached an unarmed Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo and ordered him to "show his hands." Misunderstanding them, presumably because his native language was Fulfulde and not English, Diallo reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. The officers fired 41 shots, and killed him.

And in the meantime, in 1997, New York City police arrested Abner Louima, a Haitian-American, and then sodomized him with a broomstick. But that was in Brooklyn. My parents used to warn me about Brooklyn.

I could go on. Sadly, I could go on and on and on. But what is the point? Police brutality is a reality. And you can't miss it, unless you literally close your eyes to it -- which all-too-many people seem willing to do.

Let's start with Fox News. When I listen to Fox News, I feel torn. I just can't decide: Are they idiots, or are they fools? Are they nitwits, or are they imbeciles? Are they morons, or are they jerks? Are they blockheads, or are they boneheads? They report, and we decide.

Remember how you used to hear the phrase "clever like a fox"? Since Fox News, you don't hear that anymore.

The primary Fox "talking point" regarding the killing of Michael Brown is that Brown may or may not have been in a convenience store earlier in the day, and that he may or may not have stolen some cigars from that store. Fox has been playing the convenience store video footage in an infinite loop. But there is little or no evidence that the officer knew of the store incident, or that he connected it to Brown.

And if he did, then so what? Even under sharia law, if you steal a few cigars, the worst that can happen is that you get your hand cut off. Not eleven shots from a high-caliber weapon.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that our Constitution permits the death penalty only in cases of first-degree murder, and treason. Not cigar theft. If 11 bullet holes for stealing some cigars is not "cruel and unusual punishment," then I don't know what is. It's definitely cruel, and I certainly hope that it remains unusual.

The other major Fox talking point is "why aren't we talking about all of the black-on-black violence, and the black-on-white violence?" OK, let's talk about that. I can give you dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of white police officers killing unarmed black men. I just gave you several from my younger days in the Bronx, alone. The Bronx represents well under one percent of the population of the United States, and my "younger days" were, sadly, quite a while ago.

Now, Fox News, give me an equal number of examples of black police officers killing unarmed black men. Also, give me a list of black police officers killing unarmed white men.

I'm waiting...

Anyone who thought that electing our first African-American president would end racism in America must be sorely disappointed this week.

If you ask a sociologist for a definition of "the government," he or she will not mention Social Security, or the fire department, or the public school system, or our national parks. The sociological definition of the "government" is the entity that has a monopoly on the legal use of force. In every nation on Planet Earth, only the military and the police have the legal right to exercise force, up to and including deadly force. And that makes it tragic when that force is used indiscriminately or -- even worse -- discriminately.

In 1969, the American psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published a book about how people facing death deal with death. She said that there are five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

When it comes to the reality of brutality by our peace officers, too many of us are still in that first stage: denial.

And if the killing of Michael Brown weren't bad enough, then we had to watch military weapons deployed by those same "peace" officers on our city streets. But this note is long enough already, so I'll save that subject for next time.

Courage,

Rep. Alan Grayson