Racism a central part of American life

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Waseem Shehzad

Dhu al-Hijjah 14, 1419 1999-04-01

Special Reports

by Waseem Shehzad (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 3, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1419)

Rudolph Giuliani, dubbed Adolf by critics, had hoped to shoot his way into the US senate. The New York mayor nearly succeeded until Amadou Diallo’s murder by the police on February 4 (see Crescent International, March 1-15), which seems to have seriously affected his political ambitions. His approval ratings have dropped to 62 percent from a high of 82 percent in October 1997, according to the New York Times (March 16, 1999).

Diallo, a quiet shy immigrant from Guinea, was hit by 19 out of 41 bullets fired at him by four New York police officers. Al Sharpton, a black activist, called it ‘execution.’ Most New Yorkers seem to agree.

Since the shooting, civil rights activists led by Sharpton have held daily sit-ins outside the police headquarters in Lower Manhattan demanding that the four officers be arrested for murder. They have not even been suspended from work, much less interrogated about why it was necessary to fire 41 bullets at an unarmed man standing in the foyer of his own apartment block. Former New York mayor David Dinkins and congressman Charles B. Rangel, both black, were among 14 people arrested for ‘criminal trespassing’ when they joined the sit- in and refused to leave the police headquarters on March 15. While the gun-slinging Giuliani never tires of praising his cops, the people have a very different perception. A survey of 915 residents found that 47 percent of the people in New York believe police brutality has increased as a result of Giuliani’s policies (New York Times, March 16).

The mayor says that other police departments come to New York to learn about the ‘fine policing methods we use here.’ His press secretary, Colleen Roche, echoing her master’s voice, repeated the same mantra: ‘The fact remains that the New York Police Department is among the most restrained in the nation.’ Neither African-Americans nor Hispanics share this rosy assessment; they view the police as ‘thugs in blue uniforms.’

Here is why. John Padilla, a 28-year-old immigrant from Honduras, wanted to be helpful. He saw a car without headlights drive past him very fast in East New York on the night of October 7, 1994. The next moment, it smashed into another vehicle. When the police arrived on the scene, Padilla went over to tell what had happened.

One police officer ignored him, another, John Caughlin, swore at him, telling him to get lost. As Padilla turned around to leave, Caughlin jumped on him, pushing him to the ground, face down. Several others also pounced on him, kicking him. He was then taken to a police station and beaten so badly that his right eye was smashed and he permanently lost his sight in that eye. Horror stories of this kind abound. Last year, New Jersey state troopers pumped 11 bullets into a van on the NJ Turnpike which was carrying minority college students for a basketball tournament. The vicious beating of Rodney King, the African-American motorist, by the Los Angeles police was caught on an amateur video-camera in March 1991. When an all-white jury in Los Angeles acquitted the two offending officers in April 1992, it led to riots in the city causing an estimated $7 billion in damages.

Most African-Americans distrust the police. They are so trigger-happy that African-American mothers warn their children not to run outside even while going to the corner convenience store. They fear the police might mistake them for a thief running away. Running is in the very nature of children, yet in America they could actually end up with a bullet in the head. Franklyn B Reid, a 27-year-old black man, was shot in the back of the head by officer Scott B. Smith at 11 am on December 11, 1998 on a busy street in New Milford, Connecticut. According to eyewitnesses, Reid had already surrendered and was lying face down when he was shot from such close range that his shirt and skin were burnt from the blast.

Smith has now been charged with murder by the county prosecutor, leading to uproar in the police department. They complain that the police are being ‘hampered’ in their duty. Killing unarmed people has become a routine part of the police job. In Riverside, California, 19-year-old Tyisha Miller was shot 12 times by the police on December 28. Autopsy results showed that all bullets had hit her from the back and that she was under the influence of alcohol and drugs at the time. She was shot inside her car.

Police behaviour, however, has much deeper roots, as the lynching death of 49-year-old James Byrd Jr, an African-American, by three white men showed. Byrd was beaten, chained and then dragged behind a pick-up truck in Jasper, Texas on June 7, 1998 until his arm and head were severed. The three men - John King, Shawn Berry and Lawrence Brewer - are all members of a white racist supremacist group. King was found guilty of first-degree murder on February 23.

Such behaviour by an increasing number of white Americans takes from the mindset projected on television about America’s power. The US government fires cruise missiles at other countries, killing innocent people in total disregard of any norms of civilised behaviour; US secretary of State Madeleine Albright nonchalantly declares on CBS’s 60-Minute show (May 12, 1996) that killing 576,000 Iraqi children through sanctions is ‘worth it.’ This figure has now reached 1.5 million.

Treating other people as less than human is drummed into the minds of ordinary Americans as well. Racist groups and the police target and kill non-whites with scant regard for their rights. According to Morris Dees Jr, a civil rights lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, 8,000 hate crimes were reported in 1997. Last year there was a 40 percent increase. It is this attitude that makes America such an unsafe place to live if your skin is the wrong colour.

Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1999

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