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In an age of pervasive racial profiling and militarized policing, impunity is the order of the day in local law enforcement. When summary execution and casual sadism pass for justice at the street cop level, where is the appeal of last resort? Certainly not the Obama Justice Department.
Obama Justice Department Joins the Sean Bell Murder Whitewash
A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford
“Police can organize instant firing squads or shove objects up people's rear ends, with near impunity.”
Twice in the space of a week, in New York City, the criminal justice system has proven incapable of protecting non-white citizens from a predatory police force. This past Monday, an officer was acquitted of shoving a police baton up the rectum of a young man who had been smoking marijuana. Two other officers got off on charges of covering up the sodomy attack – one of them was quoted as telling the victim, “You liked it, you liked it.”
The previous week, federal officials announced that the cops that fired 50 bullets at Sean Bell and two unarmed friends on the morning of Bell’s wedding, in November, 2006, would not face federal charges in the killing. The policemen had already been acquitted, in April of 2008, on charges ranging from manslaughter to reckless endangerment, a verdict that provoked a series of demonstrations resulting in the arrest of 200 people, including Bell’s surviving friends, his parents and fiancée, and Rev. Al Sharpton.
Sean Bell's death reached into the presidential campaign. Barack Obama, visibly ill at ease with the subject, tersely advised that, “The judge has made his ruling, and we're a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down." Obama then counseled that “resorting to violence...is completely unacceptable and counterproductive."
Hillary Clinton's response was more sensitive to deeply felt Black anger. “My thoughts are with Nicole and her children and the rest of Sean's family during this difficult time,” said Clinton. She continued: “The court has given its verdict, and now we await the conclusion of a Department of Justice civil rights investigation.”
“They concluded that unleashing a 50-bullet fusillade against unarmed men, resulting in death, was not a violation of anyone's civil rights.”
That investigation has succeeded only in federalizing the whitewash of Sean Bell's killing. The Obama Justice Department, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York all concluded that unleashing a 50-bullet fusillade against unarmed men, resulting in death, was not a violation of anyone's civil rights.
The Obama administration's refusal to seek justice for Sean Bell through the civil rights statutes should cause us to review the history. The feds began to prosecute killers on denial of civil rights grounds because southern white law enforcement agencies and juries refused to mete out punishment to racist murderers. Federal prosecutors felt compelled to take the civil rights route because entrenched racism made justice an impossibility in the state courts. More than two generations later, in the age of mass Black incarceration, a police state exists on the streets of New York and all our major cities. Police can organize instant firing squads or shove objects up people's rear ends, with near impunity. The circumstances cry out, just as forty-plus years ago, for federal intervention. But even the horrifying facts of the Sean Bell case are not enough to move the Obama administration's Justice Department.
Sean Bell's family will pursue civil damages. The victim of police sodomy has already filed a $440 million lawsuit against the city. There's a chance that both will win significant damages. But there is a lesson, here, for the victims of police abuse: You might eventually get some money, but you'll never get justice.
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