Illustration by Jeremy Shlangen
By Leijia Hanrahan
During the last month or so, there has been a veritable uproar over two instances of police brutality in this country. The United States is shocked that its law enforcement is capable of such heinous abuses of power but those who know those abuses first-hand, though, are likely to be shocked that any of this comes as such a surprise. That is to say, police brutality doesn’t disappear from the streets just because it disappears from the headlines.
On November 14th, UCLA student Mostafa Tabatabainejad was handcuffed and then
repeatedly stunned with a taser for not showing his ID at the university library—when, according to eyewitnesses, he was already on his way out. Then, on November 25th, an unarmed Sean Bell of Queens, NY, and two companions, were shot 50 times by three undercover officers outside a strip club that happened to be under preliminary investigation, in the early hours of the morning of Bell's wedding day. Bell was killed, his friends were badly wounded, and Bell’s fiancé was left to care for the couple's two children.
These incidents sparked a controversial debate in the media over the resurgence of police brutality and racial profiling. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg publicly stated that 50 shots is "excessive" and "unacceptable," and emphasized the necessity of an investigation. In L.A., the UCLA administration said Tabatabainejad was defying basic security protocol, saying he had been physically aggressive, even though dozens of eyewitnesses confirm otherwise. Bob McManus reasoned in a recent New York Post piece that the NYPD makes over 350,000 arrests a year—with these numbers, we should all be quite impressed that innocent men aren't slaughtered more often.
McManus' report - and many others like it - would seem to suggest that instances of police aggression ("brutality" is a word carefully avoided) are few and far between. In fact, it is only adequate media coverage which is a rarity.
On November 1st, in Greenwich Village, Shakur Trammel, who is transgender, and two other African-Americans were beaten and arrested in front of dozens of witnesses for peacefully expressing their outrage over the recent assault of an African-American woman by a 6th precinct officer. When Trammel asked to be placed in a different cell because of the vulnerability to the harassment that transgendered people often face, her request was ignored. She and her co-arrestees were denied the medical attention they visibly needed.
On November 29th, a protest was held outside the 6th precinct, called in part by FIERCE!, a Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two-Spirit, Queer, and Questioning youth of color group. For this, there has been a small degree of city-wide attention—but the incident is still virtually unknown on any broader of a scale.
What has been even more obscured by popular media is a number of other deaths at the hands of law enforcement. For instance, it is widely believed that the shooting of Amadou Diallo in February 1999 was the most recent unjustified murder by the NYPD. In fact, according to the Stolen Lives project, there have been at least a dozen police killings in New York City since 1999, which have later been proven unjust. One example is the murder of Larry Cobb in August 1999, who was suspected of having broken into a Jeep but was complying with police orders and had no violent criminal record. Every year, the October 22nd Coalition holds a demonstration to draw attention to the ongoing trend of police brutality. Every year, they have new cases to draw on.
The truth is that people experience police brutality every day—most of them are the poor, queer, transgendered and people of color. But no community is wholly immune. On top of that, murders by law enforcement happen several times a year, usually garnering only minor media attention. So, it is not the fact that these two recent incidents occurred, but that the mainstream press has acknowledged them that we should be surprised.