There are tears on both sides of the police brutality issue these days.
The shedding of black civilian blood in Minnesota and Louisiana reportedly moved Micah Xavier Johnson to spill some white police blood in Dallas. This double dose of pain in all its unequal measure has triggered yet another dialogue on race in this former slave republic. After killing five cops and wounding seven others plus two civilians, Johnson was cornered on the scene and executed without trial by the Dallas police who blew him to bits with a robot bomb; so much for holding the cop-killer accountable.
However, the police officer who killed Philando Castile in Minnesota and the two uniformed executioners of Alton B. Sterling in Louisiana are walking the streets on the public payroll. So, too, are other recent killer cops walking free, such as Timothy A. Loehmann, in Cleveland; Daniel Pantaleo, in Staten Island; Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri; Peter Liang, in Brooklyn; and Jason Van Dyke, in Chicago, to say nothing of would-be cop George Zimmerman, in Florida, who auctioned off the 9-mm pistol with which he killed Trayvon Martin.
The troubling issue in these cases is that police across the country continue to exert excessive and deadly force against African-Americans in a racially disparate pattern — and that these white killer cops are not held accountable.
This malfeasance is enabled by the reluctance of state prosecutors to press such cases, coupled with the disinclination of most grand juries to indict and many trial juries to convict killer cops no matter the evidence against them. This undeniable pattern suggests that police killing of innocent African-Americans is not simply random, but rather a subtle form of terror conducted by state authority with the tacit approval of the white majority.
Chilling cellphone videos of such recent killings have embarrassed more than a few young whites, even some of their baby boomer parents. However, it is one thing for the privileged to be embarrassed by the lack of police accountability and quite another for the aggrieved class to be terrified by it. This latter group will find a way to respond, if only by marching or crying out that “black lives also matter.” Afghanistan War veteran Johnson found another way.
Black war veterans historically return with a dramatically lower tolerance for racist mistreatment at home. Widespread riots — starting with the Charleston, South Carolina, disturbance in 1919 — were triggered across America by such fed-up black veterans after World War I, for instance, and President Harry S. Truman was moved to desegregate the U.S. Army after returning black World War II veterans made it clear that they would not take it any more. Johnson’s parents said their son, who as a child wanted to be a police officer, was transformed after a seven-month stint fighting for the freedom of the Afghans.
“The war was not what Micah thought it would be,” said his mother.
Now, as something of a “hermit,” his newfound interest in black history and his heritage as an African-American put him at odds with the nonviolent Black Lives Matter movement. Johnson, after all, was a veteran trained to express himself by shooting accurately and moving stealthily. And news of police brutality out of Louisiana and Minnesota, he told police negotiators, inspired him to “kill white people, especially white officers.”
Grasping for historical context, media outlets have harped back to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, when some 125 cities were torched by angry blacks in a conflagration that took more than 40 lives. The rage of Negroes back then, as with current unease, was rooted in the lack of timely accountability for the assassination of this great American icon gunned down in broad daylight surrounded by supporters — and at least one undercover federal agent — with dozens of uniformed Memphis police officers looking on from a fire station across from the Lorraine Motel. His assassin, James Earl Ray, was allowed to escape Memphis on April 4, and roam the Earth scot-free for 66 days — as the cities smoldered in ashes — until his arrest in England en route to the racist, white-minority-ruled Rhodesia.
Still, despite the accountability issue, a more appropriate comparison to the current black rage is the 1992 Rodney King case. Pulled over for an alleged traffic infraction, like Castile in Minnesota, King was brutalized by Los Angeles cops with stun guns, 12-D jackboots and some 56 bone-crushing baton blows to his head and body. I wrote in Newsday back then that, “Only a miracle spared King from his murderous attackers that scurried back to their squad cars like so many hyenas in the wild.”
The sickening video of the murderous assault was played hundreds of times on network TV, and for the trial jury a year later. Still, all four white cops were acquitted by a virtually all-white jury in Simi Valley — where the trial had been moved from Los Angeles — whose verdict relieved the LAPD of all accountability. The videotaped beat-down of King triggered the most destructive riot in American history, costing some 55 lives, 2,000 injuries and more than $1 billion in property damages. The aggrieved of Los Angeles had waited 432 days for the legal system to run its predestined course.
This election year, the question is not simply, will blacks explode if the cops who killed Sterling and Castile are freed of all accountability? It is, rather, will this republic move any closer to a judicial system that is truly blind to race and color? Or will America’s birth defect of slavery prove to be its sickness unto death?
Les Payne, a former Newsday editor and columnist, is completing a biography on Malcolm X due to be published next year.