“I got my black shirt on/I got my black gloves on/I got my ski mask on/ This shit’s been too long/I got my twelve gauge sawed off/I got my headlights turned off/I’m ’bout to bust some shots off/I’m ’bout to dust some cops off/ I’m a cop killer, better you than me/ Cop killer, fuck police brutality!” – Body Count, “Cop Killer”
22 years ago, the people of Los Angeles took to the streets to express their outrage after the four LAPD officers who nearly beat Rodney King to death – a vicious attack caught entirely on camera – were acquitted of criminal charges. Despite George Holliday’s legendary video – officers Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind escaped justice that day – but the people were done waiting for others to “stop police violence” and took action themselves. The country took notice and it took the armed forces to put down the rebellion.
The spirit of “ACAB,” an acronymization of the slogan “All Cops Are Bastards,” was in the air (and bumping from our compact disc players) in the early 90s. Even DC, the nation’s capital, was licked by the flames of a righteous uprising after a DCPD officer, Angela Jewell, shot a Salvadoran, Cinco de Mayo reveler who had allegedly threatened her with a belt. The soundtrack in our headphones reflected our mood, not the other way around: NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” (from 1988) and the lyrics from Body Count’s “Cop Killer” spoke from a powder keg of resistance fomenting against the emergent, post Cold War carceral state – not to one.
A lot has changed since 1992 – but some things remain the same. Ice-T, whose song “Cop Killer” raised hackles among white pearl-clutching politicos (especially liberals), has gone from singing about “dust[ing] some cops off” to portraying one for a paycheck on television. Mount Pleasant, which once was a hub of Latino culture in DC, has long since fallen to the forces of gentrification that were creeping in on it in 1991. And sadly, Rodney King was found dead in a swimming pool not long after the 20th Anniversary of the LA Rebellion. Yet cops continue to beat and kill black, brown and working class people – as well as the dispossessed and marginalized – with almost unqualified impunity. Everywhere. An ongoing series in The New Inquiry, “The Thick Blue Line” by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, documents just how regularly – when it comes to cops – acquittals aren’t even the source of our outrage. What breaks our hearts more often is the tired refrain: “no charges filed.”
From Orange County to Albuquerque, many white folks are even learning, too, that our“life [is] expendable. It no longer [holds] any value to the state.” As Thandisizwe Chimurenga, a black activist and author from LA announced in an article published after Kelly Thomas’ state-sanctioned-murderers were acquitted, “welcome to our world.”These aren’t aberrations, folks: violence is what police do. This violence didn’t subside in the anti-cop zeitgeist of the early 90s – it just learned better public relations. Of course cops get away with it. With indefinite precaritization, the neoliberal state’s seeming prescription for all workers, we can only expect more of the same violence being applied to an ever-widening pool of immiserated subjects.
However, all need not be lost. As Thomas Wolfe observed in You Can’t Go Home Again:
“Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above and the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.”
Deathless. Faithful. “ACAB.” “ACAB” – too-long-dormant in the US, but always under the pavements trembling like a pulse – burst from the earth again in April of 2014 in a surprising way. On Twitter. In a country where merely talking about molotov cocktails can get your brought up on “terrorism” charges, we need to seize every opportunity to talk about police abuse. After all, if a single orchard’s “bad apples” had killed this many kids – shouldn’t we have razed the whole damn thing by now?
So while decidedly liberal “hashtag activists” were busy backslapping and self-congratulating about their “radical” ownership of hashtag campaigns that invariably foist themselves – as novelty brands – into the spotlight instead of the issue they purport to champion, a spontaneous counter-narrative to a planned, NYPD PR campaign emerged collectively from small accounts among the Twitter rabble. Commissioner Bill Bratton, who has probably done more than any man to bring the white supremacist terror of “Broken Windows Theory” into our lives, served up a rare softball in his otherwise spitball-reliant, public relations fuckery. His NYPD asked Twitter users to share pictures of themselves with cops and tag them with “#myNYPD.” But users didn’t flood the hashtag with cozy images of Officer Friendly, peacocking with tourists in Times Square, as Bratton had hoped. Instead, Twitter lit up with images of exceptional and everyday police violence.
As one with any sense might have surmised, in a venue like Twitter where mediating messages is difficult, the widely-known truth about policing and its inherent violence quickly escaped into the ether and dominated trending topics. It couldn’t be ignored. Bratton himself eventually had to comment on this public shaming, trying to dismiss the graphic depictions of what his police do – everyday – as “old news.” He even dug deep into his bag of blather to deny systemic violence, saying: “Often times police activities are lawful, but look awful.” Maybe people don’t care so much anymore about what is or isn’t lawful, pig – maybe they just don’t want anymore “awful?”
But Bratton inadvertently opening up the floodgates to truth wasn’t the only thing that burst forth “like a flower” this April. More police violence, too, came on the heels of Bratton’s very public reality check – and it wasn’t unrelated to Bratton himself…
On Sunday, April 27, Long Beach police – with assistance from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department – murdered an unarmed
black man as he fled from their less lethal munitions down a long staircase toward a wide open beach. According to authorities, Jason Conoscenti, the 36 year old suspect, “allegedly reached toward his waist as he neared the bottom of the stairs and officers fired at him”. Even more troubling than the de rigeuer “waistband”-excuse invocation, the Press-Telegram report continued:
Sunday’s shooting is the first officer-involved shooting involving a suspect and the first fatal officer-involved shooting in 2014. The department and Chief Jim McDonnell, who is running for Los Angeles County Sheriff, came under fire last year after 22 such shootings occurred — the highest number recorded since 2008. Six of the 2013 shootings were fatal; others involved nonfatal hits, missed hits, shots fired at animals or an accidental weapons discharge.
It seems Bratton’s “old news” and “awful but lawful” policing techniques have been an integral part of how his former #2, Jim McDonnell, has been running Long Beach. Interestingly, the man Bratton himself endorsed for LA County Sheriff as capable of “facilitating meaningful change,“ essentially served as a public relations liaison for Bratton’s “lipstick on a pig” gloss at the LAPD:
During his tenure with the LAPD, McDonnell was given the task of helping the department build bridges with the city’s diverse communities and political leaders.
Again – what Bratton does best isn’t fix police – but polish their image. As is the case with his recently renewed efforts in New York – as well as in his press-adored, previous work in Los Angeles – “community policing,” to Bill Bratton, is just a fancy way of saying “smokescreen.” So while the long-simmering “ACAB” sentiment is brought to its inevitable boil in Long Beach, we watch the media and how it serves “racism and criminalization.” In Bethania Palma Markus’ recent Truthout piece, the ever-insightful Chimurenga returns to reveal some more truths:
“The concept of unintentional killing, of a ‘mistake’ or ‘accident’ is being reinforced, drummed into people. But I have yet to see numerous headlines and ledes using the words ‘mistake’ or ‘accident’ when a young Black man is shot in the back while running away from police; while holding his cellphone or his wallet or with his hands raised in the air…
“in my experience and observation, mainstream media treat people of color, especially those of African descent, as criminals, suspects, or as having some kind of character defect when they are victims of crime, and whites tend to receive sympathy and be painted as completely innocent,” Chimurenga observed. “Sometimes it’s blatant and sometimes it’s subtle, but since antiblack bias is so pervasive in this society, subtlety is just as powerful as that which is blatant.”
“Mainstream media gives credence, too much credence, to ‘authority’ figures – government officials and law enforcement,” she said. “In too many ways, media carries their water for them. There is not enough basic skepticism or digging for deeper context and meaning. Many times, media is both cheerleader and megaphone for police terror in how they report on crime.”
Through the bullshit-parsing lens Markus and Chimurenga have provided us, we’re going to have our eyes on Long Beach in the coming days and keep tabs on the media spin that serves the police there, too. When they lie and say Conoscenti “reached for his waistband,” we’re going to call them on it. When they say he “confronted police” or gloss over police gunning him down by calling it “an encounter,” we’ll call them on that lie, too. We’re going to hold Jim McDonnell and all the officers involved in Conoscenti’s murder accountable for what happens on their watch – as well as every other police officer who commits murder in our name.
Finally, we’re going to hope that this country remembers the bold actions it took in the streets in the early 90s, learns from them, and finishes the job of destroying the institution of policing. Only then will our streets know peace.
I’ll be enjoying some old-fashioned Ice-T when we do: