Hammer, Sickle and Four logo
The Internationalist
  January 2016

Baltimore, Cleveland:
“The System Is Rigged”

Workers revolution will avenge Mike Brown (Ferguson), Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Tamir Rice (Cleveland), Palestinians in Gaza and kidnapped Ayotzinapa students in Mexico.  (Photo : Bassem Masri/Twitter)

When a Baltimore judge declared a hung jury in the proceedings against William Porter, the first of the police officers to go on trial for the death of Freddie Gray last April, hundreds of demonstrators gathered, many questioning why there was no conviction. “We want justice and we’re just not going to get it,” said a protester with a banner reading “It Stops With Cops.” He added, “This just sets the stage for all the other trials” of the five cops also charged in the case (Baltimore Sun, 17 December). In fact, many “legal observers” expected Porter to be acquitted since he faced the least serious charges and is black. Due to the mistrial, he may now be offered immunity or a plea bargain to get his testimony against the others. Or not.

Porter was charged with failing to call for medical help when Gray asked for it, and with not securing him with a seat belt, resulting in his body being bounced around in the van, which prosecutors said caused his death (although witnesses reported Freddie was already screaming in pain when cops tossed him in the van handcuffed). Porter’s “defense” was that he thought Gray was faking his injuries and that prisoners were rarely belted, even though that is required and police brass had been on a campaign demanding it because of the high cost of court suits resulting from the notorious “rough rides” given to those arrested. The prosecution didn’t rebut this naked assertion of police power in setting their own rules.

And the minute the trial was over, the police began asserting that power on the street. With a few dozen protesters gathered outside the courthouse, they immediately arrested activist leaders Kwame Rose and pastor Westley West for blocking the sidewalk, and slammed a 16-year-old against a glass door, with cops piling on top of him (supposedly for using a bullhorn, although he wasn’t, and even if he were, that’s no crime). The city has spent millions on new police equipment since last spring, and during the trial it brought in state troopers and riot police from all over the area along with Bearcats and other military vehicles, holding them at the ready in Druid Hill Park to strike at a moment’s notice in case of unrest.

So determined were Baltimore’s rulers to isolate protesters against police murder that they had Orioles play April 28 game before an empty stadium.  (Photo : Gail Burton/AP)

Meanwhile,Baltimore paid $6.4 million to the family of Freddie Gray to settle civil claims. To the extent that loss of black lives matters to city rulers, it is mainly the price they pay to settle legal issues, which they dismiss as a cost of doing business, much as giant corporations routinely violate environmental and safety laws and regulations and write off fines as a business expense. In this case the money is supposed to come from millions in anticipated awards, including a class action against Wall Street banks. But the bankers are beginning to worry about the “soaring” cost of police misconduct cases, which for the ten cities with the largest police departments went from $168 million in 2010 to $249 million in 2014 (Wall Street Journal, 16 July 2015).

Back in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, journalist John Eligon tweeted about the response to the mistrial, “People in Sandtown told me they didn’t expect justice in Freddie Gray’s death. They expected disappointment. Passions, anger and yearning for change that Ferguson sparked are still real and strong. But not many were surprised at the mistrial…. I saw that same sense of resigned defeat before and after the grand jury announcement in Ferguson. Even as activism has grown over [the] past year, many here and there have no faith in the justice system’s treatment of blacks” (New York Times, 17 December).

“When are we going to get justice?” asked a young woman at the Gilmore Homes public housing project where Freddie was arrested. Baltimore and its then police commissioner, Anthony Batts, have been hailed by the Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (March 2015), appointed by Obama in response to the Mike Brown and Eric Garner protests. Baltimore was the model of “promotion of community trust” and overcoming “the role of policing in past and present injustice and discrimination.” Yet one month after that report came out there was the Baltimore upheaval over the police murder of Freddie Gray. Every one of the bogus “reforms” recommended by liberals has been tried in Baltimore, and changed nothing.

Black mayor? Baltimore has it, and a majority black city council.

Black police chief? Baltimore had it, for years.

Black police? Almost half the police force is black.

Civilian review board? Baltimore has it.

Now we had a trial with a black prosecutor, a black judge, and a jury with seven black jurors out of 12. And the result? Zero. Why? Certainly “because the system is rigged” (D. Watkins, in City Paper [Baltimore], 22 December). There’s the “blue wall of silence” from this uniformed mafia, and rules negotiated with the Fraternal Order of Police blocking questioning of cops after an incident. There’s the “qualified immunity” of police from civil lawsuits, even for negligence and gross negligence resulting in death.1 There is the grand jury system controlled by prosecutors elected or appointed according to the will of the FOP. There are the decisions of the Supreme Court permitting searches without warrants, trespassing, entrapment and other abuses.

While leftists leading protests against police murder have popularized the chant, “Indict, convict, send the killer cops to jail,” that almost never occurs. And for a very simple reason: the job of the police is to “serve and protect” capital. The killers in blue are there to defend the interests of the exploiters against the exploited, and all those who have good reason to revolt. Their targets are first and foremost African American, Latino and other oppressed sectors, and the working class which produces the fabulous wealth of the ruling class..

The main left group active in Baltimore, Workers World Party (through its Peoples Power Assembly), which has made “indict, convict” its trademark slogan, has lately taken a more leftist tack, with an article on “Racist police violence & the need for socialist revolution” (Workers World, 14 January). The article quotes Marx, Engels and Lenin, and says quite accurately that “the real aim of the police is not to protect and serve but to terrorize and oppress the workers and oppressed as a class. And just as the police cannot be reformed, neither can the capitalist system.” But this comes right after, and flatly contradicts, the WWP’s call for “disarming the police, which is part and parcel of the overall demand for community control of the police.”

The idea that the capitalists and their politicians would permit “the community” of working, poor and oppressed people to control the cops – the hard core of the capitalist state apparatus – goes utterly against the Marxist analysis of that state. Calling for it, as the WWP and other pseudo-socialist groups do, is promoting a deadly reformist illusion. The same goes for the notion of “disarming the police” – much less in a country of 330 million people with some 310 million non-military firearms!

Cleveland: Killer Cop Murders 12-Year-Old, and Walks

Next up in the parade of racist injustice was Cleveland. For months, even as a grand jury was deliberating in secret, Cuyahoga County district attorney Timothy McGinty had been leaking material to the press seeking to exonerate Timothy Loehmann, the cop who gunned down 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014. Lawyers for Tamir’s mother complained, “We have never seen a prosecutor try so hard to lose a case” (New York Times, 24 December 2015). Sure enough, when the grand jury returned its verdict on December 27 it was not to indict killer cop Loehmann, or his partner. Cleveland pastor Rev. Jawanza Colvin noted, “The fact that we are not surprised is in and of itself an indictment of the culture of the criminal justice system.”

12-year-old Tamir Rice in the fall of 2014. (Family photo)

The decision provoked a wave of repudiation. Millions had seen the surveillance video which showed the patrol car pulling up right next to Tamir, the officer stepping out with gun drawn and immediately shooting (“less than 2 seconds”). There was no time to make three verbal warnings (as the police claimed), and if the cops really thought they faced a deadly threat they would never have gotten so close to Tamir. They then left their victim bleeding on the ground for over ten minutes as the life drained out of him. When Tamir’s sister ran to her brother they tackled her, handcuffed her and threw her in the back of the police cruiser. His mother was also prevented from coming to her child’s aid.

In justifying the decision, which he spoon-fed to the jury, D.A. McGinty argued that this was a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications.” The fact that the initial caller said that the gun was “probably fake” and the person waving it was “probably a juvenile” and that the responding police were not informed of this goes way beyond “miscommunication.”  The cops radioed in that the black male was “maybe 20” years old, rather than 12. An assistant prosecutor said Rice “was big for his age and easily could have been mistaken for someone much older” (AP, 28 December). But he was 5’7,” which even the coroner said was normal for a young adolescent. And since when does being big for your age justify getting shot?

It was a “perfect storm,” all right, not of “human error,” but of ingrained racism, outright lies and a system set up to guarantee that the murderous police would go free. You had an unstable cop who had been forced out of another police department for a “dangerous loss of composure” during firearms training. You have a police department notorious for the use of “excessive force,” capable of shooting a child at point-blank range. You have a racist prosecutor’s office that will cover for this heinous crime. And you have a legal doctrine that permits it.

Since that doctrine is applied universally throughout the United States, and is used to justify the large majority of the more than 1,000 civilians killed by cops every year, it is worth going into briefly.

McGinty released a 74-page “final report” on the killing of Tamir Rice, half of which is dedicated to arguing that “Police officers may not be criminally charged in deadly force incidents unless their conduct violates the Fourth Amendment” against unreasonable search and seizure; that “[u]nder the Fourth Amendment, the tactics used by the officers prior to the use of deadly force cannot be the basis for finding the use of deadly force itself unreasonable”; and that “[t]he incident conforms to the Cleveland Police Department Active Shooter policy,” which “calls for the first officers responding to a scene to quickly engage and attempt to neutralize active shooters” in order to “prevent death or serious harm to innocent persons.”

Yet there was no one anywhere around where Tamir was sitting, threatening no one. The Cleveland PD policy amounts to a directive to “shoot to kill first, ask questions later.” And the reference to the Fourth Amendment encapsulates “police privilege” in the use of deadly force. According to the U.S. Supreme Court (Tennessee v. Garner), a search or seizure by police (including killing) is “reasonable,” if based on “probable cause” of a “significant threat of death or serious physical injury.” So, unlike the general population, a cop just has to claim he felt he was “probably” threatened and he can get away with murder. Literally. As killer cop Loehmann did.

The system is rigged, deliberately. As we have noted previously, this has been true of all class societies since the appearance of the state, that apparatus of “special bodies of armed men” (the military and police, together with courts and prisons), as “an organization for the protection of the possessing class against the non-possessing class” (Friedrich Engels in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1885). As Engels noted, the police are everywhere protected by “special decrees, which invest them with a peculiar sanctity and inviolability.” Result: there is no justice for the oppressed in the capitalist courts, here or anywhere else. It will take a socialist revolution to get it. ■

  1. 1.See “Killer Cops, White Supremacists: Racist Terror Stalks Black America,” The Internationalist No. 40, Summer 2015.