The mass media continues to discuss instances of police violence in this country as aberrations, bypassing the larger systems that drive them. This line of thinking actually contributes to the national crisis we are living – a crisis that goes beyond “human rights abuses.” We are dealing with crimes against humanity, specifically perpetrated against the Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples and communities of this country.
The common threads here are dehumanization and impunity; as Professor Otto Santa Ana notes in Brown Tide Rising: “Only humans have human rights.” It is this dehumanizing force that permits such egregious violence against the Black, Brown and Indigenous communities of this nation to occur, and to occur without accountability. We can see this phenomenon at work not simply on the streets, but also in the courts and in the prisons, dehumanizing institutions that have become, in effect, warehouses for people of color.
At the moment, the historic and brutal violence against Brown-Indigenous peoples remains under the radar of this nation’s corporate media, the nation’s conversations and its psyche. (This is not to say, of course, that police violence against Black communities should receive less attention; in fact, it should receive much more attention, as should violence against Brown and Indigenous communities.) A particularly brutal and abhorrent case near Tucson, Arizona, helps to illustrate this attitude and relationship.
On Feb. 19, a police officer intentionally rammed his fast-speeding police vehicle into an armed and wanted suspect, Mario Miranda Valencia, from behind, sending him hurtling through the air. The suspect survived. After the incident, Marana Police Chief Terry Rozema stated that the maneuver by officer Michael Rapiejko, actually saved the suspect’s life, apparently believing that the confrontation would not otherwise have resulted in Valencia’s survival. It strains credulity that such a violent maneuver is deemed lawful … and life-saving.
A careful examination of recent and documented law enforcement killings reveals the wide range of this violence’s impacts on Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, including US Arab/Muslim communities. During this time, the national media has focused on a few, primarily high-profile cases, such as that of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner of New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Tony Robinson of Madison, Wisconsin and Freddie Gray from Baltimore. However, even since early February, when part I of this article, “Not Counting Mexicans or Indians” appeared, there have been a number of cases of severe police violence perpetrated against many more Blacks, and Mexican, and Central American and other Indigenous peoples. On Feb. 10, in Pasco Washington, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, was gunned down for purportedly throwing rocks at officers. As is typical in this country, even some people who otherwise oppose police abuse were skeptical of whether Zambrano-Montes should receive compassion, compensation and justice, because he is an undocumented migrant.
On Feb 20, 2015, Ruben Garcia Villapando, an undocumented migrant, was killed by a Grapevine police officer in Texas after getting out of his vehicle, unarmed and with his hands up at all times, asking the officer: “Are you going to kill me?” The officer did. He will face no criminal charges, a grand jury recently decided. On Feb 26, 2015, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, a 21-year-old man from Guatemala, was killed by San Francisco Police officers 15 feet from his home, supposedly for trying to steal a bicycle. On Feb 27, Ernesto Canepa was killed by officers in Santa Ana, California, as part of a robbery investigation. In another case, on April 23, Hector Marejon was killed by a Long Beach police officer, Jeffrey A. Meyer, for purportedly pointing a gun at an officer. No weapon was found.
In recent years, Santa Ana, Fullerton and Anaheim in Orange County, California, have been sites of gruesome and periodic murders by law enforcement officers. They have also been sites of community resistance. For example, a series of killings by Anaheim officers (eight officer-involved shootings in one year), including that of Manuel Diaz (and Joel Acevedo) in July of 2012, led not simply to unrest, but also to officers shooting rubber bullets indiscriminately at bystanders, and unleashing a vicious police dog against those nonviolently protesting the killings.
In a particularly heinous case from last year, Manuel Longoria after leading Sheriff’s deputies from Pinal County, Arizona, on a chase, with his hands clearly up in the air and surrounded by numerous deputies, was shot twice by a lone deputy. A statement by the sheriff’s department claimed that Longoria appeared to be going for a gun. Video footage clearly contradicts this statement, and no gun was found.
Along the southern border, there has been a rash of killings, brutality and rape by officers over the past several years. However, there has not been a single conviction, primarily because US Border Patrol officers, in effect, are not accountable to anyone. This does not even take into account the more than 6,000 migrants who have been found dead along the border since the advent of NAFTA in 1994. An examination of the recovered remains, documented by Derechos Humanos’ Missing Migrant Project, reveals that quite a few bodies found in the desert exhibit signs of “blunt force trauma” to the head. Each death should actually be counted as governmental violence as they result from intentional policies strategically designed to funnel migrants through the most inhospitable parts of the border.
Many migrants are also subjected to vigilante violence, both near and far away from the border. For example, a recent vigilante attack in Florida resulted in the death of Onesimo Marcelino Lopez-Ramos, 18, whose head had been bashed in by a large rock. Three White teenagers, who had gone “Guate-hunting,” were arrested for this hate crime.
Unbeknownst to many, Indigenous people have the highest rates of killings by police in the United States. For example, Christina Tahhahwah, a Comanche tribal member from Lawton Oklahoma, was purportedly killed by police (tasered) in November of last year in her cell, for singing Comanche songs after she had been arrested and jailed. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
On April 3 of this year, a pregnant Indigenous woman, Jeanetta Riley, from rural Idaho, was gunned down by officers armed with AR-15s. She was killed within 15 seconds of arriving at a hospital. Her husband had brought her to get help as she had been threatening to harm herself while holding a knife. As reported in The Guardian, the shooting of a dog in a nearby town – 14 hours after Riley was shot – garnered the dog’s owner (who was White) $80,000. Riley’s family did not receive even an apology.
The previous April, Jack Keewatinawin, an Indigenous man suffering from mental illness, was killed after Seattle police arrived inquiring about a domestic situation involving a son attacking his father. Keewatinawin had calmed down when the police had arrived, and his father, Henry Northwind, pleaded with the officers not to kill his son, but to no avail. After the killing of his son, Northwind asked one of the officers: “Are you happy? How many more Indians you think you need to kill?” The Guardian reports that at least half of the more than 1,000 people killed annually by police in the United States are “mentally disturbed.”
The killings are not confined to certain parts of the country. A recent four-part series by Truthout highlighted killings by Chicago police and the culture of secrecy and impunity they inhabit. The series began with the killing of 14-year-old Pedro Rios of Chicago, this past July, at about the same time as the killing of Michael Brown. Rios was shot in the back and was classified as both a homicide and suicide, thus disappearing his death from the city statistics of those killed by police.
The vast majority of police abuse cases are not killings – but they do often result in brutalization that requires hospitalization, sometimes with permanent physical or psychological injuries. They also often result in incarceration, which brings injuries of its own. Akin to “stop and frisk” (profile and harass), officers’ extreme brutality is meant to convey the message that law enforcement owns the streets and will brutalize and kill whenever necessary, to deliver this message.
That the national media and government have taken notice of police killings of Black men and youth is long overdue. They have taken notice because of massive protests led by Black people who are bringing this truth to light. (The message that national media send is that unless a community protests en masse, no one will listen.)
Still, the national media and the government need to understand that we are no longer living in the 1950s, when television was broadcast in black and white. Failure to understand this will cause them to fail to see something much bigger and more profound: an extreme violence that is part of the roots and foundation of this nation. But then again, the mass media aim to do the opposite: to portray these events as isolated aberrations that occasionally flare up in a crisis, in Black communities. To acknowledge that the violence is systemic, and that it also includes police violence against Brown peoples and Indigenous peoples, would be dangerous to the status quo: It would require a different explanation and a broader, deeper set of solutions.
Why do we not know the names of the Brown people mentioned thus far in this article? It is because the media and political leaders dismiss them as exceptions; by omission or commission, they argue that these people are not really Americans, viewing them as either foreigners or as peoples from the past. To grasp the broader reality of state violence, we must dispose of the lenses provided by the government and corporate media. We must take a deeper look at state violence against Brown and Indigenous people – how it amounts to a sort of low-intensity ethnic cleansing: a modern manifestation of the genocide, land theft and initial enslavement of the Indigenous peoples of this continent that goes back to 1492. It is part of a history that is intertwined with the history of the enslavement of African peoples on this continent, and specifically, in this country. This violence is also intertwined with notions of Manifest Destiny and even the American Dream.
Truly, that dream, as codified by the US Constitution, was never meant to include Black-Brown-Indigenous peoples. Only later, if they were willing to completely assimilate, to participate in their own cultural genocide, were they permitted to become part of that “dream.”
Truthfully, the very idea of “America” cannot exist without Indigenous displacement and genocide. The policing of the concept of “American” is continued with this nation’s immigration policies, which focus on Brown peoples and the southern border – a lawless though militarized border, complete with walls and immigration patrols that resemble hunter battalions, roaming the entire expanse of this nation. The patrols and law enforcement officers who police migrants’ lives operate with almost complete impunity.
In the face of these multifaceted oppressions, many people have begun to turn to the federal government for solutions. Yet the federal government itself has always been – and continues to be – implicated in the violence. This is the very same government that has deported, largely via racial profiling, more than 2 million non-“criminal” migrants since 2008. It is the government that runs Operation Streamline, a pseudo-judicial anti-immigrant proceeding akin to assembly-line justice, that, in effect, is a for-profit incarceration and Indian Removal-scheme that enriches private corporations.
This is the same government that illegally invaded Iraq on trumped-up charges, and got away with it. It is the same government that is involved in a worldwide war, utilizing unilateral authority to kill suspects via the use of drones, sans trials. It is also the same government that imprisons people without charges at Guantanamo – and imprisons 2.4 million people within its own borders. It is the government that continues the politics of conquest, at home and abroad.
What we are now witnessing is residue from the era of colonialism. The system that was set in place, particularly the judicial system, remains in place. For people of color, the institution of the “law” itself has historically been a core problem, as it was created to guarantee the smooth operation of colonial institutions, including the facilitation of land theft, slavery, segregation and discrimination. This also included the facilitation of genocide and other forms of violence, such as vigilante “justice” and lynchings of people of color, particularly Black people in the South and Mexicans and American Indians in the Southwest. This is also why the US prison system today is the largest in the world, full of prisoners of color.
So the question becomes, what can be done about “police brutality,” when the very fabric of this nation is steeped in extreme state violence, and when it maintains a judicial and penal system that ensures the subjugation of people of color?
Perhaps the time has come to question that very foundation – a system that permits and perpetuates that daily dehumanization. That questioning should take place everywhere and always, from city hall to Congress and from the classroom to the newsroom, and from the local courtroom to the international court of justice.
That means questioning the very laws used to subjugate people of color. It means questioning the doctrine of discovery that made the land claims of Europeans possible, which purportedly gave/gives Europeans the right to lands and even souls on this continent. Yet, until we are all seen and treated as full human beings, with corresponding full human rights, we can expect little to change.
Actually, the solution is already before us, and for that, we can thank all those that have been struggling against this scourge against humanity, especially the Black Lives Matter movement and those who have been working for decades to dismantle the “discovery doctrine.”
We are now compelled to replace that discovery doctrine with a principle that considers all life as sacred. The Maya concept of In Lak Ech – Tu Eres mi Otro Yo, or You are my other me – is such an ethos. When we – particularly including law enforcement – move toward adopting this ethos on a broad scale, seeing all people as full human beings, we will begin to glimpse an actual end to this historic, systematic and pandemic violence.