Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US

Matter of life and death

'A series of execution style murders at point blank range by urban police have returned the issue of police brutality to front page news'

The Republican Party's 13 month sexual scrutiny of Bill Clinton ended last month when the Senate's Impeachment hearings drew to a close. As predicted, Clinton remains in office. No one expected the Republicans to win the required two thirds majority in the Senate to remove him. But they failed to win even a simple majority, as many politicians from their own party fled the sinking ship to vote with the other side.

The stunned Republican leadership emerged from their defeat in the Congressional Chamber to find that their ideological programme is crumbling around them. A sullen Henry Hyde, chairman of the House judiciary Committee, openly discussed retiring. Moderate Republicans convened an emergency meeting to discuss ways to change their image as the party of the rich and morally vindictive.

But the Republicans' pummelling in the impeachment hearings is Just the tip of the iceberg--in recent months, a growing number of public officials who painstakingly cultivated their own images as defenders of a conservative political agenda have found themselves looking foolish in the face of opposition from below. When 2,000 (out of 9,400) American Airlines pilots staged a 'sick out' over two-tier wages last month, US District Judge Joe Kendall ordered them back to work, charging that a 'radical element' is in control of the pilots' union. Losing all pretence at impartiality, the judge snarled that 'death by lethal injection' would be too good for those who called in sick. The pilots defied the court order, with the number of pilots taking part in the sickout rising to nearly 2,500 before the union ordered them back to work.

In Illinois, leading politicians of both parties who once staunchly supported the death penalty found themselves unable to defend it after the prison system was forced to release Anthony Porter last month--the tenth death row inmate to prove his innocence since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977. All told, some 11 prisoners have been executed in Illinois since 1977, and ten have been released after being proven not guilty of the crimes for which they were sentenced. Porter spent 17 years on death row for a crime which eyewitnesses said at the time he did not commit. He came within 48 hours of execution last September before winning a temporary stay--he had already been measured for a coffin. After the stay, a journalism professor and his students uncovered the evidence which led to Porter's release.

Illinois governor George Ryan's office initially responded to Porter's release with the flip remark, 'The process did work. Sure, it took 17 years, but it also took 17 years for that journalism professor to stick his kids on the case.' Soon the governor was singing a different tune. He hadn't expected the widespread outrage at Porter's case. Activists against the death penalty enlisted the Porter family in the struggle to win justice for the 'Death Row Ten'--a group of Illinois inmates who have organised themselves inside the prison. They all confessed to the crimes for which they were sentenced only after being tortured by a Chicago police lieutenant, Jon Burge. Burge was fired in 1993 after it was proved that he had beaten, electric shocked, suffocated with plastic, hanged by handcuffs, and otherwise systematically tortured at least 50 people. Yet the Death Row Ten still languish in prison.

A Chicago Tribune poll shows 70 percent of respondents believe that Illinois should declare a moratorium on executions. A separate poll by the Tribune showed that ordinary people consider police corruption to be as much of a problem as substandard public education and low paying jobs--and much more of a problem than crime itself. Chicago's two main newspapers joined the call for a moratorium when Porter was released. Governor Ryan and even Chicago's Mayor Daley (son of the infamous Chicago mayor who oversaw the 1968 police riot against anti-war demonstrators) jumped on the moratorium bandwagon. Their actions, while thoroughly hypocritical--Daley was the state's attorney in 1982 when Porter was convicted--have nevertheless helped undermine support for the death penalty in Illinois.

A series of execution style murders at point blank range by urban police have returned the issue of police brutality to front page news. On 28 December, police in Riverside, California, fired 27 bullets into a black 19 year old, Tyisha Miller, after finding her lying unconscious in her car. Supporters of Miller's family have formed the Commission for Truth. Hundreds have marched both in Riverside and in the Watts section of nearby Los Angeles to protest at Miller's murder.

On 10 January, dozens of cops from the Los Angeles County sheriff's department surrounded and killed 16 year old Julio Castillo, as his family and neighbours begged with police not to kill him. He lay wounded and bleeding for more than an hour, his only weapon an empty gun lying ten feet away, while the police refused him medical treatment. Then they shot him twice--once in the back. When 100 peaceful demonstrators, including Castillo's family, held a march through the neighbourhood--which ended in a prayer circle, or rosario, at the spot where Castillo was killed--a police helicopter hovered over them while police ordered, 'Put down your guns. You have ten minutes to disperse or we will arrest you for unlawful assembly.'

On 4 February, four white New York police, claiming they were searching for a 'rape suspect', fired 41 bullets at Guinean immigrant Amadaou Diallo, age 22, as he fumbled to find the keys to his front door. Diallo was unarmed, had no criminal record, worked 12 hours per day, and neither drank nor smoked. A sign asking 'Why?' now hangs over his front door, which is riddled with bullet holes. New York's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani rushed to defend the police. But this only fuelled an angry demonstration through the Bronx a few days later, which drew 2,000. One 16 year old demonstrator said, 'Giuliani and the brown shirts--that's what I call them, brown shirts--have these communities under siege.' Thousands also took part in a funeral motorcade. Diallo's mother stated in a press conference, 'We're going to fight together to save all our children.' Her words reflect the sentiments of hundreds of thousands of working class people who are beginning to struggle. Their struggles sometimes involve only small numbers, but they are nevertheless transforming the political climate.
Sharon Smith


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