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Dec. '03/Jan. '04 Articles:
The Democrats Are Coming
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Over-Priced Musings
Stolen Lives
Iams=Cruelty
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art/W. Ralph Walters

"Kenneth R. Dukes was a ... son, brother, cousin, nephew, friend" reads the poster Dukes's sister, Jacinta Whitlow, is carrying down the street of downtown Chicago on October 22.

On August 3, Dukes was killed by Chicago police while trying to get into the back door of his home in the comfortable Belmont Morgan Park neighborhood of Chicago. They shot him five times in the back and twice in the back of the head. He didn't even have time to figure out what was going on. He was only 23.

"I don't even know what they were doing there," said Whitlow, 30. "There were no circumstances leading up to it, he wasn't wanted for anything, he had no weapons. It was completely unjustified. It was just because he was black."

As usually happens in cases of police brutality and murder, so far, no disciplinary action has been taken against the officers who killed Dukes.

That's why Whitlow and thousands of others like her took to the streets in cities around the country on October 22, the 8th annual national day of protest against police brutality, repression and criminalization of youth.

"We want the cops who did this to pay, to go to prison," said Whitlow. "We're trying to bring attention to police brutality."

Whitlow noted that her brother, who worked as a construction worker, "came from a family of doctors and lawyers and nurses" and had dreams of buying a home and having a family.

"Now he'll never be able to buy his first home or have kids," she said.

Besides the impunity that her brother's killers themselves are enjoying, Whitlow is also angry at what she sees as the general public's indifference to police brutality, the fact that many people assume police brutality victims must have been guilty of something.

"People don't understand until it happens to them," she said. "Our family is devastated, we'll never see the world the same way again. I'll never be joyous again now that my brother has been ripped away from me. And someone has the nerve to tell me that it's okay, he must have deserved to die."

Juanita Young's son, Malcolm Ferguson, was also 23 when he was killed by police in Bronx, New York on March 1, 2000. Young is still fighting for justice for his killer, and she is suffering ongoing harassment and turmoil because she is speaking out.

Ferguson was shot at point blank range in the lobby of a building where he and a friend were waiting out the rain. She said he and his friends acted defensively as plainclothes officers burst into the lobby with guns drawn.

"They thought they were being robbed," she said. "They didn't know they were police."

Young said she wasn't surprised police had rushed her son in the lobby that day, since he had been having trouble with police for a while, as many youth of color in low-income neighborhoods do. She noted that three times in 1999 he was arrested for drugs, but had the charges dropped since he didn't actually have any drugs on him.

"The DA knew something was wrong with those cases," she said. "They were trying to frame him."

During one arrest, his hand was broken by improper handcuffing and he wasn't given medical treatment for two days, leading the family to file a lawsuit against the police department. But now that Ferguson is dead, that lawsuit has been dismissed.

"They would continually harass him, and he was angry about it," Young said. "People would tell me how they saw him on the street being harassed."

No criminal charges were filed against the officer who killed Ferguson, of course, though Young has filed a civil suit for wrongful death.

Meanwhile, Young is facing criminal charges herself in connection with her eviction from her apartment this summer. She says police officers and her landlord, who is a former cop, treated her violently during the eviction, breaking down doors, handcuffing her and throwing her to the floor and even killing her cat.

She was charged with trespassing, and when she demanded to go to the hospital for injuries to her hand during the scuffle, she says police upgraded the charges against her to criminal trespassing.

"He pushed me into the police car and said, 'You're not going to anymore rallies now,'" she said. "That's how I know there was something behind it all. They knew who I was."

Young, 49, noted that recently at least two local residents have had heart attacks after police used grenades to break down their doors. One woman died from the attack.

Besides the rampant acts of brutality and murder themselves, the October 22 events and ongoing campaigns against police brutality aim to raise public awareness of the issue, and to address the almost complete immunity that police like Ferguson's and Duke's killers enjoy. In Chicago and New York, as in most cities, complaints against police, including complaints of serious violence and murder, are handled by internal affairs divisions that hand out shockingly light punishments. And even these disciplinary measures are usually challenged by the police officers' union. Rarely are officers prosecuted for anything in criminal court. In extreme cases, they might be fired from the force, but normally they receive only suspensions of two weeks or less, often with pay.

"How can you have the police policing themselves?" asks Whitlow, who wears a T-shirt with her brother's photo and the words, "Justice for Kenny: We won't go quietly into the night" at the October 22 protest. "How can there be justice in this unjust system?"

The crowd in Chicago this year on October 22 was smaller than in most years past, perhaps because of the chilly weather or all the attention that has been focused on fighting human rights and civil liberties abuses related to the war on terrorism. Still, Whitlow was joined by a crowd of other activists including many victims of police brutality and family members of people killed by police, carrying posters with photos of their loved ones. Among them was Fred Hampton Jr., whose father, the Black Panther Fred Hampton, became a famous victim of police murder when he was shot to death while sleeping with his pregnant girlfriend in their Chicago home in 1969.

A black cardboard gravestone topped with artificial flowers bore the names in stark white of various people killed by police over the years, and photos of victims of police murder lined the stage where people of various races, sexual orientations and economic classes spoke about how police brutality has affected their lives.

Among the photos was a graduation photograph of Robert Russ, a 22-year-old Northwestern University student and football player who was shot to death by police in June 1999 after he failed to immediately pull over for a traffic stop. He drove for only 10 minutes at 45-50 mph, hardly overly suspicious or dangerous behavior, before being shot to death through his back windshield.

The week before the October 22 march, Russ's family was awarded $9.6 million in damages by a jury for his wrongful death. But still, the officers responsible received only a 15-day suspension. Latanya Haggerty, a 26-year-old woman who worked as a computer programmer, was killed by police in a similar situation the same weekend as Russ. She was the passenger in a car that refused to pull over. Even though a police dispatcher had ordered officers to call off the chase, they continued and ended up shooting Haggerty in the head, claiming they mistook her cell phone for a gun. Last year, Haggerty's family was awarded $18 million in damages, yet the officers involved in that case likewise were barely disciplined and faced no criminal charges.

The Russ and Haggerty cases made headlines in the city, probably partly because the killings happened on the same weekend and both were "good" young people with clean records and promising futures. But most police brutality and even murder by police gets little attention from the media or the general public.

The Stolen Lives Project aims to change that. The project tries to document every case of murder by police around the country, commemorate the victims and publicize the circumstances. Since 1990, the project has documented over 5,000 cases and published two books. It is trying to raise funds to publish a third book, and also wants to publish one in Spanish. Along with documenting the specific cases, the project shows the systematic nature of police brutality as well as the racist dimensions of the problem.

For "people who don't deal with police brutality in their daily lives, this book shows that it's more than just a 'few bad apples' or some 'isolated incidents,'" a flier about the book states. "Many such people will be moved to join the struggle against police brutality and stand with those under the gun when they see the shocking scope of this epidemic."

The Stolen Lives Project, which is a joint project of the National Lawyer's Guild, The Anthony Baez Foundation and the October 22nd Coalition, has aired public service announcements with the voices of families of victims as well as artists including Wyclef Jean and Chuck D of Public Enemy.

It also includes an emergency response network, which dispatches people immediately to the scene of a police killing to take photos and witness statements "before police can intimidate people into giving false statements," their literature says. "Often a press conference helps get the truth out before police can put their own spin on media coverage."

While the Stolen Lives Project and other grassroots efforts do a good job of documenting cases of police murder and vicious brutality, another side of the story is the countless daily incidents of lower level police harassment and abuse that are far too numerous to catalogue, yet have a definite and direct effect on people's lives. In many low-income minority communities, being harassed, intimidated, groundlessly searched and even beaten by police is literally a daily occurrencečone that becomes almost "normal" to residents, yet can't help but have a massive psychological and emotional effect over time.

Fourteen-year-old Tiera Brown, a member of the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago, recently wrote a story for The Residents' Journal newspaper about the effect police brutality has on her community.

"Last week I was downstairs playing and the police came for nothing and took some boys to jail because they said they had drugs on them, but people thought the police had put the drugs on them," Brown wrote. "In most of the interviews I did, people said police brutality is bad because police are beating and destroying people and taking people out of their territory and leaving them in other territory where they might get attacked."

"Also not long ago the police had raided our buildings and the building next to mine," Brown said. "There was a lady coming down the stairs and the police officer made her suck his penis."

Brown notes that even if they work hard and do well in school, the youth in her community are terrified of being scapegoated by police.

"The police are putting a bad reputation on young kids and some of the kids are so afraid of the police that when they see them they run and start crying," she said.

Police brutality turns many "regular people" into activists, both victims of police abuse themselves and family members like Whitlow. Whitlow says, "It is such a shame that this is the only time a story is being written about my brother. He was such a great guy."

And she is determined to keep his memory alive, and to fight for justice for him and others like him.

"We will keep fighting, until we die if need be," she said.

Young feels the same way.

"No matter what they do to me, it's not going to stop me from going out and speaking against them," she said.

Kari Lydersen is a journalist based in Chicago and an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program. She writes for In These Times, Punk Planet, Clamor and LiP magazine, among others.

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Other articles by Kari Lydersen: