Police impunity in killings of people of color must end
Tiffany Crutcher, center, Terence Crutcher's twin sister, speaks to media after a jury reached a not guilty verdict in the manslaughter trial of Betty Shelby. Sue Ogrocki/AP

In my last column on the non-stop police killings of people of color I referenced that the trial of white Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer Betty Shelby began on May 8, in the killing of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black motorist.  Now comes the followup: on May 20, it was announced that officer Shelby was acquitted in the slaying of Crutcher. The essentials of this killing were that Crutcher was shot with his hands in the air with his back turned to the officer. This followed right on the heels of the police murder of a Black youngster, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, in a Dallas, Texas suburb and the announcement that no federal charges will be filed against the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the killing of African American citizen, Alton Sterling.

Let’s step back in time to chronicle the long record of police impunity for atrocities against people of color to refresh our memories. The date of April 29 of this year marked the 25th anniversary of the six –day Los Angeles riots in which 55 people were killed and thousands were injured. The riots were a spontaneous response to the acquittal of several white police officers in the horrendous beating of Rodney King, a Black motorist, that was videotaped by another private citizen, unbeknownst at that time to the police.

This videotape was broadcast worldwide. I remember seeing the beating on the national news several times and wondering how it was that he was not beaten to death. Blow after blow after blow was landed on his skull by the offending officers. This was an atrocity. Yet, the jury acquitted the officers. Everyone in their right mind was stunned including even then Republican President George H.W. Bush who said “Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids.”  (Subsequently, a federal grand jury found two of the officers guilty of “using unreasonable force” and sentenced them to 30 months in prison. Under the circumstances these sentences seemed paltry.)

But, the point to be made is that police impunity for so long has operated in the realm of the ridiculous and the absurd that we tend to forget how long we have been living in the state of surreal police brutality racism. This has become so preposterous (in a country that hypocritically touts itself as “the land of liberty and justice for all”) that I muse that it should not seem surprising if a police victim is not next charged with assaulting a police officer by smashing his or her head into the officer’s nightstick. These officers have a much impunity as the security forces of certain brutal other regimes.

The police murders of Red, Black and Brown people has become a hallmark of the abominable apartheid-like systemic racism that permeates present-day American society. The annals of U.S. racism shall historically chronicle the countless victims of police bloodletting. Perhaps we have become so inured to this crisis that nothing is being effectively organized to bring it to a halt. Perhaps because it has been a phenomenon for so long that it seems a matter of little urgency. It might be difficult to pinpoint when so-called “peace officers” became apocalyptic executioners of random victims whose only “crime” was being non-white. For these victims being of color has become a capital offense the penalty for which in the racist eyes of the so-called enforcers of the law is on-the-spot termination of life. Let’s just get ready for the next spate of victims as the officers of the “peace” are obviously not taking the opposition to these executions seriously.  It is as if the police are taking the script from a futuristic movie by acting as judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one. Or, perhaps it is not futuristic, but a step back in time when the lynching of a Black citizen occurred every 72 hours and Native people were considered fair game to be shot on sight.   The country must break the cycle of police impunity in these murders.

At the present time the organized opposition to these apartheid killings remains largely localized.   Justice can only be realized with a nationally coordinated effort to halt these grisly, hideous, “legal” executions.


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.