Revolutionary Worker #920, Aug. 17, 1997
The brutal and racist cops of the 70th precinct in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York have long been hated by the people. Among the Haitian immigrants living in the area, the 70th precinct station house is known as "Fort Dimanche"--after the infamous prison in Haiti where the police and the paramilitary Tonton Macoutes of the U.S.-backed Duvalier regime carried out torture.
For 30-year-old Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, the 70th precinct station became a place of living hell in the early morning hours of Saturday, August 9. The torturers in blue rammed the handle of a toilet plunger into Louima's rectum--causing a torn intestine, lacerated bladder and other serious injuries.
Police and government officials were not going to be able to hush up or excuse away this barbaric case of police brutality--as they have done with so many others. The police torture of Abner Louima has touched off shock and outrage, in New York and around the country.
One of Louima's lawyers asked, "How can you do this to another human being? And how many people did they do this to before?"
Abner Louima came to the U.S. six years ago. He had studied electrical engineering in Haiti, and he hopes to get a college degree in the U.S. Meanwhile, he is working two jobs. He and his wife Micheline have two kids.
On Friday night, Louima got off his 9-hour shift as security guard at a water and sewage treatment plant in Brooklyn. He suggested to Micheline that they go out for the night to Club Rendez-Vouz in Flatbush where the Phantoms--one of his favorite Haitian bands--was playing.
The night of compas dance music ended after 3 a.m. A small crowd gathered outside the club when a fight broke out. Cops showed up in force--and they immediately started in with racist insults. Louima later recalled, "They said, `Why do you people come to this country if you can't speak English?' They called us ni*gers."
Louima said he was just standing around. But to the police, a crowd of Haitian immigrants speaking in Creole was reason enough to start roughing people up. One cop suddenly pushed Louima to the ground and cuffed him.
Louima described what happened after that: "Two cops put me in their patrol car and drove me to the corner of Glenwood and Nostrand. There was another car there. They kicked and beat me with their radios. They were yelling, `You people can't even talk English, I am going to teach you to respect a cop.' None of the cops had their name tags on. They put me back in the car and drove me to the corner of Glenwood and Bedford. They met two other cops and beat me again. This time in the leg."
The savage "lesson" did not stop with this beating, which involved at least half a dozen cops. When Louima was brought to the station house, the cops who transported him from the scene of the arrest handed him over to Officer Volpe, who "took charge." Volpe had been at Club Rendez-Vous, and he accused Louima of taking a punch at him. Volpe told the other cops, "This collar is mine." Louima was brought to the duty sergeant's desk, where his pants were pulled down to his ankles for a "strip search," in full view of the other cops. Louima remembered, "I kept screaming, `Why? Why?' All the cops heard me, but said nothing."
Then Volpe and another cop took Louima to the bathroom and closed the door. One cop said, "You ni*gers have to learn to respect police officers." Another threatened, "If you yell or make any noise, I will kill you."
Louima described how he was tortured: "One held me and the other one stuck the plunger up my behind. He pulled it out and shoved it in my mouth, broke my teeth and said, `That's your shit, ni*ger.' "
Louima yelled out in pain. The station house was full of cops. But, he said, "No cops said anything. None came to help me."
Louima had suffered serious internal injuries. But instead of receiving immediate medical attention, Louima was thrown into a holding cell, where he continued to bleed from his wounds. Paramedics said they received only one call for an ambulance from the 70th precinct--for a "low priority job" involving "minor lacerations."
Finally, around 8 in the morning--three hours after he first arrived at the station--Louima was taken by ambulance to Coney Island Hospital, where he was put in the trauma unit. He now needs a catheter and a colostomy bag because of his injuries. Doctors said it would take three or four months for Louima to recover physically.
This certainly is not the first case of cops carrying out torture. In Chicago, Lt. Jon Burge ran a torture chamber for 12 years. Over 50 Black men and women were victims of torture by Burge and his men. The methods used by Burge and his gang included electric shocks, placing a gun in a victim's mouth and playing "Russian Roulette," burns from hot radiators, placing plastic bags over victims' heads and death threats. Burge was fired from the force in 1993, but he has never been charged with any crimes, and none of his accomplices received any punishment. Some men who "confessed" under Burge's torture are still on death row.
How many other cases of police torture have simply been swept under the rug?
At the 70th precinct, there was an immediate attempt at a cover-up. The toilet plunger used in the torture "disappeared." An investigator for the Brooklyn District Attorney's office said, "We're not going to find it. It was gotten rid of quickly." He also said that "there is a lot of pressure" on the cops to remain silent about what happened and that there were signs of attempts to "cover tracks and clean things up."
Usually when cops are accused of murder and brutality, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani quickly comes to their defense--saying the police should always be given "the benefit of the doubt." But as the story of what happened to Abner Louima got out, the storm of outrage was so strong that Giuliani and officials have been forced out of their "business as usual" mode. Even a usually pro-police columnist for the Daily News said he was "shaking" after talking to Louima in the hospital. "This is a story to stop the city," he wrote.
Unable to simply justify the torture of Abner Louima, Giuliani and other officials are trying to pin the blame on a few "rogue" cops and problems with supervision at the 70th precinct. Two cops--Justin Volpe and Charles Schwarz--have been charged with aggravated sexual abuse and first degree assault. Giuliani and Police Commissioner Safir announced a major "shakeup" at the 70th precinct. The commander was transferred, and several other officers were disciplined. Safir said, "I don't consider this an act of police brutality. I consider this a criminal act, committed by criminals."
Those who tortured Abner Louima are vicious criminals. But this is also a case of brutality carried out under the color of authority. As a statement from the Revolutionary Communist Party, NY Branch, pointed out, what the police did to Louima is an "example of what goes on every hour of every day in the communities of the oppressed."
People in the 70th precinct area can testify to this from their own experience. King Kino, the lead singer of the band Phantoms, said, "They treat Haitians like aliens from another planet. It's a gang in blue." Simbala Jauwar, who comes from the west African country of Gambia, said, "They've yelled at me, they've kicked me, they've called me ni*ger." The station house where Abner Louima was tortured is not far away from the East Flatbush neighborhood, where cops executed Aswon Watson with 24 bullets in June 1996.
These police shootings and beatings go on all the time, in the streets of New York and other cities around the country. The NYPD killed at least 187 people between 1992 and 1996--and that's just what they admit to. On average, the New York police kill someone about every 10 days. A June 1996 Amnesty International report on the NYPD listed numerous cases of beatings, suspicious deaths in custody, and shootings in recent years. But only two NY cops have been convicted of any crimes since 1977.
In front of cameras and reporters, Giuliani claims to be outraged about what happened to Louima and promises that those responsible will be punished. But Guiliani and other officials are the very same ones who are responsible for the ugly climate that has emboldened cops like those at the 70th precinct. In Giuliani's campaign against the previous mayor, David Dinkins, a central element of his program was to give the police a freer hand. Giuliani's so-called anti-crime program is being upheld as a "model," and he has been featured on magazine covers in the U.S. and even in Germany. In reality, this is a program for further unleashing the police to carry out extreme brutality and violence against the people.
And the "cops on the beat" have received the message that they have the official green light. As Abner Louima was being assaulted in the 70th precinct, one of the cops shouted, "This is Giuliani time, not Dinkins time."
But the 70th precinct torture case also reveals more general lessons about how the police operate in this society. The New York Times interviewed Volpe's father, who is a former NYPD detective. The retired cop said that when his son came home the night that Abner Louima was tortured, he described his tour as "routine"--and mentioned Louima's arrest only as one of five incidents he dealt with that night.
Doesn't this show that cops see brutalizing and humiliating people as a "routine" and "normal" part of their "job"? Doesn't it show the truth of what RCP spokesman Carl Dix has pointed out: "What it comes down to is that these cops are not out there to protect and serve us. In fact they're out there to beat down and terrorize the oppressed people and working class people... When the cops beat and murder people, they're doing the job that the system has got 'em out there to do."
Speaking from his hospital bed, Abner Louima said that he didn't used to have anything against the police. "I liked cops," he said, "until this."
His experience has obviously been traumatic for him and his family. But he is courageously speaking out. "I have to tell," he said. "Why did the cops do this? This could have happened to a kid." As for himself, he said he wants justice.
Louima's family and others have announced a protest march for August 29--starting from Grand Army Plaza, going across Brooklyn Bridge to Police Headquarters in Manhattan.
Samuel Nicolas, a cousin of Abner Louima, said, "Everybody is furious. Haitian, Jamaican, Trinidad leaders--the whole African American community is up in arms."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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