System Maneuvers in Abner Louima Case

Revolutionary Worker #948, March 15, 1998

In August 1997, it felt like a lightning bolt had hit New York City. People heard that Brooklyn police had raped Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a toilet plunger. The shock and outrage bristled on countless street corners and organized itself in several powerful marches.

New York's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to defuse the situation. He insisted that such brutality did not have the support of his administration. He swore he would "break down the blue wall of silence" to punish any cops who were guilty of abuse.

Four cops--Justin Volpe, Charles Schwarz, Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder--were eventually indicted on state charges of assault and sexual abuse, facing sentences of 12 to 25 years. Such charges are highly unusual--for a legal system that routinely covers up police brutality and murder.

In this case, the authorities in New York decided to prosecute four of their armed men to deflect the anger of the people.

Now there has been a new development in the Louima case: Federal authorities have taken over the main prosecution of the Brooklyn cops. On February 26, Zachary Carter, U.S. attorney in New York, announced a 12-count indictment of federal civil rights and conspiracy charges against five cops from Brooklyn's notorious 70th precinct. Carter said that his office was continuing to investigate whether there is a larger pattern of abusive treatment by the NYPD.

At this same press conference the Brooklyn District Attorney announced he would drop the New York State case against the cops, stepping aside for the federal authorities.

Trying to Defuse the Outrage

From the beginning of this case, the Mayor's office tried to insist that the extreme brutality of August 9 was "an aberration" and an "isolated incident." Indicting the cops directly involved in this brutality, Giuliani suggested, would deal with the issue.

But from the beginning, those claims were starkly contradicted by the evidence. In a recent Village Voice interview, a Brooklyn cop described how the seriously injured Abner Louima was forced to walk, with his pants down, from the station bathroom where he had been raped with the plunger to the precinct's cell area. This degrading display was in full view of other cops within the precinct station--but none of them did anything to stop this outrage. An entire precinct hushed it up. This clearly shows that brutality is routine--and covering it up is "business as usual" for the police.

The anger over Louima's case has been so explosive precisely because police abuse is not "an isolated incident" and because many people felt that higher authorities, especially Mayor "Adolf" Giuliani himself, encouraged police aggression against the people.

Because of this, federal authorities apparently felt it was not enough to indict just the four cops. The new federal indictments include charges of obstruction of justice, witness tampering and making false statements. In addition to the four cops who directly beat and abused Louima, the federal charges also indict the patrol supervisor on duty that night, for working to cover up the brutality. Two of these same cops are also indicted on federal charges for beating Patrick Antoine that same night of August 9, 1997. Officials from the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) have been brought before the federal grand jury to answer questions about the coverup.

For now, all five of the indicted cops are out on bail, walking the streets.

The fact that the Brooklyn cops were charged at all shows how shaken the New York power structure has been by the massive outrage over the police abuse of Abner Louima. The fact that the federal authorities have now stepped in and expanded the charges suggests that the larger U.S. ruling class is concerned about the intensity of hostilities that have developed in New York City, a city so important for their whole system.

There are no fundamental differences between the tactics and goals of federal and state authorities: They have both targeted lower-level police in order to defuse the anger of the masses of people and to make the system appear sympathetic to the demand for justice.

The difference between the state and federal approaches is that the federal prosecutors have cast their nets somewhat more widely--and openly asked whether the NYPD itself might not have to make some changes to appease the people.

The ruling class remembers well the heavy price they paid in Los Angeles after April 29, 1992, when the two cops tried in the Rodney King case were allowed to walk free. The larger ruling class has sent its federal attorneys in to take the prosecution of this Louima case out of the hands of the local authorities--so that narrow local concerns and politics don't get in the way of resolving this case in the highest interests of the system.

It's Still Giuliani Time

Meanwhile, the ruling class has not allowed this case to lessen their high regard for Mayor Giuliani. He was returned to power in New York last fall and immediately launched new campaigns against the people--including street-level police harassments over "jaywalking" and major attacks on the city college system.

The New York press has charged that Abner Louima's suffering was used unfairly to tarnish Giuliani. Abner Louima now says that the cops did not mention Giuliani's name while they were brutalizing him. The media has seized on this to argue that Giuliani and the larger power structure are not ultimately responsible for the way Abner Louima was brutalized--and that that the city's police crackdowns should continue, even while a few Brooklyn cops go on trial.

For the masses of people--especially for the Haitian immigrant community and the other Black and Latino people of New York--the issue was never what the cops said as they brutalized Abner Louima. The outrage is the way the police treat people and get away with it--like an invading army operating a free-fire zone.

Rudolph Giuliani rose to power as a hard-edged "law-and-order" mayor who called for "taking back" New York--from the poor and the oppressed. He unleashed the police for systematic harassment of the people--targeting homeless people and anyone hanging out on street corners. His return to power, now, after the intense exposures of the Louima case, reveal what the ruling class really has in store for the masses of people.

The system may be moving to defuse the anger in the streets by bringing some cops into federal court--but they have no intention of calling off the police-state campaigns they have unleashed on the people.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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