Revolutionary Worker #1011, June 20, 1999
The news hit people very hard: Two young Black people had been shot to death by Chicago cops in two different traffic stops--within hours of each other.
Friday, June 4, LaTanya Haggerty, 26, was catching a ride home from her downtown job as a computer analyst when a Chicago cop shot her--supposedly because she was holding a cel phone.
Later that night, Robert Russ, 22, was driving along Chicago's lakefront, heading for his parents' suburban home. He was stopped by cops and shot in the heart along a deserted stretch of road. Russ was an honor student about to graduate in two weeks from Northwestern University and a football player on N.U.'s Big 10 championship team. His girlfriend was expecting their first child.
Neither Russ or Haggerty were armed or suspected of anything more serious than traffic violations.
Mayor Daley demanded that people should withhold any verdicts until an official investigation announced "the facts." But in the Black communities of Chicago, people already knew the facts: Two promising, young lives had been snuffed out--for nothing.
LaTanya Haggerty and Robert Russ were the kind of people the system calls "role models"--they had gotten their education and seemed headed for professional careers. Martha Biondi, one of Russ' professors at Northwestern, wrote in the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune: "Robert's death sends a message to young people that even if they are fortunate enough to come to a place like Northwestern, it's still not enough to escape the perils of being black."
The talk shows of Chicago's Black radio filled with people's sorrow and anger. Black women called up to say how much they feared for their own sons--telling how they drove their teenagers everywhere, hoping that this would save them from assassination by the police.
Every day during the following week, angry protests were seen nightly on the news--often nose-to-nose with Chicago police as people chanted "Mayor Daley, you can't hide!"
On Friday, June 11, one week after the killings, professors and students from Northwestern joined with people from Chicago's Black communities in picketing city hall. A public letter was delivered to Mayor Daley, signed by 140 professors and staff, denouncing his defense of the police murders.
To LaTanya a lot of things were coming together. She was the first kid in her working class family to go to college. She had gotten herself a good job downtown. She was living at home and was engaged to be married.
On Friday, she got picked up after work by her friend Ray Smith. They headed out of the downtown Loop into Chicago's Black South Side. They pulled over by the side of a street. Cops told them to move on--and they did. Then the cops zoomed up behind them and stopped them again. Smith told them that he hadn't done anything wrong, and drove off a second time.
Three of the four cops at the scene opened fire on the car and took off in pursuit. They pulled Ray Smith's car over a third time about a mile away--and arrested and beat Smith. LaTanya was in the car trying to reach Ray's mother on her cel phone when a cop ordered her to get out. Eyewitnesses reported she was terrified and moved slowly. As she emerged from the car, with her hands in the air, she was shot dead.
Six hours later, Robert Russ was driving home through Chicago. The cops claim they signaled him to pull over for "driving erratically" and that he kept going. There is no way of knowing if this is true--Robert was alone, and he is not able to speak for himself.
Robert had been caught up in an earlier incident with Evanston police and been forced to plead guilty of assault. So he may have been afraid of some late-night "police payback."
The police forced Robert off the road on a deserted stretch of highway. They claim he refused to get out of his car. One cop smashed out the car's tinted side window--right behind Robert's head, reached a gun in, and shot Robert to death.
Robert was quickly demonized in Chicago's mainstream press. Within hours after Robert's death, the Chicago police department announced that the shooting was "accidental and justified." They claimed that Robert had grabbed at the cop's gun and caused it to go off. Robert was portrayed as a violent man with a police record--because of his one previous run-in with the cops.
Robert's father, Kenneth Love, said: "I guess the message is that if you make one mistake, the police can kill you later and you just have to accept it." Martha Biondi said bitterly, "It's as if he shot himself." Family and friends stepped forward to challenge the media smear campaign. His friends reminded everyone that they had nicknamed Robert "Fluff" because of his gentleness.
Professor Biondi wrote: "Because Robert had a previous encounter with the law, some in the media have used his death to reinforce another paradigm: that of the criminal, less than human, African-American young man. We must resist these responses to Robert's death.... One reason why young black men are dehumanized in these situations is to force the public into identifying with the police... I, and others here at Northwestern, urge the public to see Robert as their son or brother, to affirm his humanity and to demand that the police refrain from shooting unarmed motorists."
All during the following week, Chicago city officials issued lame and insulting statements--clearly showing that this power structure has no intention of acting against police brutality and murder. Mayor Daley called for banning all tinted windows from Chicago and mandatory jail time for anyone who ignored police orders to step out of their car. Two city aldermen called for raising the height requirement (!) for Chicago cops--saying that the cop who shot LaTanya had been a small woman and therefore more likely to shoot out of fear. The Police Department rejected calls to suspend the cops involved--and only reassigned them temporarily to desk duty "during the investigations." Federal authorities have announced they would carry out their own investigation of these two police shootings.
At a press conference, Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard argued that the killing of LaTanya and Robert couldn't be "racially motivated"--because the cops who murdered them were themselves Black. In fact, police all over the U.S. use "racial profiles" at traffic stops, sidewalk shakedowns and border points--and routinely assume that young Black and Latino people are dangerous criminals. Black cops are fully capable of carrying out such white supremacist practices.
On Chicago's Black radio, callers repeatedly pointed out that there is a clear double standard in how people are treated. In one earlier incident, a white woman with mental problems had brandished a gun on a Chicago highway--the Chicago cops blocked city traffic for hours while they patiently talked her into submitting to arrest. By contrast, people said, when unarmed, young Black people get stopped on those same highways, the cops feel they have the right to execute on the spot.
Officials have worked any way they can to protect the killer cops and justify their roadside murder. But their usual operations have fallen flat. The simple facts were hard to suppress, and these two young people were particularly hard to demonize.
Even an editorial in the mainsteam daily Sun-Times had to conclude: "Something has gone incredibly wrong when someone ends up dead as the result of a traffic stop."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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