The Black List of Oneonta

Revolutionary Worker #1033, December 5, 1999

"This whole community, this college, has got to be torn down and rebuilt, and, we hope, healed. But torn down!"

Edward Whaley, counselor at SUNY, in 1992 after the police targeted
every Black man in Oneonta

Oneonta is a small city of 15,000 people in the center of New York State. It sits surrounded by the abandoned factories, aging farms and neglected resorts of the Catskill mountains. Oneonta, like most of upstate New York, is predominantly white.

In September 1992 a 77-year-old woman living in Oneonta reported she had been robbed. She didn't see the man, but "thought" he was Black. And, she said, he cut his hand during the robbery.

That's all the police needed. In their minds, every single Black man in town now "fit the profile." They systematically went after each and every Black man in town--gathering lists of Black men, hunting them down, stopping them everywhere, and demanding to see their hands.

After the robbery was reported, police went to the nearby SUNY campus (which has one of the most visible concentrations of Black people in the area). A school administrator there gave the State Police a list of every student on campus who was not white--125 people. Police used that list to track Black students down in their dormitories and on their jobs. Meanwhile, out in the streets of Oneonta, hundreds of Black men were questioned. Some were even pulled off buses.

It was a highly visible humiliation of Black men--all over town. It was a public declaration of the police belief that Black people were somehow inherently criminal or at least suspect.

Bob Herbert wrote in a New York Times column: "These were all innocent people. The cops never did find the alleged assailant. But that didn't matter. Neither their rights as citizens nor their humanity mattered. These were black people, and whatever you do to them is alright. They may have been masquerading as human beings, but Oneonta's men in blue (assisted by the State Police) could see right through that disguise."

Across the U.S. people have talked about police stopping people for "Driving While Black"--here police treated "Breathing While Black" as probable cause for harassment.

When news got out of the university's collaboration with this racist police witchhunt, the outrage was intense. Hundreds of students demonstrated. The school administrator who supplied the list was suspended for a month and demoted. The school sent out apologies, as did the governor of New York.

Some people wanted official justice from the courts--and filed a federal lawsuit against the Oneonta police. It is now 1999--seven years later. This 1992 Oneonta police rampage is now back in the news because the system's federal appeals court has finally ruled in this lawsuit.

Their decision? That the cops in Oneonta did nothing wrong. The federal court ruled that the cops did not violate the Constitutional amendment guaranteeing "equal protection" under the law to Black people.

People have been waiting for seven years only to find out, once again, how empty the promise of "equal protection" is, and how deeply white supremacy is entrenched in the power structure of this system.

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