Turnpike Injustice

NJ: Troopers Walk in Racial Profile Shooting

Revolutionary Worker #1078, November 13, 2000, posted at http://rwor.org

In April 1998, the shooting of three young men by two state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike touched off a major outrage against racial profiling and brutality by the police. Two and a half years later, on October 31, a New Jersey judge threw out all charges against the two troopers. Once again, the system has moved forcefully to protect the "rights" of its armed enforcers to shoot and brutalize the people.

Bullets on the Highway

Black and Latino people face it all the time: They get stopped by the cops for nothing--just for driving down the highway or the street, just for their nationality, just because they fit the police "profile." Then they're subjected to questions, searches, insults, arrests, beatings, even shootings. This is "racial profiling," known among the people as "DWB"--Driving While Black or Driving While Brown. And this is what happened to four young men--Keshon Moore, Daniel Reyes, Leroy Jarmaine Grant and Rayshawn Brown--on April 23, 1998.

It was nearing 11 at night as the four youth--three Black, one Latino--drove their van down I-95, the New Jersey Turnpike. They were on their way to a basketball clinic in North Carolina. A New Jersey State Police cruiser pulled up next to them. The cops looked into the van and then pulled it over. The troopers, James Kenna and John Hogan, later claimed they "clocked" the van going 74 miles an hour. But they didn't even have radar equipment in their car.

What happened next would change the lives of these young men forever. Trooper Hogan came up on the driver's side and put his gun to the window. As Keshon Moore told the Black newspaper Daily Challenge, he accidentally knocked the gear into reverse, and the van started to move. This set the cops off. Trooper Kenna smashed the front passenger window with his baton and then shot Danny Reyes.

Reyes tried to put the van into park, but the cop kept shooting at him. As Reyes recalled, "I said, 'Officer, the car is not on park yet. Please don't shoot, just let it stop.' The car was rolling toward the trees. That's when I got shot in my back. It went down in the ditch, and I kept my hands in the air." Rayshawn Brown had been asleep in the back of the van when the firing started. As he put it, "I went to sleep in paradise and woke up in the lion's den."

The two troopers fired 12 rounds, pausing to reload their weapons. Reyes was hit six times, Grant four, Brown two. The cops were the only ones armed. A police search found no guns or drugs in the van.

Reyes's right arm was shattered, but the police wouldn't allow him to be uncuffed when the paramedics came. Reyes told a reporter, "I was butt naked, tightly handcuffed behind my back, and laying in the mud in the ditch. I was asking the officers to please take off the cuffs. They told me to shut up." Grant and Brown still carry bullets fired into their bodies by the troopers. Reyes is in danger of losing his severely injured arm.

The System Attempts Damage Control

State officials at first responded as usual. Governor Christine Whitman simply declared, "There is no such thing as racial profiling."

But the usual coverup did not work. The four young men were alive to tell the truth about what happened--and their story tapped into a seething outrage. A car caravan protest took over the New Jersey Turnpike and stopped traffic. Concern grew in the power structure that the anger about racial profiling in New Jersey was deepening the exposure, distrust, and hatred of the police generally throughout the U.S.

Under pressure, state authorities moved to "study" the situation--and later released a report admitting there were some problems with racial profiling but upholding the overall "professionalism" of their troopers. The two cops were indicted for attempted murder and aggravated assault and were later charged in a separate indictment with falsifying records to cover up their profiling stops. Everything, according to the authorities, was under control.

Protection for Killer Cops

Then, on October 31, New Jersey judge Andrew J. Smithson dismissed the charges against the two troopers. His ruling said, among other things, "Members of society engaged in law enforcement deserve no less protection from the criminal justice system than that which is afforded to other citizens." There's a whole world of injustice in this one sentence.

Oppressed people know that they get no "protection" in this system's courts. The Ramparts scandal in Los Angeles exposed some of what happens on a massive scale in America's "justice system": ordinary people railroaded to prison, including death row, just on the word of lying, brutal cops.

The cops, by contrast, get special protection from the courts. It's very rare that cops are even put on trial after they beat someone or blow people away in cold blood. And if they are put on trial, the courts certainly don't treat them like "other citizens." Look, for example, at the cops who fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, whose only "crime" was standing in a dimly lit doorway. This was an open-and-shut case of murder if there ever was one. But the courts called the shooting "justified" and let the cops go.

The courts don't treat cops like "other citizens"--because under this system, the role of the police is to protect the unjust status quo through the threat and use of officially sanctioned violence against the people. As Carl Dix, national spokesperson for the RCP, has said, "Why does the system give the cops a green light to spread terror in oppressed communities? Because that's what their real job comes down to. The cops are out there to enforce the miserable conditions so many people are forced to live under. They are the first line of defense for the capitalist system."

The judge used a particularly outrageous pretext in dropping the charges against the troopers. He claimed that the cops' civil rights were violated because prosecutors had been too "adversarial" in presenting the case to a grand jury. The reality is that police brutality cases are routinely thrown out by grand juries before ever going to trial. Unless there has been a wave of protest or some damning exposure, grand juries almost always refuse to indict killer cops. Now, because a grand jury didn't acquit the troopers outright, the judge has stepped in to do the job.

The National Capital of Racial Profiling

The New Jersey State Police, with its 2,600-plus troopers, patrols a vital corridor for the U.S. empire--the I-95 highway that links the key urban hubs of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The New Jersey troopers have long been notorious for racism and brutality. I-95 could well be named the "Racial Profiling Turnpike."

Throughout the 1990s, various evidence came out about the systematic targeting of Black and Latino people for "routine" traffic stops in New Jersey. For example, a traffic survey submitted in a 1996 court case showed that 98 percent of the cars on one stretch of the Turnpike over a 40 month period were going over the speed limit; 46 percent of those stopped by the troopers were Black--though Black people made up only 13.5 percent of the total drivers.

When Governor Whitman and her aides could no longer deny that widespread racial profiling was going on in the state, they acted shocked. Last year, Whitman said that profiling is "a problem that is more complex and subtle than we first realized." Recent news reports, however, indicate that officials in New Jersey already had evidence of widespread racial profiling in 1996--three years before state officials admitted that some profiling was taking place. And earlier this year, a photo from 1996 surfaced--showing Whitman smiling as she frisked a Black man in Camden while accompanying the state troopers on their rounds.

Deep Roots of Racial Profiling

New Jersey state officials say they plan to appeal the judge's ruling to drop the charges. On November 3, the U.S. Justice Department announced the launching of an investigation on whether to charge the troopers on civil rights charges.

Whatever happens in this particular case, the fact is that tens of thousands of people are unjustly targeted, humiliated, and threatened on the roads and highways of the U.S. Millions must worry every day about random stops, arrests, and even killings at the hands of the police. As the ACLU said last year about racial profiling by law enforcement: "No person of color is safe from this treatment anywhere, regardless of their obedience to the law, their age, the type of car they drive, or their station in life."

The racial profiling scandal in New Jersey--and the protests of the people--helped push this question more into the consciousness of people around the country. And the power structure has had to take note of this. In the recent election debates, all the Democratic and Republican presidential and vice presidential candidates addressed this topic.

But no matter how much the official spokesmen claim to be "disturbed" by racial profiling, the truth is that this practice runs deep in the U.S. system. It has continued through the days of slavery, Southern sharecropping, and modern capitalism.

Today, racial profiling is the policy of treating Black people like criminals wherever they go. It is the policy of clamping down on the southern border and treating Latino people as "potential illegals" on the streets around the country. With the "war on drugs," which has ensnared many people in random stops and searches, the targeting of Black and Latino people has only intensified.

The racist actions, policies, and assumptions of the police are unjust. They are insulting. They are often deadly. Racial profiling by law enforcement is intolerable--and it must stop.

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