System of Terror, Courts of Injustice

NY Courts Free Police Who Tortured Abner Louima

Revolutionary Worker #1142, March 10, 2002, posted at

The news hit like a punch to the chest--one of those outrages of the system that makes you want to cry out in anger and bitterness.

On February 28, a federal appeals court threw out the convictions of three New York City cops involved in the torture of Abner Louima. Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder were acquitted of conspiracy charges and face no further legal action. Charles Schwarz will get a new trial on the charge that he held down Abner Louima in the police station while the cop Justin Volpe rammed a broom handle into Louima's rectum. The court ruling does not affect Volpe, who pled guilty at his trial and is now in prison.

The terrifying assault on Abner Louima took place in a police station filled with cops. Only seven of those cops were ever charged, and only two were sent to jail. Now one of those, Charles Schwarz, is about to be allowed out on bail.

Torturers of the 70th Precinct

Late in the night of August 9, 1997, something brutal and awful happened to Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. When police showed up outside a Brooklyn nightclub after a fight had started, their sights locked onto Abner Louima. The cops beat and arrested him and threw him into a cop car. On the way to the 70th Precinct station, the cops stopped two times to beat him some more. One of the cops was Justin Volpe--who mistakenly believed Louima had taken a swing at him on the street. Volpe said to Louima, "Stupid n****r, I am going to teach you a lesson on how to respect cops."

At the police station, the cops pulled Louima's pants down around his ankles and took him into the restroom. Louima--cuffed and defenseless--was held down by one cop as Volpe assaulted him with the broom handle. Still handcuffed, his insides torn up, and bleeding from his wounds, Louima was thrown into a holding cell for several hours before he was finally taken to a hospital. Volpe paraded around the station with the bloody broom handle, saying, "I had to break a man." All this took part in a station house full of cops. But as Louima said later, "No cops said anything. None came to help me."

Volpe threatened Louima that if he ever told anyone what happened, Volpe would kill him and his family. The cops lied to the hospital staff that Louima was injured through homosexual sex.

If Abner Louima had remained silent, the truth would have remained hidden among the uniformed torturers of the 70th Precinct. But, in the face of a murderous threat, Louima did tell what happened. When word hit the streets, tens of thousands of people were electric with anger, and New York seemed on the precipice of rebellion. The rulers scurried to contain things. Even Mayor Giuliani--known for quickly coming to the defense of cops who beat and kill--acted outraged. At the same time, Giuliani and others in the power structure tried to downplay the police torture of Abner Louima by calling it an "aberration" by "a few bad apples." The authorities wanted to regain their grip on a situation that was getting dangerously out of their control. Commissions were formed, reforms were announced, and a few cops were arrested and tried.

But the brutality, humiliation, and sheer terror that Abner Louima went through on that night five years ago was no "aberration." When the trials of the cops in the Louima case were going on in 1999, New York City was once again rocked with mass protests after the cops fired 41 bullets and killed Amadou Diallo as he stood in the doorway to his apartment. There have been countless other cases--in New York and all around the country--of people beaten or murdered in cold blood by the enforcers in blue. What happened to Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo were extreme--but they are extreme examples of the "routine" terror that the police carry out against Black and other oppressed people.

Reversal of Verdicts

This capitalist system draws life from millions of lives stifled, bled, shattered and broken by its blind drive for profit. On the "front lines" protecting the existing property and social relations stand the police. The daily reality of police operations is that brutality is expected, encouraged and protected by the system itself. And much of this brutality is kept hidden from people's eyes.

In the case of Abner Louima, the victim's courageous stand and the struggle of the people put a crack in the "blue wall of silence" that usually shields cops, and the power structure was forced to put a few of the cops on trial. Volpe made a plea bargain to avoid a life sentence. Schwarz was convicted in a federal civil rights case, and he and Wiese and Bruder were convicted on charges that they conspired to obstruct a federal grand jury. These four cops--of the seven that were tried--were the only cops convicted of any crime, out of the dozens who were at the 70th Precinct the night Abner Louima was tortured. No other cops, police department officials, or government officials have been charged with any responsibility.

Now even some of the partial victory won by the people has been taken back by a federal appeals court. The judges ruled that Schwarz's lawyer in the trial had a "conflict of interest" because his firm also represented the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. The appeals court claimed that since the PBA had other members testifying at the trial and was facing a civil suit, Schwarz's lawyer may have held back in the case to avoid damaging his relationship with the PBA.

Never mind that the judge in the original trial warned Schwarz about this conflict of interest- -and Schwarz declared that he wanted to keep the lawyer. As a letter to the New York Times by a former chairman of the New York Human Rights Commission pointed out, "The [court's] opinion is replete with evidence of disregard for Mr. Louima's civil rights and of favoritism toward police officers. First, the finding of a conflict of interest involving a lawyer for Charles Schwarz is astounding. At the initial trial, his attorneys created a sure-fire issue for the reversal of any conviction by arguing that the conflict could be waived. For the appeals court to play along with this charade is inexcusable."

Imagine if this system's courts applied this "conflict of interest" standard equally to other cases--for example, in the case of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was railroaded for the murder of a Philadelphia cop. The judge in Mumia's trial, Albert Sabo, was a member of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, an organization that has actively lobbied for Mumia's execution. Shouldn't the blatant conflict of interest in this case mean that Mumia's conviction should be overturned? Yet, in a recent decision, a federal appeals court judge upheld the outrageous conviction of Mumia.

On the conspiracy charge against the three cops in the Louima case, the appeals court ruled on the narrow basis that the prosecution had insufficient evidence that the cops conspired to obstruct a federal grand jury (even though the court said that there was evidence that the cops conspired to cover up what happened). Contrast the treatment of these cops with the way the government has rounded up over 1,500 people--mostly Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants--since September 11. Many of these people were imprisoned for months and released when it became clear the government had absolutely nothing against them. And hundreds continue to be held, without any word from the government about what evidence or charges, if any, the government has against them.

The Police Are Not Our Protectors

When the police torture of Abner Louima came to the light of day, millions saw and were outraged by the beastly, depraved actions of the NYPD. The killing of Amadou Diallo and other cases of murder and brutality further exposed the brutal nature of the police.

Now, in the wake of September 11, the police have become "heroes" and "saviors" who are above questioning and criticism. History is being rewritten--no longer is racial profiling considered a repulsive practice, but an accepted police procedure. In a recent court decision, New Jersey state troopers were cleared of any criminal responsibility for shooting and maiming four Black and Latino youth in an infamous case of racial profiling.

Following the February 28 court decision in favor of the cops in the Louima case, the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association said that after September 11, "the world saw and realized what New York City police officers do and what they are about." Cops are here to "protect and serve," say authoritative voices of the system.

But what were the cops "protecting and serving" when they tortured Abner Louima or remained silent about what their fellow cops had done? What were the cops "protecting and serving" when they pumped 41 shots into Amadou Diallo?

The police are NOT protectors of the people. They are brutal enforcers of the oppressive power structure. And this truth cannot be wiped out through unjust court decisions or attempts to rewrite history.

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