Illustration by Mr. Fish
ELIZABETH, N.J.--JaQuan LaPierre, 22, was riding a bicycle down a sidewalk Sept. 5 when he noticed a squad car pulling up beside him. It was 8:30 on a hot Thursday night at the intersection of Bond Street and Jackson Avenue here in Elizabeth, N.J. LaPierre had 10 glass vials of crack cocaine -- probably what the cops were hoping to find-- and he hastily swallowed them. He halted and faced the two officers who emerged from the cruiser.
"We are tired of you niggers," he remembers one of the officers saying. "We're tired of all this shooting and robberies and violence. And we are going to make you an example."
He was thrown spread-eagle onto the patrol car.
"What I bein' arrested for?" LaPierre asked.
A small crowd gathered.
"Why you harassin' him?" someone asked the cops. "He ain't resisting. Why you doin' this?"
One of the officers went though LaPierre's pockets and took his keys and $246 in cash. LaPierre kept asking why he was being arrested. He was pepper-sprayed in the face. One officer threw him onto the street, and, while he was handcuffed, the two cops kicked and beat him.
"What you beatin' my nephew for?" his uncle, Antoine, said to the cops.
"It was so hot on my face," LaPierre said of the pepper spray when we met a few days ago. "I was gasping for air."
More police arrived. They pushed back onlookers, including the uncle. LaPierre was gagging and choking. He was dragged across the asphalt. By the time the beating was over, blood was coming out of his mouth. He was unconscious. The assault was caught on a camera, even though when the police saw they were being recorded they pointed a flashlight beam into the lens.
The only visible crimes LaPierre had committed was riding a bicycle on a sidewalk and failing to wear a safety helmet.
Police abuse is routine in Elizabeth, as it is in poor urban areas across the country. This incident did not make news. But it illustrated that if you are a poor person of color in the United States you know what most us are about to find out -- we have no civil liberties left. Police, who arrest some 13 million people a year, 1.6 million on drug charges -- half of those for marijuana counts -- carry out random searches and sweeps with no probable cause. They take DNA samples from many of those they arrest, even some eventually found to be innocent, to build a nationwide database. They confiscate cash, cars, homes and other possessions based on allegations of illegal drug activity and direct the proceeds into police budgets. And in the last three decades the United States has constructed the world's largest prison system, populated with 2.2 million inmates.
As in most police states, cops serve as judge and jury on city streets -- "a long step down the totalitarian path," in the words that U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1968 when he decried expanding police powers. And police departments are bolstered by an internal surveillance and security apparatus that has eradicated privacy and dwarfed the intrusion into personal lives by police states of the past, including East Germany.
Under a series of Supreme Court rulings we have lost the rights to protect ourselves from random searches, home invasions, warrantless wiretapping and eavesdropping and physical abuse. Police units in poor neighborhoods function as armed gangs. The pressure to meet departmental arrest quotas -- the prerequisite for lavish federal aid in the "war on drugs" -- results in police routinely seizing people at will and charging them with a laundry list of crimes, often without just cause.
Because many of these crimes carry long mandatory sentences it is easy to intimidate defendants into "pleading out" on lesser offenses. The police and the defendants know that the collapsed court system, in which the poor get only a few minutes with a public attorney, means there is little chance the abused can challenge the system. And there is also a large pool of willing informants who, to reduce their own sentences, will tell a court anything demanded of them by the police.
The tyranny of law enforcement in poor communities is a window into our emerging police state. These thuggish tactics are now being used against activists and dissidents. And as the nation unravels, as social unrest spreads, the naked face of police repression will become commonplace. Totalitarian systems always seek license to engage in this kind of behavior by first targeting a demonized minority. Such systems demand that the police, to combat the "lawlessness" of the demonized minority, be, in essence, emancipated from the constraints of the law.