Thursday, January 1, 2009

OFFICER DOWN: The Phoenix Media and Cop-Killings

By Phoenix Insurgent

The recent shooting death of Officer David Uribe, shot in the head and neck while making a traffic stop, offers several opportunities for radical analysis. Typical of its easy-going treatment of local police departments, the media fell lock step behind the idea of the police officer as defender of public order and all things good. In fact, where any dissented from the gushing media monotone, they demanded an even more gratuitous lavishing of praise on Uribe and police in general.

Such was the case with John McDonald's melodramatic column in the Arizona Republic. In his sensationally titled article, "The day a cop died, this city lost its soul," McDonald expressed his exasperation at the TV when "two anchors and a weatherman laughed and giggled about the delightful mild temperatures just minutes after detailing the brutal execution of a local veteran cop." One wonders if McDonald even watches local television news, which in fact was dominated by endless coverage of the murder, manhunt and reaction for several days as local talking heads beatified Uribe with all due haste.


The media uniformly treated the Uribe killing as a loss for whole community. Even the killing of an unarmed man by Phoenix PD the very next day could not damper the media's enthusiasm for the story. Remarking on the shooting, Patty Kirkpatrick, a Channel 3 anchor, expressed relief that the conflict had ended in the death of the suspect, rather than a cop. In her mind it was preferable that an unarmed man die than a cop get hurt trying to carry out murder.

On May 12th, Benson's cartoon in the Republic featured a simple sketch of a police badge bearing Uribe's number. Written across a black band of mourning were the words, "thank you." But for what? "When we lose someone like that, we lose part of ourselves," answers the Phoenix Fire Department's chaplain, Rev. Father Carl G. Carlozzi in the Arizona Republic. In a letter to the editor, Patricia Fay of Phoenix explained it this way, "They are my protectors. Someone killed one of my protectors."


But there is a real tension between the public image of policing, defended so single-mindedly by the media, and the reality. Introducing channel 12's coverage of the Uribe funeral the following Tuesday, Lin Sue Cooney described the event as "a whole community" saying thank you. Effusive in their coverage of a car-wash fundraiser for the Uribe's family, local media outlets actively campaigned for valley residents to participate. Can the same police force that regularly kills unarmed people of color be the protectors of the community? Can the same police force that uses Tasers to kill, just as the Phoenix Police did on May 4th, 2005, killing a 24 year-old man, be protectors? Are the same police forces that disproportionately target, arrest and incarcerate the poor, and especially people of color, really defenders of the "community?"

But, everyone knows that police don't protect everyone equally and that they specifically target some segments of the community over others. For years the Scottsdale PD enforced what they called a "no-n****r zone," pulling over and harassing black people driving through the city. Incarceration rates for poor people versus rich people are so obvious that they hardly require mentioning. But many whites still continue to deny the just as obvious disparities in white and non-white incarceration rates. To believe that these disparities exist apart or in exception to the overall system of policing makes no sense. They exist because this is the way the system was meant to function.


The police system is designed primarily to defend the rich and toward that end to police poor people and poor people of color in particular. Made up of reporters primarily drawn from middle and upper classes, and owned by very rich people, the media serves that goal as propagandist for the police and defender of its own class interest, and they reflect the racism that all white people learn in their upbringing.

Let's look at the numbers. According the Princeton Review, the average television reporter, after five years on the job, earned $65,000 dollars a year. In the top 25 television markets the median salary as reported by the Missouri School of Journalism stood at $78,000 in 2000. According to the US Census, that rate stood at nearly twice the same figure for male workers in general, a rate which, it should be pointed out, itself remains higher than the median for non-whites and women. That disparity appears even sharper when we consider the Bureau of Labor Statistics count, which put the average annual wage in the U.S. as $36,764 for 2002. Even print reporters, generally paid less than their television comrades, fair better than average Americans. Clearly there is a class divide between many of us consuming the news and the people reporting, not to mention the editors and owners, and the media coverage shows it.

For example, the bulk of the media ignored a story that ran in the Arizona Republic the 11th, the very day Uribe was killed. Jahna Berry reported that a federal jury had awarded Gerardo Ramirez-Diaz $1 million dollars after a Phoenix police officer shot him in the gut without just cause. And just four days before the shooting of Uribe, in a rare display of public criticism, the Arizona Republic came out against the reinstatement of Chandler police officer Dan Lovelace. Lovelace was fired for using excessive force after he shot and killed unarmed Dawn Rae Nelson in her car, from behind, with her 14 month-old son sitting in the seat behind her. That murder occurred on October 11th, 2001, making the Republic's opposition to Lovelace's reinstatement a little late in coming, to say the least, though it does show just how extreme a case it takes for the local media to take a critical position towards local police.


Much of the coverage Uribe's killing focused on the supposed danger cops face in the carrying out of their duties. Multiple newscasters and residents interviewed regarded the police as "putting themselves on the line" for other people, risking their lives regularly or standing as soldiers on the front lines of American society. But reflecting a rate that has remained pretty consistent, police officers don't even rank in the top ten most dangerous jobs as most recently listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, just a little over a week before Uribe's killing, a farm worker was killed in Arizona when a bale of hay fell on him. Another worker, a roofer, was killed when he fell and drowned in a pool. The first didn't even merit mentioning his name in the brief Arizona Republic article that ran. Both farm worker and roofer do rank within the top ten most dangerous occupations. Interestingly, Latinos represent a large proportion of workers in these fields. Another recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found a rate of five fatalities per 100,000 Hispanic workers in 2002 that was 25 percent higher than for all workers. This wouldn't happen if white workers would stand up with Latino workers against these kinds of abuses. But apparently local media finds the deaths of workers, especially workers of color, as too commonplace to merit coverage, even though that contradicts their attitude towards the job of police officer, who they misreport as in constant jeopardy.

So, in order to understand why the media, the rich and so many white people have fallen all over themselves to praise Uribe and to condemn his murder – while rarely admitting police excesses - we have to delve a little into the history of American police forces. The alleged danger of the job doesn't stand up as a sufficient explanation. Policing in America has two main origins, both of which serve to accomplish the same mission: to protect the wealth of the rich and powerful.


The first origin lies in the violent class struggles of the 19th century. During those times, workers were forced into the emerging factory system that the capitalist class was creating in the cities of the Northeast. In these factories workers had little power and were subjected to long hours. When armed class struggle broke out, the capitalists, outnumbered and not generally wishing to risk their own necks in the fighting, created police forces to wage war on the working class in defense of their factories and wealth. The first real police force in the US was founded in 1845 in New York City, center of the country's emerging industrial economy. As industrialism and modern capitalism spread, other cities followed New York's example.

Private property lies at the heart of capitalist exploitation. The authority of the boss derives precisely because s/he owns the means of production – the workplace, the computers, the machines and thus the profits. Because workers' interests depend on a redistribution of wealth and equality in the workplace, this brings us in inevitable conflict with the boss and his lackeys, the police. It's the same thing with the landlord. The landlord's ability to evict or demand rent couldn't exist without the system of private property and the police to back it up with violence.

The second main origin of American policing centers on the slave patrol system of the South. Charged with protecting white plantation owners, the slave patrols, or "patty rollers" as they were often called, brutally oppressed blacks, both slave and free. It is from the slave patrollers that American policing gets many of its traditions and powers. Patty rollers worked specific "beats" and could demand identification from any black person they encountered. The slave patrols incarcerated and returned, frequently with violence, any black person who could not prove their free status or provide written permission for their travel. Even in the North the police were charged with capturing and returning escaped slaves.

The influence of this racist tradition reverberates today in a variety of ways. An Arizona Daily Star review of Department of Public Safety records revealed that during traffic stops police searched Latinos more than twice as frequently as whites. And police searched blacks almost three times as frequently as whites – despite the fact that searches of whites turned up contraband much more regularly. Beyond racial profiling, which brings them into police contact more frequently in the first place, non-whites also face racist judges, unequal access to competent defense and sentencing guidelines that send them to prison at rates many times that of whites.

In fact, the history of Arizona police forces combines both origins. Back in the day, as now, Arizona was a mining state and Latinos composed a large percentage of the miners. In response to militant organizing by mine workers, the state created the Arizona Rangers. Ostensibly formed to combat cattle rustling, in actuality the government used the force primarily against miners and people of color. This tradition continues to contemporary times, and many of us remember the UMW strike of 1983 when then-Governor Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, called out police and national guardsmen against workers in defense of the Phelps-Dodge Corporation. Police guarded scabs brought in by the company, effectively breaking the strike.

It is critical for working class white people to understand the true origins and purposes of American policing and to be critical of both the aims and causes of media defense of police and police departments. In the end, supporting police power means supporting the rich people that exploit the entire working class, white or not. The American system has given white workers privileges that non-white workers don't get, and many of them directly involve reduced exposure to police violence and policing in general. American history has shown, though, that when even white workers organize against the bosses and politicians, the police are brought in against us as well. It's time for white workers to stand in support of communities of color when they organize against the police of all kinds, including La Migra. We need to recognize that the police are a racist institution that cannot be justified if what we want is a world of equality and justice, and media defense of policing amounts to defense of racism and the rich.

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