The System in Effect: The Police Torture of Abner Louima
Revolutionary Worker #925, September 28, 1997
A month ago, millions of people were shocked to hear how police in Brooklyn beat and brutalized Abner Louima. After arresting Abner, the cops beat him on the trip to the 70th Precinct. At the precinct station, cops took him into a bathroom and Officer Justin Volpe stuck the handle of a plunger up Abner Louima's rectum, and then forced the same object in his mouth, breaking his teeth. Abner remains in the hospital suffering from a torn intestine, lacerated bladder and other serious injuries. His family has accused the police of attempted murder.
After this story became public, the New York power structure has attempted to carry out a campaign of "damage control": New York's law-and-order Mayor Giuliani insisted that he would root out anyone involved in this attack, and he has insisted that there would be no "blue wall of silence" protecting police who brutalize and murder people.
Day by day, new information has come out about the attack on Abner Louima. These details confirm that there is a whole official climate that encourages police to brutalize people and a whole official apparatus that protects them when they do.
The Brutal Arrest
Abner Louima was arrested in front of the Rendez-Vous Club in Flatbush, Brooklyn late one night--when police arrived in force to break up a fight outside the club.
This was not an example of a tense cop "overreacting" to an extreme situation. Abner had done nothing. And from the beginning the cops made it clear that they were punishing Haitians--for being Haitians.
One cop yelled, "Why do you people come to this country if you can't speak English?" The cops loudly called the Haitian people gathered at the Rendez-Vous Club "n****rs."
The beating of Abner Louima was drawn out and methodical. After arresting Louima, two cops put him in their car and drove to a place where they hooked up with another carload of cops. The cops beat him with their radios. One yelled: "You people can't even talk English, I'm going to teach you to respect a cop." Then they hooked up with yet another carload of cops, and beat him again.
This was not an example of one or two "bad apples" going against standard procedures. At least half a dozen cops were involved in this brutality. They had a routine for doing this. For example, all of them reportedly removed their name tags before beating Abner.
Officer Justin Volpe was well-known for carrying out such racist attacks--he reportedly cut dreadlocks off the heads of Jamaicans he arrested and collected them as souvenirs. Other cops knew about this--in fact some of them took this racist collection out of Volpe's locker so it would not become evidence in this case.
This shows that racist brutality against arrested people was routine--that it was known, accepted and protected by the cops generally.
At the 70th Precinct, Justin Volpe went to the cops who had brought in Abner Louima and told these cops that Louima had punched him. Volpe then announced, "This collar is mine" and reportedly "took over."
This reveals something else about the cops' standard operating procedures: When a cop claims someone insulted or hit him (even falsely, as in this case), that cop is given the opportunity to brutalize the person during the arrest procedure.
The Total Disinterest in Louima's Screams and Bloody Condition
Abner was first humiliated at the duty sergeant's desk, his pants were pulled down to his ankles. Louima remembers screaming, "Why? Why?"
This was all done in public, in full view of many other cops. None of them protested this treatment.
Abner Louima was then taken to a precinct bathroom where Volpe rammed a plunger into his rectum and mouth. This was pre-meditated: Volpe had borrowed gloves from another cop to protect his hands. A second cop held Louima as this was done. Volpe threatened to kill Louima if he made any noise.
This torture was witnessed by many of the police in that Precinct. Abner Louima was taken, bleeding and clearly brutalized, through the precinct to a holding cell, where he was left for three hours. At 8 a.m., Saturday morning, August 9, he was taken by ambulance to Coney Island Hospital.
Louima said: "No cops said anything. None came to help me."
Officer Volpe did not try to hide what he had done--clearly he thought the other cops would approve. Volpe paraded around with the bloody plunger and told other cops, "I had to break a man."
It is hard to pinpoint how often such police torture took place at the 70th precinct--but certainly the cops there treated even the extreme brutality of this case as something relatively routine and acceptable. The now-famous declaration by Volpe that "This is Giuliani-time" confirms that police like Volpe feel that they have been handed a "license to brutalize" by the people at the top.
The Hospital Coverup
When Abner Louima was delivered for emergency surgery at Coney Island Hospital, the cops told doctors that his intestines had been injured by homosexual sex. This was obviously untrue--Louima's extreme injuries testified to a brutal, non-consensual attack.
But what the police did that night--creating a flimsy cover story to put down on the medical papers and police records--is also a typical procedure. Such stories don't have to be believable--because they are so routinely and uncritically accepted as true. Cops typically say, "He rammed his own head against the wall" or "he hanged himself" or "he was like that when we arrested him," etc.
In Abner Louima's case, some brave nurses broke the routine. Magalie Laurent, a nurse at Coney Island Hospital, described how she encountered a nurse who was responsible for some of the paperwork on Abner who said, "They're not going to make me do this. They're not going to make me change anything on this paper." Magalie told the New York Times that Louima had told what was done to him, but that hospital supervisors were working actively to keep the truth from getting out.
Magalie Laurent called the police Internal Affairs department to report the incident on Saturday evening. The New York Times reported that this whistle-blowing by Magalie Laurent put the whole hospital "in an uproar." Reporting extreme police abuse was not how such things are usually handled.
Magalie Laurent told the New York Times that the Internal Affairs department seemed uninterested in her report. "I knew that they hadn't taken my call seriously.... It seemed like they didn't care." In fact, the Internal Affairs officer-on-duty did not even assign a log number to Magalie's report.
It is also reported that the New York Daily News received an anonymous tip from a male caller on August 11 describing the torture of Louima and encouraging them to check out the medical records at the hospital. The language used in this taped call makes it likely that this caller was a cop.
This reveals that at least one cop was revolted by this treatment of Louima but did not do anything to stop it at the time. The fact that he was reduced to making an anonymous phone call shows how little support he would have had if he had spoken out or gone to his commander.
Abner Louima's family went to the 70th Precinct to file a formal complaint about the attack. They were insulted, ridiculed and turned away. No complaint was accepted.
Family members then started calling the media. They report that only two reporters gave them a serious hearing.
It was reportedly Monday morning, August 11, more than 48 hours after the attack, before Internal Affairs finally sent an investigating team to the 70th Precinct. The police there had had the weekend to hide evidence and coordinate their lies.
The Blue Wall of Silence
Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Safir insisted that this case would prove that there is no "blue wall of silence." The opposite has happened.
At least a dozen cops saw or participated in the brutal treatment of Louima, but only two cops have provided useful information concerning the case. A police investigator told the New York Times that cops at the precinct were saying: "I don't know" or "I wasn't there."
There was talk about being "tough" with the cops involved in this attack--but then the police authorities tried to return the four implicated cops to their jobs at the beginning of September. Faced with pubic outrage, the police commissioner dropped this plan--and essentially put the cops on paid vacation--so-called "suspension with pay."
Even though Louima's injuries were life-threatening and the masses have been demanding attempted murder charges, the authorities have only charged the cops with assault, sexual abuse and possession of a criminal weapon
The press routinely considers police brutality un-newsworthy--and when they do report on police killings they routinely report the police version of events as the truth. A whole epidemic of police brutality has gone down --including many hundreds murdered, uncounted thousands brutalized and literally millions jacked up--without much ripple in the media.
This case of Abner Louima is an exception. It broke into the news--in part because Abner Louima himself survived and dared to tell what the police had done, in part because the Louima family was determined to bring it to light, and in part because the specific details of this brutality were so extreme and infuriating. Once the story of Louima's torture came out, several columnists in New York newspapers expressed outrage.
But even as the media reported and denounced this torture, their coverage supported and repeated the "spin" coming out of the city government: that this brutality was an "isolated incident," that it was being "handled energetically" by the mayor's office, and that Giuliani's actions proved that such torture was not officially approved.
Meanwhile the New York boozhwah press significantly underestimated the size of the street marches protesting police brutality. For example, the press estimated the August 29 march from Brooklyn to city hall at 7,000, even though the march took hours to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and march organizers estimated it at over 15,000.
Calling brutality "rare" even while publicizing this one case, effectively protects the routine and daily brutalities of police from further exposure.
The media both locally and nationally have consistently defended the New York Police Department and police generally--not because this defense is justified by the facts, but because such a defense is demanded by their system.
Only a handful of cops were directly involved in beating and torturing Abner Louima. But Justin Volpe and those who acted with him believed they were star players in "Giuliani Time"--that they were expected by the power structure to make a brutal impression of police power on New York's Black and immigrant people.
And all kinds of official forces, up and down the line, treated such brutality as routine, acceptable and something to be protected from exposure. The other cops, the police command, the internal affairs, the hospital apparatus, the press had all been conditioned to overlook and even uphold such brutality. And when this story nonetheless broke into the open--the whole power structure of New York was left scrambling for a way to deflect the people's anger.
This is not the story of a few bad apples. It is, as Carl Dix says, a look at a rotten apple tree. This is not just a matter of deeply ingrained police traditions. The growing epidemic of police brutality is instigated by the official politics in the USA--which treats whole sections of the people as criminals and promotes a "no tolerance, no rehabilitation, no mercy" attitude as official policy.
The Abner Louima case provides a glimpse at the daily reality of police operations--where brutality is expected, encouraged and protected by the system itself.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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