Harlem: NYPD Murder of Miss Alberta

Revolutionary Worker #1201, June 1, 2003, posted at rwor.org

"That she was thrown around a room, slapped with handcuffs and bullied to death by a dozen police officers is repugnant and un-American and requires outrage and federal prosecution. The origins are directly traceable to Washington, or to some ranch at Waco, Texas where tough guys like Bush, who never had a fight, tell the country to sic 'em, go get 'em."

Columnist Jimmy Breslin,in Newsday , May 18, 2003

"It was blatant murder. They need to go to jail. We have to come together. They have to see that it's not just us--that it's Spanish, it's Blacks, it's Jews, that even white people realize that this is wrong."

A Black woman in Harlem

"We have to stand our ground, stand up for our rights. We can't keep allowing them to do these things to us."

Black union member in his 40s at a protest outside Miss Alberta's apartment

May 16, 6:10 a.m. Alberta Spruill had just dressed for work. Miss Alberta--as she was known to kids in her Harlem neighborhood--was 57 years old. She had worked for the city for 30 years and was getting ready for another day of processing civil service exams. Suddenly a dozen police with guns drawn broke down her door with a battering ram. An explosion shook her apartment and a blinding flash lit the room from a stun grenade thrown by the cops. They ordered Miss Alberta down on the floor, searched and cuffed her. She went into cardiac arrest and died soon after at Harlem Hospital.

It is still not clear exactly what happened after police entered Miss Alberta's apartment. They claim they were looking for a drug dealer and that as soon as they realized they had the wrong apartment, they immediately uncuffed Alberta Spruill.

But neighbors tell a different story. Belica Rivera told Newsday , "She was crying. She was coughing. She said, `I can't breathe. My chest hurts. I can't breathe.'" Rivera says she saw Miss Alberta in the hallway handcuffed a half hour after police busted in. Another woman told the RW , "My sister was frightened by the noise. She lives down the hall and she opened her door to see. They told her to close her door and get in her house--like she's a criminal. There's no respect at all. They feel that anybody that's in our area is a drug dealer, drug user, drug pusher. And it doesn't go that way. She worked for the same city that killed her."

No Knock Raids: SOP

"No knock warrants" like the one at Miss Alberta's apartment have been used as a standard part of drug raids since the mid-'90s--as part of intense repression brought down on the people justified by the so-called "war on drugs." With the raid on Alberta Spruill--as in many others --the cops said they were acting on the word of a "confidential informant" who told them drugs and guns were being sold at the apartment. They cops never bothered to check the information. They didn't ask anyone in the neighborhood or the building's security guards--who knew Miss Alberta well. They cops claim they had to use a stun grenade because guns and dogs could make it dangerous to enter the apartment.

Across the city, people were shocked when they heard about Miss Alberta's death. They wondered why someone like her had to die such a horrible death. She had never been in trouble. One of her friends described her as "a God-fearing woman" who "was about serving her community and the community's children and going to church on Sundays." Hundreds visited a memorial outside her building. A group of people marched to the local precinct to demand justice.

The system moved quickly to do damage control. City officials called Alberta Spruill's death a "tragic mistake." The police commissioner apologized to her family. He ordered an investigation, temporarily suspended the use of stun grenades, and reassigned the cop who authorized the grenade's use in the raid.

There have been efforts to cool out people's anger--to get people to have faith in the very system that murdered Alberta Spruill. The mayor and police commissioner held a meeting with Black elected officials. Some of these officials said people should rely on the system since the authorities "showed a willingness to work with the Black community" unlike former Mayor Giuliani. Rev. Al Sharpton said, "It would be a shame to see the Black community afraid of police again."

But the truth is the murder of Alberta Spruill reveals the cold reality of the systematic police brutality and murder that oppressed nationalities and the poor suffer daily under this system. When the RW talked to people in Harlem shortly after the murder of Alberta Spruill, there were many stories about police brutality. We heard about a guy on a dirt bike who was stopped by the cops, knocked to the ground and beaten. We heard about a pregnant woman who suffered the same kind of brutality from the cops. One woman said:

"One day they came to my house. They didn't knock at my door. When I came out they all rushed in my apartment, pushing me out the way. They grabbed my son and arrested him over something from two years ago. He didn't even know what they was talking about. Finally they went to court. They let him out. Then they grabbed him and picked him back up and took him to re-arrest him again. We're human beings. Why are we treated like that? We're not animals."

What the cops did when they raided Alberta Spruill's apartment is not unusual. The truth is the NYPD conducts "no knock raids" all the time. Since Miss Alberta's death, many have come forward who are victims of these raids but lived to tell their stories--including a retired New York City cop (who is Black). A Harlem woman told the RW , "The cops are so anxious to arrest somebody that they run up in the wrong person's house without even investigating. They shouldn't take the word of snitches--especially when the snitches have no credibility. He was a drug dealer himself trying to make a deal. This has happened so many times."

"What kind of world are we living in?"

More than a few people have seen TV footage of U.S. Marines busting down doors in Baghdad and made the comparison to the way the police carry out "no knock raids" in ghettos and barrios in the United States.

And with all the new repressive measures being instituted by Ashcroft's Homeland Security, the situation for the people has only gotten worse. A climate of fear and suspicion has been created from the highest levels of government. Especially since September 11, people are encouraged to inform authorities about anything they consider "suspicious activity." Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian people have been rounded up, detained and deported based on their nationality or the word of a snitch. Black people have been the victims of this and other forms of racial profiling for years. September 11 was used to put out the message that the cops are heroes who should not be criticized no matter what they do-- giving them even more, a green light to brutalize and murder people.

Since 9/11, 57 people have been killed by law enforcement in New York and New Jersey. And not one cop has gone to jail for these murders.

Just after Miss Alberta was killed, the NYPD murdered again. An unarmed man, Ousmane Zango, was chased by a cop through a building and shot five times--once in the back.

At a protest in Harlem the RW talked to a Black man who asked: "What kind of world are we living in? Guilty by association. I won't turn my back on the cops. I just gotta keep my eyes open when I walk the streets. If I see two hoodlums on the street and I see two cops on the corner, I take my chances with the hoodlums.... You gonna talk about what Saddam Hussein has done to his people--look at what the United States has already done to us. Homeland Security is back just like in the '60s and '70s with COINTELPRO. They got the Patriot Act I and II. That's a threat to society. We have to exercise our rights and take on the government. The rich is getting richer and the poor is getting poorer. It's time for us to wake up and smell the coffee because it's getting hot out here."

Juanita Young, who spoke at a protest outside Miss Alberta's apartment building, said, "There is no excuse for this! Why did they go in there? And they call it an accident? My son Malcolm Ferguson was killed March 1st of 2000 in the Bronx. They tried to justify his killing by demonizing him. They can't demonize Alberta --so they say it was an accident. How is it an accident when you force your way in somebody's house and cause them to have a heart attack?

"They killed my son. They put a gun directly to his head. He never knew what hit him. The story they gave was he was struggling for a gun and the gun went off. The cop by his own admission in his deposition admitted my son never went for his gun. He cold-bloodedly killed my son--just the way they cold-bloodedly had Miss Alberta have a heart attack.

"We need to do something. We who came out here today, it's a first step. We need to get better in numbers so we can stop these cold-blooded murderers. We have to come out here and fight for justice."

As we go to press, several protests have been held against the police murder of Alberta Spruill and Ousmane Zango, involving hundreds of people.

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