For two years after I wrote “Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by Police, Security Guards and Vigilantes,” major news media paid no attention to it. Until now.
Why now? Because the report generated the hashtag #every28hours. And the national uprising against police terror has launched a viral barrage of “every 28 hours” in tweets, posters, banners, sit-ins, die-ins, articles and speeches.
Predictably, the same news media that function as an echo chamber for the pronouncements of police information officers are now fact-checking “Operation Ghetto Storm,” aka “The Every 28 Hour Report.” Whether deliberately or automatically, those fact-checkers cherry-pick, distort and neglect facts to promote hegemonic myths: that we live in a race-blind society that dispenses justice without regard to color; that police are dedicated to protecting all communities and to enforcing the law; that a few rogue cops may occasionally brutalize black people but that there is no systemic problem.
For example, on Christmas Eve the Washington Post concluded in a Fact Checker column that “protesters would do better to cite the FBI statistic” and quibbled over a handful of cases in our report. Yet the column failed to mention a major study, published Dec. 5 in the Wall Street Journal, that revealed that law-enforcement agencies in New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami and hundreds of other cities refused to submit data to the FBI. In part because of the recalcitrance of powerful police unions, the FBI database excludes at least 110 justified killings a year.
Most of the column made the same case that others, including this author, have made: that “every28hours,” as a hashtag, like most hashtags, lends itself to oversimplification and misrepresentation. But this is a straw man designed to shift the narrative and ignore the significance of the movement against police terror and the dynamics of policing in black communities.
Those of us who respect and stand in solidarity with the movement understand that whether people say “every 24, 28, 54 or 84 hours” is not the point. Any of these numbers carries the meaning that police killing of black people is systemic. The hashtag went viral because it challenges the myth that these killings are isolated or the result of the personal prejudice of a handful of rogue cops. Respect for the movement leads to an understanding of why thousands of people in the streets have concluded that the whole damn system is guilty as hell.
Fact-checkers often debunk the methodology of the report without appearing to have read the entire document. They lend credence to the nearly 75 percent of a column’s commentators who gain comfort from dismissing “Operation Ghetto Storm” as a pack of lies. They ignore the explanation of the methodology, the FAQs and highlights given in the report. As a result, fact-checkers encourage those who criminalize and dehumanize black people and thereby reinforce the message found in Fox News and so many other media outlets that legitimizes the conviction that black people deserve to be put to death without trial.
The methodology of any study includes assumptions. I made those assumptions explicit and provided documentation for their validity. It is a cheap shot to accuse me of cooking the numbers just because one disagrees with historically based assumptions. Those assumptions are the following:
1. An accurate assessment of the scope of extrajudicial killing of black people needs to include killings by security guards and vigilantes because security guards are often sheriffs who are moonlighting. Also, both security guards and vigilantes, as we saw in the exoneration of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, are sanctioned by the state. (These deaths differ from the related problem of black people killing other black people because those killers are routinely tried, receive long prison sentences—and are not hired by taxpayers.)
2. If the overwhelming majority of state-sanctioned killings are not justified by international human rights standards, the data still support the thesis implied in the report’s title. The inclusion of those (only 8 percent) who might have been killed to prevent further deaths does not invalidate the conclusion.
“Operation Ghetto Storm” was a slogan that initially appeared at a militarized police training camp. It adapted the code name of Operation Desert Storm, from the first Gulf War with Iraq. It encapsulates the thesis that the purpose, policies, high-tech military hardware and mindset that were mobilized for that conflict also sustain the occupation and war on black communities inside the U.S.
Fact-checkers have ignored another section of the report, one dealing with police impunity, that reinforces this conclusion. The report details how, as of its latest update on Nov. 4, 2014, the U.S. legal system—including district attorneys, grand juries and other state agents—determined that 91 percent of the killings were “justified.”
An entrenched, institutionalized apparatus of repression, including several recent Supreme Court decisions, maintains and reinforces this impunity. And neither the executive nor the legislative branch of government has done anything to limit it. On the contrary, government has supplied police with enough military hardware to wage several wars at a time, passed legislation that strips citizens of the basic rights that protect against all forms of police tyranny, given various agencies carte blanche to monitor citizens’ every move and utterance, justified racist profiling, and provided infinite funds to maintain a system of mass incarceration. If you think the label “national security state” for our government and its armed agencies is an exaggeration, please think again.
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Arlene Eisen is author of “Operation Ghetto Storm,” available at operationghettostorm.org. Since the 1960s, Eisen has been an activist, university lecturer and journalist committed to the black liberation, women’s and anti-imperialist movements. She is the author of two books on Vietnamese women and the proud mother of two black sons.