Sunday, December 7, 2014

"I Can't Breathe: Ralph Metcalfe, Derrick Rose and the Misuse of Police Authority"

Last night, Chicago Bulls superstar point guard, Derrick Rose, used his platform to give an assist to the national movement against police brutality. Wearing a shirt that read “I Can’t Breathe,” Rose became the latest of a growing number of black athletes protesting police violence. With his statement, he also jumped into black Chicago’s long war against police abuse, a war in which another famous black athlete, Ralph Metcalfe, fought one of the most significant battles.

Black Chicagoans have been in a continuous combat against police brutality. In 1927, for example, a writer for the Chicago Defender complained that blacks had been pleading for investigations into brutality for years, but the police never paid attention to these grievances. The writer urged, “Police are paid to protect society, not to perpetrate indiscriminate murder upon those who fall into their clutches. Men upholding the sovereignty of a principality are men sworn to their duty as servants of the people who employ them.” The Defender’s appeal to Mayor Thompson, however, went unheard.

 The continued pleas for justice from the Defender, and from concerned citizens, became louder in the 1960s and 70s as police increased their violence against black citizens. By 1972, an estimated 78 acts of police violence occurred each month. Despite constant calls for justice from the black community, Mayor Daley did nothing, and he allowed the police to continue their abuse. In 1972, using his political power, and celebrity clout, Congressman Ralph Metcalfe, one of the greatest athletes of his generation, formed the Concerned Citizens for Police Reform to confront Mayor Daley and Chicago’s Police Department. For Metcalf, his call for justice was rooted in his blackness, and no doubt, his history of growing up in Chicago witnessing acts of police violence. As he told the Chicago Tribune, “I’m here to clean up the evil system. It is still time for some of you who talk black to start acting black. Some folks don’t work at anything but their mouths.” Metcalfe and his group wrote a list of 6 demands for Mayor Daley designed to eliminate brutality.
The demands:
1.     Eliminate ‘task force-type operations’ by the police department
2.     Establish a citizen’s board in each police district to review abuse cases
3.     Black positions on department proportion to the number of blacks in the city
4.     Upgrade and increase the positions on the police department held by blacks
5.     The immediate recruitment of black personnel
6.     All the demands met by May 31

Of course, Mayor Daley did not pay attention to these requests, and in his first meeting about police brutality, he argued “the police department is the arm of government we look to for protection… there should be no interference in the police operation from politics, business or any other partisan pressure groups.” In other words, Daley wanted his police to have unchecked power to oppress black citizens. Fueled by the mayor’s lack of concern, Metcalfe and the Concerned Citizens for Police Reform continued their fight.  Throughout the summer of 72, the committee held meetings in which citizens detailed their personal history with police abuse. The testimonies of local terrorism, highlighted years of oppressive policing, but unfortunately, did not bring any immediate change. The police and politicians hid behind the trope of black criminality in order to legalize their crimes against citizens. A year later, Congressman Metcalfe used those testimonies and published “Misuse of Police Authority,” a scathing 96-page document that highlighted police brutality, cover-ups, and a long history of job discrimination in the department. What did the city do? Nothing.

Rose’s shirt is a testimony to the continued terrorism the police have waged in their war against black and brown people in Chicago. In fact, last month young civil rights activists from Chicago testified to the U.N. about the history of police violence in Chicago, prompting the U.N. to issue a concern about unchecked police brutality. Rose, a product of Chicago, has bravely situated himself in this war against domestic terrorism. Let’s hope that with Chicago’s brightest star taking a stand against police brutality, local politicians finally listen and end the “Misuse of Police Authority.”

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