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Stephan Salisbury: Life in the American Slaughterhouse

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A glock and 9mm bullet.

A Glock (Photo: SmarterIam / Flickr)

Is America an increasingly violent society?  Statistics seemingly tell us no.  From 2001 to 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime victimizations actually dropped 34%.

While this decrease is part of a longer-term trend (and there’s still startling amounts of carnage in this country), it begs the question of whether the United States is really less violent than previously and, if so, where all that excess violence went.

It’s notable that, since 2001, the U.S. has been exporting and facilitating violence of all sorts all over the globe.  Some of this violence is thoroughly sanctioned and some isn’t.  In Iraq, members of the U.S. military committed violent acts against untold numbers of Iraqis, including military personnel who served Saddam Hussein’s regime, as well as insurgents, and civilians.  (The U.S. invasion itself touched off Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence that killed tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands and continues to this day.)  Though the numbers may not be comparable, much the same story could be told about Afghanistan, not to speak of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  Americans have also killed African pirates on the high seas and, just days ago, an Indian fisherman on a boat in the Persian Gulf.

Recently, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents have been killing suspected drug smugglers in Honduras.  U.S. arms have been sent to Middle Eastern autocrats visiting violence on their own people and the U.S. military has trained African troops to more effectively kill African insurgents.  American weapons have flooded Mexico and supercharged drug violence there.  A war in Libya, involving the U.S. military, led to Tuareg fighters looting Libyan weapons stockpiles and committing acts of violence across the border in Mali (which was plunged into further violence due to a military coup by an American-trained officer).  Today, America’s commander-in-chief regularly selects individuals in a number of countries to be placed on a “kill list,” targeted, and assassinated.  And so it goes.

Exporting violence is not, of course, simply a post-9/11 phenomenon.  It’s been an American tradition, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, from Haiti to Hiroshima.  When the U.S. exported war to Southeast Asia, it eventually engulfed Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in utter carnage.  One way civilians there were frequently killed resulted from what historian David Hunt has trenchantly called “the sin of running.”  A Vietnamese villager frightened by the roar of a helicopter or a door-gunner pointing an M-60 machine gun at her would bolt in fear or a young military-age man would take flight when armed American teenagers, who might detain, beat, or kill him, approached.  As Vietnam veterans would later tell me, “running” branded Vietnamese as guilty, and so as enemies, in the minds of many U.S. troops and led to startling numbers of noncombatants being gunned down.

Today, TomDispatch regular Stephan Salisbury examines police violence in America, which may, hardly noticed, be on the rise.  In poor neighborhoods, in particular, the “sin of running,” it appears, is alive and well.  For the last decade, we’ve barely noticed as the U.S. spread violence globally.  At home, we generally take note of only a few of the most egregious or spectacular cases of violence.  Luckily, Salisbury has delved deeper and offers a window onto the less-reported version of American violence that most of us fail to see.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses the lack of good numbers on police shootings and why they are so poorly covered, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Nick Turse

Police Shootings Echo Nationwide 
Aurora Gets the Attention, But Guns Are Going Off Everywhere 
By Stephan Salisbury

Welcome to the abattoir — a nation where a man can walk into a store and buy an assault rifle, a shotgun, a couple of Glocks; where in the comfort of his darkened living room, windows blocked from the sunlight, he can rig a series of bombs unperturbed and buy thousands of rounds of ammo on the Internet; where a movie theater can turn into a killing floor at the midnight hour.

We know about all of this. We know because the weekend of July 20th became all-Aurora-all-the-time, a round-the-clock engorgement of TV news reports, replete with massacre theme music, an endless loop of victims, their loved ones, eyewitness accounts, cell-phone video, police briefings, informal memorials, and “healing,” all washed down with a presidential visit and hour upon hour of anchor and “expert” speculation. We know this because within a few days a Google search for “Aurora movie shootings” produced over 200 million hits referencing the massacre that left 70-plus casualties, including 12 fatalities.

We know a lot less about Anaheim and the killing of Manuel Angel Diaz, shot in the back and in the head by that city’s police just a few short hours after the awful Aurora murders.

But to the people living near La Palma Avenue and North Anna Drive, the shooting of Manuel Diaz was all too familiar: it was the sixth, seventh, or eighth police shooting in Anaheim, California, since the beginning of 2012. (No one seems quite sure of the exact count, though the Orange County District Attorney’s office claims six shootings, five fatalities.)

Diaz, 25, and as far as police are concerned, a “documented gang member,” was unarmed. He was apparently running when he was shot in the back and left to lie on the ground bleeding to death as police moved witnesses away from the scene. “He’s alive, man, call a cop!” a man shouted at the police. “Why would you guys shoot him in the head?” a woman demanded.

“Get back,” officers repeatedly said, pushing mothers and youngsters away from the scene, which they surrounded with yellow crime-scene tape.

Neighborhood residents gathered on lawns along the street, upset at what had happened near their homes, upset at what has been occurring repeatedly in Anaheim.  Then, police, seeking to disperse the crowd, began firing what appeared to be rubber bullets and bean bag rounds directly at those women and children, among others. Screaming chaos ensued. A police dog was unleashed and lunged for a toddler in a stroller. A mother and father, seeking to protect their child, were themselves attacked by the dog.

We know this because a local CBS affiliate, KCAL, broadcast footage of the attack. We know it because cell phone video, which police at the scene sought to buy, according to KCAL, showed it in all its stark and sudden brutality. We know it also because neighbors immediately began to organize. On Sunday they demonstrated at police headquarters, demanding answers. “No justice, no peace,” they chanted.

Who Is Being Killed and in What Numbers?

This is daily life in less suburban, less white America. On Sunday, when the first of growing daily protests took place, Anaheim police shot and killed another man running away, Joel Mathew Acevedo, 21. Acevedo was armed and opened fired, police maintained — yet another suspected gang member.

It is not hyperbole to say this is virtually a daily routine in America. It’s considered so humdrum, so much background noise, that it is rarely reported beyond local newscasts and metro briefs. In the days bracketing the Aurora massacre, San Francisco police shot and killed mentally ill Pralith Pralourng; Tampa police shot and killed Javon Neal, 16; an off-duty cop shot Pierre Davis, 20, of Chicago; Miami-Dade police shot and killed an unidentified “stalking suspect”; an off-duty FBI agent shot an unnamed man in Queens; Kansas City police shot and killed 58-year-old Danny L. Walsh; Lynn police and a Massachusetts state trooper shot and killed Brandon Payne, 23, a father of three; Henderson police shot and killed Andy Puente Soto, 42, out in the desert wastes near Las Vegas.

These are some of the anonymous dead.  Their names are occasionally afloat on seas of Internet data or in local news reports. Many are young, even very young; many are people of color; many are wanted by the police for one thing or another; some are crazy; some are armed; some, like Manuel Diaz, are not.

In the end, though, we know remarkably little about these victims of police action. The FBI, which annually tracks every two-bit break-in, car theft, and felony, keeps no comprehensive records of incidents involving police use of deadly force, nor are there comprehensive national records that track what police officers do with their guns. Because of that we have no sense of whether such killings are waxing or waning, whether different cities present different threats, whether increased use of private security guards poses a greater or lesser danger to the public, whether neighborhood watch groups are a blessing or a bane to their neighborhoods. The Trayvon Martins of the world, who could perhaps speak to that last point, are mute.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report does include a more limited category of “Justifiable Homicide by Weapon, Law Enforcement,” defined as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” That figure has hovered around 400 annually for the last several years. (In 2010, it was 387, down from 414 in 2009; in 2006, it was 386.)

Would Manuel Diaz fall into that category? Was he a felon? Can running fit the bill for “justifiable homicide”? The FBI does list all police officers killed while on duty, whether they are gunned down deliberately by violent suspects or hit accidentally by a car.  (In 2010, the FBI reported, 56 officers died “feloniously,” while 72 were killed “accidentally.”) But the Manuel Diazes of America are not included in the FBI data sets.

Ramarley Graham, 18, followed and shot by New York City police last February, is of little interest to FBI statisticians. But the Graham killing, which has resulted in manslaughter charges against a member of the NYPD, stirred numerous protests in that city. Luther Brown Jr., killed by Stockton, California, police in April, and James Rivera, killed by Stockton police two years ago, stirred community protest as well. Would their names make the FBI list of “justifiable homicide”? Who makes that judgment and on what basis?

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has been compiling data on deaths of suspects following arrests, but the information covers just 40 states and only includes arrest fatalities. From January 2003 through December 2009, bureau statistics show 4,813 deaths occurred during “an arrest or restraint process.” Of those, 61% (2,931) were classified as homicides by law enforcement personnel, 11% (541) as suicides, 11% (525) as due to intoxication, 6% (272) as accidental injuries, and 5% (244) were attributed to natural causes. About 42% of the dead were white, 32% were black, and 20% were Hispanic.

Total gun deaths nationwide in 2010? 11,493, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Who Is At Risk?

The lack of authoritative and comprehensive national data on police shootings and the reluctance of local law enforcement departments to release information on the use of deadly force has sent researchers onto the Internet searching for stories and anecdotal evidence. Newspapers looking into the issue must painstakingly gather information and documents from multiple agencies and courts to determine who is being killed and why. One major recent independent effort by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2011 — undertaken in the wake of community protests over two police shootings in 2010 — confirmed anecdotal evidence drawn from virtually all major metropolitan areas. If you are a young man, a person of color, and live in a poor urban area, you are far more likely to become a victim of police gunfire than if you are none of those things.

The newspaper, which analyzed court cases, police data, and other documents, determined that there had been 378 victims of police gunfire in the Las Vegas area since January 1990; 142 of the shootings were fatal.  And deaths from police gunfire, the paper found, had risen from two in 1990 to 31 in 2010.

Over the entire period of the study, the paper found that “blacks, less than 10 percent of Clark County’s population, account for about 30 percent of Las Vegas police shooting subjects. Moreover, 18 percent of blacks shot at by police were unarmed.”

A joint study carried out by the Chicago Reporter and the online news site Colorlines in 2007 determined that “about 9,500 people nationally were killed by police during the years 1980 to 2005 — an average of nearly one fatal shooting per day.” African-Americans “were overrepresented among police shooting victims in every city” investigated (the nation’s 10 largest).

African-Americans would not be surprised by this finding; nor would it come as a surprise to Hispanics to learn that they are increasingly at risk of police gunfire. Bureau of Justice statistics show that 949 Hispanics suffered arrest-related deaths from 2003 to 2009 (out of the total of 4,813 such deaths noted above). The numbers have bounced around over the years, but are trending up from 109 in 2003 to 130 in 2009.

Certainly, the Latino community of Anaheim is familiar with this territory. Orange County and Anaheim authorities have promised investigations of the two recent police shootings. The FBI is reviewing the shootings and the U.S. Attorney’s office has agreed to conduct an investigation at the request of Anaheim’s civilian authorities. Those authorities — the mayor and five-member city council — are all Anglo, while Hispanics constitute about 52% of that city’s 336,000 residents. There is no civilian complaint review board in place to conduct any probe of police actions, no independent group gathering information over time. The family of Manuel Diaz has filed a federal civil rights suit in the case and called for community calm as protestors become increasingly restive.

“There is a racial and economic component to this shooting,” said Dana Douglas, a Diaz family attorney. “Police don’t roust white kids in affluent neighborhoods who are just having a conversation. And those kids have no reason to fear police. But young men with brown skin in poor neighborhoods do. They are targeted by police.”

Post-9/11 Money Is No Help

The last decade, of course, has seen an enormous flow of federal counterterrorism money to local police and law enforcement agencies. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has allocated $30 to $40 billion to local police for all manner of training programs and equipment upgrades. Other federal funding has also been freely dispensed.

Yet for all the beefing up of post-9/11 visual surveillance, communications, and Internet-monitoring capabilities, for all the easing of laws governing searches and wiretaps, law enforcement authorities failed to pick up on the multiple weapons purchases, the massive Internet ammo buys, and the numerous package deliveries to the dark apartment in the building on Paris Street where preparations for the Aurora massacre took place for months.

Orange County, where Manuel Diaz lived, now has a fleet of seven armored vehicles. SWAT officers turn out in 30 to 40 pounds of gear, including ballistic helmets, safety goggles, radio headsets with microphones, bulletproof vests, flash bangs, smoke canisters, and loads of ammunition. The Anaheim police and other area departments are networked by countywide Wi-Fi. They run their own intelligence collection and dissemination center. They are linked to surveillance helicopters.

The feds have also anted up for extensive police training for Anaheim officers. In fact, Anaheim and Orange County have received about $100 million from the federal government since 2002 to bring operations up to twenty-first century speed in the age of terror. Yet for all that money, training, and equipment, police still managed to shoot and kill a running unarmed man in the back, just as NYPD officers shot unarmed Liberian-born Amadou Diallo after chasing him up his Bronx apartment building steps in February of 1999.

Diallo was infamously shot 41 times after pulling his wallet from his pocket, apparently to show identification. Police thought it was a gun. The shooting precipitated national protests and acquittals in a subsequent trial of the police officers involved. The year Diallo was killed was also the year of the Columbine massacre, 20 miles from Aurora. It seems like only last week.

Since that time the nation as a whole has become poorer and less white, while police departments everywhere are building up their capabilities and firepower with 9/11-related funding. Gun ownership of almost any sort has been cemented into our American world as a constitutional right and a partial ban on purchases of assault weapons lapsed in 2004, thanks to congressional inaction. This combination of trends should make everyone uneasy.

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a TomDispatch regular.  His most recent book is Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses the lack of good numbers on police shootings and why they are so poorly covered, click here or download it to your iPod here.

[Note: Bureau of Justice Statistics data on the demographics of arrest-related deaths can be found by clicking here.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Copyright 2012 Stephan Salisbury

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Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. is the sideline that ate his life. Before that he worked as an editor at Pacific News Service in the early 1970s, and, these last three decades, as an editor in book publishing. For 15 years, he was Senior Editor at Pantheon Books where he edited and published award-winning works ranging from Art Spiegelman's Maus and John Dower's War Without Mercy to Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy. He is now Consulting Editor at Metropolitan Books, as well as co-founder and co-editor of Metropolitan's The American Empire Project. Many of the authors whose books he has edited and published over the years now write for He is married to Nancy J. Garrity, a therapist, and has two children, Maggie and Will.

To find out more about Engelhardt and his background, check out:

Harry Kreisler's interview, "Taking Back the Word", on the Conversations with History website.

Julian Brookes' interview, "Iraq, Bush, and Writing Long", on the Mother Jones website.

Nick Turse's two-part interview on the Tomdispatch website, "Reading the Imperial Press Front to Back" (part 1) and "On Not Packing Your Bag and Heading Home When Things Go Wrong" (part 2).

If you've just stumbled into Tomdispatch, wondering whether Tom Engelhardt is the "Tommy Engelhardt" you once knew, and you're thinking of a boy 11 years old or younger, growing up in New York City, then you probably have the right guy.