On September 4, 2005, six unarmed New Orleans residents were attacked, two of them shot to death, as they tried to seek refuge for themselves and their families in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. More devastating is that the attacks came at the hands of members of the New Orleans Police Department, and they almost got away with it. Nearly five years later, the Department of Justice has charged four NOPD officers with the shooting of unarmed citizens, and two others with helping to cover it up in the initial investigation.
The charges brought against the four NOPD officers — Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso – accused of the shooting deaths and two supervisors — Arthur “Archie” Kaufman and Gerard Dugue – accused of the ensuing cover-ups, consist of civil rights violations which may carry sentences up to life in prison or the death penalty.
The Department of Justice has rightfully labeled the actions of the police officers as violations of civil rights. While the charges are serious and do carry severe punishments, there is a perspective that is lacking from this scenario. As the struggle for equality and civil rights is deeply entrenched in American history and throughout the fabric of American life, the value of using a human rights lens in police abuse cases must also be considered. There are natural, inalienable rights to which we are all entitled based on the mere fact that we are human; they are not country specific and must be afforded to everyone on a universal level. The families of those shot on September 4, 2005 deserve the right to speak to the UN and other international bodies as victims of human rights abuses.
The September 4, 2005 Danziger Bridge shooting at the hands of the involved NOPD officers would have been seen as a violation of human rights had it occurred anywhere else in the world. And the United States and our allies would have jumped to call it out as such. So the fight for greater police accountability must be placed within a larger more powerful global struggle to recognize and respect human rights and human dignity. Doing so will allow us to create a space where global partners can stand with us against such actions and work with us towards creating long-term solutions. Because what happened on the Danziger Bridge was not just a rare instance of law enforcement officers abusing their powers, this incident must be contextualized within a larger system that continuously fails to hold accountable those officers that do.
In the past year alone, numerous incidents of this lack of accountability come to mind, for example:
1) the Oscar Grant case, where the Oakland BART police officer who shot Grant point blank as he lay unarmed, handcuffed and on the floor received a verdict of involuntary manslaughter (although the entire world can bears witness to the brutality of the incident on YouTube)
2) the incident in Rockford Illinois, where an unarmed Mark Anthony Barmore was chased into a church and shot dead in front of twenty daycare children by two Rockford PD officers who have been found innocent of any wrongdoing in the initial state investigation. Mark Barmore and Oscar Grant are just two of the many casualties that signal a need for real change in our law enforcement standards of accountability.
So, as we carefully follow the media to keep up with every step of Lindsay Lohan’s struggles with alcohol or Mel Gibson’s latest personal drama, there are two families in New Orleans that are still mourning the loss of their loved ones at the hands of law enforcement officers, still awaiting justice, and waiting for our nation to take notice of their loss and their personal sacrifice.
They are but representatives of many other families who experience the same fate. And once we begin to give as much attention to these incidents as we do to Hollywood drama, and we begin to realize that our nation is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis when it comes to law enforcement accountability, then perhaps, we can begin to make real change. The lives of those lost in this struggle require us to do nothing less.