Is blaming the ATF a cop out?


As the Good Ol' Boy Roundup story broke in mid-July, the national media took its cue from a handful of politically motivated politicians riding a wave of popular resentment toward law enforcement, particularly the ATF.

The 15-year secret in the hills of Tennessee was revealed not by a repentant cop or investigative journalist, but by Jeff Randall founder of the Alabama militia group the Gadsden Minutemen who has spoken out against the Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil rights group, and who purportedly has Confederate flags on his stationery.

In truth, Randall was not concerned about racist police, but was driven by a deep hatred of the ATF. Nonetheless, we are grateful for his video which provides insight into a small and twisted segment of law enforcement culture. His videotaped images of a "No Niggers" sign, the "Nigger Hunting License" and t-shirts with racist slogans on them were more reminiscent of a Klan rally than a police picnic.

As the story unfolded, it came to light that after the cops finished playing volleyball they were treated to fireside skits where white cops pretended to sodomize a black man (a white cop in black face), also forcing him to perform fellatio on the white cop.

There were allegations that drugs were used at the event and that there was a rape. We may not have answers to these questions even after the Treasury Department releases its investigation.

To make sense of an incomprehensible event a scapegoat was found in the person of Gene Rightmeyer, a retired ATF agent who organized the event in Ocoee, Tenn., since 1980. On July 21, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Orin Hatch (R-Utah), looked into the event and put ATF Director John Magaw in the hot seat.

The committee expressed outrage that the directors of ATF and other federal law enforcement agencies were unaware of the gathering. Sen. Mike Dewine (R-Ohio) said, "My conclusion is there is a culture at ATF that tolerates racism." The message was clear: federal law enforcement agencies are to blame for the racist excesses in law enforcement culture.

It was a splendid show and made for good copy at a time when federal law enforcement agencies, particularly ATF, are being vilified across the country. If it were only that simple.

The truth is more disturbing than anyone cares to admit. Blaming one agency for such abject behavior is akin to targeting one demagogue for the insanity of fascism.

Of the 350 people who attended this year's event, only two dozen were from federal agencies, including ATF, FBI, Customs and Secret Service. That leaves 325 unaccounted for racist cops who are patrolling the streets even as you read this.

The problem is not only in Washington, but also here in our communities. One can only assume that if the Roundup went on secretly for 15 years and was disclosed only because a racist buffoon held a grudge, there must be other such events across the country, probably on a smaller scale. The Roundup illustrates what young black men already know: there are enough racist cops to fill 100 such events.

The issue here is not the ATF, FBI or any other federal agency, but how we identify and remove racist cops from the streets. Lawsuits alleging excessive force by police are rarely successful, as juries tend to side with police even when, as in Rodney King's case, a videotape exists.

It is also important to remember that it is perfectly within a police officer's right, on either federal or local levels, to hold racist opinions, belong to a racist organization and attend racist events while off duty, so long as job performance is not colored by their beliefs.

Steven Bates, executive director of the South Carolina ACLU, explained, "Our position is that a law enforcement officer has the same right to association as anyone else. You separate their speech from their performance. The determining factor should be whether their beliefs and expressions are carried over into their work."

Here's the million-dollar question: Who do we allow to make that judgement? Some police departments do a good job at weeding out deranged cops; others are led by them. Civil rights groups have long been calling for more police accountability in the form of community policing, dialogue between community leaders and police departments and the establishment of independent civilian review boards to act as watchdogs of local police agencies.

Review boards have consistently been opposed by police associations. The few attempts to implement them have been quickly nixed. Left with no other effective options, some young black men are lodging the only kind of protest that seems to work anymore: the urban riot.

In the last two weeks of July there were three riots stemming from incidents of excessive force by police against men of color. The riots in Indianapolis, Miami and Los Angeles foreshadow a new era of violence and the lack of legitimate channels to voice grievances.

Until law enforcement agencies are held more accountable for scrutinizing the job performance of bad cops, we can expect more rocks and bottles.

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© Copyright by POINT, 1995

Last modified 8/8/95