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 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
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
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
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