One night in June 2016, in Orlando, Florida, an individual named Omar Mateen, acting on his own, seriously wounded 53 people and murdered 50 others in the Pulse, a gay nightclub. An additional two hundred or more terrified patrons managed to flee the packed premises while Mateen walked around knocking off his victims. How could he have done it? How could one terrorist, acting alone, kill or seriously wound a hundred people? Answer: he had a whole three hours, from 2:02 a.m. to 5:15 a.m., to stroll leisurely around the dance floor, hallways, drinking enclaves, and toilet stalls, killing people with casual impunity. Some of the patrons hid themselves for hours, repeatedly calling 911 or sending messages to friends and family, desperately pleading for help.
The police, it seems, did nothing of note to deter the murderer. Cops started arriving at 2:04 a.m. Moments later, they entered the club and exchanged fire with Mateen, or so the authorities claimed. He somehow survived these firefights unscathed. Oddly enough, so did the police.
In fact, gunfights never took place. Mateen himself made a 911 call at 2:35 a.m. He talked over the telephone several times more with the authorities for a total of 29 minutes. By then the cops were surrounding the Pulse in substantial numbers.
While dozens of victims lay seriously wounded, police officers refrained from making any coordinated advances into the nightclub. Mateen remained untouched by the police. And causing the killer no trouble, the police remained untouched by Mateen. At about 5:15 a.m., while patrons were still playing dead or crawling their way over bleeding bodies in daring attempts to reach safety, Mateen killed himself.
Many questions remained unanswered. Why did the police fail to take decisive action? It was one murderous terrorist against a whole regiment of cops. How was Mateen able to carry the day and kill so many patrons? Were the cops doing anything?
Mateen’s suicide took place at 5:15 a.m., three hours too late. Orlando’s police chief and other officials never explained why they failed to storm the club. Instead they showered themselves with praise. “From the beginning,” SWAT commander, Mark Canty said, “officers were running inside and trying to save people.” (Why did they fail so thoroughly?) The police also were “setting up outside the club trying to figure out how to get people out.” (Three hours to figure out how to get people out?)
Police Chief John Mina insisted that the police used the three hours “to rescue patrons” “get the lay of the building,” “put resources into place,” “determine where people were hiding,” “usher them out,” and “talk to the gunman.”
The police carried out “a three-hour standoff,” the press called it. In other words, they did next to nothing for three hours. They did eventually get around to using explosives to try blowing a hole in the outer wall of the club, but they could not sufficiently breach it. They mustered up an armored vehicle to ram the building repeatedly and unsuccessfully, unable to find vulnerable walls where victims might be located. The nightclub also must have had an evacuation plan filed with the local fire department. This went unmentioned.
A SWAT team finally raided the club, using armored vehicles and explosives designed to distract and disorient the killer. The New York Times incorrectly reported that this belated activism by the police brought on “a shootout with Mr. Mateen, leaving him dead” (N.Y. Times, 13 June 2016). This statement again leaves the impression that there was an exchange of fire between the assassin and the cops. In fact, Mateen killed himself and only after this fact was reported did the SWAT team go swarming into the club.
Many of the patrons who escaped with their lives were not at all complimentary toward the police performance—or nonperformance. Norman Caisano, a besieged patron, hid for a long stretch of time, then wended his way to the club entrance. When he poked his head out the police shot at him. “I started crying and yelling, ‘I’m a victim, I’m a victim, please, I’m hurt, I’m injured, I’ve been shot twice.’” (N.Y. Times, 21 June 2016)
Jeannette McCoy, who escaped early on, was furious at the timidity displayed by the officers. She wanted Mateen dead but “they gave him so much time,” she complained scornfully (ibid.).
No information was released telling how many rounds were fired by how many police, hitting how many patrons. SWAT commander Canty doubted that any fatalities or wounds resulted from police bullets. Members of his team, he said, “are trained to kind of identify the targets” (ibid.). Kind of?
One has to wonder why police in America are provided with so much training at the shooting range, along with arsenals of deadly weaponry, only then to demonstrate an unwillingness to use the weaponry when facing a lone murderer. Hundreds of police departments around the country, bankrolled by the Pentagon and federal government, are provided with huge arsenals that include the very best pistols, automatic assault rifles, head-to-toe body armor, helmets, bulletproof face visors, batons, grenades, grenade launchers, flash bangs, Tasers, mace, teargas, gas masks, gas guns, door smashers, wall crushers, armored vehicles, tanks, helicopters, and surveillance drones.
In Orlando, at the Pulse nightclub, all these weapons and devices seemed to have gone largely unused. Most unused of all were the police themselves.
The cowardly performance in Orlando reminds us of the nonperformance at Columbine High School in 1999. Two students killed twelve other students and one teacher, and wounded 21 other students. The wounded teacher was pulled into a classroom by students. They blocked the classroom door with a desk and chairs and made repeated rescue calls to the police—who were standing nearby out on the Columbine campus.
The entire massacre lasted fifty minutes. But it was not until three hours after the killings started that the police dared to venture into the school. By this time the teacher had bled to death—as had some students.
One bitter Columbine parent later commented, “Not one policeman had the courage to go in.” Indeed, not one dared to engage the two student killers. Three hours and sixteen minutes after the two perpetrators turned their guns on themselves, the police tip-toed in only to find the assassins long dead in the library.
One SWAT officer who participated in the Columbine police “operation”’ justified its invincible inertia: “They [the two students] could have had bombs,” he said. In fact, the Columbine killers did have bombs which they had no luck in setting off despite being given all the time in the world.
Today the police continue to perform fearlessly against unarmed individuals. “Suspects” supposedly finger their waistbands in a threatening manner, or respond too slowly or too swiftly to a cop’s command, or when getting out of their cars or not getting out of their cars, or some other innocent but fatal action or inaction. Nothing much has improved in recent years. Unarmed citizens continue to get shot by the cops with outrageous frequency. And while they are shy about confronting killers in nightclubs or schools, SWAT teams are still smashing their way into the private homes of innocent people, sometimes targeting the wrong address.
There are seventeen occupations more dangerous than law enforcement, including loggers, roofers, garbage collectors, taxi drivers, bartenders, farmers, miners, and construction workers. Cops are quick to act in situations that are one-sided, bearing no real threat from the victim who is pinned face down on the ground or handcuffed against a wall, or being choked in a police pileup, or running away in terror, or standing still with hands in the air, on such occasions the cops are likely to come charging with guns blazing.
In 2015, an average of three people a day were killed by police in the United States, most of them unarmed, a high percent were African-American or Latino. In 2016, routine murders by police continue to average about three a day.
In July 2016, in North Miami, Florida, Charles Kinsey, a 47-year-old, Black man, who worked as a caretaker for an autistic non-White patient, was on a city street with the patient when police came charging upon the scene. As the fearless officers drew their weapons, Kinsey told them there was no need for guns. He laid himself and the patient down in the middle of the street. He extended his arms to show his empty hands, at the same time trying to calm his terrified patient. But the police began firing a storm of shots, three of which struck the caretaker’s leg. When Kinsey asked, “Why did you shoot me?” the officer responded, “I don’t know.”
Let me offer a reason why the cop found it easy to shoot. Kinsey was lying on the ground, unarmed and threatening no one—so unlike Mateen in Orlando or the two kids in Columbine, and very much like the other innocent, harmless victims who are rubbed out on a daily basis in America. Cowards kill. And uniformed cowards kill the worst when it’s so frequently safe to do so.
Michael Parenti is an award winning, internationally known author. His most recent books are The Face of Imperialism (a critique of the U.S. global empire; 2011) and Waiting for Yesterday: Pages from a Street Kid’s Life (an ethnic memoir about his early life in Italian Harlem; 2013); and Profit Pathology and Other Indecencies. For further information about his work, visit his website: www.michaelparenti.org.
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