Is sodomy with a stick worse than death?

The outcry over Justin Volpe's abuse of Abner Louima -- compared with comparative silence about decades of police killings -- suggests assaulting someone's manhood is worse than killing him.

Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

New York police officer Justin Volpe's guilty plea Tuesday to charges of depriving Abner Louima of his civil rights, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and witness tampering came as no real surprise, given that all last week was spent with his cronies in the New York Police Department testifying to what we already knew: that on Aug. 9, 1997, Volpe and three other police officers beat Louima brutally in a police cruiser, and then back at the station house Volpe sodomized Louima with a broken broom handle while a fellow officer held him down.

While he is now an admitted rapist, sodomizer and sadist of the highest order, Volpe ain't blind. Pleading guilty is simply a desperate attempt to get leniency from the court and save his ass -- and I do mean that literally as well as figuratively -- under an avalanche of damning testimony and damn near certain conviction. The whole defense effort has been both offensive and pitiful, from suggestions that Louima's massive internal injuries -- damage that required multiple surgeries and months of hospitalization -- were the result of consensual homosexual "rough sex," to the bizarre parading about of Volpe's black girlfriend, as if her very existence negated the possibility of Volpe being racist. Hello! Thomas Jefferson had a black girlfriend too, Sally Hemings, and that didn't stop him from owning slaves, demeaning black people in his writings and perpetuating slavery.

The bottom line is that none of the weak balloons the defense tried to float could get off the ground after the testimony of Volpe's colleagues. The image of Volpe strutting around the precinct brandishing a stick covered with shit and blood, preening in sadistic glee, beating walls and bragging to his cronies that "I took a man down tonight" is simply unforgettable, and unforgivable. Trotting out a soul sister girlfriend ain't gonna make that shit disappear, and anyway, so what? Even black women have the right to bad taste.

But even if the judge does shave a few years off his possible life sentence, Volpe can probably kiss his ass goodbye. What began as a dick thing outside a nightclub in Brooklyn, when Volpe was decked by an unknown assailant and chose Louima to blame and punish, will as likely as not end as a dick thing inside some prison. The brothers in the joint are waiting for you, officer Volpe, and it ain't with open arms. As it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end, or something like that.

While it's impossible not to be relieved, and happy on some level, that Volpe will surely serve time in prison for his sadistic crimes -- where he will definitely, and appropriately, get his just desserts -- it's impossible not to wonder why this case galvanized the attention of so many citizens, not only in New York, but across the nation.

After all, police killing citizens is not what put the "New" in New York. This is the city where in the early 1970s officer Robert Torsney shot 10-year-old Clifford Glover in the head after Glover encountered Torsney outside the building where he lived and asked if there was trouble inside. This is where a group of police officers shot 24 bullets and killed Louis Baez in 1984 in response to his parents' summoning police to help them subdue their mentally ill son.

Where but in the Big Apple was 69-year-old Eleanor Bumpers shot to death by a gang of officers who surrounded her but found no other way to subdue an elderly, overweight grandma brandishing a kitchen knife? And these are only the murders by police that made headlines. There are plenty more. In every one of those cases, and hundreds of others, the victim paid the ultimate price, death.

Yet the response to the Louima case suggests that, contrary to old adages and common belief, there is a fate worse than death, and that is loss of manhood. Not to minimize Abner Louima's terror, pain, suffering and humiliation, but he is, unlike so many victims of police brutality before him, alive. He still breathes, kisses his family goodnight, awaits the birth of his third child. Even the possible life sentence is more a reflection of outraged manhood than
even-handed justice, given how infrequently rape and murder are punished with
life sentences -- not to mention the fact that I'm not aware of any cop spending his life behind bars for the crime of killing someone in his custody. But maybe a case like that escaped me.

What the black community's response to the crimes against Abner Louima seems to say is that for a black man, nothing is worse than having something shoved up your ass -- not even death. It is chilling, and heartbreaking, that black people too have come to devalue black lives. Just as scary is the embrace of patriarchal, racist and homophobic notions of manhood -- and by its absence, womanhood -- in the ranking of crimes against those very same black lives. Thus, we are able to sustain our outrage at the sadism of Louima's torture, as well as the magnitude of the number of bullets -- 41 -- fired at Amadou Diallo, but it's hard to get it up when it's just a plain old, home-grown African-American killed by police firing one or two or 12 bullets.

But this primal horror extends beyond the black community. After all, it was the taboo nature of the crime against Louima that made white cops break their code of silence and tell on Volpe. Their candor is welcome, but it would be nice to see similar honesty in cases of police killings, not to mention the routine beatings and abuse meted out by the men in blue.

Just as porn freaks need more deviant stimulation, dope fiends demand more potent dope and violence aficionados are constantly upping the ante, so Americans are constantly upping the price of our horror, compassion and outrage. After the school shootings in Georgia, an acquaintance remarked to me that "he didn't even kill anyone," as if somehow the lack of dead bodies make the kid's crime not only a failure, but passé. Likewise with police brutality. It ain't enough to simply be shot and killed by out of control cops over some bullshit -- no one gives a damn. At the millennium we need a bigger hit, say 41 bullets plus, or the living death of manhood assaulted.

The irony is that with his plea, Volpe may very well have consigned himself to the same hell of assaulted manhood he visited upon Abner Louima, that fate worse than death. "The brothers are definitely waiting for his motherfuckin' ass," says a friend who served hard time. "The only hope, if you want to call it that, is that the Aryan Brotherhood is waiting to worship his ass."

In the end, inside prison and out, it all comes down to that same tired dick thing. And until it becomes a human thing, we'll all continue getting fucked, one way or another, like it or not.

By Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson is the author of "Volunteer Slavery" and "Straight, No Chaser."

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