In the past several weeks, there have been numerous incidents involving the police and Black people, that have resulted in serious injury and death on both sides. This includes several recent incidents in Oakland, California; in Seattle, a 15-year old girl brutally beaten for being mouthy and kicking a shoe; an off-duty Black New York police officer being gunned down by a white officer; and other incidents in places around the country.
These are some of the most recent and extreme examples of a problem that, in one form or another, spans the length of U.S. history. The reality is that police forces, in varying forms, have been traditionally used as a tool to preserve and promote white supremacy, and to keep Blacks (particularly those in impoverished communities) “in their place”. The idea of “protecting and serving” as it relates to policing, had as its root and initial goal the same objective as most other laws and statutes enacted in this country: To protect the interests of property-owning white males. There are few areas in the United States(if any) where the police in some form or fashion have not actively participated in violating the rights of Black people, utilizing any methods deemed necessary, including murder. Although some things have changed, it is naive (to say the least) to think that the legacy upon which the idea of policing was built in this country(white supremacy and Black oppression) has been erased from its method of operation.
Very often there is only outrage shown when an extreme incident takes place(such as some of those stated earlier). However, despite a spike in the number of documented and observable incidents of police brutality(thanks to youtube and various other sites), the reaction of many to these acts of brutality has become more indifference than anger. The increased ease with which we can see a person being beaten or harassed by police seems to have desensitized many of us to the injustice involved. This is extremely unfortunate for all of us, but particular for those Black people who live in neighborhoods oversaturated with police officers, which increases their likelihood of becoming the next youtube sensation(for all the wrong reasons).
Like most things, the issue of police misconduct as it relates to Black people does not operate in a vacuum, and it is not one-sided. Are there criminals in Black communities? Absolutely, just like there are in almost all communities. Do they need to be held accountable for their actions? Yes they do(we can debate what type of accountability and how harsh, but that’s another issue altogether). Do the majority of police officers go out with the conscious goal of harassing Black people and/or brutalizing them? I’ll say no to that one(although far too many seem to have that mindset). However, the next question is the one that most avoid and refuse to ask or seek an answer to(especially those who believe the fantasy that we live in a “post-racial” society): Is the American method of policing(not necessarily individual police officers) white supremacist/racist at its root, and in need of a complete restructuring? I say yes, and history(including the very recent past) bears witness to this.
I realize that many of us were raised to respect authority. That is all fine and good. However, it is imperative that police, given their position, show respect to the citizens in the communities that they serve. In many instances they do, but there are far too many situations where they don’t, particularly in predominately Black communities. Also, the fact that most of the officers patrolling these communities do not live there only serves to increase the likelihood that they will be uncaring and disrespectful to the residents that they come in contact with.
We can no longer afford to have the attitude of “I’m just glad its not me” when it comes to acts of police misconduct. At the same time, it is not productive to simply scream “F*#@ the Police!” either. Furthermore, those of use who have moved to Suburbia or other areas where these issues are not so prevalent cannot rationalize the misconduct that takes place and the lack of accountability on the part of the police by following the lead of some and attempting to blame or criminalize entire communities of people. It is almost comical to see one of these “Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong you don’t have anything to worry about” people suddenly turn into Huey Newton when they are wrongly profiled, or are laying face down with a gun to their head for no valid reason.
One key result of regular negative interactions with police forces is the distrust and disdain for the police that is common amongst Black people, which results in incidents like the recent Oakland beating, where people who need to be held accountable may not be. The fear of testifying or “snitchin” is directly linked to the idea that the police cannot be trusted to protect a person when it counts, which is often the case.
The police are one part of a criminal justice system that is still demonstrably unjust in its dealings with Black people. This is not about hating individual police officers(My sister, whom I love dearly, is in law enforcement), it is about a way of doing things that is resulting in the absolute destruction of an entire segment of the Black population. 1 in 3 Black males between the ages of 20 and 29 is under some form of correctional supervision or control. (For more detailed statistics, check out www.hrw.org, and http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/welcome.html).
Police misconduct is not the only reason that Black men in America are going to prison. There are aspects of this problem that we can and should deal with ourselves, in our communities. Although there are extreme problems in the criminal justice system, there are also problems in Black communities that contribute to this path of destruction (that will be another post). However, a large part of the problem is the disparate way in which the criminal justice system has and does treat Black people.
We must start at the most basic level first. Knowing what our rights are when interacting with the police is imperative. Document/report any negative interaction you have with a police officer(this can include contacting city council, mayor’s office, or other representative, and even the press). Utilize the internet to spread the word or concern about a particular incident, including petitions if the situation calls for it.
In reality, there is a delusional segment of the population (possibly brainwashed by years of “tough on crime” propaganda) that will find a way to justify any act of police brutality, no matter how despicable. For everyone else, it is imperative to make it known ,through words and action, that this is a serious issue (even if this means addressing President Obama’s continued silence on the matter). As stated before, many lives are at stake. You don’t want to be the next face on that youtube screen.