Policing in black America has historically been fraught with racial tensions that often catalyze sudden convulsions of violence and backlash. History has demonstrated that police are not trained to integrate themselves into the fabric of the poor communities they serve. Instead, the daily grind of black and white cruisers coasting down the block often evokes feelings of anxiety and suspicion. The fact that you can, and very likely will be, randomly accosted by a patrolman for darkly nebulous reasons sets the stage for a potentially explosive encounter. A foundation of trust, respect, and mutual understanding between communities of color and the police doesn’t exist.
The roots of black Americans’ relationship with state-sponsored sources of law enforcement have been poisoned since the birth of our nation. During the Jim Crow era, vigilante justice, public lynchings, and other forms of brutality committed against blacks were often conducted with the participation or tacit approval of local police departments. The most base of alleged transgressions, such as attempting to shop at a market owned by whites, were met with spectacular displays of ritualistic punishment. Decades on, the motto of Service and Protection is a commitment that becomes cancerous when applied to the cracked sidewalks of working-class neighborhoods. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Michael Brown, and to a large extent, Trayvon Martin (his killer, George Zimmerman, was a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman), are all tragic symbols of hyper-aggressive and largely unaccountable police departments. These most recent murders at the hands of cops have sparked organized, mostly nonviolent protest movements throughout the country.
The Dehumanization of Black Youth and the Denial of Black Childhood
The testimony of officer Darren Wilson during the grand jury proceedings in Ferguson provide a very compelling snapshot of his denial and cartoonish distortion of Michael Brown’s common humanity. In his testimony, Wilson evoked the caricature of a massive black man of superhuman strength and aggressiveness. The officer described Brown as a demonic machine sprinting through a hail of ineffective bullets. Furthermore, transcripts of Wilson’s testimony reveal that he “felt like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan”. It’s important to understand that Wilson and Brown were almost equally yoked. Officer Wilson stands 6-foot-4 and weighs in at around 210 pounds. Similarly, Brown was 6’5 and 290 pounds. That’s hardly a David and Goliath matchup.
You see, in the minds of men raised in a culture that builds its understanding of black people through hyperbolic myths and assumption, seeing a teenage black male as an outsized, savage, wrestler-like figure is quite common. The tragic case of Tamir Rice is another striking example of the denial of black childhood. The officers who encountered Rice in that snow-dusted Cleveland park aged him up nearly a decade. Initial police reports described him as a man of 20 years old. Rice was 12 at the time officers gunned him down. Photos and video of the child clearly show an undeniably young boy.
Tamir was in a public space playing around with a toy gun—the ultimate symbol of American masculinity, strength, and swagger. (see Richard Slotkin’s work on this topic, or if reading is too much, just cue up any Clint Eastwood film). Yet, when a young black boy dares to participate in this hugely celebrated aspect of American culture, it becomes an imminent threat to local safety. (For the record, I’m not in anyway way endorsing the celebration of American gun culture. I’m simply using this example to demonstrate the differing cultural standards for white youth and youth of color.)
From these two instances alone, it becomes clear that youthful insouciance is a privilege reserved for those of the dominant class. Our culture has rejected an age of innocence for black American youth. Resultantly, black children are ineluctably tasked with carrying the colossal burden of adult responsibility years before they are psychologically and socially equipped to navigate those waters. These denials of black childhood, combined with the toxic assumption of hyper-aggressive masculinity, are the driving factors behind deadly police encounters.
The Role of Public Spectacle. Then and Now.
The element of public spectacle is oftentimes present when dealing with the murder of black citizens at the hands of police. Cellphone video and digital camera footage have usurped the role of lusty, voyeuristic crowds of onlookers erstwhile clustered around macabre outdoor theaters showcasing the latest “strange fruit”. The deft utilization of community-based oversight of police activity has allowed a global audience to observe beat cops’ callous disregard for the dignity of black bodies.
In the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, his body lay exposed to the elements on the filthy street for over four hours, all without the benefit or respect of a basic white shroud to protect his young corpse from baking in the Missouri sun. Photos from the scene show Mr. Brown splayed across the asphalt, face down in morbid repose, while officers and detectives calmly mill about. In Staten Island, Eric Garner was brutally choked to death while a concerned bystander recorded the assault and his haunting cries of “I can’t breathe”. A second video shows the arrival of emergency responders who make a seemingly calculated decision to withhold lifesaving measures from Mr. Garner. CPR and oxygen never entered into the equation. Instead, officers stare at Garner’s lifeless body and repeatedly check his pockets.
Another video has emerged of 12-year old Tamir Rice, who was killed by police officers in a public park. The footage, recorded by surveillance cameras across from the park, show Tamir’s 14 year-old sister frantically rushing to his aid after he was shot. The video shows an officer tackling the little girl to the ground, and eventually marching her to the back of the police car as her brother lay ten feet away bleeding to death. Rather than acknowledging the sister’s grief and confusion, the officers chose to prematurely criminalize her behavior by handcuffing her and refusing to allay her concerns. It’s incredibly sad to imagine the psychological trauma of being unable to protect your sibling and unceremoniously witnessing the blunt end of his short life. It’s almost certain that the Cleveland officers instilled a seed of mistrust and fear in the Rice family that will have ripple effects for generations.
In 2012, Trayvon Martin’s body laid soaking in the damp grass as a mild Florida rain dampened the hoodie that would go on to become a lightning rod for urban stereotypes. Again, no attempts were made to protect his young body from the unforgiving elements. In each of these instances, the sequence of events demonstrates the officers’ shameful lack of empathy for the victims. The electric atmosphere captured on film often melts into a state of calm detachment from the tragedy that occurred moments earlier.
It’s hard to overstate the value of real-time video/photographic documentation. When events are in dispute (which they almost always are), the objectivity of a zoom lens can obviate heavy reliance on the shaky recollections of a eyewitness. Community oversight of police tactics has helped catalyze the current political movement to eradicate the violent basis of cops’ relationship with poor, black communities. This democratization of investigation, analysis, and observance of public servants is a necessary check on the excesses of law enforcement. Capturing photographs and footage of police encounters also reshapes the often-emotional debates about race, social justice, and policing.
White Americans are now exposed to the harsh reality of the police brutality that is numbingly routine in minority communities. Deploying citizen media to document these encounters strongly mitigates the biases and distortions found in the anecdotal data put forth by victims, pundits, and police organizations. Cameras don’t have a political agenda to protect. Nor are they interested in perpetuating the status quo. Therefore, the proliferation of their use can only force a skeptical public to reevaluate their unconscious processes for justifying and hastily accepting the disproportionate use of deadly force against African-Americans. Unlike the grim days of public executions in the Jim Crow south, today’s use of spectacle is perhaps the smartest weapon in a sustained campaign against the state-sponsored violence rained down upon the bodies of black Americans.
On the media front, the coverage of the assassination of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu stands in stark contrast to the relatively muted reportage surrounding the murders of multiple unarmed black men last year. Hero Cop Dies is always the tagline when an officer is killed on the job. Bold headlines eulogizing the life and good works of the slain officers ran in most major newspapers. The tone of the coverage was evocative of a national tragedy. Unfortunately, outside of the protestors and the black community at large, that same empathy for the tragically short lives of the victims of police brutality has been largely absent. It seems that our hearts stop when an officer is killed. But the murders of scores of citizens a year at the hands of police is taken in stride. That collective tendency to lionize police officers is dangerous because it insulates them from accountability. Cops are not heroes. They are merely men, subject to the same errors in judgment and moral complexities as every other human.
Race, Policing, and Justice
Most Americans are steeped in a culture that is loath to critically assess the daily actions of police officers. The experiences of whites with policing are often radically different from African-Americans of all socioeconomic strata. A history of state-sanctioned violence and terror on behalf of law enforcement organizations doesn’t exist for the majority population. In fact, the most recent killings of young black men has only seemed to inspire a feeling amongst whites that race relations were being totally overblown. Indeed, fully half of white respondents to a Pew study conducted after the onset of riots in Ferguson felt that the racial elements of the case were receiving too much attention. It becomes easy to understand then, (although not in any way accept), white Americans’ deep reluctance to examine the racial dimensions of such incidents. Most of us are trained to hold subconscious biases that lend tropes of criminal behavior and general impudence to blacks. Thus, most Americans’ aversion to even suggesting that just once, the cop made a bad call.
Whites are incredibly likely to implicitly trust the judgment of the patrolmen, prosecutors, and grand juries that consistently fail to unpack, and objectively examine the violent actions of police against people of color. This disconnect is demonstrated on a larger scale when officer-involved shootings rarely lead to the conviction or even indictment of officers. The underlying assumption of many grand jurors regarding police brutality is that the officer was under imminent threat, thus deeming his actions legitimate. The nature of the evidence pertaining to his actions is largely beside the point. We like to give a wide berth for police organizations to put forth their version of events, and allow them to investigate problems in-house. Resultantly, a culture of recklessness and impunity rules, because those that would objectively analyze the culture and practices of various police departments are shouted down as anti-police.
This resistance to change has been thrust out into the open in the wake of the nationwide anti- police brutality protests. Officers in New York have been turning their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio in a coordinated effort to show their opposition to a leader that many in the force believe chose the protestors over them. The fact that de Blasio dared to legitimize the grievances of the protestors, and even went so far as to advise his son on how to interact with police, was a bridge too far for the men and women of the NYPD. Service and protection should be extended to all citizens, whether or not they buy wholesale into the myth of the hero cop. The fact that these officers have turned their backs on the people of New York is disgusting. Freedom of assembly doesn’t stop at the precinct’s door. The notion that Mayor de Blasio contributed to anti-police sentiment by protecting the protestors’ right to take to the streets strongly suggests that the NYPD expects blind and unflagging support.
Another troubling aspect of police culture is the unwillingness to be called to account for misguided tactics, such as stop-and-frisk, that are fueled by an irrational fear of black citizens. These policies easily lend themselves to stereotyping, and adrenaline-soaked, half-baked judgment calls. It’s a solution in search of a problem. Naturally, petty crimes such as jaywalking or selling loose cigarettes become serious criminal offenses. When suspects rightly question their harassment by beat cops, the situation often veers out of control. What often begins as a relatively mild encounter quickly escalates to the use of deadly force. The shooting and killing of unarmed men, or in the case of Eric Garner, the brutal choking death, is indicative of a cadre of ginned-up, aggressive officers that are socially primed to dehumanize their black counterparts. Naturally, the argument will be made that these officers have to make split-second decisions with a number of unknown factors. However, if you compare the number of deadly encounters of black citizens and whites with police, the raw numbers tell an entirely different story.
According to an analysis by ProPublica, Young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by a cop than young white men. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force often remain murky, with many police organizations reporting the cause of these violent incidents as “undetermined”. 77% of the victims of these shadowy encounters are black. Any organization that is sworn to protect and serve should be open to the disinfecting nature of sunlight. To operate in the dark, resistant to constructive criticism and change, investigating itself, and to be cozy with prosecutors and various politicos in local and state leadership, creates the environment we have today. Who are the cops accountable to? No one.
Prosecutors are also complicit in the unchecked trend of police brutality against unarmed black men. Oftentimes, decisions on whether or not to indict the officers involved in these murders are only brought after weeks of public pressure. Even then, prosecutors seem to deliberately fail to make a vigorous case to the grand jury. For example, Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor in the Ferguson case, repeatedly emphasized his cozy relationship with the police department, and his admiration of police. During a highly unorthodox late night presentation of the grand jury findings, McCulloch essentially condemned the actions of Michael Brown, and mounted a public defense of the teen’s killer, Officer Darren Wilson. Several months later, in recounting an egregious demonstration of unethical conduct, prosecutor McCulloch casually revealed that he presented witness testimony to the grand jury that he knew to be false. Under these circumstances the probability of the late Michael Brown ever being granted justice is almost laughable.
Justice would be similarly denied to Eric Garner. In Staten Island, over 70 percent of the majority-white population believe the NYPD does a solid job. Additionally, 60 percent of Staten Islanders believe the police provide equitable treatment to both whites and blacks. That broad-based perception of the “firm, yet fair” cop went a long way in precluding the possibility of criminal charges against an officer that has an established history of using unethical tactics. Unsurprisingly, the grand jury declined to file criminal charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Democratizing the Debate Through Social Media
Enter Black Lives Matter. The fact that this even has to be said is a tragedy. African-Americans have to constantly remind the nation that we are here, and our lives matter too. The marches, “die-ins”, Twitter campaigns, and general civil unrest are essential to keeping this issue from going quietly into the night. The disgust and outrage at police actions are entirely legitimate, and the tactics used to draw attention to the injustice are also legitimate.
The artful use of social media to draw attention to issues that otherwise wouldn’t get much traction in the mainstream press is crucial in the struggle. Because a cost-barrier doesn’t exist for most social media sites, individuals are empowered to gather in the virtual public square and initiate dialogue and debate that often transform into action in the streets. Furthermore, the use of Twitter allows serious people to offer legitimate counterpoints and perceptions that often differ from the organizational agenda of large outfits such as the NYTimes or CNN.
Considering the sad lack of diversity in many newsrooms, these voices from the outside are indispensable to cultivating a holistic understanding of current events. Some of the most groundbreaking insights and coverage of Ferguson, for example, came from Twitter users that are members of that community, and were available to live-tweet many incidents as they happened. That perspective is crucial for filling out the hollow core of news reporting. Social media humanizes what can sometimes be viewed as bland, detached, and uncritical reporting.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Thus far, the police have shown zero willingness to address these issues and institute the structural changes needed to fundamentally revamp the relationship between people of color and the officers sworn to serve them. Instead of turning their backs, they should open their minds. (ETA: On Feb. 12th, FBI Director James B. Comey gave a widely touted speech regarding the nature of racism and policing).