Thoughts on police and policing
He may be a very nice man. But I haven’t got the time to figure that out. All I know is, he’s got a uniform and a gun and I have to relate to him that way. That’s the only way to relate to him because one of us may have to die. ~ James Baldwin
Last year on Malcolm X’s birthday I had a bit of a disagreement with a police officer that could have possibly landed me in jail or worse. I was on my way to work and dropping my daughter off at school when a policeman, on foot, yelled towards me “Hey, pull over.” It was one of those “click it or ticket” campaigns where police officers set up stings to ticket people who aren’t wearing safety belts. I had just handed my daughter a piece of fruit and did not have my belt on- I was wrong. I still ignored him, cut through a parking lot (I now know this is also a traffic offense) and proceeded on my way. I mean really, who yells at a moving car “hey” and expects a response? Well, I suppose this White officer did, and in some way I offended him by not responding, because he hopped in his patrol car and blocked off three lanes of traffic to pull me over. Needless to say, he was livid and beet red by the time he approached my car. He was immediately aggressive towards me, a woman with a small child watching, in a way that was inappropriate and extreme. I met his screams and aggression with choice words of my own, including the fact that he had absolutely no right to speak to me in the manner that he was, and that if he was going to cite me he needed to do it and allow me to be on my way. I thought he was going to drag me out of the car. I was afraid, yes, but not quite afraid enough to let his treatment of me go unannounced. He went on, “You don’t tell me how to speak”, to which I replied, ” I do when you’re speaking to me.” The ugly exchange continued with him finally saying that I was just upset because I was wrong and because I was being ticketed. I looked him square in the eye, and commented, “No Officer Matthews, YOU are wrong, there is absolutely no reason for you to speak to and gesture towards me this way for a traffic offense.” I looked in the back seat at my child, who was obviously frightened by this strange man’s behavior towards her mother, and looked back at him.
The officer went to his car, calmed himself, and came back to explain the details of my citation. He now appeared to be more embarrassed than angry because, I believe, deep down he understood that he was wrong. It was his responsibility to enforce the law with calmness and restraint, and he had failed. I was very clear in noting that failure when I filed a report against Officer Matthews. Had I been, possibly, his White wife with his small White child in the back seat, I am almost certain that I would have been treated with more respect and decency by an officer such as himself. We both understood that without having to say it. The truth sat there between us as he silently wrote my ticket and I put on my sunglasses refusing to further acknowledge his antics.
My four year old told me the other day, as I was approached with a compliment by a Black male officer, that all police do is put people in jail. At first it was peculiar and almost funny, I believe because it was so absurd. Here sat this child spitting the fire of truth to this man and me without provocation. However, as I dug deep inside myself, I realized that she understood and unspoken legacy within our community- that police often brutalize us instead of protect us. I would imagine that children should consider public servants heroes, champions even, but I knew that I had never felt that way though never having been told that I shouldn’t. She’s yet to see any Black Panther “off the pig” video footage, or photographs of police officers firing hoses or unleashing attack dogs on Blacks during various Civil Rights demonstrations. My child has not seen pictures of Black men hanged from trees, strange fruit style, as proud sheriffs stood by beaming, almost ecstatic about the savagery that had been committed while ending the life of someone who was probably innocent. Perhaps though, she did not have to see those images, maybe those images are ingrained in her mind or her DNA. Possibly, there is a pocket in her brain where our story lies and in that story is a space that describes just how much anger and fear we have towards those who police us.
I don’t want my daughter to end up like the young woman punched in the face by a police officer recently in Seattle for a jay walking offense, but I wonder how much control I have over such an occurrence. Clearly, I plan to teach my daughter how to interact with the police, to object to them if necessary, in a civil way that won’t have her in the back of a patrol car with a swollen face. If I one day have a son, I’m sure my knees will bruise from kneeling in prayer with hopes that he will not become an Oscar Grant, a Sean Bell, even a police officer like Omar Edwards who was shot and killed by a fellow White officer as he attempted to identify himself while in plain clothes. There really is no rationale, no safe space, for Black people when dealing with the police, because as the above mentioned James Baldwin quote asserts, we often feel that we may be beaten, maimed, or killed regardless of what we say or do to them.
I am fully aware that the young women in that video were aggressive towards the policeman that fought to restrain them. I have many questions about how it all started, what made these young girls snatch away from him, what the initial interaction was like. In the end however, I realize that regardless of how these teenage girls behaved it was the responsibility of the adult man, who has specific training on peaceably detaining crime suspects, to end that situation without assaulting that young woman in that manner.
Many ask, why Black people behave so negatively and sometimes so violently towards police? The answer to this question lies in the history of this nation’s policing system and the institutionalized racism that sits at the foundation of it. As I sit writing this I am fortunate enough to scan my personal library and find the book Slave Patrols which provides some insight into how the abominable relationship between Blacks and the police came about. The book essentially chronicles the foundation of local policing in South Carolina, specifically in Stono where a slave rebellion saw more than two dozen White slave owners and families killed in 1739. Slave owners were realizing that those enslaved were outnumbering them exceptionally and in turn began to fear that those enslaved would retaliate against them. Somewhere in the midst of this fear, this idea of chickens coming home to roost, a construct of Black rage was adopted and poor White southerners were hired to become “paddy rollers”, ensuring that Blacks were kept under control. You see, prior to slavery, rebellions such as those in Stono, and enslaved Africans constantly attempting to free themselves from bondage, there were no local police systems operating in the US. Sure there were national and regional military groups who basically protected US borders, but no community police forces. This fact is what one should consider when questioning the relationship between Blacks, the police and the effort of policing. In essence, police systems were created to control Blacks who were tremendously feared by Whites and as a result labeled collectively as criminals, deviants and savages. And if this is historically the case, how can we not expect Black people to look at police as freedom stealers, invaders, and enemies of the community?
Those paddy rollers have become patrollers, and not much has changed in the way that Blacks have been brutalized and murdered by them. Sure the happenings are less frequent, but the fear on both sides still persists, and it is this fear that I believe fueled the actions of both the arresting officer and the young women arrested in Seattle. I am further reminded of this fact as I read this article from NPR news that discusses a settlement in a case from the Civil Rights era in Frankin County, Mississippi where local law enforcement agencies were found guilty of aiding and abetting the Klu Klux Klan in murdering and covering up the murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee in 1964. And what of this story concerning Jon Burge who has been accused of torturing more than 100 (read way more than 100) Black men in Chicago, many of whom plead guilty to crimes they did not commit because they simply feared dying at the hands of this tyrant?
When we isolate events, as many did with the Seattle beating, and choose not to view those events wholly and historically we dis-serve ourselves and our communities, and we fail to see the culpability of officers like the one I filed a complaint against and the one who used excessive force in Seattle. Wiliam Flax makes the following observation here, ” The differences in neighborhood reactions to Police action, arise not in any innate characteristics of any people, but in the calculated responses of certain organizations, which long predate contemporary incidents.” Policemen who wore badges during the day and white sheets at night go forty plus years without ever being accused of any wrong doing, much less of murder, as was the case in Mississippi, when we don’t address police wrongdoing holistically. Commanders like Jon Burge, who literally terrorize entire cities like Chicago, get pendants and honors, while our justice system incarcerates and possibly murders innocent men and women who fall victim to such tyrannies. It’s atrocious and sickening, and shame on you if you don’t understand that. A young Black woman believing that she is fighting for her life when she counter-attacks a police officer after being detained for jaywalking is not necessarily a monster. Maybe, as Baldwin commented, she is just a person who believes that violence is the way to relate to the police. And if this young woman believes this to be so, who exactly is to blame for that perception?
As Tolstoy asks in his epic novel War and Peace, “what is to be done?” Cornel West in the introduction to Race Matters asserts, “To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society- flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes.” Essentially, we can not begin a conversation on healing our ailing relationship with police organizations by further perpetuating images of Black rage and criminality. We must, instead, be honest about the reasons why stereotypes and constructs such as these exist and why we, after all of this time, are still unable to escape them. I don’t have the magical answers that I hope for in these matters of policing, of solidifying relationships with the police that allow us to overlook our collective past experiences, but I do know that we MUST teach one another methods of interacting with them in a way that may save our lives. I believe one should begin here: