No Justice, No Police
In the wake of senseless deaths, in the aftermath of collective outrage that seized the attention of the nation and the world, and in the midst of worsening relations between Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police force, perhaps the most striking element in the current state of race relations has become the unprecedented media attention and high profile scrutiny that continues to characterize these events. Why?
The widely publicized deaths that occurred tragically in Missouri, New York, and Ohio in recent months, and in Florida two years ago, are but a manifestation of a systemic pattern of unwarranted police brutality disproportionately targeted toward America’s black male population. While the separate grand juries’ decisions to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson nor New York officer Daniel Pantaleo were shocking, they were not uncommon against a backdrop of historical instances in which racially motivated police violence has repeatedly been absolved or ignored in court rooms across the United States – a short history of this phenomenon is outlined here.
Why have these particular instances sparked a (justified) outrage felt and exercised by tens of thousands, with a vigor not seen since the Rodney King uprising that took place over 20 years ago, but on a scale that far surpasses it in size, organization, unity, and (relative) peace?
Repeated incidents involving the police and communities of color, especially African Americans, are not, and have never been mere coincidences. The harrowing number of black arrests in relation to population percentages (28% and 13% respectively in 2013), and blatantly incongruous incarceration rates (black individuals at nearly 6 times the rate of whites) should now serve as impetus enough to call for a critical examination of our legal system and those employed to enforce it. But have efforts like Mayor Bill de Blasio’s to curb racist stop-and-frisk practices drawn enough attention to the immediate need to improve police-community relations, and thereby acknowledge underlying tensions in places like Ferguson, where black people make up only 5.6% of the police force but 67% of the population?
Twice a week, black suspects are killed at the hands of white officers, according to seven years of FBI data. Due to self-reporting bias and a lack of a complete database, this statistic actually severely underestimates the true number of fatalities. Regardless of what made these recent losses especially resonant and what triggered the demand to overhaul the status quo for thousands of activists, writers, politicians and everyday citizens, I am optimistic that #blacklivesmatter will become more than just a movement, but rather a paradigm shift.
An important, but inadvertent, shift has been underway in New York City, where the problematic “broken windows” policing, as advocated for by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, has recently been spurned by officers, albeit for reasons other than expected. Broken windows policing involves a crackdown on minor infractions in the hopes of discouraging greater acts of violence and criminal activity. Minor infractions include turnstile jumping or limited marijuana possession, and 86% of these arrests are black and Latino men. Trends such as these serve only to exacerbate deeply entrenched distrust between law enforcement officials and black communities that emanates from horrifying brutality exhibited by police during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, in which dogs were unleashed and high-pressure water hoses released.
Here it becomes incredibly frustrating to note that the original crime for which police approached Eric Garner was the selling of loose cigarettes. This would be considered a minor infraction, the likes of which police are now refraining from acting upon during their recent and rebellious “work stoppage.”
For the NYPD, the deaths of Officers Ramos and Liu two weeks ago at the hands of a disturbed gunman have been shrouded in political contention in the same way that those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have. Unintentionally echoing the activities of the Black Lives Matter movement, the NYPD have been involved in protests, in public demonstrations, and in demands for systemic change. In the case of the NYPD, these demands boiled down to a cessation of displays of police demonization heralded by public officials, especially Mr. de Blasio.
An op-ed published by the New York Times by retired police officer, Steve Osborne, attempts to shed light on the true source of NYPD’S contempt towards Mr. de Blasio. Mr. Osborne describes Mr. de Blasio's word of caution to his biracial son about the dangers of interaction with the NYPD as disrespectful, as failing to acknowledge its accomplishments.
As long as black men continue to face discrimination at the hands of police officers and other law enforcement officials, black men should be warned about it, by whoever cares for their future, their integrity, and their humanity. As long as black men continue to be portrayed as just that, “black men,” a monolith against which projections of delinquency, of risk, and of inferiority, are made and acted upon by police forces, so too should black youth learn to face all police officials with a designated demeanor. If black Americans must continue to bear the painful burden of sweeping generalizations then police officials must similarly be met with a standardized conduct: wariness and caution.
While police officials possess many venues in both the public and private sector to voice their concerns and influence public discourse, black citizens lack sufficient legal and political platforms with which their grievances, their injustices, and their inequalities can be communicated. They are in want of the justice and peace that they are campaigning for across the county, and it is why these chants can be heard reverberating in cities across the country.
- Sabine Teyssier