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Mychal Denzel Smith | The Nation

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Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith

All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t. 

Police Are the Problem

NPYD

Police patrol Brownsville, New York. (Reuters/Eric Thayer) 

Policing in the United States is racist. The “broken windows” theory of policing is racist. We criminalize people and behaviors based on racist and classist ideas. Police are a problem, not a solution. The diversity of a police department or its community relations are issues that are beside the point. Police are a reactionary force that upholds the status quo of a repressive state.

I make these arguments all the time, but I think it’s necessary to repeat them in clear language because our cultural understanding of police as heroes feeds our political reliance on them as problem solvers. The longer we hold on to these ideals, the longer communities will be terrorized by police.

And lest it be assumed I’m just saying these things because of my own ill-will toward police, we have the numbers to back this up. A new report from John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows that since 1980, arrests for misdemeanors in New York City have increased from 60,000 a year to almost 250,000. Most of these arrests are for “low-level drug enforcement, especially of marijuana, prohibitions against commercial sex work, the many disorderly activities associated with living on the streets, and a variety of minor offenses mostly engaged in by young people such as graffiti and riding a bike on the sidewalk,” writes Alex S. Vitale at Gotham Gazette. In fact, 25 percent of all misdemeanor arrests since 1980 have been for low-level drug violations.

Last year, the arrest rate for black people in New York City was 6.4 percent, down from its high of 7.5 percent in 2010, but almost double that of its low of 3.6 percent in 1990. For Hispanics, the arrest rate was 2.5 percent in 1990 and jumped to 4.7 percent in 2010. White people, of course, have experienced the lowest arrest rate, at 0.7 percent in 1990 and reaching a high of 1.4 percent in 2011.

So, what do these numbers mean?

They mean policing in the United States is racist. The “broken windows” theory of policing is racist. We criminalize people and behaviors based on racist and classist ideas. Police are a problem, not a solution. The diversity of a police department or its community relations are issues that are beside the point. Police are a reactionary force that upholds the status quo of a repressive state.

So where do we begin to undo all of this?

We first have to be honest that police are not capable of solving all of the “problems” we have made them responsible for solving. We then have to admit that not every “problem” we have defined as such is a problem that needs solving. Not everything needs to be or should be a crime.

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A step in this direction is legislation like Proposition 47 in California. Prop 47 is The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, a voter initiative “that will change sentencing for low-level nonviolent crimes such as simple drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors and direct financial savings to K-12 schools, mental health treatment, and victim services,” as explained by the group Artists for 47. It won’t decriminalize drug possession, but it does provide an important stop gap measure, where (mostly young) people will not be saddled with felony charges for low-level drug charges, and the money that is saved from not arresting and prosecuting will be funneled into services that actually go toward building strong, healthy communities.

More importantly, it begins to move us from an over-reliance on police and criminalization as solutions to our societal ills. And hopefully, once we see that the world won’t fall apart if our first response to everything is not “more police,” we’ll be more willing to sit down and talk about how to dismantle the rest of the racist, oppressive police state.

 

Read Next: Do mental illness, homelessness and substance addiction sound like crimes?

Give Police Less Work

NYPD car

(Photo courtesy of drpavloff, CC 2.0)

If you’re a serious person, having a serious discussion about police and policing in America, you better pay deference to just how difficult a job the police have, or else your ideas about police reform are not taken seriously.

I was reminded of this unspoken rule while reading this conversation between former NAACP president Ben Jealous and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie.

And… OK. If we’re all required to talk about how difficult and dangerous a job the police have, let’s get that out of the way: police have a difficult and dangerous job. Sometimes people do horribly violent things and we expect the police to respond. ABC News says being a police officer is the third-most-stressful job in America. It’s tough being a cop. Sure.

But a few things bother me about the constant injection of this caveat into discussion about racist and violent policing. First is that the process of humanization seems to work only one way. When a cop shoots an unarmed black person, we’re asked to consider the position of the officer—how difficult their job is, how they must make split-second decisions in order to save their own lives, how their high stress levels can be expressed in aggression, how they’re working-class citizens who only want to make a living. It’s a redeeming narrative never afforded to the victims of their violent behavior, violent behavior that is conducted in the name of the state, with legal justifications at the ready, and with little or no recourse available to those who suffer behind it. It’s the job of the person beaten or shot or killed to prove they didn’t deserve to be beaten or shot or killed because, hey, police just have it so hard.

Further, when we’re reminded of how difficult a police officer’s job is, the speaker seems to be telling us that they’re a compassionate person who cares deeply about the police as people. They’re not interested in denigrating the many brave men and women who don the uniform and protect our communities, just those “bad apples” that make it into this otherwise honorable profession.

But if we can’t have a conversation about the ways in which police target, harass, beat, shoot and kill black people at alarming rates without making it about individual police officers, we repeat the mistakes we make in every other conversation about racism. The personal morality of some police officers is thought to override institutionalized racist violence, and it simply doesn’t work that way. To echo the sentiments of a popular online discussion around the harassment of women, it may not be all police officers, but nearly every black person must fear that any interaction they have with police could end violently.

Let me propose a solution, for those who care about how stressful a police officer’s job is: give them less to do. In 2011, law enforcement made 12.4 million arrests, a rate of 3,991 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants of the US, a number that doesn’t include citations or traffic violations. Of those arrests, 1,531,251 were for drug-abuse violations. Imagine how much less work the police would have to do if drug use/possession was decriminalized (actually decriminalized, not the way New York City has said it would end marijuana arrests and hasn’t). There are between 70,000 and 80,000 people (mostly women) arrested on prostitution charges every year. If sex work were decriminalized, there’s another thing police don’t have to worry about, reducing their work and stress loads. If we invested in an adequate mental health care system, instead of making police our primary mental health care professionals, and provided housing for all people, instead of asking police to dispose of the homeless, they could just be police and not social workers, cutting their workload down significantly. And if they weren’t charged with preventing crime by arresting and serving citations to people for petty, “quality of life” crimes that pose no actual threat to safety, as is the prevailing theory behind the continued existence of “broken windows” policing, they might have time for a little relaxation.

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If police weren’t responsible for keeping the city budget afloat through fines collected through traffic violations, as is the case in places like St. Louis County, or their own department’s budgets through civil assets forfeiture (legalized theft), or preventing people from exercising their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly through protests and rallies, they’d almost have a vacation on their hands. Subsequently, with so many fewer responsibilities, they wouldn’t need as many weapons, and therefore the stress of having to decide when are where to use them wouldn’t enter the equation.

To be clear, I think Ben Jealous would agree with most of what I’ve laid out here. But he still returned to that “police have a tough job” narrative without laying out why their jobs are so tough. We have created a police state, criminalizing innocuous behaviors (largely those associated with blackness) or those harmful only to the person participating. We have handed over responsibility of solving social problems like mental illness and drug abuse to police officers who are not equipped to do anything other than arrest or shoot. We think we can stop violent/serious crime by tasking police officers with cracking down on petty crimes, rather than address root causes of violence and inequality. We still have a society predicated on the control of black bodies. That’s enough to stress anyone out.

Instead of offering it up as an excuse for a job done poorly, give police less work to do. Then we can all relax a bit more.

Read Next: Mental illness, homelessness, drug addiction: do these sound like crimes?

‘Evolution of a Criminal’: A Conversation With Filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe

Darius Clark Monroe

(Courtesy of ITVS)

While attending NYU Film School, Darius Clark Monroe got an idea for his first feature-length film. He would tell the story of how he robbed a bank when he was 16 years old—which, in fact, he did—but not just the story of the robbery, and being punished for it. Monroe wanted to tell the story of his a Southern black family, the effects of generational poverty, trauma, desperation, the prison system and redemption. He captured all of this in his autobiographical documentary, Evolution of a Criminal. Executive-produced by Spike Lee, Evolution of a Criminal, which took Monroe seven years to complete, features interviews with the family members, friends, teachers and some of the victims affected by Monroe’s action, all sorting through the root causes and figuring a way to deal with the aftermath. I spoke with Monroe recently by phone; during our conversation, Monroe told me what he hopes people take away from his film, which opened this past weekend in New York City.

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mychal Denzel Smith: You robbed a bank when you were 16 years old. What made you want to make a movie about it?

Darius Clark Monroe: I think it initially just started from me wanting to go back and find the customers inside the bank. I realized I just was so soaked up by the case and prison and my life then, I just never dealt with [the fact] that I had a hold on these individuals. Then I talked to my mom about it and I realized my family, we haven’t talked about any of it. The whole reason behind me getting into trouble in the first place and me wanting to do the robbery, [our economic situation] definitely influenced my behavior. We really didn’t talk about it. So I think the film almost gave her an excuse to sit down and have a [conversation we wouldn’t] ordinarily have.

The film is called Evolution of a Criminal. But anyone who watches probably isn’t going to come away with the sense of you being a criminal in the way we typically understand who is a “criminal.” So why name the film Evolution of a Criminal?

I wasn’t speaking necessarily to my own definition of who I am or who I was back then, but more to how black and brown boys are painted by society. Just being a young black male is already worthy of being criminalized. So I wanted to subvert the audiences’ expectations of who and what we think a criminal is. What does a criminal look like to you? Who is that person? Because there is no singular or broad stroke that just boxes everybody into. There are thousands and millions of individuals who find themselves in really hard situations and tough predicaments and they have sometimes to make unfortunate choices. Are these people criminals? These are people who are complicated, may have made a bad mistake or made a bad choice. For me the title subverts expectations. You go in and you’re expecting to watch this show about a “criminal,” this kid going bad. And what you see is an individual who has been consistent, personality-wise, throughout his life. It makes it difficult trying to force you into a category. Human beings are way more complicated than that.

And what are the factors that led you to make the decision to rob the bank?

My whole life as long as I could remember, my mother would get up and work. My stepfather had two jobs. These were working people. And I just couldn’t get over the fact that they would work all day, be exhausted, and I couldn’t really see how there was any light at the end of the tunnel. I was getting old enough to see [economic] disparity in [my hometown of] Houston. And you see what struggle and stress looks like. Even though we had clothes and food, a roof over our head, I could tell things were precarious when it came to our finances. I was always well aware of that.

In 1996 we had a home invasion. My house was robbed. The neighbors’ house was robbed. We didn’t have a lot of money to begin with, and that just seemed so invasive. I was working part-time at Jack-in-the-Box, and none of the small money I was making just seemed to be making hell of a lot of difference. I couldn’t figure out how to respond to [the burglary] at 16, but I knew that I did not want to retaliate by robbing other people’s homes. Robbing a bank [didn’t] feel at the time as extreme, because it felt like an institution. The money belonged to this institution; they will be able to replace it. So in my mind I tried to rationalize the whole crime as now I go take the money, it won’t hurt anybody. It’s a huge bank. We’ll get away. So that was just the being young and short-sighted. It just started as this thing we can pull off and get little money, and be done with it.

At one point in the film you say your family was doing okay. You weren’t on the path to wealth, but you could pay your bills. It was the home invasion that set off this robbery, that set off the idea that you had to do something, because one little incident like that can set you back. Not just financially—it can demoralize you.

People think that you have to be destitute to know what that feeling feels like. I’m not ashamed that we weren’t. I felt in my gut that we were a situation away from slipping down further into a worse situation. I couldn’t tell what that was, I could just feel it. I felt it was really fragile. We were looking for stability, but it just never felt like stability was a real option. The car breaks down, it needs brakes—and where are you going to take that money from? How are you going to cover this—are you going to pay with a credit card? It’s strenuous, for a family with children and lives to protect and provide for. It seemed like a lot for mom and my stepdad. Both of them were trying to do their best, and just couldn’t get a leg up. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort—these people were hard-working people.

And you went to prison. How long were you there?

I was in prison for three years of a five-year sentence.

What people could take away from your story is that you’re exceptional. You went in prison already having been a straight-A student. So it doesn’t seem too far fetched for you to go into prison and continue your studies and get your GED and start college classes. But those aren’t opportunities available to everyone in prison.

What you said is true—I was not a perfect student, but I definitely had an interest in school before I went to prison. In prison, the guys who were in trouble in school before they went to prison, they were decent students [academically]. Once they got into prison and decided to focus, they were able to do well. [Others] were people I knew instantly had been allowed to slip through the cracks repeatedly. Even if they weren’t in an environment like a prison, when it comes to just getting their reading levels together, getting their math skills up, taking a GED test—it felt like a huge challenge. It’s embarrassing to say, “Hey I need help. I need assistance.” There’s just so many distractions [in prison], so many things in there to stop you from bettering yourself. A lot of these guys want to do it. Some don’t know how to do it. If they find out how to do it, it’s a long, long process. If you don’t really have the tools before you go in there, it could become a complete wasteland.

You were compelled, as part of a mandatory prison labor program, to pick cotton, and that ‘s the most striking image I took away from the film—of the cotton fields, and listening to you talk about your experience while in prison, being a black man in the South, picking cotton. If you can’t convince people any other way that the prison system is a continuation of slavery, I think that image does it.

I knew I wanted to use [the cotton fields] to convey [my experience] because it is shocking. At 17 years old I didn’t know that cotton still grew. Going up to the prison, and I’m looking out of the window, I see way out in the distance fields of white. I was trying to wrap my head around what the hell that was. The fact that it was cotton and having to go out and pick it blew my mind, man. It blew my mind. I knew I was in that place because some bad choices I made, but this is surreal. It was like another level and it really opened my eyes to what the whole system was. I felt it was all planned and mapped out. It was no coincidence. I was at a place on a farm or a plantation as they call it. [Out of] 2,000 inmates, the majority are black and brown. Only had a handful of white boys. Only a handful of Asians. Even in prison the whites typically had the better jobs. And in the fields, you see a sea of black men working. Back-breaking work, picking cotton. There are people working in the fields, picking cotton and just working in general, getting paid zero dollars [and] other companies are profiting from that. So I don’t know what you want to call that, but it is a system and it’s a system inspired by another system set to oppress. And it’s a trap. If people leave [the film] with nothing else [they should] understand [that] this whole system is a trap to defeat you, and keep you down and to turn off your light so you can’t contribute to society, so you can’t bring forth new ideas and new experiences.

What do you want people to think when they see this film?

I want people to think about their own experience. Just their own lives, the choices we’ve [made] as human begins and the mistakes we have made that we have regretted. I hope they would think about the fact that they don’t want to be judged forever by that mistake, by that event and hopefully it will provide a sense of compassion.

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And what do you want them to feel?

I feel like some folks cannot empathize with people who look different, who have a different [experience]. I hope the audiences are able to empathize. I’m not asking for people to like me or like the story to prove. I’m saying empathize with something other than yourself, something outside yourself. Think beyond your own singular experience, and understand that we all have our own different walks and different journeys. It’s not all the same.

Who needs to see this film?

I want to say “everybody.“ Is that too broad? I know that there are 2 million people who are currently in the [prison] system or getting out of the system, and that’s a large population of folks. And these people have records now. They have a history. These people still have dreams. They still have desires. They still want to live their life. They’d still like to vote. They’re still going to pay taxes. And they need to be given the tools to do that. I feel like you can’t send somebody [away for] some time and once they’re out continue to dramatically creating incarcerated individuals surviving in a free society. And that’s exactly what happens. And so I’m hoping I’m talking to the people who have been down a similar path I’ve been down, [saying] don’t give up, don’t feel discouraged, and move forward. And they don’t have to be stuck in that situation. We need people [who] are not just a part of the system, we need folks who make decisions, people who rent out apartments, people who give out cars loans, people who [do hiring]. We need everybody to understand. I’m not saying we need a parade or a welcome wagon. I’m just saying these people have served their time, and in most cases served too much time, and they should be allowed to be back in society. I don’t know how else to say it.

Evolution of a Criminal is showing at the IFC Center in New York City.

Read Next: Yes, arresting subway dancers is still a way of criminalizing black youth.

Why Voting and Movement Building Go Hand-in-Hand

Voters in Florida

Florida voters stand in line during the fourth day of early voting. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Voting is an important feature of democracy, it is a mechanism for accountability, and the right to vote should be extended to all who desire to do so. That being said, I wish we could demystify voting as the single most important political act a citizen does.

I say this as the push to get Ferguson, Missouri residents to vote is underway. In the almost two months since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson (who still has not been arrested), 3,000 Ferguson residents (total population is 21,000) have registered to vote. And that’s good. Certainly some of the problems that led to Brown’s killing have to do with a political system that is not representative of the citizens it is charged with governing. In a town that is two-thirds black, only one of its six city council members is also black. If more than 6 percent of the black residents had voted, there would likely be a different mayor, and perhaps a different police chief.

That doesn’t mean, however, Darren Wilson would not have shot Michael Brown.

As I said, voting is a means by which we hold elected officials accountable, but it does not guarantee they do the right thing. In the aftermath of Brown’s killing, there was much reporting on the daily interactions black residents of Ferguson have with police. Much of it has to do with persistent traffic stops and ticket writing, the fines from which make up a large part of the city’s budget. It’s noticeably racist when a largely white city government and court system prey on working-class black families in this way, but as Radley Balko reported for The Washington Post, it isn’t that much different for surrounding municipalities, even those with proportionate black representation in government. People in office uphold structures of oppression.

Voting can change the makeup of who is in office, but in order for there to substantial change, the people who run for office must accurately reflect the values of the community they represent. That’s where activism, direct action, organizing and movement building come in.

“For all the righteous indignation it inspired,” writes Charles Cobb, a a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary, in The Washington Post, “the Ferguson turmoil has become the latest in a series of flash-in-the-pan causes that peter out without inspiring lasting movements for racial justice.”

I have more than a few issues with this assertion. It’s the reason I wrote a few thousands words about the work that a new generation of activists have been doing, before Michael Brown was killed and Ferguson became recognizable shorthand, in organizing and building a movement. Cobb nods to this toward the end of his op-ed, but doesn’t seem to take these young people seriously.

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But he also admonishes the residents for their low voter turnout. “Just two generations ago, black Southerners endured arrests and beatings in order to vote,” he writes, “And yet, it seems we’ve already forgotten the immense power of the ballot.” I don’t believe that’s true. Young black people in particular, the ones who showed up in record numbers in 2008, 2010 and 2012, know well the power of the ballot. They also know the limitations. They have watched the past six years unfold, on a national and local level, and understand that voting on its own is not enough. And that’s why they’re in the streets building a movement.

I want to stress that I’m not anti-voting. I’m anti-rhetoric that posits voting alone as the supreme political act and does not recognize the other influences in politics that diminish the power of the vote. Our two-party corporate-funded elections are not a balm on our most pressing political issues. Activism, organizing and direct action are crucial, and the work young people are doing on those fronts can not be easily dismissed.

Voting is way of holding politicians accountable. Movements are a way of producing politicians we’d actually want to vote for.

Read Next: What’s next for the voting rights movement?

Michael Dunn Was Found Guilty—but That’s Not Enough to Ensure Justice in an Unjust World

Michael Dunn

Michael Dunn in a Jacksonville, Florida, courtroom, February 10, 2014. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)

Yesterday, Michael Dunn was found guilty of first-degree murder for the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. It was the second time Dunn was tried with murder, after a jury in February of this year was unable to rule unanimously for conviction or acquittal. Dunn was already going to spend the rest of his life in jail, having been convicted of three counts of attempted second-degree murder for the other passengers in the car with Davis; each count carried with it a twenty-year minimum prison sentence. The first-degree murder conviction for killing Davis will add a life sentence to Dunn’s punishment.

Meanwhile, in Ferguson, Missouri, Officer Darren Wilson still has not been arrested for shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. It has been almost two months since the incident, and a grand jury (which is now under investigation for misconduct) has until January to decide whether to charge Wilson with anything.

I return to the question that plagues me every time we reach a resolution in these cases, be it a guilty verdict of (Dunn) or a not-guilty verdict (George Zimmerman), and as we await action in another case that involves the killing of young black person: What is justice?

Because if the definition of justice is confined to the meting out of punishment for individual acts of wrongdoing, more young black people will be killed. Punishment alone is not enough of a deterrent, particularly where black bodies are concerned. Murder convictions, as we see in the case of Michael Dunn, and Theodore Wafer, who was convicted of murder killing Renisha McBride, are rare. In America, almost always, you’re allowed to kill black kids with impunity.

If justice is merely an arrest, a trial, a conviction and a prison sentence, then there is no reason to contest the ways in which the criminal “justice” system operates. The goal, in this system, is not to build the type of society where murder (and other serious offenses) does not occur, but to catch, trap and do harm to the perpetrators. There’s no need to concern ourselves with the factors that led to those actions, about the emotional well-being of the victimized, or the mental well-being of the offender. We’re allowed to wash our hands of the entire affair because we can simply remove them from polite society and hope they learn their lesson on their own.

But if that is the basis of our understanding of justice, it’s no wonder Michael Brown was killed. And it won’t be surprising when the next young black person is shot and killed by a police officer or vigilante. We think justice is a matter of individual accountability. We, at our best, think the injustice lies in a not-guilty verdict.

But a “not guilty” in a courtroom trial is the least of our concerns when black children are born with the presumption of guilt. If they exist in a world where blackness marks them as targets, where racism defines their experience and where white supremacy is the law of the land, what good is a jury saying “guilty’ when they die?

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Justice, real justice, is not impossible. It’s elusive. It hides from us because our current definition is oriented toward revenge. But a real justice system, one that would have protected Michael Brown and Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and every black child waiting to have their name added to the roll call, is not outside of our reach. It is, at the time, outside of our collective will and imagination. And we’re too afraid of upsetting the unjust order of our world to to grasp for it. Capitalism, white supremacy and retributive “justice” provide comfort for those who will never experience the sting of their lash. Justice would be divesting from these systems and investing building supportive communities focused on access to stable home lives, education and recreation.

For Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, Jordan Davis’s parents, I hope this guilty verdict brings some peace to their lives. For Michael Brown Sr. and Lesely McSpadden, Michael Brown’s parents, I hope an arrest of Darren Wilson could help them sleep a little better at night. But none of it is justice. Justice would ensure their pain is never felt by any other parents.

But I know we’ll be back here again.

Read Next: Jordan Davis and the refrain of black death.

Why White People’s Awareness of Racism Isn’t Enough

Prison

(AP Photo)

According to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Institute, 51 percent of white Americans agree that black people and other racial minorities are treated unfairly in the criminal justice system. That’s up from 42 percent in 2013. If one of the consequences of the last year of high-profile trials—in which justice for black victims was hard to find—and subsequent outrage and protest is that a slight majority of white people now understand that the justice system is racist, then perhaps everything hasn’t been in vain.

However, this data point isn’t reason enough to become totally optimistic, particularly when paired with a study out of Stanford University, “Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies.” Two psychologists, Rebecca C. Hetey and Jennifer L. Eberhardt, conducted two experiments in which they presented white people with varying images or statistics, either reflecting the actual percentage of black people who are incarcerated or an exaggerated number. Their study “found that exposing people to extreme racial disparities in the prison population heightened their fear of crime and increased acceptance of the very policies that lead to those disparities.” When white people believed that the number of black people incarcerated was higher than it actually is, they were less likely to sign petitions in favor of making California’s “three strikes” law less harsh or for putting an end to stop-and-frisk. In other words, when the criminal justice system harms more black people, is more racist, white people are more likely to support the policies that perpetuate this system of racism.

From the Stanford study, we learn not only that awareness doesn’t necessarily lead to action to fight racism—it may lead, even unconsciously, to greater racial bias. That white people can be aware that the criminal justice system is racist and still wish for it to be more punitive toward black people speaks to how entrenched racist ideology is in our society, figuring into our perceived best interests. Blackness and criminality are synonymous in so many people’s minds, and the natural correctives are the police and prison. But because they would never explicitly say “arrest black people for being black,” most people would never say their views are racist. They tell themselves they’re simply looking out for their own safety.

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It’s that specter of black criminality that means that even though stop-and-frisk has all but disappeared in New York City, police continue to be a major presence in majority black communities and, under Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his “broken windows” philosophy, still harass black residents under the suspicion of committing minor offenses. Yes, it’s racist, but does anyone think that’s actually a problem?

Awareness is not enough. Knowing that racism exists is not enough for white people to want to see its destruction. So often they’re more interested in not being labeled a racist than in actually fighting racism. That means it isn’t enough to present the facts. Racism will have to disrupt the lives of white people before they are moved to action—that’s part of the reason some activist groups stress the crushing financial costs of maintaining the current criminal justice system—after all, it’s white taxpayers’ money, too. Until then, they seem content on doubling down.

 

Read Next: Healing the rot at the heart of the criminal justice system

Sparing the Rod Won’t Spoil the Racism

Student reading

(AP Photo/Jose F. Moreno)

The NFL’s reaction to two of its players’ off-the-field misconduct has sparked some important national debates about domestic violence and, most recently, child abuse. And because these players—Ray Rice, caught on video beating his wife, and Adrian Petersen, accused of beating his son—are black, it has also prompted us to examine how these issues intersect with race.

Let’s take the corporal punishment of children. Spanking kids as a form of discipline is not unique to black American culture. That’s an obvious statement, but it still needs saying. However, there is a certain justification for spanking that is a reaction to the specific experience of being black in a racist American society.

In his New York Times op-ed on the subject, Michael Eric Dyson writes:

Adrian Peterson’s brutal behavior toward his 4-year-old son is, in truth, the violent amplification of the belief of many blacks that beatings made them better people, a sad and bleak justification for the continuation of the practice in younger generations. After Mr. Peterson’s indictment, the comedian D. L. Hughley tweeted: “A father’s belt hurts a lot less then a cops bullet!”

The idea here is that a child who is properly disciplined is less likely to incur the wrath of an armed police officer. Brittney Cooper expands on this type of thinking in her piece at Salon:

The loving intent and sincerity of our disciplinary strategies does not preclude them from being imbricated in these larger state-based ideas about how to compel black bodies to act in ways that are seen as non-menacing, unobtrusive and basically invisible. Many hope that by enacting these micro-level violences on black bodies, we can protect our children from macro and deadly forms of violence later.

But she also adds:

The thing is, though: Beating, whupping or spanking your children will not protect them from state violence. It won’t keep them out of prison. Ruling homes and children with an iron fist will not restore the dignity and respect that the outside world fails to confer on adult black people.

Corporal punishment is an extension of respectability politics, the idea that with the correct behavior one can avoid the harshest aspects of American racism. This line of thinking has not and will not ever protect any black person from state-based racist violence, but it continues to hold weight as legitimate counterpoint to dismantling racism. It speaks to a collective idea that the problem is not a country beholden to racist policies but rather a deficiency among black people and within black culture.

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But how much discipline would have been required so that the black women allegedly sexually assaulted by Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw never would have been targeted? How many switches should Rekia Boyd have fetched to have been able to dodge Chicago’s Officer Dante Servin’s bullets? How many whippings did Marlene Pinnock need to endure in her fifty-one years so she could avoid California Highway Patrol Officer Daniel Andrew’s fists?

We continue to place the responsibility of correcting racism and avoiding racist violence on those who are victimized by it, and our black children continue to the pay the biggest price, at home and in the streets. It may engender helplessness to believe that you cannot protect your child from harm, but it’s no more helpful to inflict that harm yourself under the belief that spankings at home will shield them from racism outside.

Read Next: The 2014 NFL: Where Racketeers Condemn Child Abusers

What to Do While You Wait for Darren Wilson to Be Acquitted

Protest in Ferguson

Protesters march in Ferguson on August 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, testified before a grand jury this Tuesday, September 16. Wilson testified for four hours and was “cooperative,” a source told the Post-Dispatch. At the direction of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, the grand jury will have until January 7 to decide whether to indict Wilson on criminal charges. As of now, Wilson is still on paid administrative leave.

With each day that passes without Wilson being arrested, the citizens of Ferguson become (rightfully) more angry. Witnesses keep coming forth, the evidence continues to pile up, and yet Wilson still walks around free. More and more it looks as if no one will be held accountable for killing Michael Brown.

And we should all prepare ourselves for such an event. Police officers are rarely arrested for on-the-job killings—from 2005 to 2011, only thirty-one were—let alone convicted. Brown’s family may file a civil suit, and perhaps they could win. But even with a victory there, Michael Brown would still be dead, and black children in Ferguson, St. Louis, and all over the country would still have to live in fear that they could be next.

Brown’s individual death matters, because all lives matter, but it’s what his death represents that will be of greater significance the further Ferguson recedes from the news cycle. Brown’s death represents America’s failure. For the entirety of its existence, this country has failed to respect black people’s humanity. Our laws and customs have aggressively denied black people the full rights of American citizenship. And worse, when black people have stood up to demand equal treatment, this country has pretended that there was nothing wrong.

Michael Brown died because we failed to deal with all of this when it happened to… pick a name. We failed them all.

And we will fail more black children if we don’t find a way to confront some basic truths. We can start with this one: America routinely criminalizes black youth. Whether it’s the disparities in drug arrests despite similar rates of drug use as white people, or the rates of school suspensions and arrests, or arresting kids for dancing on the subway, one thing America does not fail at doing is making it illegal to be young and black in public spaces. And that’s why the police can get away with killing so many young black people. Everyone thinks they’re a bunch of criminals receiving their just desserts.

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In the weeks and months to come, the details of the investigation into Michael Brown’s killing will likely continue to infuriate anyone who wants Darren Wilson arrested. The “justice system” will fail (or succeed, if you see, as I do, the purpose of the American justice system as the maintenance of racism, white supremacy, and black people’s second-class citizenship). But we can’t allow that to dampen the fight. America must be pushed to account for its failures. This country has to admit to itself not only its past sins, but its current ones as well. Then it has to reverse course.

Continuing to fail all the Michael Browns out there can no longer be an option.

 

Read Next: What More Will It Take To Arrest Darren Wilson?

What More Will It Take to Arrest Darren Wilson?

City Council Meeting

Ferguson residents at a City Council meeting (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

“Hands up, don’t shoot!” has been the cry of the thousands who took to the streets seeking justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9. According to multiple witnesses, Brown had his hands in the air—a gesture generally understood to signal surrender—when Wilson shot him to death. The police have a different story: they say Brown was the aggressor, having reached for Wilson’s gun while the officer was still in his vehicle, and later charging toward Wilson. This version of the story, frankly, sounds ridiculous. And now there’s more reason that ever to doubt the police’s explanation. CNN has reported on two witnesses that had not previously given statements to journalists:

Two men, shocked at what they saw, describe an unarmed teenager with his hands up in the air as he’s gunned down by a police officer. They were contractors doing construction work in Ferguson, Missouri, on the day Michael Brown was killed.And the men, who asked not to be identified after CNN contacted them, said they were about 50 feet away from Officer Darren Wilson when he opened fire. An exclusive cell phone video captures their reactions during the moments just after the shooting.

“He had his f**n hands up,” one of the men says in the video. The man told CNN he heard one gunshot, then another shot about 30 seconds later. “The cop didn’t say get on the ground. He just kept shooting,” the man said. That same witness described the gruesome scene, saying he saw Brown’s “brains come out of his head,” again stating, “his hands were up.”

At this point, I need someone to answer this question for me like I’m stupid: What else is needed to arrest Darren Wilson? I’m not asking what a prosecutor would need to for a murder conviction, or even what a grand jury would need to bring formal charges. What else is needed for police to say, “Darren Wilson, you shot and killed someone, you are under arrest”? What more?

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At least six witnesses have given near-identical accounts of what happened to Michael Brown. A shot was fired, Brown ran, Wilson kept firing, Brown put his hands in the air, and Wilson kept shooting. The autopsy shows Brown was hit six times. He was unarmed. What more do you need to make an arrest?

And I’m not of the belief that arrest, a trial or even imprisonment constitute real justice. That punishment model does not create a more just world. But currently, it’s what we have. If under this system, the value of black life is such that an 18-year-old can be shot and killed in cold blood and the police can’t even place the person responsible in handcuffs—a month and counting later—I find it difficult to maintain faith that we’ll one day move to model of justice that respects black humanity. Our lives are too expendable.

 

Read Next: Obama is responsible for the protest in Ferguson—but not in the way you think

More Police Will Never Be a Solution to Black America’s Woes

Police

Police officers patrol in Brownsville, New York. (Reuters/Eric Thayer)

While riding the subway the other day, I overheard a mother and daughter discussing the police. The two of them had just boarded the train after witnessing an officer stop a young man whom the officer believed didn’t pay the fare. Apparently, the young man had explained to the subway booth attendant that he didn’t have any money, and the attendant took pity on him and let him through. The young man became defensive when the police officer didn’t believe his story.

The mother, a black woman who looked to be in her 50s, was upset about the interaction she witnessed. “As a police officer, you should be out trying to catch people doing murders and robberies, not things like hopping the turnstile,” she kept saying. “I feel like they’re just picking on these kids.” The daughter, also black and probably in her 30s, had a different view: “They’re doing their job. They know enough to know which kids are the ones coming on the train stealing iPhones. Not paying the fare is the beginning of mischief. These kids are bad,” she said.

“These kids are bad” isn’t solely the opinion of that one woman I overheard on the train. And as such it wasn’t surprising to read the findings of this Quinnipiac University poll that shows that 57 percent of black voters support “broken windows” policing. It’s one reason why folks like President Obama and the Rev. Al Sharpton can go before black audiences and, as The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart argues, “air the dirty laundry” of black America and receive rapturous applause. “These kids are bad”—and if we don’t set them straight early on, the thinking goes, they’ll be worse adults. Even given the adversarial (at best) relationship between black folks and the state, many black Americans still view police as part of the solution.

It’s important to note, though, that this particular poll surveyed registered voters. As Kristen West Savali points out at The Root, “Older black people are more likely to be registered voters than younger black people, and in populations most affected by police brutality—low-income, black communities—access to a landline or cellphone is not assured.” She adds: “When reading these results, one also has to take into consideration the disenfranchisement restrictions placed on black voters on parole.” In other words, the people not as likely to face police harassment are the ones who support a crackdown on so-called “quality-of-life” crimes.

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Fact is, black people can also be complicit in upholding the system of racism, having internalized the idea of black criminality and inferiority. Consider that during the 1980s, at the dawn of the crack epidemic, the War on Drugs had the support of many black activists. They saw it as a means of cleaning up their neighborhoods; in reality, it was a way of creating a new racial caste system through mass incarceration.

I understand where the impulse comes from. We look around our neighborhoods, witnessing despair and desperately wanting a solution. But the police aren’t it. They are not disciplinarians. They are agents of the state whom we have authorized to use force, often with impunity, against mostly black youth. But when you believe the answer to “these kids are bad” is police intervention, and then don’t take into account what those interactions often entail—harassment and disrespect, sometimes violence—you’re damning those children even further. Instead of pushing for more police intervention, while simultaneously chastising black youth for their behavior (much of which is not, or should not be, criminal), we need to find the political will to invest in the things that actually work. Affordable housing, recreation, education, food security. These are things that will build the type of neighborhoods and communities we want to see.

Even if we were all to concede that “these kids are bad,” more policing won’t make them any better.

 

>Read Next: How Trayvon Martin launched a new black youth movement.

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