All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t.
The people of Ferguson, Missouri, have rallied and marched and protested for eleven straight days and nights. They want justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed black boy killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. They’ve been met with tear gas, assault rifles, rubber bullets, armored police cars, dogs and the National Guard. And they show no signs of letting up.
I’ve been trying to figure out why so many people have had such a strong reaction to Brown’s killing. Because this isn’t new. His death is tragic, but fairly ordinary in the course of black people’s interactions with the police. We deal with this all the time.
On her MSNBC show this past Saturday, Melissa Harris-Perry demonstrated just how ordinary it is. She read a list of names of unarmed black men killed by police in the last decade alone, and it was chilling, to say the least. “Timothy Stansbury, unarmed. Sean Bell, unarmed. Oscar Grant, unarmed. Aaron Campbell, unarmed. Alonzo Ashley, unarmed. Wendell Allen, unarmed. Jonathan Ferrell, unarmed. Eric Garner, unarmed,” she said, before adding, “From 2006 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country.”
Twice a week. It’s business as usual for police to kill black people. And those are only a few names—many more black men and women have been killed by police. Many of them were also unarmed. Many were around the same age as Michael Brown. So what makes him special? Why did his death elicit such a strong reaction?
Of course, there are several factors to consider. That he was a young black man and not a young black woman is part of it. Black women/girls are often forgotten as victims in the discussion of police violence. That he was regarded as a “gentle giant” (Brown was 6'4" tall and close to 300 pounds) and a prospective college student are relevant. His image as “harmless” and “respectable” makes him more sympathetic to some people. That a mostly white police force routinely harasses black residents of Ferguson matters. And the fact witnesses say at the time of his shooting Brown had his hands up in the air, surrendering, also matters. It makes the six bullet wounds he suffered appear even more callous.
But for me, the detail that sticks is that Brown’s body was left in the street for at least four hours. Not only did people in the community witness the shooting, they were forced to look at the aftermath. For hours, they had to see Michael Brown’s bullet-ridden, bloody body lie rotting in the street.
It’s not unlike Henry Simmons’s bullet-filled body being hung from in tree in Palm Beach, Florida, in June of 1923. Or that of William Turner, whose body was hung, then cut down, then hung again before being burned in a bonfire in Helena, Arkansas, in November 1921. There was also Jim Roland, shot and killed by a mob in Camillia, Georgia, after having refused to dance for a white man who was pointing a gun at him in February 1921. And also Frank Dodd, shot and hung from a tree “in a negro settlement on the outskirts of DeWitt, Arkansas, in October 1916.” And so many more.*
They were lynched. They were killed and displayed publicly for the amusement of the lynch mobs and other white folks, and for the further terrorization of black people.
The police didn’t hang Michael Brown, but they made a public display of his killing. They left his body lying there for all to see. The psychic toll that exerts on a community calls to mind the eerie words once sung by Billie Holiday: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/ blood on the leaves and blood at the root…/ here is a fruit for the crows to pluck/ for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck.” But for Brown and Ferguson, the “poplar trees” were replaced with a city street.
It is an injustice that Michael Brown was killed. But injustice alone doesn’t move people to action. His killing is one of many. But the sight of Michael Brown’s body being left in the middle of the street is the closest this generation has come to seeing, in real life, the strange fruit of which Holiday sang. That’s an image you just can’t shake.
*Each of these lynchings is documented in the book 100 Years of Lynchings, by Ralph Ginzburg.
Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department. This is what matters.
The name of the officer has been released (it’s Darren Wilson, who has been on the force for six years), alongside allegations that Brown was involved in a robbery. This does not matter.
It doesn’t matter because people accused of robbery should not be shot. It doesn’t matter because people who put their hands up in surrender should not be shot. It doesn’t matter because a body should not lie in the streets for hours after being shot by a police officer.
Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department. Everything else is irrelevant.
“Of course, it’s important to remember how this started. We lost a young man in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances,” President Obama said yesterday in his brief remarks on Brown’s death and the protests that followed. What he failed to say, and what is absent from Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement, is how Brown lost his life. He was a teenage black boy in America who was shot and killed by a police officer.
To not say that is to isolate Brown’s death. If you don’t say “Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department,” then you don’t have to reckon with the entire history of police harassing, beating, terrorizing and killing black bodies. It’s to disconnect his story from Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, Rekia Boyd, Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart and so many more. It’s to say that what happened to Michael Brown isn’t a part of this country’s insistence on criminalizing black bodies. It erases the black codes, convict leasing, Jim Crow, lynching and all other forms of terror visited upon black people in the place they call home.
There should be a thorough and transparent investigation of the killing of Michael Brown. We should learn all the facts of what happened that afternoon. His family and community deserve that much. But we also can’t avoid saying the one thing we do know.
Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department.
Read Next: The death of Michael Brown and the search for justice in black America.
Last Thursday, Theodore Wafer was found guilty of second-degree murder for shooting and killing Renisha McBride, the 19-year-old woman who arrived on Wafer’s porch after a car accident the night of November 2, 2013. The verdict came as a surprise. Having witnessed a jury acquit George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, and another jury do the same for Michael Dunn in the killing of Jordan Davis (though Dunn was convicted on other charges that will lead to prison time), the idea that anyone would be held responsible for killing a young black person seemed like a fairy tale. It was a concept that only existed in the far reaches of the imagination.
Wafer will be sentenced on August 20 and could spend the rest of his life in prison. It’s what counts for justice in our current system. But that Wafer will likely die behind bars offers little solace, knowing that this fact will not prevent future Renisha McBrides from suffering fates similar to hers. For a moment, though, his guilty verdict offered a bit of relief.
That relief was short-lived. On Saturday, August 9, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, by a local police officer whose identity has not been released. Brown was walking with a friend, 22-year-old Dorian Johnson, on his way to his grandmother’s residence in a nearby apartment complex. In an interview with MSNBC, Johnson says the two were walking in the street when a police car approached and the as-yet-unidentified officer instructed them to “get the fuck onto the sidewalk.” They told the officer they were almost at their destination and would be out of the street in a minute. Johnson says at that point the officer slammed his brake, backed up and asked, “What’d you say?” while opening his car door and attempting to get out. The door hit Brown and then closed. Johnson says the officer then grabbed Brown by the neck.
He continues: “They’re not wrestling so much as [the officer’s] arm went from [Brown’s] throat to now clenched on his shirt. It’s like tug of war. He’s trying to pull him in. He’s pulling away, that’s when I heard, ‘I’m gonna shoot you.’”
According to Johnson, the first shot followed not too long after. He and Brown both started running, Johnson ducking behind a nearby parked car and Brown continued past him. The officer fired a second shot, this one hitting Brown in the back. Johnson says Brown then turned around with his hands in the air and said “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” The officer ignored Brown’s words and fired several more shots.
Parts of Johnson’s version of the story are backed up by another eyewitness, Piaget Crenshaw, who has said “They shot him, and he fell. He put his arms up to let them know he was compliant, and that he was unarmed. And they shot him twice more, and he fell to the ground and died.”
Johnson’s account of the shooting, as told to MSNBC reporter Trymaine Lee, differs from what St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has told the press. “The genesis of this was a physical confrontation,” he told CNN. He did not say what led to this confrontation, but asserted that Brown had physically assaulted the officer and a struggle over the weapon ensued. Brown was unarmed and the only casings recovered from the scene came from the officer’s gun.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board wrote, “Michael Brown didn’t get due process.” It’s worse than that. Michael Brown was robbed of his humanity. His future was stolen. His parent’s pride was crushed. His friends’ hearts were broken. His nation’s contempt for black youth has been exposed. A whole generation of young black people are once again confronted with the reality that they are not safe. Black America is left searching for that ever-elusive sense of justice. But what is justice?
Justice for Renisha would have looked like Michael Brown being able to attend college. Justice for Trayvon would have looked like Renisha McBride getting the help she needed the night of her accident. Justice for Oscar Grant would have looked like Trayvon Martin making it home to finish watching the NBA All-Star game, Skittles and iced tea in tow. And so on, and so on. Justice should be the affirmation of our existence.
In the absence of such justice, we take to the streets. We protest, we hold vigils and, yes, we riot. What options are left? Rioting/looting (what some would call rebellion) may not provide answers or justice. But what to do with the anger in the meantime? We are told to stay calm, but calm has not delivered justice either. Do we wait for the FBI to investigate? I guess, but what to do in the meantime, as the images coming from Ferguson echo Watts in 1965? We’re told not to tear up our own communities, when time and time again we’re reminded that they don’t belong to us. Deaths like Michael Brown’s tell us we don’t belong here. What, then?
Counting the bodies is draining. With every black life we lose, we end up saying the same things. We plead for our humanity to be recognized. We pray for the lives of our young people. We remind everyone of our history. And then another black person dies.
Theodore Wafer’s guilty verdict allowed us to breathe easy for a second, but the killing of Michael Brown sucked all the oxygen right back out of the room (or whatever was left after learning about Eric Garner. And John Crawford. And…). It’s apparently a feature of what it means to be black in America: running from tragedy to tragedy, never having a moment to stop and catch your breath.
Last week, before medical examiners had ruled the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner a homicide as the result of a chokehold, pictures surfaced of NYPD apparently placing 27-year-old Rosan Miller in a similar hold. Miller is seven months pregnant and the police were arresting her for illegally grilling outside of her apartment in East New York.
Today the de Blasio administration is defending the “broken windows” theory and practice, the idea of which says if you crack down on small/”quality of life” crimes then you prevent more serious crimes in the future. This, even after video surfaced of Garner being killed by NYPD because he was allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. This, even after NYPD put a pregnant woman in a chokehold for grilling. This, even though all the evidence suggests that the “broken windows” theory doesn’t hold up. Mayor de Blasio is sticking to his guns.
To say I’m disappointed would imply that I had expectations that things would be different. De Blasio showed his hand when he appointed Bill Bratton, the architect of “broken windows” in New York City, as police commissioner. Though he rode his anti-stop-and-frisk stance to victory, it never meant that de Blasio was going to usher in a new era of progressive community policing and nonviolent mediation of disputes. He just didn’t like this one tactic being used so much.
The de Blasio administration says it supports “broken windows” so long as it is done in a “respectful” manner. But that’s impossible. It is by definition disrespectful and oppressive. As Jamelle Bouie lays out over at Slate, incidents like Garner’s and Miller’s are the inevitable result of “broken windows” policing. When you empower police to harass people for supposed crimes that harm no one, they will do just that. When property is deemed more worthy of protection than human beings, lives will be lost. And those who suffer the most will continue to be black, brown and poor, those who are already vulnerable.
The police don’t have to have meetings where they determine they will go out into the streets and choke black people (and then tell us that what we saw wasn’t a chokehold). The “criminal element” has already been defined for them and the laws that afford them power have been written. All they have to do is show up.
So long as the mayor, the commissioner, and other supporters of “broken windows” hold tight to the idea that they’re preventing crime through this tactic, more people will be harassed, choked, stomped, beaten and killed. But when the cost of doing business is black and brown bodies, even the so-called progressives appear to be willing to pay the price.
There’s an obvious ridiculousness to Congressman Mo Brooks’s comment about there being a “war on whites” that isn’t worth examining. In discussing the Republican party’s stance on immigration and how it hurts them with Hispanic voters, Brooks said this to radio host Laura Ingraham: “This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things. Well that’s not true.”
Yes, the first black president who rose to prominence by saying there was only one America, who ran on hope and change, has (frustratingly) attempted to govern through compromises that have lent legitimacy to the most reactionary of right-wing ideas, and has (infuriatingly) chastised black Americans for not defeating racism has also been laying the groundwork for a war on white people. Sly fox, that Barack Obama.
It’s clear Brooks wants to borrow the “war on women” language for his own purposes, but it’s also clear that he has nothing to support his claim. The idea that America wasn’t already divided when it comes to race before the Obama era is to ignore our entire history as a country.
I’d rather focus on another part of what he said. Still speaking on immigration, he told Ingraham: “It doesn’t make any difference if you’re a white American, a black American, a Hispanic American, an Asian-American or if you’re a woman or a man. Every single demographic group is hurt by falling wages and lost jobs.
“Democrats, they have to demagogue on this and try and turn it into a racial issue, which is an emotional issue, rather than a thoughtful issue. If it becomes a thoughtful issue, then we win and we win big. And they lose and they lose big.”
It’s true, we’re all hurt by falling wages and lost jobs (except black Americans can’t even catch a break when there’s an increase in jobs). It’s also true, however, that that has nothing to do with immigration. But it’s Brooks’s assertion that a “racial issue” is an “emotional” rather than “thoughtful issue” I most take umbrage with.
It’s the type of language used to dismiss the real-world concerns of those of us who live on the oppressed side of racism in America. Our issues aren’t considered serious intellectual questions but emotional reactions that are to be dealt with personally. But any discussion of jobs and wages that doesn’t consider race (or gender) is intellectually dishonest. To pretend there are not groups of people who are disproportionately disadvantaged under our current economic model and that our ongoing legacy of racism and white supremacy are not contributing factors means you are not actually looking for solutions. You’re turning the same blind eye that has allowed the suffering in the first place.
But let me also say that racism is an emotional issue, and that’s OK. It doesn’t make it any less serious. We owe it to the health of our country to directly confront the issue. Racism is actively killing us. Of course we’re emotional.
Update, August 1, 2014: The autopsy report confirms what we see in the video: an NYPD officer choked Eric Garner to death. There is no escaping responsibility. He died from “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” As such, the NYPD must be held accountable.
However, that alone is not justice. If the officer is arrested, faces trial, and is convicted, that still is not justice. There is no justice where there are dead black bodies. Justice must be more proactive, and with regards to this particular instance, justice should look like us reimagining the role of police in our society. The motto can no longer be "to protect and serve" if that only applies to certain people. We can't cede the idea of crime prevention to an armed police force, and then allow them the discretion to determine which crimes are worth preventing.
The reality of policing in America is that it upholds a system of racism and oppression of the poor. There is no justice, for Eric Garner or anyone else, until that changes.
* * *
Today, Eric Garner will be laid to rest. Garner was 43 years old and died last week after an altercation with NYPD. A police officer placed him in a chokehold and pushed his head into the ground until he stopped breathing. We know this because the incident was captured on video.
Garner is the latest in a long line of black people beaten and/or killed due to police brutality. But Police Commissioner Bill Bratton would rather we not think about race.
“I personally don’t think that race was a factor in the incident involved in this tragic death,” Bratton told The New York Observer. He’s watched the video and doesn’t think “the issue of race entered into this at all.”
Bratton made the same mistake that most people make when discussing racism in America. He takes the absence of any explicit references to race to mean that race/racism played no role in this interaction. No one used any racial slurs, the silver bullet of racial animus. None of the officers yelled, “Choke him! He’s black!” No one said that black men are animals who aren’t fit to live. Nothing of that sort happened. And because of the way we understand racism as an individual feeling of hatred toward a group of people based on skin color, it’s easy to then conclude that race wasn’t a factor here.
But history is present whether we invite it to the table or not. We don’t escape America’s history of racism because we believe ourselves to be good people, or that we’re just doing our jobs. It’s already defined our lives.
Racism created these neighborhoods where people live in poverty without access to decent jobs. Racism has determined which activities are illegal and who has been arrested for those actions. The selling of untaxed cigarettes, for example, for which police officers were attempting to arrest Eric Garner, is a petty crime that is almost exclusively enforced in communities of color. Racism taught us who is and is not a threat. Racism provided the justification for eliminating the threat. Before Eric Garner ever met Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the policeman who put him in the chokehold, racism had completed the work of shaping how they would interact.
While Bratton has ordered the entire police force to be retrained on the use of force, if he were actually committed to this never happening again, he would also order them to take classes on unlearning racism. Mayor de Blasio would be wise to fire Bratton, as it was a terrible choice for commissioner all along.
As for Eric Garner, may he rest in the peace he was denied while he was alive.
“I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”
I made the mistake of watching the video in which NYPD choke and arrest 43-year-old Staten Island resident Eric Garner until he was dead on the sidewalk. It’s horrific. On July 17, Garner was approached by two plainclothes police officers who questioned him about selling untaxed cigarettes. A frustrated Garner repeatedly tells the officers that he hasn’t done anything wrong and that he doesn’t have any cigarettes on his person. Onlookers, including 22-year-old Ramsey Orta, who recorded the exchange, keep saying that all Garner had done was break up a fight. The police seem uninterested in this tidbit and continue to question Garner about the cigarettes. One reaches toward Garner, who responds by saying, “Don’t touch me, please,” while swatting the officer’s hand away. At this point, the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, puts Garner in a chokehold. Three uniformed officers run over to assist, and Garner is taken to the ground.
“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe! Get off of me, get off of me!”
Garner remained handcuffed, on the ground, for several minutes after he died. An initial autopsy report shows no damage to his neck bones or windpipe. The likely cause of death is a heart attack, precipitated by the arrest, chokehold and takedown. Garner weighed 350 pounds and had chronic asthma, diabetes and sleep apnea. He is survived by his wife, six children and two grandchildren.
What more is there to say? What more can be said after the death of a black person at the hands of police? We’ve heard it all time and again, followed by promises to do better, to change the culture of policing, to foster better relationships with black communities. Yet, we still end up here.
Garner had been arrested a number of times before. According to the New York Daily News, he was “due in court in October on three Staten Island cases, including charges of pot possession and possession or selling untaxed cigarettes.” He may well have been involved in illegal activities. Do these low level crimes justify the persistent harassment that so exasperated Garner? Do they warrant massive police intervention? Do they excuse the use of a chokehold that has been outlawed since 1993?
Sadly, that’s usually the case. And the behavior of the police is rarely interrogated in the same way.
Think of this man lying breathless on the sidewalk, handcuffed, with no rush to get him medical attention. Think about the fact there were five cops involved in the arrest of one unarmed man being accused of a nonviolent crime. Think of how, in the face of witnesses and a camera, an officer still felt comfortable enough to use an illegal chokehold on Garner. We have ceded so much power to the police, and they brazenly flaunt it without fear of repercussion.
Mayor de Blasio has promised a full investigation into Garner’s death, headed by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which did not have a leader for the first six months of the administration (Richard Emery was appointed chair on the day Garner died) and which has been described by NYCLU attorney Chris Dunn as “on life support.” Officer Pantaleo has been stripped of his gun and badge. It’s a start.
But this isn’t about one officer or even this one investigation. It’s not even about the more than 1,000 civilian complaints of NYPD employing illegal chokeholds since 2009. This about the disregard for black life and humanity that fuels policing. It’s about the amount of authority police have over our lives, deciding when and where we die. It’s about the daily harassment, the constant fear and the perpetual mourning. We can’t breathe.
“I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”
For Eric Garner, it did stop that day. The harassment stopped when his life did. Must we all die for the abuse to end?
Twenty-three year old Jersey City police officer Melvin Santiago was shot and killed on July 13. According to CBS New York, he "was fatally shot in the head responding to a report of an armed robbery at the 24-hour drugstore." The report explains:
Lawrence Campbell, 27, of Jersey City, went into the Walgreens with no intention of robbing the store, [Jersey City Mayor Steven] Fulop said.
As CBS's Matt Kozar reported, Campbell beat up an armed guard and stole his gun. He then waited outside for police arrive. While he was waiting, he apologized to a customer for his conduct and told her to watch the news because he was going to be famous, Fulop said.
When Santiago and his partner arrived to the scene, Campbell opened fire, which the officers returned, leaving both Santiago and Campbell dead.
It’s a horrific scene to imagine, resulting in the loss of two young lives. But it turned bizarre when News 12 television reporter Sean Bergin offered his explanation of the situation. In explaining to the audience why the station chose to air an interview with Campbell’s wife, during which she offered condolences to Santiago’s family but also expressed her wish that her husband had taken out more cops, he had this to say:
It’s worth noting that we were besieged, flooded with calls by police officers furious that we would give media coverage to the wife of a cop killer. It’s understandable. We decided to air it because it’s important to shine a light on this anti-cop mentality that has so contaminated America’s inner cities. This same sick perverse line of thinking is evident from Jersey City to Newark and Paterson to Trenton. It has made the police officer’s job impossible, and it has got to stop. The underlying cause for all of this of course? Young black men growing up without fathers. Unfortunately, no one in the news media has the courage to touch that subject.
I’m wondering—what can’t be blamed on absent black fathers?
Put aside for a moment that the myth of the absent black father has been debunked time and again. We won’t discuss how black fathers have comparable—and in some cases higher—levels of involvement with their children as do white and Latino fathers. The statistic that 72 percent of black children grow up without fathers, which gets thrown around a lot in these conversations, is about out-of-wedlock births; that doesn’t necessarily mean those children are being raised without a father. But I don’t want to talk about the facts right now. I just want to know if there’s a single problem in black communities that can not be blamed on missing fathers.
Bergin believes “no one in the news media has the courage” to talk about this issue. Except that the missing black father has been a point of discourse in our media, popular culture, and academia for at least the past thirty years. Every time it is injected into a conversation about the ills of black America, the speaker positions themselves as some sort of brave truth-teller unearthing never-before-heard wisdom. But it’s one of the more common and insulting tropes we have in the canon of black pathology.
One thing is true here—I’ve never heard anti-police mentality be blamed on black fatherlessness. Bergin may be a pioneer there. He’s also clueless if he believes that if suddenly every black child were to have a father present in their home at all times, anti-police mentalities among black people would subside. It’s silly to think a population that has experienced disproportionate harassment and violence at the hands of police would pass down the lesson of trusting authority to their children.
But this is the disconnect. Bergin, and others who think like him, don’t see the harassment of young black men by police as a result of racism. They take the view that there are certain criminal behaviors prevalent among black men to which police are responding. If only they would clean up their acts, police would have no reason to bother them.
The people who support this view rarely take it to its logical conclusion. If you honestly believe that the reason police target young black men is because young black men are more prone to criminal behavior, you have to offer a reason for why that is. And if it isn’t racism, if the centuries of public policy that has created neighborhoods defined by their lack of resources isn’t the culprit, then there must be something biologically “wrong” with black men. They have to be genetically predisposed to violent/criminal behavior and creating culture which supports that. Or else, what other explanation is there?
Oh, yes. Missing black fathers. Those magical black fathers whose return to the home has the ability to cure poverty, violence, drug abuse and anti-police mentalities. A grand patriarch to save us all. It doesn’t matter that our romanticization of marriage and the two-parent (cisgender man and cisgender woman only, of course) home can be dangerous, as evidenced by this New York Times op-ed on domestic violence. It matters even less that the reason raising children in two-parent homes is more advantageous is because our public policies favor marriage and offer little support for single-parent or other “non-traditional” family structures. And the fact that these black men so many people want to step up and be fathers face discrimination everywhere from the job market to the legal system isn’t even up for discussion. No, it doesn’t matter. Just get young black men some fathers and everything will be fixed.
What happened to Melvin Santiago is tragic, but whether Lawrence Campbell had a father in his life (Bergin never bothers to report on this detail) is neither here nor there. The legacy of racism and white supremacy will not be undone by an army of magical black fathers.
Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning history about what amounted to re-enslavement of many black people from the end of the Civil War up until World War II, locates the roots of the modern prison-industrial complex in America’s post-Reconstruction era, the convict leasing program and the Black Codes. The Black Codes were laws—criminalizing acts ranging from vagrancy to speaking too loudly in front of white women—passed with the sole purpose of arresting black men and forcing them back in unpaid labor. Blackmon writes:
Vagrancy, the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men.
Early in the twentieth century, Southern states passed laws that further criminalized the behaviors and very existence of black people in public spaces, establishing Jim Crow segregation. In 1984’s Race, Reform, and Rebellion, Manning Marable writes, “South Carolina insisted that black and white textile workers could not use the same doorways, pay windows, bathrooms or even the same water buckets. Many cities passed ordinances which kept blacks out of public parks and white residential districts. Atlanta outlawed black barbers from clipping the hair of white children and women in 1926.”
“At the dawn of the twentieth century, in a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and demographically shifting America, blackness was refashioned through crime statistics,” writes Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The Condemnation of Blackness (2010). “It became a more stable racial category in opposition to whiteness through racial criminalization.”
I cite these sources because it’s important to understand the history of criminalizing black bodies for seemingly mundane actions.
Back in May, I wrote about how the crackdown on New York City subway dancers, mostly adolescent black boys, was another way of criminalizing black youth even as the number of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD plummeted. In a column for the New York Daily News, Harry Siegel responds:
Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation that the 46 reckless endangerment arrests in the first four months of this year [for subway dancing] amounted to “criminalizing black youth.” Smith, putting words in Bratton’s mouth, went on: “Those scary, disorderly, dancing young black bodies. Always causing fear.”
That seems to be more Smith’s obsession than Bratton’s, reducing these teenagers from people to totemic symbols and ideological props, as though dancing on the trains is some sacred ritual and any attempt to move it to parks or other places people are free to leave proves the NYPD’s secret role as the racist art police.
There’s no bigger conspiracy of race, class or culture here. The issue is simply about how shared, confined common spaces can be used. Hearing progressives who adore public transportation and disdain cars insist subways must double as performance spaces makes my brain hurt.
My argument has never been that subways “must double as performance spaces.” I haven’t made a public art argument with regards to the subway dancers, though I’m not opposed to doing so. (I’m also not sure how I put words in Commissioner Bratton’s mouth, as what Siegel quotes I didn’t attribute to Bratton.) What I’ve said is that arresting these mostly black teenage boys is further criminalization of black youth and black bodies, an assertion I continue to stand behind. However one feels about subway dancers’ high-flying antics, we should be able to agree they shouldn’t be arrested.
If there are real complaints about subway dancers’ posing a threat to people’s safety, then that’s something the city has to deal with. But the answer can not and should not be to arrest these kids. We can not making dancing a crime (look how that turned out in Footloose).
Siegel goes on. “[F]or anyone serious about social justice, there’s no shortage of pressing work. The NYPD continues to arrest an excessive number of young black and Latino men and burden them with criminal records for marijuana even though they’re no more likely to use it than their rarely hassled white and Asian peers—and even though New York State actually decriminalized personal possession decades ago.” I agree. Saddling young men of color with criminal records for possession of marijuana is abhorrent. But their being arrested for dancing isn’t somehow better. We are a nation addicated to solving social problems through punitive measures that serve no one, least of all those already burdened with a history of second-class citizenship.
We should be limiting the contact between our youth and police. The way to do that is not to criminalize a harmless behavior—and after all, even Siegel concedes that “the dancers haven’t actually injured any riders.” They’re not simply being asked to move elsewhere. They are being arrested and charged with misdemeanors. Does that seem “light”? Well, the stakes are always higher when black people interact with the police—on any level. Ask Nubia Bowe from Oakland.
Siegel concludes: “With so much worth fighting for, why are so many fixated instead on the unhindered right of young men to dance on trains and then ask riders for change or a buck or two? Is that really all they think these talented, entrepreneurial teenagers are capable of?” Sounds like “soft bigotry of low expectations” argument, but Siegel misses the point. Whether or not dancing on the subway continues isn’t my biggest concern. These kids are unequivocally talented, and I would love to see them be able to practice their art with the full support of their community and their city, in whatever space that may be. My issue is that we’re arresting them. We are continuing to police black bodies under the guise of public safety, but all we do is criminalize otherwise benign behaviors and punish black youth.
That’s a historical arc that hasn’t bent anywhere.
The headline to this ThinkProgress story reads “A Black College Student Has The Same Chances Of Getting A Job As A White High School Dropout.” At the same time, this Pew Research Center study shows that 63 percent of Americans believe “Blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for own condition.”
How do these two things square with each other?
They don’t. But that doesn’t actually matter. Americans aren’t swayed by facts or statistics but by narratives. The narrative we have internalized with regards to racism is one of unimpeached progress. We’ve gone from slavery to Jim Crow to civil rights to a black president without a hitch.
Meanwhile, the thing that black parents across the country have told their children for generations about having to work twice as hard to get the same things that are handed to white people, remains true. Yet 63 percent of Americans choose to believe black people are unambitious, or lazy or incompetent. Racism, the kind that limited opportunities for black Americans, is a thing of the past, we would like to believe.
This was the entire point of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s June cover story for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” He built his argument not around the injustice of slavery but the injury suffered from redlining and housing discrimination, racist public policies with roots in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. He illustrates that we don’t have to reach so far back in American history to see the treatment of black people as second-class citizens. Truly, we don’t have to look beyond today’s headlines.
In his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” Ralph Ellison wrote: “Perhaps we are able to see only that which we are prepared to see, and in our culture the cost of insight is an uncertainty that threatens our already unstable sense of order and requires a constant questioning of accepted assumptions.”
The United States isn’t prepared to see its racist past or present, as it would upset the narrative that has become a source of national pride. We aren’t yet brave enough to forge a new identity.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on how America is still trying to ‘do the right thing.’