All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
On August 22, almost two weeks after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, The Washington Post published an op-ed by Columbia University professor Fredrick Harris titled “Will Ferguson be a moment or a movement?”
I started working on my piece about the new era of black activism (which you can read here) months ago, and so I read Harris’s op-ed with the same level of irritation that made me want to write that piece in the first place. Not that there isn’t any value in what Harris wrote, because there certainly is. But if you’re asking the question “Where is the movement?” you simply haven’t been paying attention.
“A moment of trauma can oftentimes present you with an opportunity to do something about the situation to prevent that trauma from happening again,” Charlene Carruthers, national coordinator for Black Youth Project 100, told me in an interview for that piece, and the millennial generation has been presented with trauma after trauma. The killing of Sean Bell, the over-prosecution of the Jena Six, the killing of Oscar Grant, the killing of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, the killing of Trayvon Martin and so many more moments that may not have captured the national media attention but those events have defined the late adolescence and early adulthood of black folks of the millennial generation. As part of that demographic, let me say: the trauma has been fucking exhausting.
So, too, has been the haranguing from older generations that we have been too apathetic, that we have been too “post-racial,” that we have not done our part in upholding the legacy of the civil-rights movement. And so I wanted to write a corrective to that narrative, as I’ve seen my generation take up the fight and organize and begin along the hard road to movement building. It’s happening at this very moment. It was happening before Michael Brown was killed.
What may keep Ferguson from becoming a national transformative event is if “justice” is narrowly confined to seeking relief for Brown and his family. If the focus is solely on the need for formal charges against Wilson, a fair trial, a conviction, a wrongful-death lawsuit—rather than seeing those things as part of a broader movement that tackles stand-your-ground laws, the militarization of local police, a requirement that cameras be worn by police on duty and the need for a comprehensive federal racial-profiling law. If justice remains solely personal, rather than universal.
But that work had already begun before Ferguson erupted. The Dream Defenders traveled to the United Nations to present a case against “stand-your-ground” laws, and BYP100 recently organized an action at the Chicago Police Department headquarters to address discrepancies in marijuana arrests. The movement is here. The pictures are not as arresting as what comes from a moment like Ferguson, and therefore aren’t as compelling to media outlets only interested in the sensational. But the criminalization of black youth has emerged as the central focus of organizing efforts for the millennial generation and the work is being done.
On Twitter, filmmaker/writer/activist dream hampton called millennials the “Movement Generation.” It fits.
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.