The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For blacks, America is dangerous by default

Police officers point their weapons at demonstrators protesting against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Joshua Lott)
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Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Mariame Kaba. Kaba is a Chicago-based organizer and educator who directs Project NIA, a grassroots juvenile justice organization.

In 1900, a 15 year old black New Yorker named Harry Reed recounted his ‘clubbing’ at the hands of police:

“We five boys were sitting on the seat of an open Eighth Avenue car. When we got at the corner of 37th Street and Eighth Avenue we saw a mob, and the mob called out, ‘There’s some niggers; lynch them!’ and they made a rush for the car, and I jumped out. Then I ran up to the corner of 38th Street, where there were four policemen. Of these four policemen three were standing on the corner, and one ran into the street to stop me. When he saw me coming I was running hard, as fast as I could. When I reached this policeman in the street, he hit me over the head with his club. He hit me twice over the head, and I saw the other three policemen coming, and I fell down. I thought if I fell down the others would not attack me, but they did; they hit me over the legs and on my arm, when I raised it up to protect my head, and they hit me in the back…”

Harry’s story was not exceptional. Historian Marilynn S. Johnson suggests that urban residents began complaining and organizing against police brutality in the mid-19th century. In fact, the first major investigation into police misconduct was launched in 1894 in New York City through the Lexow Committee. This committee documented police abuses including corruption, brutality and perjury. In the late 19th century, the most common complaint from urban residents against the police was about “clubbing” which was “the routine bludgeoning of citizens by patrolmen armed with nightsticks or blackjacks.”

On August 9, 18-year-old Michael Brown was murdered by a police officer in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in front of several witnesses. A hundred and fourteen years separate Reed’s clubbing and Brown’s killing. Over that time span, the hostile relationship between black people and the police is unchanged. As a result, black people in general and especially young blacks profoundly distrust cops. This week, the Black Youth Project released a report summarizing research on young black people’s perceptions and experiences of policing. The key findings are unsurprising:

  • Black youth report the highest rate of harassment by the police (54.4%), nearly twice the rates of other young people.
  • Less than half of black youth (44.2 percent) trust the police, compared with 71.5 percent of white youth, 59.6 percent of Latino youth, and 76.1 percent of Asian American youth.
  • Substantially fewer black youth believe the police in their neighborhood are there to protect them (66.1 percent) compared to young people from other racial and ethnic groups.

These findings are confirmed by both anecdotal evidence and various studies. In 2000, for example, Dr. Delores D. Jones-Brown surveyed 125 black male high students regarding attitudes toward and contacts with the police. Her study found that a majority of respondents reported experiencing the police as a repressive rather than facilitative agent in their own lives and in the lives of their friends and relatives. The black male youths complained of being stopped because they were unjustly suspected of dealing drugs or because they were out past curfew or because they were in the “wrong” neighborhood.

Of course, young black men are not the only ones to have negative encounters with police. Black girls and young women often complain about being ‘hassled’ and sometimes sexually assaulted by law enforcement. A young black woman shared a particularly harrowing assault by a cop with members of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP) as part of their Bad Encounter Line research:

“I was walking to the bus when a police officer called out and said, ‘Hey you come here girl with all of that ass.’ I ignored the comment unaware of where it was coming from until he pulled up on the curb to block my path in his undercover cop car. He jumps out and yells ‘didn’t you hear me calling you girl? I replied by simply saying no, my name isn’t aye girl with all that ass.’ He got really mad and slapped me saying that I was very disrespectful and do I know who he is and what he can do to me?…

The story escalates with the police officer sexually assaulting the young woman. She ends up getting arrested and jailed when she tries to report him. That story is unfortunately not unique. In 2011, I became involved in supporting a young woman named Tiawanda Moore. Moore, who was 20 at the time I met her, reported that she had been sexually assaulted by a police officer in July of 2010, and was then herself charged with eavesdropping on police. According to her attorney, Robert Johnson, when she tried to report the assault, internal affairs “gave her the run-around, trying to intimidate and discourage her from making a report. The internal affairs officers told Moore if it happens again you have our number. Finally, a recording of the officer’s misconduct is made on her cell phone.” She was charged with two counts of eavesdropping — and if she had been found guilty would’ve faced up to fifteen years in prison. She was thankfully acquitted on August 24, 2011 and has filed a civil suit against the city of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department. The fact that Moore was sexually assaulted by a police officer in her own apartment and then found herself on trial and facing prison while he was not even reprimanded was an incredible injustice.

I work with and on behalf of young people of color (particularly black youth) who are targeted by the criminal punishment system. Whenever I ask a young black person to narrate a personal experience of injustice, almost all (with a few exceptions) tell a story of police harassment and violence. For them, a police badge is the main symbol of daily oppression and injustice.

Many young black people tell me that they feel under siege by the police in their neighborhoods.  They are consistently harassed and hassled for no reason other than their youth and skin color. As Brunson and Fine point out, “young black men typify ‘the symbolic assailant’ in the eyes of the police.” Frustration and anger with such unfair and unjust targeting has and continues to find expression in hip hop culture and in rap music. One only needs to listen to Tupac, NWA, or Jasiri-X in order to hear the exasperation and the barely contained rage at the treatment of blacks by police. Daily police harassment is experienced by young black men as micro-aggressions that they have little power to resist without suffering potentially lethal consequences.  This takes a toll on their physical and mental wellness.  Negative and violent law enforcement experiences are extremely harmful.

In his book “Youth in a Suspect Society”, Henry Giroux writes about the ‘punishing state’ and its growing power and impact over the lives of youth of color. The police have always been the gatekeepers and enforcers of the punishing state. The militarization of schools with their security cameras, metal detectors, and police patrols reinforces the idea that young people of color are dangerous threats. Giroux also speaks to a “politics of disposability” that serves to remove young people from the realm of being deserving of support and resources. Over the past 20 years, young people of color have become increasingly the targets of policies and rules suggesting that they are in some ways already assumed to be “criminal” or at the very least “dangerous” by default. In 2014, young people are being managed and controlled through the lens of crime, repression, and punishment.

To be clear though, the persistent denial of black humanity and a callous disregard of black pain have been constants in American history. In a society where black skin is an inherent marker of suspicion and criminality, Michael Brown’s (disposable) body becomes a lethal weapon. This gives anyone a license to kill him. His dangerous, “weaponized” black skin means that he can only be an aggressor and never a victim. The bodies of Michael Brown and other black youth therefore become human magnets for police bullets.

Michael Brown and his peers didn’t create the world in which they are living and miserably dying. They are the generation born into a get-tough on crime, stop and frisk, war on drugs, war on terror, war on everything country. It’s the country that is actually dangerous by default, not Michael Brown.