In demonstrations across the United States, protesters are questioning the role of police in communities. After the last challenge to police violence from Ferguson to Baltimore, we listened to approximately 1,500 individuals living in communities with long histories of police violence, asking: How do you feel about police in your community?

Our findings suggest that protesters don’t just oppose troubling police practices; they also understand policing’s relationship to U.S. democracy.

Here’s how we did our research

We collaborated with global conversation and technology company Shared Studios and local community activists on the Portals Policing Project to collect more than 800 conversations among people in highly policed communities in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Newark between March 2016 and 2018. Portals are gold shipping containers with an immersive audiovisual technology that allows those inside to speak to someone far away as if sharing the same room. Here’s what we learned.

1. Participants feel misrecognized by the police and the United States, believing that their communities, families and selves are not understood by authorities. Participants said that people in their neighborhoods had no power to define themselves in their encounters with police or government authority; that the police consistently view black people as animals, thugs and less than human; that the government is not invested in understanding or responding compassionately to what “me and my neighbors are going through.”

Kids had “no wiggle room to find out what type of person they are” but were fixed as suspects early in adolescence. Police authorities were intimately involved in their lives and communities but ignored key aspects of their identities — as parents, victims, community leaders. As one 37-year-old black man in Milwaukee said:

“You do have those individuals who look at us and look at the news and say they’re animals, look at them, and how they behave, they’re obscene individuals. [The police] don’t know me. I have went to school, I have my degree, and I cherish my job, I love working with children, I love working in the community. I think at the end of the day I’m still going to be that one-third of a human being because of what society and what the history has written on.”

They believed being seen was necessary for them to be treated with regard.

2. Participants’ experiences with police contradict written law and official police procedures. Highly policed communities acquire what we term a “dual knowledge” of what police say they do and what they actually do. As one 50-year-old black woman from Baltimore put it:

“You know, like, with us, we’re guilty until proven innocent. With them, they’re innocent. They get bails. We don’t get the same thing they get. But we’re under one [nation]. … Are we really under one or are we under … many?”

And yet participants feel their knowledge is not taken seriously. Rather, they feel that the broader political system — including the news media — has been gaslighting them and obscuring their experience of police mistreatment.

3. Participants experience distorted responsiveness in policing. Police are everywhere, observing and punishing small transgressions — but absent when people are in immediate danger. For instance, participants explain that police are quick to fine them for a broken taillight, arrest them for selling “loose squares” (individual cigarettes) or frisk them while they are standing in groups. But the police do not respond to serious risk. As one 31-year-old black woman in Milwaukee put it:

“[T]hey just take a long time to get there. … And they be talking like, like they don’t got enough force out here to come and help you when you really need them. But they be harassing people who ain’t got nothing. Absolutely nothing. Yeah, they do [something] when they ready to do it. When it’s beneficial to them. They really don’t give a [profanity] about how you is.”

4. Participants respond with what we call collective autonomy: They strategically distance themselves from police in everyday behavior, relying on the community for protection.

They describe this code of conduct as, “rule number one: no cops, ever.” Instead, they want to “police our own,” separating from police and coercive authorities whom they view as predatory or harmful, not protective. And they aspired to enact the protection they lacked through alternative institutions that unify and celebrate the community. As one 40-year-old black man in Chicago put it:

“I’m for walking in our neighborhoods. I’m not with the walking to the police station. It’s not gonna change nothing, you know what I’m saying? We have to change within ourselves. Community … you know with us being unified first. … We go to the hoods to show black love and spring black love and chant black love and black power, things like that.”

These political demands are much like those that groups on the ground and movement coalitions are advocating today. Participants want a government that recognizes them, where black lives matter. They want a government that responds to their safety needs without imposing crushing force for trivial acts. They want autonomy to decide the terms of their safety. Being heard and believed is a necessary first step.

When asked, “What would you like to see changed with the interaction with the police department?” one Baltimore participant said: “That’s a tough one. … Instead of just believing everything that the police say, give people a chance to be heard.”

Gwen Prowse is a PhD candidate in the departments of political science and African American studies at Yale University.

Vesla Weaver is the Bloomberg distinguished associate professor of political science and sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

Research for the Portals Policing Project was done in collaboration with Tracey L. Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton professor at Yale Law School, and Spencer Piston, assistant professor of political science at Boston University.

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