When I went to the screening of Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X , Rodney King was sitting in the front row and I was seated next to Alice Walker. At that time he was the proof of what Black men had been saying for so long: The police are trying to kill us unjustly and abuse us regularly. It was something most of White America denied until the footage was replayed over and over again.
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Since then, not a lot has changed. I might mention the names of Amadou Diallo Sean Bell or Oscar Grant in any given conversation. To many people outside of the Black community these names may not even register. Almost all African American men will know more than their names. We’ll know their faces, we know where they got shot and we know what reason was given for their “justifiable homicide” by police.
The social friction between cops and young Black males reaches far back into American history. It began shortly after Abraham Lincoln signed Emancipation Proclamation. White overseers were asked by the plantation owners to “police” the perimeter of the land, fearing newly freed Blacks would try to rob and attack them. As a result, young Black males were an instant target.
A recent article in the New York Times Nicolas K. Peart highlights the experience of his life as a 23 year old Black male in Manhattan. He shares how at 14 his mother taught him to be respectful to police, show ID and to never run- lest he be shot. It goes on to explain how many random stops he’s undergone since his 18th birthday. How the NYPD seem to almost go out of their way to harass him and humiliate him:
Here are a few other facts: last year, the N.Y.P.D. recorded more than 600,000 stops; 84 percent of those stopped were blacks or Latinos. Police are far more likely to use force when stopping blacks or Latinos than whites. In half the stops police cite the vague “furtive movements” as the reason for the stop. Maybe black and brown people just look more furtive, whatever that means.
His accounts to be honest, are not unlike many of my experiences in my youth. When I was 16 my father told me to always keep my hands on the steering wheel if I ever got pulled over. He said make sure to say what hand you are moving, where you are moving it to, why and to do it slow- because you can die failing to it.
He wasn’t wrong. Not three years later a cop much smaller than me put his 9 millimeter pistol in my face because my friend made an illegal u-turn on a street with no traffic. In my youth I fit the description for car thieves, robbers, purse snatchers, drive by shooters and a ton of other crimes so long I really can’t remember. Mr. Peart continues:
One of the officers asked which of the keys they had removed from my pocket opened my apartment door. Then he entered my building and tried to get into my apartment with my key. My 18-year-old sister was inside with two of our younger siblings; later she told me she had no idea why the police were trying to get into our apartment and was terrified. She tried to call me, but because they had confiscated my phone, I couldn’t answer.
Today I spend a lot of time working with ghetto youth crushed under the heel of American poverty. Most of them hate the police on site. However, its because I work where I do, that I have met some police officers of the highest integrity.
I’ve met cops who went out of their way to not send kids to juvenile hall. Cops who were White, Black, Latino, Asian and Arab. These good relationships with police have altered the instinctive emotions I’ve had about cops since my youth.
But those emotions can’t cloud reality for too long. My son is almost 13. He’s almost as big as me. I am a lean 200 pounds, and stand 6 foot 3 inches. He can almost wear my shoes. The Dr. said he’s going to be 6 foot 9 inches tall when he stops growing.
While many fathers would be excited and daydream of a NBA and NFL ceremonies, I’m scared. I’m scared because I don’t know if America will let him live long enough to get that tall. I saw what happened to Oscar Grant. I ride those trains. My son will ride those same trains soon. It’s frightening to the core of my soul. The cops don’t know he’s amazing at math and studies film. They don’t know he likes to read Hill Harper and samurai classics. They’ll only see in him the same criminal they saw in me when I was his age.
Almost 20 years ago, my mother suggested that Black men who have perished unjustly from police officers should have a wall like Vietnam vets have a wall. As crazy as it might sound, it makes so much sense. Songs like N.W.A’s F*** The Police, Talib Kweli’s The Proud, Paris and T-KASH’s Don’t Stop The Movement and Dead Prez’s Police State don’t exist without reason. They exist simply because no constructive conversation on how we got here and how we might get out has taken place.
The question is, where and how do we have truly meaningful conversations about Black males and police? What preventative steps can we take to ensure that these conversations don’t just descend into shouting matches? What steps can the Black community take on to police themselves better? What steps will police departments across the country begin to take to change the culture of how Black men are viewed on site by officers? What needs to happen to make this situation truly progress?
Read the full story in the New York Times.