Past is prologue in police relations with people of color
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On September 20th, news broke of another series of indefensible, senseless murders of unarmed black men occurred at the hands of police officers.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma on September 15, Terence Crutcher’s car broke down and he pulled over on the side of the road, waiting for help. Officer Betty Shelby arrived on the scene, and although Crutcher remained calm, submissive, and was clearly unarmed, she shot and killed him. Police officers subsequently contradicted what was shown in the video evidence that Crutcher reached into his car window, as the window was closed. The officers also failed to request medical assistance for Crutcher and a police officer in a helicopter called Crutcher a “big bad dude.”

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Keith Lamont Scott, a disabled black man, was waiting in his car, reading a book, in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 20. Police officers were in the neighborhood searching for a suspect with outstanding warrants. Police reports claim they saw a man leave a vehicle with a gun. Scott’s family said he had no gun, and protests erupted as a result of the shooting

Also on September 20, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch obtained and released videos from the 2011 shooting of unarmed black man, 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith. Former St. Louis Police officer Jason Stockley was charged with murder for the shooting. The new videos show Stockley, exit his patrol car carrying a personal rifle, an AK-47 style rifle, overtly violating St. Louis Police policy. Stockley killed Lamar Smith, then claimed a gun was found on him, but prosecutors only found Stockley’s DNA on the weapon. The video apparently shows the former police officer rummaging through a duffel back in the backseat of his patrol car to find a gun to plant on Smith.

The longer these occurrences are allowed to persist, the more tensions between police and the communities they serve will increase. These tensions will only ensure more innocent murders of black people continue until the problem is properly addressed and meaningful reforms are implemented. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, LaQuan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, the list goes on and on as black people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are increasingly at risk of violence committed by police officers who tacitly presume them to be a threat.

These police murders are symptomatic of the racism structurally embedded in America, the responsibility of which bears no exemption for anyone who lives in this country, especially white Americans, Republican and Democrat, north and south. The innocent lives taken at the hands of the police are not merely a problem of the black community, or recurring anomalies in different police departments, but an issue that faces the entire country and its inability to understand the magnitude of historical and contemporary prejudices that affect our society.

When asked how police departments should improve relationships with African-Americans in a 1968 interview with Esquire, James Baldwin said;

“You would have to educate them. I really have no quarrel particularly with the policemen. I can see the trouble they're in. They're hopelessly ignorant and terribly frightened. They believe everything they see on television, as most people in this country do. They are endlessly respectable, which means to say they are Saturday-night sinners. The country has got the police force it deserves and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he's going to stop him; and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it's one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that's how black boys die, because the police are scared. And it's not the policemen's fault; it's the country's fault.”

Baldwin was a rare voice in his time, unwilling to make any concessions in his criticism of the police to appease a broader audience. It is still unpopular to criticize the police, as demonstrated from the recent backlash towards San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest, and those who have replicated his protests. Yet the outrage directed at Kaepernick is a stark reminder that, on an individual level, there remains a profound lack of sensitivity and empathy by white people, like David Brooks at the New York Times, who can’t grasp what the big deal is when confronted with recurring incidences of racism across America. This inability to acknowledge racism creates a racial divide in how racism is viewed in America, in which many whites see these complaints as oversensitive or innocuous, yet fail to see that their definitions of racism come from the dominant position afforded to them by white privilege. This promotion of white privilege is a handicap in American society, undermining the ability for mutually beneficial relationships to develop between people of different backgrounds. By acknowledging these privileges and how they affect all of us, we can begin to remove the boundaries between us that reaffirm them. 

Sainato is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @msainat1


 

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