A reflection on policing

I have a lot of respect for cops. I think of police and I remember them running into buildings on 9/11. I think of every TV show I’ve ever seen (including one of my current favorites, Brooklyn Nine-Nine).


I envision the police I know, who are loving, compassionate people. I remember that time I almost got a ticket, but the (albeit intimidating) cop let me go because my defogger was malfunctioning. I remember all the times my husband has gotten a ticket. I’ve never had a life-threatening or even a unreasonably frightening experience with a police officer. Yet I know that this is a privileged experience and many of my black friends know a very different reality.

I hear a lot white folks framing these Ferguson solidarity efforts as anti-cop. Maybe some of them are (and I will still give those complaints my ear, *wink* libertarian friends). Many of the black people involved in these demonstrations live under constant surveillance and suspicion. I don’t live that, so I have two choices: believe the people that *do* or dismiss their experiences.

Almost all of the Ferguson solidarity actions have been non-violent, unarmed. Unarmed, like the black people in my profile picture who were killed by police. Now, I realize that police put their lives on the line every day. I thank them for that sacrifice. They went into the work knowing that was a potential cost. Even still, that knowledge doesn’t mitigate the loss when it happens, because cops, like anyone else, are people, too. Yet these black civilians and children did not opt to work and live under these conditions. It is the unfortunate (though, I hope impermanent) fact of being black in America.

When you take a comprehensive look at our history as a country, you cannot deny that we have organized ourselves in a way that makes blackness dangerous. Our earliest governments were formed in a context of slavery. Our constitution still bears witness to the enshrined fraction of black personhood. Even when slavery was abolished, Jim Crow became law. Those laws didn’t just disappear because of the civil rights movement; they were challenged by rabble-rousers. And with every challenge, came a new, enacted iteration of legal discrimination or racial profiling. Because our attitudes are even slower to change than our laws.

You can still hear the echoes of these ideologies in our conversations today about “thugs” or in Darren Wilson’s superhuman description of Mike Brown’s capacity for violence. It sounds like it’s right out of some Jim Crow-era cartoon: the unstoppable brute black man. These pathologies live on in our media, in our literature, in our “wars on drugs” and staunch commitment to mass incarceration, all of which reinforce the belief that black people are more criminal than white people. (Resources below.) All of these tropes and stereotypes can be easily disputed by looking at data about criminality, but we insist on believing them because they are what we think we “know.”

I have yet to hear any protestor or organizer call for a lynch mob strategy for “justice.” Indictments, investigations, yes. Both of these show persistent faith in a system that rarely comes through for them. But lynch mob violence has never been the methodology of black folks in America. It’s amazing to me how quickly blocking a street or chanting outside of buildings can be labeled as threats to public safety. We saw an army descend upon Ferguson, y’all. An ARMY. Pay attention how this happens. It is how systemic racism works.

I’m not anti-police. Not yet, anyway. But it’s unmistakably clear to me who has the power in these situations. And it’s not the unarmed black men. It’s not the unarmed protestors. It *is* the police. In each of these encounters, there’s only been one person who signed up to risk their lives for their communities, and it is the person our government has given the gun. Surely those entrusted with our safety and their families can see that losing a black man every 28 hours is an utterly unacceptable rate of civilian casualty.

I would think that people of goodwill with police power would welcome the opportunity to build trust with the policed by allowing increased accountability. I would think increased community investment in their own policing would be a win for those charged with preserving the safety of communities. I would hope that good cops would turn aside from the institutional prerogative of preserving the upper hand at all costs.

Until I see some of that change happening around here, expect my loyalties to skew in the direction of the rabble-rousers.


This piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic

This piece by Michael Eric Dyson in the New York Times

Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess

Douglas Blackmon Slavery By Another Name (PBS documentary, still online, but there is a book as well)

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Racism Without Racists

Essential reading from Prison Culture

Reading list from Irene’s Daughters


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