Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Black youth continue to be target for NYPD

I wish I could write a light-hearted post tonight. I can't. I feel ill.

I sat in traffic on the way back from Xavier, stomach twisting with bile, as I listened to Sean Hannity rail on Charles Barron (NY City Councilman) calling Barron a racist. Barron stated with passion that New York City must not be surprised if there is an explosion in the black community if justice is not served after the recent shooting of 23 year old Sean Bell (the night before his wedding). NYTimes article.

Barron attempted to explain to the bone-headed Hannity (while Hannity used his "shout-over-the-caller" technique) that what happened was evidence of institutional racism. Hannity clearly has not been to college in 25 years as he did not seem to know what institutional racism is. Simply because Hannity could cite a black and Latino police officer among those who shot the 50 (that's right 50) rounds into Bell and his two friends, he cannot assume color-blind justice at work.

As Barron patiently pointed out (with quite a bit of self-control, I might add - I, otoh, was in danger of swerving off the road in a rage), the racism is not in the individuals but is systemic within the NYPD itself. Police departments in large cities typically see black males as automatically dangerous. They are predisposed to assume so. Add to it that in the history of police shooting young adult black men, they are never convicted of criminal over-reaction. Even high profile cases end in the police getting off.

I remember my professor of black theology, who grew up in New York, saying that in 100 years of records, and after all the shootings of NYPD against black youths, no convictions against the police have ever been won. Not one (according to him - I tried to do research but am failing to come up with it). As Dr. Clark would say to the police, Every time you shot you were justified in pulling the trigger? You didn't mistake a cell phone for a gun, ever? You didn't slip up and let fear make your decision rather than protocol even once in 100 years?

How many young blacks have to die for mistakes, for the assumption that they are dangerous?

The Cincinnati riots of 2001 were caused by the fatal shooting of 19 year old Timothy Thomas (he was shot in the back). We had another shooting of a 14 year old in October.

I lived in Los Angeles during the travesty of the Rodney King trial and the riots that followed.

For Hannity to think that there isn't a generalized fear of blacks among whites (whether police officers or civilians) that translates into misuse of force is to choose to be deliberately ignorant of the facts.
Between February 1995 and April 2001, fifteen black males under the age of 40 were killed by police, while no other males from other races were killed by police (during apprehension, chase, confrontation or while in custody in cruisers).[1] Police reports reflect that nationwide in the United States, whites resist arrest at a rate far less than blacks, however, during the time span cited, regardless of the crime or whether or not white suspects resisted, no whites died in police custody.

The disproportionate death rate, although often cited as the most dramatic, was not the only aspect of the charges. A local independent magazine, City Beat, published research that an "analysis of 141,000 traffic citations written by Cincinnati Police in a 22-month period found black drivers twice as likely as whites to be cited for driving without a license, twice as likely to be cited for not wearing a seat belt and four times as likely to be cited for driving without proof of insurance." National trend or localized anomaly, the lawsuit was based on a disproportional number of arrests, citations, and deaths. Some note that the number of deaths during confrontations with police is relatively proportional for a city the size of Cincinnati but the focus of the lawsuit was on the fact that only Blacks died during that span.

Despite all the situations which led to the deaths of the young black males, no police were ever found guilty through any civil or criminal trials; in only one case were the police officers involved reprimanded and given extra training (Death of Michael Carpenter by Officers Michael Miller, III and Brent McCurley). Wikipedia entry about Cincinnati's race relations and the riots.

The truth is, whites don't fear the police generally speaking. We expect to be treated fairly. I don't know a single white person who has ever been mistreated, shot at or killed by a police officer. Consequently, the stories in my head about police are that they can be trusted to do their jobs correctly.

What stories do inner city blacks tell each other? What do they know?

I remember when OJ was let off the hook after his trial. I lived in L.A. at the time and we all sat stunned as jury member after jury member declared that they believed the LAPD had planted evidence against him. What? Were they insane? The LAPD was this incredibly reliable police force—trustworthy and honest. So we thought.

Only a year later did it come out that the LAPD planted evidence routinely to convict suspected criminals. It hit me with force (like a shot in the back) that the jurors saw the police as untrustworthy and out to get them. The glove that didn't fit? Yep! Evidence planted. Fit with the stories they knew.

How incredible that in the same city where Rodney King's trial was moved to Simi Valley followed by no convictions which outraged the black community, the OJ trial was moved from Santa Monica to downtown LA and rendered a verdict equally incomprehesible to whites.

In light of all the black theology over the last few weeks, and the discussion of racism in Michael Irvin's comments and Michael Richards as well, it seems bitterly disillusioning to hear of Bell's death at the hands of police. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song called American Skin "41 Shots" based on that shooting in New York City from a few years ago. He sang it on tour, here, the year that Cincinnati was boycotting businesses over the Timothy Thomas shooting. Catch the refrain:

Is it a gun, is it a knife
Is it a wallet, this is your life
It ain't no secret
(It ain't no secret)
It ain't no secret
(It ain't no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in
Your American skin

That's just it. When I say listen to communities, this is what I'm talking about. We have totally different narratives at work inside us, inside our skin. Even my professor was stopped for a "routine" driver's license "check" within two weeks of moving to Cincinnati. He wasn't speeding. He drives a nice car. He was wearing a suit.

That has never happened to me or Jon. But we're white.

I almost posted about the tasering event against the Iranian student at UCLA last week but the video was so upsetting, I let it go. How ironic. Sean Bell didn't get tasered. He got killed. On the eve of his wedding. Nice going NYPD.

One more article. This one is worth reading.


Anonymous said...

Julie, it is just the saddest story -- both at the level of the young man before his wedding and the institutional racism.

It is a hard fight against the tides of institutional forces. Just look at the media stereotypes alone. Almost always, we are conditioned to see young black males as thugs and criminals.

I remember one night, working alone in our store, three young black men strode through the front door with their hoods up. My heart raced as they steadily walked toward our counter without saying a word, hands in pockets. As they got to the counter, they merely asked if I had a certain game in stock. Exhale. (I should also note that there had been a few robberies in our area.)

If that had been three white guys, would I have been that intimidated? Probably not. I might have been concerned and wondered what was up, but my adrenaline would not have had the same response.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to make a quick follow-up here to say,

I am NOT saying that racism is the media's fault. It is my responsibility to fight the prejudices that are reinforced in the images that we see on the screens everyday.

julieunplugged said...

Thanks for your comments. Have you ever heard the story that is supposed to reinforce the idea that being a Christian means you are generally a better person than others? It goes like this.

If you were walking down a dark alley and three black men were walking toward you, would it comfort you to know that they were just coming from a Bible study?

The first time I heard that story, I remember thinking about how cool it was that we all culturally associate being Christian with being trustworthy and decent.

It wasn't until several years later I heard it with completely different ears. What it is really saying is that black men are dangerous. Period. The only thing that might comfort me in my perfectly acceptable and to-be-expected fear is the knowledge that they were like me and studied the Bible.

When I saw that story through different eyes, I became disgusted at the embedded racism in it.

Whites have hundreds of ways that they (we) reinforce fear too. We quote statistics that show that black young men are more dangerous, not realizing that the stats are skewed also by the perception that they are more dangerous which leads to more convictions doing more time than their white compatriots.

Did you ever see the movie Traffic? Great example of what happens to white kids involved in drugs. Rehab. Not jail.

Dave said...

Wow, what a post. Very passionate and hard hitting. I get what you are saying though. What exacerbates the agony of the shooting is that we have to put up with loudmouths like Hannity who work so strenuously to smother the implications of incidents like this, and manage to persuade a number of people that they have a "realistic" understanding of the situation.

I suppose that the NYPD has put most if not all of their officers through some kind of racism-awareness training and that within the overall force there are a number of people trying to address the problem, but they are trying to overcome a cultural juggernaut that is beyond the scope of any single organization. Beyond racism even, there's the endorsement and addiction to institutionalized violence that is such a vital characteristic of our society. You mentioned Traffic, which is a great movie on many levels, and I'll mention Bowling For Columbine which I regard as a serious meditation on America's fascination with violence. Michael Moore only touches on the racist aspects of the problem, but here is an instance where racism, violence and our legal readiness to give a free pass if the killers happen to be wearing badges all come together. I haven't looked closely enough at the specifics of Sean Bell's shooting to draw conclusions, but from what I have heard, I don't understand how the shooting could have been seen as necessary. But a heavy benefit of the doubt will go toward the officers simply because they wear the uniform. It seems to me that justice on a person-to-person level is going to be hard to achieve here unless we find a judge and jury who are able to set precedent aside.

Ish Engle said...

I'm wondering if the issue is 50 bullets, or 1 bullet?

While more facts need to be made available, the "official" story so far is that Mr. Bell drove his car into an officer (undercover, but with badge out), backed up, and proceeded to speed forward again.

If the officer had fired a single shot and killed Mr. Bell, would we say "justifiable?" Or would we still question the incident because of race?

At least one of the officers (31 bullets guy in my mind) needs to be held accountable.

But I think Julie has touched on an even deeper issue here: black youth in NYC don't trust the police, and the police don't trust them. If Mr. Bell had been Hispanic or white, I believe he still would have been shot (hit me once with a car and I probably won't let you do it again), but I seriously doubt that 50 shots would have been fired.

Its not just the police, though, who need to change. It takes two to tango and to come to peace. As the police demonstrate good will, they need to be trusted. If the black community never trusts them, the police will never trust the black community. Sick, vicious cycle.

I am interested in your opinion on my thoughts.


julieunplugged said...

Ish, great question. 50 shots versus one. I don't know the situation to judge the use of force. What I read by Mayor Bloomburg is that he considered it too much force.

The part of the story that struck me is that police are so rarely found guilty when these types of situations occur.

To trust.

I don't know what that would look like. There is a lot of work in Cincinnati to change the tensions between police and black communities. But it's slow in developing. Justice isn't just being fairly treated by police officers. It's having the money for empowerment zones voted in by the citizens actually make it to those neighborhoods, it's having schools that have in tact windows and air conditioning at minimum...

And when you speak of blacks learning to trust police, the fist step would be convicting one of these officers and saying no to the excessive use of force. It has to start there. The ones with the power have to be the first to admit wrong-doing.

You can't ask a wife who's lost all respect for her abusive husband to be the first to trust him... He has to earn it back, doesn't he?

Tough issue for sure.

Ish said...

I agree completely. The police MUST stand up and take responsibility for their actions (again, I suggest looking closely at the man who shot THIRTY-ONE times!!!)

Thanks for the thoughts and the attention to the issue.

julieunplugged said...

Yeah, how can one guy shoot 31 times? How many times did he have to reload for heaven's sake? Do you know if he was white? Just curious.

If you find more information on this story that you think pertains, post it here. I'd be interested.


Ish said...

He had a 15 round clip with one in the chamber. He emptied the clip, reloaded, and emptied that, too. Total of 31. The experts said that, with reload included, he could have done it fairly easily in less than 25 seconds (with 1 second required for reload!).

colleen said...

I hadn't heard that Bruce Springsteen song. Ohhh it gave me a chill.