When Terror Wears a Badge
Over the past three weeks there have been four separate incidents that have led to the deaths of four unarmed black men at the hands of police. For many black people, myself included, the moments following these tragic events are filled with despair, sorrow, anger, and frustration. Each incident serves as a reminder that as a black man in America, my life holds little to no value in the eyes of the general public. To be young and black in the United States means to live under constant pressure, something most non-black American citizens know nothing about.
For the majority of black people, the police do not represent protection or safety, rather they are a menacing force that terrorize those they are supposed to serve. I have never felt safe in the presence of law enforcement. In fact, whenever police are in close proximity to me, I feel in danger. Whenever a cop drives behind me or beside me I feel anxious, not protected.
Is my paranoia justified?
I have no criminal record, however I have had numerous run-ins with the police, none of which my actions provoked. The most common of course is being followed around a store. I have never committed a traffic violation, but I have been pulled over several times. A few of those times I was asked to step out of my vehicle to be frisked and forced to sit on the curb in humiliation while being verbally intimidated and having my car searched. The reasons I was given as to why this type of action was necessary or to why I was even pulled over to begin with were always made up out of thin air.
Several years ago I lived in the suburbs of Louisville, Ky., where my parents had purchased a home in a newly developed subdivision. We lived there for a couple of years when one day, while driving out of the subdivision, I was signaled to pull over by two police cruisers. I was accused of burglarizing the home of a white neighbor. Being the only black kid in the entire subdivision, it came as no surprise that I was singled out. A few years after that, in the same subdivision, my brother and my best friend had their cars broken into outside of our house. When the police arrived, I was obtained and questioned as if I was a suspect.
Constant harassment is dehumanizing, but I'm thankful to God that those are the worst of my experiences as many black Americans have had similar ones that resulted in arrest, injury, and/or even death. I'm well aware of the experiences of others and they add to the trauma. Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or John Crawford could have easily been me ... or my brother ... or my father.
Cornel West once said, 9/11 was "the first time that many Americans of various colors felt unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated." Since then, through the "war on terror" and the influence of xenophobia in the mainstream media, the face of terrorism has been Muslim extremists. But as Dr. West also mentioned, "To be black in America for 400 years is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated."
The terror that I experience as a black person in 21st century America is nothing new. Black people have been exposed to domestic terrorism for centuries. Slavery was a form of terrorism. Jim Crow was a form of terrorism. Lynching was a form of terrorism. The prison industrial complex/mass incarceration is a form of terrorism. Police brutality is a form of terrorism.
More Americans have lost their lives at the hands of police since 9/11 than in acts officially classified as terrorism. A recent study showed that one black man was killed every 28 hours by police, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes in 2012. The militarization of police departments nationwide and the over-policing of urban neighborhoods have had terrorizing effects on the black population. There are also programs like stop-and-frisk that make racial profiling and over-policing legal. At its peak in 2011, 685,724 people were stopped. Of those stopped 53 percent were black, 34 percent were Latino, and 9 percent were white. Eighty-eight percent of all people stopped were innocent. Gang injunctions are another method of enforcement that lead to racial profiling and the over-criminalization of youth.
What am I to do? What are we to do? Often I'm reminded by others of respectability politics. I should dress nicer and talk more proper. But, I grew up with images of upstanding citizens in suits and ties being dragged by police dogs and hosed down during peaceful protests. The same people that think that my appearance will keep me safe also tell me that I should focus my outrage at blacks killing other blacks (as if I'm not already) because that's what's really harming the black community. But that only serves to derail the conversation at hand. Black-on-black violence is a myth. As Jamelle Bouie notes, "Yes, from 1976 to 2005, 94 percent of black victims were killed by black offenders, but that racial exclusivity was also true for white victims of violent crime — 86 percent were killed by white offenders. Indeed, for the large majority of crimes, you’ll find that victims and offenders share a racial identity, or have some prior relationship to each other. What [others] miss about crime, in general, is that it’s driven by opportunism and proximity."
The reality is that we (black men and women) have multiple sources of forced coercion coming at us. The psychological and emotional toll this has on black folk can no longer be downplayed or ignored. My paranoia is justified. Our paranoia is justified. It doesn't matter how we dress, how we talk, what our socio-economic status is, if we are unarmed, or even if we are injured and seeking help, we are still seen as threats. We must protect ourselves. We must protect our communities. We must stand up in the face of brutality and fight to change the unjust conditions we are forced to live in.
Ryan Herring is Marketing and Circulation Assistant for Sojourners. You can find more of his writing at The Ghetto Monk .