Ersula Ore. Eric Garner. Jahmil-El Cuffee. Rosan Miller. Marlene Pinnock. Al Flowers. Alonzo Grant. This is just a sample of the men and women who have been savagely, and unnecessarily, beaten by police officers this summer. Garner’s case, in which an NYPD officer used a chokehold to restrain the 43-year-old Staten Island father, resulted in death (On Friday a medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide at the hands of the NYPD). Since then, the topic of “police brutality” has gained momentum nationwide and has sparked outcry from elected officials and community members asking for police reform. Just last week, in a meeting at New York City Hall, Rev. Al Sharpton told Mayor Bill de Blasio of his biracial son: “If Dante wasn’t your son, he’d be a candidate for a chokehold.” And it’s true. But why? How, in Obama’s America, did we end up here?
Looking to make sense of it all, I spoke with Mychal Denzel Smith, a writer who covers race and politics for The Nation, Ruby-Beth Buitekant, a community organizer in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Darnell L. Moore, writer, activist, and managing editor of The Feminist Wire. Our conversation appears below.
Jason Parham: I have a confession to make; I haven’t watched the Eric Garner video. I can’t. I refuse to see another black man murdered on tape. It’s all so maddening. James Baldwin had it right, you know: This thing of being black and conscious in America is “to be in a rage almost all the time.” In early July, I heard of the incidents involving Marlene Pinnock, a homeless woman in Los Angeles, and Dr. Ersula Ore, a professor at Arizona State University—both women were viciously accosted by police; Pinnock savagely beaten in the face repeatedly—and knew there was something horrible and toxic happening across the nation. I grew up in 90s L.A. so I’m very familiar with police brutality and the assault on black and brown bodies by the very officers that are supposed to be protecting us, but watching the videos of Pinnock and Ore had me sick to my stomach. All I could think was, “No no no no no!”
Weekly in Bed-Stuy, where I live, I see young boys being hassled by the police for no reason whatsoever, for basically walking down the street and minding their business. Mychal, you recently wrote something I’ve been thinking about a lot. New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton doesn’t think race had anything to do with Eric Garner’s death three weeks ago. You write: “But history is present whether we invite it to the table or not. We don’t escape America’s history of racism because we believe ourselves to be good people, or that we’re just doing our jobs. It’s already defined our lives.” Will we ever be able to escape this history, this reality where we’re automatically presumed for thugs and criminals? How do we reclaim our humanity? How do we make them see us?
Mychal Denzel Smith: It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s the right one. I’m not so sure. When you see Marlene Pinnock repeatedly punched in the face, or Ersula Ore manhandled, or Eric Garner choked to death, it becomes a question of our basic humanity because the images are so startling. We can’t imagine someone doing that to a person they value as human. And I certainly think that’s part of it. Black people are still fighting to be seen as human. But why? As long as our history of resistance is in this country, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t enough evidence that, hey, we feel. We breathe, we eat, we shit, we sleep, we love, we cry, we mourn (over and over again). We experience the breadth of humanity in full. The police have to know that. America has to know that. But they keep killing us. Why? To answer that, we have to know what is gained by not seeing our humanity. Someone is benefitting from the fact we are beaten and gunned down. Someone else’s livelihood depends on it. Once you start addressing that, you’re getting to the root.
Ruby-Beth Buitekant: Jason and Mychal, I’m thankful to hear your thoughts as well as your pain around all this. A discussion of police “brutality” implies that officers are breaking a social contract when they use violence as they did in the instances you both mentioned. In reality, the use of violence is simply a part of officers effectively executing their role. We treat these instances of “brutality” like the exception to the rule but if, like Mychal is saying, this is hardly the exception and is in fact the process by which we keep white as more powerful, then “brutality” is clearly a tactic.
I am disproportionately less harassed by the NYPD than black male friends and neighbors of similar class and age and I’m still so scared of the police. I notice how my body and mind feel walking by undercovers or the beat cops in my neighborhood. I feel anxious and unsafe. I feel watched and controlled. I often joke with my roommates when I come home feeling particularly rattled that “they are winning.”
A black young man came into my office last Tuesday morning and we started chatting about his weekend. He told me about work, spending time with friends in the park, and going on an audition for a commercial. In passing he mentioned an interaction with a police officer and I asked him to tell me the whole story. As it turned out, his time spent playing basketball in the park had also included: witnessing a basketball teammate tackled by two cops, seeing two friends cuffed for “talking back,” and facing interrogation from an officer who asked why he was in a park two blocks from his home. I asked him to retell me about his weekend, now including police interactions. Five in total. So commonplace that he didn’t mention them until I asked. Things are out of control. This is much bigger than “brutality.”
Darnell L. Moore: What is most apparent, as you all have suggested, is the fact that the seemingly extraordinary acts of police sanctioned violence, now easily captured on smart phones, are, in fact, common. If anything, acts of state violence inflicted upon black and brown people in the U.S. are only extraordinary because they have for so long been—without any broad public outcry, without the creation and implementation of any substantial national public policy, without collective mourning and outrage—rendered acceptable and legal practices. Black and brown folk are the only bodies in this country ever accounted by the state as valueless and, therefore, appropriate for hyper criminalization and death by hands or bullet.
Many of us have been harmed by police without our verbal or physical attacks captured by phone, store, or street cameras. I know I have. Yet, not many U.S. citizens seem to actually give a damn unless some black or brown person’s death or brutal beating is captured on video. And even then I am left to believe the lives of the black and brown in the U.S. do not matter.
Police violence is a problem that impacts all of us, black and brown men and women, adults and youth. Ruby-Beth, I especially appreciate you naming your fear of police. There’s something particularly insidious about the ways that police forces, which are already steeped in cultures of power-driven, thuggish masculinity, also specifically excuse the abuses inflicted upon black and brown women, especially at the hands of male cops. The cases of Rosan Miller and Marlene Pinnock are just two examples.
I long for the day when elected and appointed government officials will acknowledge the pervasive forms of police violence impacting black and brown people nationally. If the wrongful arrest of black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., prompted President Obama to speak out about and host a beer talk at the White House regarding Professor Gates’s individual incident, then surely the many forms of abuse, arrests, and murders of lesser known black and brown folk from Cambridge to Chicago to Compton can instigate a public conversation that begins in his office.
Jason Parham: Yes, Ruby-Beth, this is much bigger than “brutality.” Let’s look at some statistics: From 2009 to 2013 over 1,000 complaints were filed by New Yorkers in which they said NYPD officers used chokeholds, which, I should note, have been prohibited since the death of Michael Stewart in 1983. Of the 1,000 complaints, only nine were substantiated. Nine out of 1,ooo?! In Central New Jersey, 99 percent of all police brutality allegations are not investigated by the city. And earlier this year, the Justice Department released a report chastising the Albuquerque Police Department for its history of employing unnecessary and deadly force in various cases—described as “the department’s pattern or practice of unconstitutional force.” The DOJ wrote: “As a result of the department’s inadequate accountability systems, the department often endorses questionable and sometimes unlawful conduct by officers.” This is exactly what Darnell was getting at; the culture of the police in America seems to incite violence just as much as it attempts to prevent it. The problem is much more multifaceted than people are willing to admit: officer training, departmental supervision and accountability, policy—these are areas that need massive reform. How do we even begin to attack the problem?
Mychal Denzel Smith: We have to ask what we’re trying to accomplish with policing. The mantra is “to protect and serve” but what it comes down to is “to protect property and serve rich white people.” We’ve also handed over the task of preventing crime to police. That doesn’t make any sense. One, they’re not in the business of preventing every crime. The idea of “broken windows” is that if you crack down on the smaller infractions, you’ll prevent the larger ones. But which smaller crimes do they target? They don’t go hard after mail fraud in hopes that they’ll prevent insider trading. No, they target poor communities of black and brown people and arrest folks for things like loitering. So the first step is admitting what policing currently consists of. It is surveillance and harassment of poor black and brown people in the service of maintaining white supremacy.
OK, so, what then should policing be about? That’s a question that needs answering, but not until you address the root causes of the behaviors we find so undesirable that we have regulated them through violent policing. We have to start with a model that sees justice not as arrest, trial, and incarceration. Justice needs to look like jobs, affordable housing, healthcare, education, economic security. That doesn’t mean all of what we now consider crime would disappear, but if we start from there we can then map out what fair, equitable, just policing would look like. What we have now is a white supremacist patriarchy, and thus police that serve to uphold that structure. We need to attack the root.
Darnell L. Moore: Mychal is right. Much work remains to be done addressing the “root” of the problem. There are innovative approaches that we can turn to and support like Eddie Ellis’ (who recently passed) non-traditional approach to addressing the criminal punishment system. There are community-based crime prevention strategies that can be employed and there are thought leaders, activists, elected officials, and policy makers who work daily to address police violence, criminalization, and ever-increasing prison industry. The work of redressing a system that was inevitably created to break black and brown people requires a commitment to eradicating the root, as Mychal pointed out, of white racial supremacy, male-centered culture, and capitalist greed. Yet, too many of us benefit from the very ingredients that make our communities sick. We won’t fix anything until we remain steadfast and make a choice daily to confront these structural issues. We won’t fix anything if we are only moved to speak up or protest when a death-by-police lands its way on our computer or smartphone screen.
Ruby-Beth Buitekant: Anything short of a complete overhaul of the system of policing would be a farce. It’s no coincidence that we are discussing violent policing at the same time that we are facing an unprecedented amount of people in prison. While important, reforming policing tactics will only go so far. We have to address our national obsession with imprisoning people and de-incentivize locking people in cages. One solution could be changing the mindset that it’s good for society to arrest and incarcerate people of color. It’s not good. It’s terrible. It sucks. If we want real change I’d love to see Bratton and all precinct captains attend an “End Mass Incarceration” conference this year.
Can we imagine, for a minute, what it would look like if officers were trained in mediation? What if you called the police when you witnessed a violent fight; officers arrived ready to separate the parties, come to a non-violent resolution, and make sure each person got home safely. As long as they are connected to the system of incarceration, we cannot expect the police to take this role. Thankfully, there are organizers, outreach workers, and neighbors who have been practicing alternative ways to build community safety for years. Another solution, I would like to propose, is to continue to fund alternative programs that work. Programs like Save Our Streets Crown Heights, Cure Violence, Man Up Inc, iLive, and others work to prevent, interrupt and mediate violence by harnessing people’s potential and changing the mindset that violence is normal. This already exists. Let’s work on that. Let’s fund these programs as a direct alternative to more officers.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]