Violence has always been a feature of police work. Marilynn S. Johnson, in her book “Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City,” details the violent history of the oldest (1841), and largest (over 30,000) organized force in the United States. The targets of police violence have always been those who were seen as powerless: the poor, the immigrant, the working class, and always, despite or sometimes because of class, African Americans, particularly young men and sometimes older women.
The latest well-known killing of an African American young male, Sean Bell, on the morning of his wedding, Thanksgiving weekend, with 50 shots fired at the car he was driving, has brought a storm of protest and suggested solutions. But the killing of African American and sometimes Hispanic males is not just a phenomenon of New York. This killing of young men has taken place in every major city in the country.
In New York City civilian control review boards have been formed or reconstituted after every major or controversial killing. We have had precinct councils and borough committees, and not one of them has ever prevented the questionable death of a young man at the hands of police. These public commissions, which generally have no enforcement muscle, are just used as a way to quiet the community. Unfortunately, they seemed to have worked.
But the police ultimately are not the issue. The police do not make laws or policies. They are charged with enforcement and social order. They don’t even prevent crime; they are there only after the fact. They get their orders from the CEOs and captains of industry, the self-described Masters of the Universe; in former times they were called robber barons, plantation owners and bankers. The police are used to highlight or cover up political issues. When former Mayor Giuliani wanted to show that he was cleaning up the city, he promoted prosecution of what he called “quality of life” misdemeanors, in which people were ticketed and fined for the most minor of offenses — jaywalking, putting personal garbage in public receptacles (I was fined for dropping an envelope addressed to me in a street bin), littering, etc., and used the police for his political gain.
Racism and hatred are an institutional fact of American life. We might be the only nation on earth that has a body of national and local hate crime laws. But that institutionality is played out on a very personal level. What we have to understand is that the police reflect the society, not direct it; that they are doing what those who control them want them to do. The KKK, in its beginnings and in its heyday, was supported by community business leaders to enforce oppression of people who might want to think they are part of society as equal citizens.
An older Republican friend of mine told me he felt there was a lot less prejudice in society than when he was younger. I told him I am neither grateful nor relieved. What he was unwittingly admitting to, of course, is the pervasive social climate of racism.
But what is the answer? The answer is for African Americans to take, not demand, respect. Answers like education and jobs — separate issues — aren’t it. Does it require my walking around with a diploma in full view at all times, not to be harassed?
It also requires, if peace is to reign, that non-African Americans do their own self-inventory. Even those who think they are free of any prejudicial leanings need to think about the ways in which they assume they are superior based on nothing other than their non-Africanness. And African descendants need to examine the ways in which we have incorporated negative images and thoughts of ourselves into our psyches. We do not have to wait until others see us as worthy; we do not have to prove our value — we are human and that is enough.
Jessica Watson-Crosby (jwc215 @ yahoo.com) is co-chair of Black Radical Congress-New York.