NEW YORK – Although the police pointed the guns that killed Sean Bell and wounded two of his companions, it is the society that put the bullets in the guns.
It is a society that believes young African descendant men are inherently dangerous; that their fathers abandon them and don’t care; that their mothers are punitive. In other words, the society learns that African American families are violence prone – that it is in the DNA. Daniel Moynihan, in his famous Report on the Negro Family as pathological unit, gave ammunition to all manner of public entities to do what they will to our families.
We live in a violent society, born of violence, that makes the victim of violence the enemy. Witness how the indigenous peoples who were invaded by foreigners, were portrayed in our school books and TV shows, when they fought back against their removal and the destruction of their culture. This violent society conversely sees itself as kind and benevolent, spreading human rights around the world. The most brutal of acts, the death penalty, is now delivered in what is considered a kinder, gently method, lethal injection, rather than electrocution.
We named our invasion into Iraq, a people who have done nothing to us, as “Shock and Awe,” believing they would be grateful to us, even though they never asked us, for getting rid of their leader even if we had to kill tens of thousands of their people to do it. The belief that we could perpetrate violence and would be thanked for it, speaks to the duality of the American mindset.
The New York City Police Department is the oldest (1841) and the largest (over 30,000), in the nation. Marilynn S. Johnson, in her book, “Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City,” states that the objects of such violence were those who were perceived (and usually are) powerless: the poor, new immigrants, the working class, and always and continuously, because of and despite of class, African American males. Who was poor or immigrant or working class could and did change, but African descendants were always in their sightlines.
The police are neither the lawmakers or the lawgivers but the law enforcers. They enforce what we tell them to enforce. They are the employees of the society – its security guards. The police do not prevent crime, as we would like to believe. They investigate crimes already committed. The instructions they are explicit and implicit. It is understood (and implied) that law and order means keeping certain neighborhoods under surveillance.
Police, in some areas, are given arrest quotas, which means go looking for wrongdoing. It is about the quantity not the quality of the arrests. In NYC it is prohibited to smoke in the subways, but many smokers light up as soon as they come out of the station. Many young African descendant men have received tickets for lighting up near the top of the stairs leading to the street (but not others). Almost all African and Hispanic men, and some women (myself included), can tell a story of being harassed for no other reason than walking down the street (or driving a car; or doing their job; or walking in a neighborhood that is considered not their own).
In some of the conversations around the acquittal of the three detectives who fired off 50 shots, killing one and wounding two, when no crime was being committed, and no provocation going on, many people have said that they think African descendant men are seen as expendable. Yes and no. Yes, in that in our society young African descendant men are seen as a threat, but it is not a physical threat (or not only), but, let me go ahead and say it – a sexual threat. and no, because the society depends on the image of the “black sheep.”
We live in a society that has to have at all times an enemy as a way of identifying itself. A “black sheep,” (scapegoat), at-large, as in a family, plays the role of the one who is the placeholder of the units pathology. A designated “black sheep” (one is always designated-there is not evil gene), allows the rest of the family, the community, the country, to feel that if not for that one, we would be (happy; wealthy, satisfied) have whatever it is we think we are lacking. In this country it is almost literal that the “black sheep” is called Black and the ones who consider themselves good call themselves white.
The shooting of Sean Bell and his companions, and the acquittal of the police department, needs to be laid directly at the feet of the Mayor. It is the Mayor who appoints the Police Commissioner and from whom the Commissioner gets his marching orders. The city and the country needs to be put on notice that we are not having it. We have to take charge of what is happening and going to happen to us. We cannot wait for the courts to decide what is best for us. They have shown what they think in in our best interests and the society’s best interests, and they are not the same thing.