The shooting of a young African-American man, 18-year-old Mike Brown has set off waves of local protests in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, over the last week. Confirmed by autopsy, Brown was shot six times and killed by police officer Darren Wilson, while walking down the street in his neighborhood. Brown was unarmed, a scenario eerily similar to cases that have proven racial profiling or bias. The Department of Justice has launched an investigation, which is good. What is frustrating is that there is still no substantive law enforcement reform or public policy to address the racial profiling and bias that has led to these tragedies to prevent future ones.
We know of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who was unarmed but still shot while coming back from the store after getting snacks for him and his brother. Martin in his sweatshirt hoodie looked "suspicious" to neighborhood watch guy George Zimmerman. In 2009, Oscar Grant was already subdued by officers in the San Francisco Metro system, when one of them shot him in the back. In 1999, Amadou Diallo, was an immigrant mistakenly identified for another criminal, when he went to pull out his identification, the officers shot him to death 19 times. In 2006, Sean Bell, was coming back from a party celebrating his pending nuptials when he was stopped by officers and they thought they "maybe" saw a gun. His car was shot up over 50 times leading to his death. These are the ones whose deaths were so heinous that they were actually picked up in mainstream media. Trayvon's killer was found "not guilty", Grant's was at least convicted but of involuntary manslaughter but not second degree murder, Diallo and Bell's killers? They were all acquitted.
The deaths of these young African-Americans are extreme examples of racial profiling and bias gone awry, but racial profiling happens every day. I was stopped for driving while black when I was working a campaign. I was headed with another colleague to a university where we were recruiting canvassers for our candidate. As we made our exit onto the highway at least three cop cars rolled onto us with lights flashing. My colleague and I looked at each other with shock. We found out from talking to a couple of the officers that walked up, there had been a robbery at a nearby Sears department store and they wanted to know if we "had been there". To say the least, I was insulted and infuriated, but knew better than to show it lest it end us both in jail. Were they literally stopping every car with black people in it and asking this question? Evidence pointed to: yes. They let us go, after holding us on the highway for a while, while they checked his license and asked us more questions. Incidentally, my colleague worked for a U.S. congressman.
This experience was the first of many as a young adult out on my own, traveling and working after college. Sometimes the air of suspicion was with law enforcement or people who thought because your skin was darker obviously you were "dangerous".
Most black people have stories like this to varying degrees regardless of your education or your socioeconomic background or the title you hold. President Obama spoke to this experience after the shooting of Trayvon. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder tells a story of him getting stopped on the street by a cop because he was running. Holder said he was running late to a movie, he also noted at that time he was a federal prosecutor. These statements are valuable in speaking truth to power, especially considering that Obama got blowback for even acknowledging this as a problem, (heaven forbid) however in the age of Obama we must exhort not only our allies but our leaders who've suffered these experiences to real action.
To be sure, marches, rallies, vigils, are useful in rallying a community together. Community forums that encourage dialogue with electeds and law enforcement is also a productive important step but it's not enough on its own. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has had a police brutality forum in the aftermath of the recent death of Eric Garner, an African-American who died due to a chokehold position the police officers used on him. As a white elected official, DeBlasio has noted himself as an ally in ending racial profiling and other unfair police tactics. DeBlasio used his son (who is part African-American and visibly so) in a campaign ad condemning NYC's law enforcement policy of "stop and frisk". But the most the forum has talked about so far is "retraining cops" to interact with their communities. Okay that's fine. However, this would not happen in the Upper East Side of New York City, if so all the wrath in the universe would fall upon the Mayor's Office. Real talk: It isn't just any community that some law enforcement seems to have these problems with, its communities of color.
I must acknowledge there has been legislative work done in the area around the country. Recently NY Public Advocate Letitia James has proposed body cams to address racial profiling or police brutality. This sounds intriguing because it would protect officers doing their jobs from false accusation and hold officers not doing their jobs accountable, while building trust within the community. I know federally, the Congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian Caucuses respectively have sent a letter earlier this year to Attorney General Holder's offices that ask for a meeting to address the "inappropriate use of profiling" by law enforcement in their communities. However there needs to be an organized national movement that proposes and lobbies for policy changes in law enforcements that need it and then in the state legislatures, Governor's Mansions, and Congress. Let the deaths of Martin, Garner, Bell, Grant, and countless others not be in vain.
As an American society, we have always been striving to reach the ideal of equality laid out by our Founders over 200 years ago. If we believe all Americans are to be treated equally under the law, it should be a national shame that the reality of black childhood in the U.S. is to learn how to react when (not if) but when you are treated unfairly by law enforcement.
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