08/11/2010 03:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"If I Could Write This in Fire": Police Brutality in Provincetown

On July 4, 2010, I witnessed the unlawful arrest of a young black man in Provincetown, MA. While walking down the street following the fireworks, a gathered crowd caught my attention. The young man, whose name I do not know, was a member of a group of bystanders that formed on Commercial Street in response to the arrest of an even younger black boy.

The crowd watched in disbelief as a police offer apprehended the teenager. Despite the fact that the teenager did not resist the arrest, the police officer nevertheless bashed the young boy's body onto the ground and pressed his knee firmly into the boy's back. The young boy let out a cry of pain, and many people in the crowd, particularly a number of young women, pleaded with the police officer to stop.

What alarmed the people watching was that the police officer was about a foot or more taller and considerably heavier than the teenager. The young boy was no more than 5'3, and could not have weighed more than 100 pounds or so. Due to the violent way in which the police officer apprehended the young boy, I remained at the scene of the arrest.

As the police escorted the teenager into a van, a number of other police had arrived on the scene. There were already two other officers on horses overlooking the arrest, but the call for backup was answered with a fleet of cops on bikes and on foot.

What caught my attention immediately was a middle-aged white female police officer, who appeared panicked and frightened by the commotion. Despite the fact that the crowd began to naturally break up, the female officer identified a young white boy of no more than 15 years old and 100 pounds and forcefully shoved him--telling him if he did not move, "he would be next." This young white boy had simply said to his friends that it was unfair how the police had treated the young black teenager. Yet, despite her apparent anxiety, this female officer continued to yell and to curse at this young white boy and forcefully shoved him a second time.

After the young white boy left the scene, the white female officer noticed a young black man in his twenties about 200 more feet away talking with his white friends about what he just witnessed, explaining how unfair it was that the police had used such extreme force in apprehending the teenager.

The female officer pushed her way through the crowd of white teenagers who had also articulated similar frustration about the incident. She approached the black man among them, shoved her body against his, and told him to shut up. He knew better than to respond. The young black man completely shut down and bowed his head as she yelled at him. She then asked him a question, and when he began to answer, what followed was unthinkable.

She let out a string of vulgar and offensive words and began pushing the man against a store window. Noticing what was unfolding, a group of cops ran to the female officer's side and within a few seconds, the young black man was handcuffed and arrested, for no apparent reason.

As the female officer arrested the second black men, she exploded with rage and fear. Growing up in Philadelphia and having lived in New York City, I have witnessed many instances when white officers have arrested black men, but what unfolded that night in Provincetown was harrowing in comparison.

As the police officers arrested the only two black men in a sea of white people, I wondered if they were replaying an episode that they had watched of the TV show Law and Order; acting with such aggression and force, they conveyed the message that black people were not going to become a problem in their lily-white beach town.

The next day I went to file a complaint at the police station and was given the name of a police officer, who, I was told, investigates complaints filed against police officers. I had never filed a complaint in the past nor was I aware of the protocol in such cases, but the sheer injustice and violence committed against the second black man impelled me to do something.

I had hoped that by going to the station, I could provide my name as an eyewitness to the arrest, and potentially testify on the young man's account, if the case made it to court. Yet, the clerk did not take my name and informed me that she was not at liberty to give out any details about the case.

While I understand the police cannot release the name of those arrested, there was no available outlet for me to get in touch with the public defendant or contact the young man arrested.

While I was equally appalled by how the police had exerted an unnecessary amount of force in apprehending the first black youth, I realized that I did not witness the entire episode that caused the police to arrest him in the first place. However, I damn well knew what I saw when the second young man was arrested; and what unfolded was a disgusting abuse of power on behalf of the Provincetown Police Department. So, I remained committed to speaking out against this injustice.

Two days later, after I left Provincetown, I eventually was able to reach the investigative police officer on the phone who listened to my account but seemed genuinely apathetic about the unlawful arrest of the second black man. The officer brushed me off the phone and told me that he would flag the file--whatever that means.

I then contacted The Provincetown Banner, the local newspaper. I was hoping that the newspaper would investigate this incident in more detail. The Editor at the paper said they would assign the story to a journalist, but no one ever contacted me to learn more about the unlawful arrest. The Editor also suggested that I write an op-ed and submit it to the paper about the incident, which I did.

A week later, the Editor acknowledged the receipt of my op-ed and promised that she would get back to me the following week about a publication date. Three weeks have passed and I still have not heard back from her. I emailed her a few times thereafter, and she never returned any of my subsequent emails.

The details of that unlawful arrest were slowly disappearing before my eyes. It is hard for me not to see the newspaper as now complicit in this case of racism. I realize that they may not have the staff or opportunity to investigate this incident, but they could have, at the very least, published my op-ed--considering they suggested that I write an editorial in the first place. By not publishing my editorial, the Provincetown Banner has purposely ignored this critical issue and has consequently condoned these violent acts of racism.

I now write this editorial to document what transpired; to formally register my complaint about police brutality in the public record; to protest the reports written by the police records that did not solicit eyewitness accounts; and to expose the newspaper who allowed racism to continue unchecked. To borrow the words of novelist Michelle Cliff, "If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire."

A few hours before the arrest, members of the town poured onto the beach to watch the annual fireworks display and to celebrate "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." At the time when those fateful words were first written in 1776, it was, as any 5th grader today could tell you, at the expense and exclusion of the thousands of black slaves that were forced to work in both the North and the South.

The following decades brought the Civil War, Reconstruction, and eventually in the mid-20th century, the civil rights movement, which attempted to make right on the revolutionary promise that "all men are created equal."

Yet in a town that seems to make such a fuss about its historical value and acceptance of all kinds of people, it seems that certain historical lessons are not taught in the police academy or upheld at the local paper; and that the fireworks are really just meant to be admired by the white people.

Jim Downs is currently the Mayers Fellow at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. He is also an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College. His books include
Taking Back the Academy and Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change.