I have lived in New York City for 32 years. I am a 58 year old African American man who has worked for a number of public officials, some assigned NYPD security details for some or all of the time I worked for them. As a result, I have known many NYPD police officers over the years. In fact, an uncle and a cousin, with whom I was very close until they passed, had long careers as police officers.
My interaction with the NYPD has been on the whole positive over these last 32 years (store security guards are another story). Nonetheless I will admit: I do everything I can to avoid police officers no matter what the circumstances. And when I do encounter them, I concentrate intently on defusing the situation that my skin color too often seems to create.
At the risk of generalizing, I find that especially with younger officers, there often seems to be this outside bravado, which I think may simply mask insecurities. Whatever the explanations, the challenges that people of color face with police don't seem to be improving with new generations. As an African American man, when I encounter a police officer I still see my job as out thinking and out feeling them, so as not to get caught in a web of pathology from which no good can come.
Perhaps ironically, what brought all of this to mind for me recently was not my visit to Ferguson last week; or the deeply troubling grand jury decision in the Eric Garner homicide; or the arrest and detention of protesting students at the theological seminary where I am the executive vice president. Instead, what really brought my experience home is a recent conversation I had with my 28-year-old physical trainer, who is Latino. My trainer explained that he has been stopped and frisked by the police over 30 thirty times -- for nothing.
These completely unjustified police stops, which take place because of who he is rather than what he has done, happen when he leaves the house to go to school, to shop at the grocery store, to visit his girlfriend or a family member, and to head to work. He describes it as a gross and dreadful ritualistic cycle that seems to be accompanied by a certain level of sadism on the part of the officers involved.
I confessed to my trainer that in spite of the fact that our health club is only eight blocks from my apartment, I never walk or jog there because the route is usually desolate and I do not want to be harassed by the police. Sadly, I am afraid that if I were to jog down this empty thoroughfare as a black man, I would be too tempting of a target for the NYPD regardless of the circumstances. So I drive those eight blocks twice a week.
Now I'm stopping to ask: how in God's name did we get here? Racism is such a deep, ingrained and insidious force in our culture. It is persistent and parasitic. It lives and thrives in any soul, and can sap the goodness of even the best of us. Coupled with power and authority, propelled by myths and stereotypes, and fueled by irrational fears promulgated by irresponsible media outlets, racism leads us to create a city ethos where a million innocent people a year are harassed by authorities under the name of community safety. This is insanity masquerading as policy.
We find ourselves in a city where a young man cannot leave for work or where a former senior staffer for public officials cannot jog eight blocks to his gym without worrying about being harassed by the police.
We have got to fix this. A civilized society requires no less of us.