More on Ferguson
Last week, I said that the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, were not really about the shooting down of Michael Brown but rather were really about everything that had happened before. I mentioned the increasing poverty, the increasing unemployment, and the fact of a militarized police force that looks nothing like the community.
I want to touch on that again, that "what happened before" with regard to relations with the police from a somewhat different angle: the question of whether or not there was racial profiling of blacks in the city by the 95% white police force. How, to put that another way, did the bulk of the community experience their contacts with police?
An NPR story asked that question of people in Ferguson and got the sort of answers that should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. One said "Every time you see a cop, it's like, 'Am I going to get messed with?'" A father said "I should not have to teach my kids how to be arrested. I should not have to teach my son to do everything possible to make sure that you're not killed when a police officer pulls you over." A woman told the story of her 12-year-old son coming home in tears after being stopped and patted down by a cop while walking home. "He said, 'Mom, how long will this happen to me?' And I said, 'For the rest of your life.' "
And if you want to persist in thinking this is all fantasy, all hyperbole, some hard figures: In 2013, the Ferguson Police Department made 5,384 stops and 611 searches. 86 percent of the stops and 92 percent of the searches were of black people. Only about 65 percent of the town's population is black.
Oh, the bigots will cry, that just shows that black people are more likely to be criminals. Except - same year, same police figures: Once you allow for the difference in population, it works out that African-Americans were nearly twice as likely to have been subjected to a search as whites were and were twice as likely to get arrested - even though whites were more than one and a-half times more likely to have been found with contraband. They were 1-1/2 times more likely to have contraband but only half as likely to get arrested. And if that does not demonstrate a clear pattern of racial discrimination in the policing of Ferguson, I can't imagine what would short of a signed confession.
Look, let's face facts: Most cops are good cops. Most cops are trying to do the best they can for the communities where they work. But when you have people who you give a badge and a gun, people who you give the authority to kill people, people who are trained to smack down any challenge to their authority, who will tell you, as an LAPD cop recently did in an op-ed in the Washington Post, and I'm quoting now, "if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you," that is, in other words, just shut up and passively submit to anything I want even if it violates your rights and abuses my authority because I'll just beat the crap out of you (if you're lucky) and arrest you (if you're still alive) and whatever happens will be your fault - even though, by the way, it's not illegal to argue with a cop, it's not illegal to give a cop lip, it's not illegal to be obnoxious to a cop - when you have people who are increasingly trained to think in terms of "us versus them," when you have people who are increasingly being armed with weapons of war to patrol the streets, when you have that, then "most" is simply not good enough.
Because Ferguson is not the exception.
Kimberly Norwood is a law professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. She confessed recently that when driving, she has a bit of a lead foot. But, she said, "the few times I have been stopped in my suburb, the first question I'm asked is whether I live 'around here.'" Not one of her white friends, she said, had ever been asked that question when they were pulled over.
On August 22, TV producer Charles Belk was in Beverly Hills to attend a pre-Emmy event. He was suddenly arrested, handcuffed, made to sit on the curb, then booked on a charge of taking part in an armed robbery of a Citibank, with bail set at $100,000. His car was impounded, he was denied a phone call, and he wasn't given a very good explanation as to why he was being held.
The reason turned out to be that he is a tall, bald, black man, which was the description the cops had of one of the robbers. So, apparently, they just grabbed the first tall, bald, black man they saw. Six hours later, after he made repeated requests, the cops actually looked at the security film from the bank. It wasn't him. They let him go. He's supposed to be grateful.
On August 23, Kametra Barbour was driving in Forney, Texas with her three young children, ages six to nine. She was stopped by police. She was made to get out of the car and walk backwards toward the cops, where she was handcuffed.
Why? The cops tell her that they had a 911 cal4l about "a vehicle matching your description and your license plate, waving a gun out the window."
Here's the problem: The 911 call was about four black men waiving a gun out the window of a beige- or tan-colored Toyota. This was a woman with small children driving a burgundy red Nissan Maxima. Only one thing matched: the color. And not the color of the car.
The cops realized their "mistake" when Barbour's 6-year-old son got out of the car and, in a heart-breaking moment, started walking toward the cops with his hands up.
Because Ferguson is not the exception. It happens to people of color in this country everywhere, every day. Everywhere, every day, African-Americans are assumed to be criminals, are stopped, hassled, harassed, for no reason other than the color of their skin. That's why there is such a dramatic difference - a 20 percentage point difference - between the attitudes of whites and blacks on the question of "trusting the police" - it's the dramatic difference in their day-to-day experience.
So yeah, most cops are good cops. But when we face the reality we do, "most" just isn't nearly good enough.
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