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Michael Brown's Killing Exposes the Neglect of Black Communities in the U.S.

"The foundation for the tension between police and the community has not changed," says law professor.

As we continue to discuss the developments since the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, we turn to john a. powell, professor of law, African American studies and ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. "The black community tends be overpoliced and underprotected," powell says. "That’s a very serious problem."

Below is a video interview with powell, followed by a transcript:

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to john a. powell in Detroit. john a. powell is professor of law and African American studies and ethnic studies at University of California, Berkeley, also director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

Professor powell, welcome to Democracy Now! You’ve been listening to the whole broadcast from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. First, your thoughts?

john a. powell: Well, first of all, I guess, my first thought is just my condolences and deep pain for the family and the community. And I know it’s a difficult situation, but it’s also a situation that comes up too frequently, and we generally have not learned how to deal with this situation. As you mentioned the Kerner Commission 50 years ago, we’re still dealing with the same issues, in part because we avoid the hard issue. We avoid the structure. We avoid the system. We avoid the sort of continued neglect of poor people of color all across this country. And then, obviously, the police don’t live in the community with the people. The police don’t know the people. The Kerner Commission noticed this in 1968, that part of the problem was the police did not have a real relationship with the community, a trusting relationship with the community. The black community tends to be overpoliced and unprotected. And so, now the concern from a number of sources is: How do we protect the people there with guns, with tanks, instead of the people that live there? That’s a problem. That’s a very serious problem.

AMY GOODMAN: You have gone to many communities after police shootings. You’ve been looking at issues like these for decades. Talk about what you have found.

john a. powell: Well, you know, one of the most important things to learn is the relationship between the police or, in this case, the militaries—because we’re talking about the National Guard, as well—and the community. Is there a sense of trust? Think about Katrina. This was a tragedy of a different sort. And still, the tragedy was heavily racialized, but it wasn’t a police shooting. When the levees broke in New Orleans, they sent the military in. They went in with guns and tanks pointed at people who were suffering from shock, most of them black. And it wasn’t until General Honoré, who’s also African-American, went in and basically said, "Put your guns down. These are American citizens." He recognized the humanity of the people there. And oftentimes that’s not recognized, that the people there are in pain and their humanity is not being recognized. And so, that’s the recurring theme that happens over and over again. The police are sent in. They’re afraid—we get that. Although they have guns and tanks, they’re still afraid.

There’s a whole thing called "implicit bias." In this country, there’s—you mentioned, Amy, about the difference between how important race is. Fortunately, we have a way of now testing, to some extent, how Americans feel about race. And the test is empirical, so we don’t have to ask people what they think and just record their self-response; we can test it. And America is a very racialized country, and many police are afraid of blacks, and many blacks are afraid of police. But police have guns and tanks and the law behind them. And so, yes, I’ve seen this happen many times. I was in Detroit years ago when the big riot happened here in Detroit, and I watched tanks go down the streets. And since then, I’ve had a chance to study that as an academic. And even though things have changed, the foundation for the tension between police and the community has not changed.

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