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'They Think We Are Animals': How America's Police State Controls Black People

Racism in America's police force is linked to cops' role as keepers of the status quo in an unequal society.

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Walking home, I think of who else I want to vanish from the neighborhood. Maybe the bored men who curse my gay friends or the youth who shoot up the summer nights, sending everyone running for cover. And that’s the social contradiction. Black and Latino people are the most victimized by crime but are often brutalized or ignored by the very police who are supposed to protect us.  

We live with a city government that is driven by a conservative vision that casts working-class minorities as “ghetto brutes.” On the other side, some activists on the left cast us as tomorrow’s revolutionary heroes or the mangled victims of capitalism. Between these ideologies is the ever-present reality of crime driven by desire to live the “good life” advertised around us without the resources to do so. Criminals defy the hypocrisy of society and try to “get some” but in a selfish, narcissistic way that destroys the neighborhoods they live in.

It leads to a corrosive division in black and Latino communities where we are afraid of each other and angry for being afraid. We lose faith in ourselves but crave it so much that we seize on spectacles of racist violence to experience once more an ephemeral unity. So when Trayvon Martin, a young black male, was shot dead in Florida by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, instantly we wore hoodies to love in him the innocence stripped and stolen and cursed and stopped and frisked from us every day.

After his death, the racist Web site  Storm Front  posted two photos of Martin. One was blurry with him giving two middle fingers, looking mad thug. The other was clearly him smiling his new “gold grill” into the camera. The goal was to lower Martin's credibility by making his face overlap with the “ghetto brute.”

It was quickly discovered that the first image was false. But as progressive critics pounced on the photos, we missed a vital point. Thugs don’t deserve to be shot either. In playing the politics of respectability, we relied on Martin’s cherubic youthful face to sell black innocence. He became for many, an icon of our own sabotaged lives. But the scarred, embittered men and women in the 'hood are once again ineligible for public sympathy.

And I fell into this conservative ideology. I studiously look hipster to avoid hassle by the police. Sweaters, dark-rim glasses and a man-pouch are my camouflage. And it works. They never harass me. Since I teach literature, a thick book is often in my hands, which is useful for hailing taxis in Manhattan. Drivers assume I’m “safe” but I hear fear and disappointment in their voices when I say, “Take me to Bed-Stuy!” 

My First Night In Jail

Last summer, an officer clamped cold handcuffs on me as I turned to him and said, “I’m glad I’m helping you make your quota tonight.” He roughly pushed me into the car, “Alright smart ass, for that you can sit in the back.”

I had been ticketed for drinking a beer in Tompkins Park. The bills came in the mail but I ignored it until it was forgotten. Now I cursed myself for being caught by 21st century vagrancy laws. While in the cell, new men came in and others were let out. Over the next 16 hours, I heard story after story of guys busted for drinking a beer or not having a ID on them or smoking a joint in the park. Some shouted for hours, some slept and some stared at the wall, projecting a personal movie of where they wanted to be instead.

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