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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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“Get out of the fucking car,” he yelled. I dashed to my apartment window, looked down and saw a cop aiming his gun at a car. Slowly, hands trembling above his head, a black man stepped out and kneeled on the road. Is he going to kill him? I wondered. If he so much as twitches the cop will blast his brains out.

As the afternoon mist thickened into rain, I saw the officer blinking droplets from his eyes. His face was a knot of rage and fear. Thankfully the young man being arrested didn’t twitch as he was handcuffed. After they left and my panic ebbed, I knew it wouldn't be long until someone somewhere was blown into oblivion by the police. 

It wasn’t a knee-jerk anti-authority reaction but a heavy feeling based on history. Months later I read of the NYPD killing 18-year-old Ramarley Graham and 68-year-old Vietnam veteran Kenneth Chamberlain. They join Duane Brown, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury, Patrick Dorismond, Michael Stewart and others on the growing roster of black men killed by the police.

Once the smoking guns cool and the body is buried, mainstream media repeat the same words, “accident” or “tragic.” But we, who are black or Latino or politicized, hear the slurs and threats shouted in the background. Progressive news show Democracy Now reported that when cops banged on Chamberlain’s door and he told them he was fine, one shouted, “I don’t give a fuck nigger!” In 2011, cops created a Facebook page to complain about working the West Indian Day Parade, on it they called the black partiers “animals” and “savages,” and one wrote, “Drop a bomb and wipe them all out.” Repeatedly, journalists or lawyers smuggle out of the Blue Code of Silence evidence of police using racist, animal imagery to describe the very people they are supposed to serve.        

Racism in America's police force is linked to their role as keepers of the status quo in an unequal society. They enforce laws written by politicians on behalf of the wealthy -- laws that end up trapping poor and working-class people in desperate lives. Racial and sexual minorities, legal and illegal immigrants are seen as threats to the social order. When we protest the law and “occupy” a space we are beaten and arrested. When we commit a crime to “get some” we are beaten and arrested. And when we do neither but simply live we’re busted to make a cop’s stop-and-frisk quota. 

Language plays an essential role here. It starts with a defensive joke, a “perp” profile that becomes so blurred it encompasses nearly everyone on the street and a constant sense of danger. Each builds on the other until the change is complete and one day, they casually listen to NYPD Capt. James Coan give a racist hurrah speech to detectives executing warrants in Brooklyn. “They’re fucking animals," he repeatedly said of black people from 2008 to 2010, “If you have to shoot, you shoot them in the head.”

A Shot in the Dark

“He was obliged to keep watch all night long with his guns at hand,” wrote slave trader Robert Durand in 1733. “The negroes were continuously ready to force open his hut to rob him…as they were only looking to avenge the kidnapping of their friends.” During the Atlantic slave trade, 12 million people were stolen from Africa and shipped to the Americas. Slave traders herded them from ship plank to the market, where once bought, they shuffled in chains to plantations. And with each jangling step, slaves were circled by men with guns and whips who did not see them as human beings but as dangerous dark animals.

If your job was to herd, whip and sell people like animals then you must see them as such or risk your sanity. From the auction block, jokes and imagery of Africans as savage heathens and apes, swept through cotton fields and upward into the halls of power. Racial ideology, the belief that a physical difference between humans determines their place in society, rose from the material practice of slavery. In his 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson equated blacks to animals, writing that they don’t feel love or pain. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote “Those numberless afflictions…are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.”

The continuous association of blacks to monkeys created a culture of violent policing of brown bodies. In his 1845 autobiography, abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote of an overseer named Mr. Gore who used his whip like a tongue as if to speak with leather. One day he lashed a slave named Demby who ran into a creek and refused to come out. Douglass writes, “Mr. Gore then…raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he stood.”

Slavery By Another Name

After the Civil War ended, African Americans had a brief season of freedom during Reconstruction. But the sight of their former slaves walking the streets terrified Southern whites. In the book and PBS documentary, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of African-Americans from the Civil War to World War II, reporter Douglass Blackmon explained how the Southern ruling class, which wanted the return of free labor, created the Vagrancy Laws. If blacks couldn’t be owned they could be jailed and forced to work. Historian Talithia LeFouria said it meant that, “Anything from spitting or drinking or being found drunk in public or loitering in public spaces could result in confinement.”

Before the war, images of blacks in newspapers were of lazy watermelon-chomping coons or blissful mammies or silent Uncle Toms. After the war they changed into lewd jezebels and fierce brutes. The shift came as slavery gave way to the convict-lease system. Racial ideology still pivoted on the concept of blacks as animals, once safely shackled, now free and dangerous.

Nearly 900,000 black people were arrested and channeled into the convict-lease system, where once incarcerated they were “sold” or “rented” to industries. In this era, police took over for slave catchers and prison guards for overseers as the reactionary force used to turn back history.

Stop and Frisk

“When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and sexual prowess,” James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time (1963). If you read black writers of the past one truth becomes clear: an “unofficial” stop-and-frisk policy has always been in effect, though the entire nation.

It’s terrifying, humiliating to have a stranger’s hands pawing your limbs and their eyes peeling away your privacy, trying to find some illegal object on you. It takes a while for your body to feel like yours again. And decades after Baldwin wrote those lines, stop and frisk of blacks and Latinos has gone from unofficial racism to official policy. Nearly four million New Yorkers have been stopped and groped by the police between 2004 and 2011. Nine out 10 were innocent. And 87 percent were black or Latino.

Stop and frisk is a policy that legitimizes race-based control. The change came in 1993, at the end of the crack era, when Mayor Giulani was elected and paranoia of black and Latino youth hung in New York. Just four years earlier, the city convulsed when black teens were accused of and falsely confessed to raping a Central Park jogger.

In came Police Commissioner Bill Bratton with the “broken windows” theory. The premise of "broken windows" is that abandoned urban space invites worse crime, so a building with a broken window invites more vandalism, then squatters, then drug dealing, until it becomes a crack mansion. Broken window calls for ramped-up policing of smaller, quality-of-life crimes. 

In reality, "broken windows" provides ideological justification for cracking down on low-level dealers and working-class people. CompStat managing used weekly reports to find the “hot spots,” which were inevitably black, Latino and poor. These areas flooded with police patrols. Drinking on the stoop, washing car windows at the intersection or smoking a joint got you busted.

An era of gentrification was upon the city. Neighborhoods that had been off limits were now open to investors. Rents went up. New stores came in. New people came in until the city is what it is today, large swaths serving as a playground for the transnational capitalist class. 

So every day, in the city streets, blacks, latinos and the poor are fondled and pushed around by cops. It's a "natural" site because the classic image of the black “brute” has been transformed into the ghetto thug.

In May 2012, New York City Council members met with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and questioned him on stop and frisk. They said their constituents felt “under siege.” He shot back, “What I haven’t heard is any solution to the violence problems in these communities -- people are upset about being stopped, yet what is the answer?”

Tricky Math

In 2010, secret recordings were smuggled out of the 81st Precinct in “Do or Die” Bed-Stuy by officer Adrian Schoolcraft. Printed in the Village Voice, the transcripts show bosses ordering street level cops to “pay the rent,” parlance for issuing tickets, summons and making arrests. Precinct bosses showed the inflated numbers to upper management as proof they were working hard. But when actual crimes were reported, officers were told to aggressively question the victims and downgrade them.

Putting “paper” on people and suppressing reports of real crime created statistics for politicians to trumpet how safe the city was on their watch. Under the veneer of First World professionalism, New York shares an ugly dynamic with Third World cities. If you are working class, poor, colored or foreign, you essentially have to pay the cops off. Except in our city, the money doesn’t go into their pockets but to the state in the form of a ticket.

People are being “mugged” by cops. And if you have a ticket you can’t pay, you get a warrant you can’t avoid and when caught, you’ll go to jail. The poorest people in the city are paying for their own oppression.

What's Thug Got To Do With It?

His name was Ro’. I first sensed him in the panicked eyes of my neighbors. My block is a live wire of spoken and unspoken messages; I was told in their suspicious glances and fast walk-away that the new tall black man was trouble. When I got to my building, the DJ who lived downstairs was standing at the doorway with a small knife in his hand.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“You see that nigga over there,” he jutted his chin to the new guy. “His name is Ro’. Just came back from prison and he’s trying to hustle people, yelling that his bike was broken and they gotta pay to repair it.”

Every time I saw Ro’, he was more raggedy and hungry. My last memory, he jerkily walked along the street like a puppet with invisible strings yanking his limbs. One foot was bare; the other had a dangling slipper. And his eyes seemed to bob in a sea of chemicals. The men on the street shot him hard stares. He vanished afterward, maybe dead or in jail or rehab. I didn’t care which, I was just glad he was gone.

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.

I thought of Richard Pryor’s routine where he said, “Don’t go to the courts thinking you’ll find justice because guess what you’ll find – just us.”

 

Nicholas Powers is an assistant professor of literature at SUNY Old Westbury. His book of poetry, "Theater of War" was published by Upset Press in 2004. He has written for the Village Voice and the Indypendent.
 
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