A few days ago Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the following in a post titled “The Cops We Deserve:”
“Not to diminish what happened at UC Davis, but it’s worth considering what happens in poor neighborhoods and prisons, far from the cameras. I’m not saying that to diminish this video in any way. But I’d like people to see this a[s] part of a broad systemic attitude we’ve adopted as a country toward law enforcement. There’s a direct line from this officer invoking his privilege to brutalize these students, and an officer invoking his privilege to detain Henry Louis Gates for sassing him.”
I thought that this was a characteristically respectful and non-alienating way to remind folks that for marginalized people, police violence is not a new phenomenon. Over the past few weeks as incidents of violent police responses to the Occupy Movement have become more visible, I have heard some friends (all people of color) sarcastically suggest that some white, relatively privileged folks are now discovering police brutality for the first time. Kind of in the way that Columbus “discovered” Native Americans; They had always been here.
Regular readers of this blog know that I write very often about policing and state violence. I believe that it is impossible to understand the Prison Industrial Complex without probing the role of policing. Over a year ago, I wrote a post titled “Officer Friendly Doesn't Live Here: Policing Urban Youth.” The main point I made was that:
“One of the most consistent themes that I hear from the young people who I work with is that they feel under siege by the police in their neighborhoods. They are consistently harassed and hassled for no reason other than their youth and skin color.”
So for many black people, the current response to the police violence associated with the Occupy Movement runs the gamut from indifference to eye-rolling and in some instances exasperation and anger. This past week, I came across a post written by Black Canseco titled “Open Letter to #OWS: 'Oh, so NOW Police Brutality matters?!'” which encapsulates the exasperated and angry response. The letter opens this way:
Dear Occupy Wall Street:
Police brutality in America did not begin with you. It’s older than you, older than your encampments and older than your sudden awareness of it.
As one of the 99% you claim to champion, I for example, have seen police brutality firsthand throughout my childhood and my adult life right on to this day. As an African American male I have seen what happens when you occupy black skin in the presence of a police officer. I’ve buried friends who were shot by police despite having broken no laws. I’ve seen police batons and fists, backs of squad cars and squad carhoods used as weapons—not because I or my fellow African Americans were protesting or making any public statements, but simply because we were breathing and existing outside our homes.
It’s hard to know what to say to this, isn’t it? It feels like a conversation ender. Right away those who are reading his open letter and sympathize with OWS might feel put on the defensive. Yet it is impossible not to feel the pain that permeates the entire letter in this opening paragraph. This cannot and should not be minimized. We should not look away because of the anger expressed.
I have analogized police violence to domestic terrorism . I think that this concept applies perfectly. Police violence takes a physical, emotional, and spiritual toll on its targets. The routine “Stop and Frisk” policies that mostly target young black men in our cities lead to urban trauma that is neglected and underappreciated. So I take these things very seriously.
However for me, the appropriate response is not to berate some white people for only just now recognizing the endemic violence and brutality of policing in America but rather to enlist them as allies in transforming this system. This means that we have to engage these folks in popular education about the issue of policing and violence so that they can become steeped in a structural analysis of the problem.
Katheryn K. Russell (2000) cautions us against “the dismissal of police violence as a Black thing.” I think that this is basically right. Rather than locating the problem of police brutality as strictly in the purview of black men, we must underscore how aggressive police tactics harm all of us. The truth is that while Black men suffer disproportionately at the hands of police, young women of color, trans folks, and others are also routinely harassed by law enforcement. Only by making visible all of the forms of violent policing will we be able to build a movement for transformative justice. If it remains an issue that people view as only impacting black people in particular, then our possibility for social change is going to be very limited.
We have historical precedent for this. In much the same way that I believe that white people should talk to white people about race and racism; I also believe that if white people talked to other white people about police violence, we would be further along in helping to end it. One example of this can be found in a powerful letter titled “Feeling for the Edge of Your Imagination: finding ways not to call the police” that I have previously cited. I incorporated some parts of this letter in a post that I wrote titled “Yes, In Fact, the Cops Are in My Head.” The author specifically addresses the letter to other privileged people with whom she identifies:
“All of you, but especially those of you who, like myself and the two people mentioned above, are white and/or grew up middle class and/or didn’t grow up in NYC. I’m writing to you, also, if you’ve smiled your way out of a speeding ticket, if you’ve been most afraid of cops at mass protests, or if you generally feel safer when you see police around. If these things are true for you, it’s possible that you are more distanced from the real impact of policing on low-income communities of color. But whether people in your life experience those impacts regularly or not, whether you’ve spent a night in jail, done work to support political prisoners, or haven’t thought much about police brutality since Sean Bell… if you hold a commitment to making the world a better place, I’m writing to you, because there’s work to be done.”
I imagine that the author of this letter might be a supporter of the Occupy Movement (but maybe not). Frankly if we are to win, we need more white people who want to join in the movement to dismantle the PIC and who want to work for alternatives to policing. So while I have empathy for Black Canseco’s exasperation and anger, I also want to find constructive ways to engage those who are just learning about police violence through the experience in the Occupy Movement. We need to figure out better ways to talk across our differences without alienating each other. It’s going to take a movement of millions to transform justice.