“Oh, yeah, sure, I know: it’s a free country and I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge, what do you got?”
– Lt. Schrank, West Side Story
My grandfather was Chicago PD for 33 years. He joined the force back in the 1950s, when a Black man’s “proper place” in a cop car was considered the backseat, not the front. He made friends and colleagues of all races within the department, including future cops-turned-celebrities Dennis Farina and Don Cornelius. He was a hard man, as his two (later three) trouble-making sons would attest, but he was also very intelligent and would make most decisions comfortable in the idea that he was in the right.
Uniform or no, you never wanted to get on his bad side. He was one of the cops on the scene for the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention. As my father described it: “Yo’ grandaddy was down there crackin’ hippie skulls with the best of ‘em!” I’ve often wondered what his driving motivation was at that time; particularly if it was some form of catharsis or just him carrying out his assigned duty? On the one hand: he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow men in uniform. On the other hand: he had to look into the eyes of those teens and young adults who were fighting for his inalienable human rights. That’s important to remember in light of what happened next…
By the next year, the Black Panthers had a fully established chapter in Chicago. As was typical: they were more or less welcome by the Black community, not so much by the community’s local PD. Mayor Richard Daley wasn’t too fond of the Panthers’ either, especially as chapter president Fred Hampton had recruited former gang members into something much more constructive. On Daley’s order, and with the full co-operation of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, the Chicago PD raided the homes of known Panthers and killed them as they slept; including Fred Hampton.
My grandfather wasn’t part of those raids. He was ordered to take part, but refused. For that he was suspended for two months. Two months where a divorced single father was cut off from the only household income because his bosses ordered him to kill his sons’ friends. Two months where he had to witness and listen to the aftermath of a mass murder committed by men with whom he was on a first-name basis. Two months that further proved what he’d known all along: that he was, as the old adage goes,“Too Blue for the Brothas, Too Black for the Badge”.
My grandfather wasn’t the only cop on either side of my family: his younger brother also became a cop; I’ve got far more uncles and cousins in law enforcement than I can count; even though my father never became a cop, he did join the army, where he served as an MP. And what each and every one of them has in common is that each and every one of them has been racially profiled. All of them. It happened before the joined law enforcement, it happened to most whilst they were on the force, and it’s happened to quite a few of them after retiring.
And it’s happened to me more times than I can count. Growing up in a family of cops gives one a very clear sense of what the law considers right and wrong. Growing up as a Black man in the United States gives one a sense that he’ll always be thought of as a criminal first. It lets me know that no matter how well I know the law and abide by it to the letter, it doesn’t stop the perception that I’ve somehow already broken, am in the process of breaking it, or plan to break it and therefore must be stopped. I have never broken the law nor have I any criminal record, yet I’ve been stopped, harassed, questioned, followed, and frisked by police officers from San Francisco, Oakland, Daly City, Berkeley, Chicago, and the state of Kansas.
I’ve always made it a point to try and look at things from the other perspective, but whenever I try to do that for American cops, all I can see is them looking at me with a bull’s-eye on my back. I don’t see them looking out for my best interests, I see them looking for an excuse to shake me down. There are plenty of Black people who have actually committed crimes and deserve to be brought to justice, but when you’ve been told that you “fit the description of a suspect” as many times as I have, then it’s safe to say that the most widely-used criminal profile is a bit on the myopic side.
“Now hold on,” you might say, “it’d be pretty irresponsible for officers to not consider every person who fits the description of a crime that’s been committed. They aren’t targeting you, they’re searching for someone who happens to look like you. If you’ve done nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Yyyyeah, no. Y’see, science has proven time and again that having such a broad description won’t help you find what you’re looking for; that’s why you have to narrow it down. If, say, a crime was committed and a suspect is of a description not common to the scene of the crime, then a broad description is a good place to start. Seeing an entire race of people as criminals or potential criminals helps no one. That’s called “racial profiling”. They tried it in Germany once. A war broke out, if I’m not mistaken. What’s more, it’s futile to just randomly search many people of the same ethnicity for perceived potential “bad apples”, because – again, this is scientific scrutiny talking – it simply does not work.
“Hey, law-abiding citizens know better! The cop has a badge and, more importantly, a gun – it’s your duty to show them due respect! You don’t want them to lean on you? Don’t test them!”
That isn’t the creed of someone who’s rightfully earned respect and authority; that is the mantra of a bully. When you tell someone to do what you say or you’ll hurt them, that’s a threat. I know American cops carry guns so as to be prepared for all situations (a problem in and of itself that speaks ill of the United States as a whole), but when confronted by an armed man or woman claiming to be working in step with the law, I suddenly begin to fear for my life – especially when I haven’t done anything. Now my Id is screaming “fight or flight” as my Super-Ego tries to talk the officer out of shooting me.
“But why the hell would you run? You say that you’re innocent and that you know the danger; so why the hell would you risk your life when you know that? Give me one good reason!”
Just one? How about the fact that my odds are roughly the same if I run or not, but at least I’d die knowing I gave it fighting chance? How about the fact shooting someone in the back is a cowardly act and I die hoping that it weighs on the cop’s conscience just a little? How about the fact that no matter how much good I’ve done in my life, the media will somehow, some way dig up the most “incriminating” photo of me to further the narrative of the Violent Black Thug? Pick any one of those reasons, I’ve got dozens more.
(Perhaps I should retain the services of these fine young gentlemen?)
“Oh, I am so sick of all these stories about the bad things cops do! What about the good things? What about all of the times they’ve interacted with Black people and it all turned out for the better? Can’t they get just a little credit for that?!”
No. No they don’t deserve any special recognition for that, and I’ll tell you exactly why: That. Is. Their. Job. You don’t give a barista special recognition because he chose today as the one day not to spit in your latte. You don’t give a bus driver special recognition because she picked today as the one day to not get drunk and have a head-on collision. And no, you don’t give special recognition to a cops because they chose to take the high road and successfully handled a situation without resorting to drawing their sidearm. You know why? Because that’s their job. It’s what each of them is paid to do. It’s what each of them is trained to do. Should they perform above and beyond the call of duty (eg. the barista uses CPR on a customer; the driver single-handedly pulls passengers from a burning bus; a police officer saves a life in mortal danger), then by all means, sing their praises to the high heavens. But don’t expect ten-piece orchestra just for showing up and clocking in just like everyone else. Cops are public servants; their whole purpose is to serve the public trust.
“And what, you think slapping cameras on them is supposed to solve anything? Isn’t government intrusion into private lives a problem for people like you? Don’t you see the hypocrisy of asking another American to take part in this Big Brother nanny-state?”
Again: public servants. What a cop does in his or her private time is of no concern to me, so long as they aren’t harming others. But my tax dollars pay for their service and protection, so I deserve assurance that everything they do on the job is on the up and up. Besides, they’ve had dashboard cams for years and those often work on a cop’s behalf during testimony. Bodycams are no different. And before you ask, yes that includes citizens who record officers in the course of their duty. A public servant shouldn’t have a problem with a member of the public documenting their job.
“Y’know, maybe you haven’t considered this through all of your righteous indignation, but did you ever stop to consider the fact that cops die, too? While you’re all jumping on the hashtag bandwagon and trying to relive the ‘60s, you might just be missing the fact that these ‘public servants’ are putting their lives on the line every day. But they don’t get lots of big media coverage, do they?”
I’m reminded of another story my father told me. As I mentioned above, he was a bit of a hard case and gave my grandfather shit, as any teenage boy would with his father. Once, whilst trying to separate their laundry, he found one of my grandfather’s uniform shirts. It had holes in it. Apparently he’d been in a shootout and shots were exchanged. The shirt was apparently undone as he evaded the shooter. Had those bullet holes been in the same place with the shirt tucked in, my grandfather wouldn’t have been around to see me grow up. So yes, I have considered it. It is not at all lost on me that police officers are flesh and blood human beings, just like the rest of us. The fact that they willingly take on a line of employment that potentially puts them in harm’s way is not something to be taken lightly.
But that’s just the thing: they chose it willingly. They knew the risks of the job when they signed up, just as everyone married to a cop (or a firefighter or a soldier) knows that they day might come when they get the worst phone call of their life. That doesn’t mean they deserve to die, it just means that they know the risks. Being a teenager in a hoodie shouldn’t mean that one is automatically at risk of never coming home again.
By Keith Knight
“Oh God, the hoodie thing again? That defeats your entire argument right there! Have you ever stopped to think that if you people didn’t want to be thought of as criminals that maybe – just maybe – you shouldn’t dress like criminals? When someone walks around in the sort of baggy clothes of a drug dealer, you have no right to be surprised that someone thinks you’re up to no good!”
Huh. Okay, let’s talk about this one…
A lot my current feelings about Afrocentrism tie in to a lot of my feelings about Feminism. That wasn’t always the case. I went through a very militantly Afrocentric phase as a teen and am proud to say it shaped a lot of who I am today. But, as with most people who discover a new world view, I had the tendency to block out things that didn’t align said view. As such, I felt I had little need for Feminism. I understood that women had it hard, but being an angry young Black man, I didn’t see what it had to do with me.
Several things changed that. One of those things was coming across a book of Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton’s speeches and writings. It included his August 1970 speech in which he explains why unifying the Black Power, Feminism, and Gay Rights movements is not only a good idea, it’s a necessity.
Another thing that happened was that years later, on the suggestion of a woman friend, I began researching how often women are victims of sexual assault, but choose not to report it. One thing jumped out at me immediately: nearly all of the women recounting the stories were asked “What were you wearing?” Each of them is recounting the most undignified moment of trauma in her life, yet someone felt it necessary to bring up the possibility that it was might have been these ladies’ fault. Like someone sneaking into a zoo at night, but is surprised that they were mauled by a lion. “Did you wear a scent that attracted the lion? Did you poke it with a stick?”
It stuck with me because I was instantly reminded of how many times my friends, family, and even I myself have been harassed and assaulted by cops, only to be condescendingly asked “Well, what did do to make the cop come after you?”
I was walking down the street.
“How were you walking – was it proper posture or were you trying to swagger?”
What does that have to do with me minding my own business as I walk down the street?
“What were you wearing?
Were your pants pulled up?
Were your hands always visible?
Was your head uncovered at all times?”
Oh, how I could go on and on and on. I don’t want to compare the apples and oranges of routine sexual harassment to routine racial profiling. Let me just say that when a tragedy occurs and your first instinct is blame the victim, then the problem is with you. And just as most women take a great many precautions to protect themselves in public, so too do Black people remain ever conscious of not raising their voices, not make any sudden movements, not do anything to arouse the suspicion (and terror) of a nervous White public. Because God knows if we did, we’d be the ones to take the blame.
My grandfather died in 2011. He lived to see his city of Chicago go from holding one of the most violent political demonstrations in American history to the same city being the jump-off point for the first Black President of the United States. I didn’t get to see him during his final years, what with travel costs rising every year. I also don’t know what I would have said to him that would have stuck, as his death was brought on by Alzheimer’s Disease. But I do wonder what he made of the world around him in those last days. I wonder if he ever thought whether any progress had actually been made. I wonder if he woke up in the middle of the night at the thought of his sons – and their sons – all being victims of the very line of employment he strived so hard to do well. I wonder if he thought about all of the Black men in his lifetime – from Emmett Till to Deznil Dowell to Oscar Grant – who were all the victims of angry White men with authority (official or otherwise). Most of all, I wonder what he ultimately thought of himself from when he put his uniform on for the very first time to when he took it off for the very last time. I’m sorry I never got the chance to ask him.
I know police are people, too. What disturbs me is that the feeling doesn’t appear to be mutual. We live in a world where the members of the NYPD would rather turn their backs on their mayor than listen to his pleas for peace with the populace both he and the officers serve. This is a world where police officers can fire 137 rounds into a vehicle of two unarmed suspects and only get a slap on the wrist. This is a world where the people in whom we should have the most trust are adopting an attitude of “Us vs. Them”.
The first step toward improvement is admitting that you have a problem. American police have a problem. Their problem is our problem. God grant us the serenity to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Prince – “Baltimore”
Further reading: (updated)
• Newsweek – “The New Racial Make-Up of US Police Departments”:
• AlJazeera – “US Police Shootings ‘Grossly Underreported'”:
• The Root – “Here’s Everything We Know about the Pool Party in Texas where Police Assaulted Unarmed Teens”: https://www.theroot.com/here-s-everything-we-know-about-the-pool-party-in-texas-1790860108
(video of the incident in the article above)
• The Daily Beast – “Here’s What Happens when a Black Man Open-Carries a Gun”:
• The Root – The “#SayHerName” movement and the murders of Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Jones, Sheneque Proctor, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall. Natasha McKenna. Gabriel Nevarez. Sharmel Edwards. LaTanya Haggerty. Margaret LaVerne Mitchell. Frankie Perkins:
• LA Times – “SFPD Scandal puts focus on dwindling number of Blacks”:
• The Root – “Deaf Man Beaten by Police”:
• The Daily Beast – “LAPD find Fatal Shooting of Mentally Ill Man Justified”:
• The Root – “Virginia Cop uses Taser on Black Driver having Medial Emergency”:
• The Root – “Olympia, Wash. officer shoots Unarmed Black Men who Allegedly attempted to Steal Beer”:
• HuffPo – “14-Year-Old Tremaine McMillian choked by Miami-Dade Police over ‘Dehumanizing Stares'”:
• Think Progress – “Police arrest Black politician for distributing leaflets”:
• The Root – Reasons for Michael Brown’s body being left in the street for so many hours:
• NPR – Ohio Walmart shooting:
• Salon – “In Defense of Black Rage”:
• Huffington Post piece about VA State trooper that helped Black man:
• Al Jazeera America – Report about Eric Harris being shot by Tulsa “deputy” who thought he was using a taser. Harris was told “You fucking ran” and “Fuck your breath”:
• The Root – “6 Things we Still Don’t Know about the Freddie Gray Case”:
• New York magazine – “White People Rioting for No Reason”:
• Awesomely Luvvie – “The Stages of What Happens when there’s Injustice against Black People”:
Categories: Long-Form Essays