The Police Think We’re Animals

Nicholas Powers Jun 13, 2012

"Get out of the fucking car,” I heard someone yell. 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. Fortunately, 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.

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

Racism among America’s police forces 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. Immigrants and racial and sexual minorities 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, we’re busted to make a cop’s stop-and-frisk quota.

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 dark, dangerous animals.

Racial ideology — the belief that physical differences between humans should determine 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 did not feel love or pain. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote. “Those numberless afflictions . . . are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.”

The continuous identification of blacks with animals 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

When the Civil War came to a close in 1865, African-Americans had a brief season of freedom during the 12 years of Reconstruction before Jim Crow laws were enacted. According to Historian Talithia LeFouria, Blacks living in the south could face jail time for anything from spitting or drinking to loitering in public spaces.

Nearly nine hundred thousand Black people were arrested and channeled into the convict-lease system, where they were incarcerated and “sold” or “rented” to industries. If Blacks could no longer be owned, then they would be jailed and forced to work.

This set in motion a culture of using the criminal justice system to continue racial oppression. In the eyes of many Black people, the police were the new slave catchers and prisons the new plantations. And so African-Americans fled the South.

Cities on Fire

“The police started lynching us and what they called it was justifiable homicide. . . . They got out the car and called us niggers . . . but if we said, ‘hey . . . you,’ we was beat up, thrown against the car and charged with assaulting the police,” said the elderly Black man as he stared into the past.

He was speaking to the makers of the 2006 documentary Bastards of the Party, which traced the rise and fall of L.A. gangs. He was one of many older men interviewed whose parents were part of the Great Migration, an exodus of six million African-Americans who left the South for the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast from 1910 through 1970. They tried to create a new life in the bright, sunny paradise of California, but the South followed them. In the film, L.A. historian Mike Davis explained: “The LAPD recruited police in the South. They went down and looked for Southern whites who’d been in the army and Marines.”

White gangs like the Spook Hunters would beat up Blacks who strayed from their tightly packed, suffocating neighborhoods. The police also joined in brutalizing Black people. To defend themselves, Black youth formed gangs like the Gladiators, Farmers, Businessmen and Slausons. But they were no match for state power. Police batons hitting skulls and police fists breaking ribs created a rage in Black neighborhoods that spread like gasoline. And on the evening of August 11, 1965 when 21-year-old Marquette Fye was arrested by the LAPD, it ignited.

Over the course of five days known as the Watts Riots, more than three thousand people were arrested and more than 1,500 law enforcement officers were deployed. L.A. police chief William Parker compared the Black rioters to “monkeys in the zoo.”

The Great Incarceration

Three years later, an assassin’s bullet tore open Martin Luther King’s throat, simultaneously wounding every Black man and woman in America. Grief gave way to Black Power. Halo-like Afros surrounded proud faces. The Black Panther Party opened free breakfast programs opened. Black people held large rallies and spoke with one voice. And, yet again, federal, state and local police took steps to shatter their hopes. The FBI’s counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) spied and lied. Leaders were shot down. Angela Davis jailed. George Jackson and Fred Hampton killed.

And beneath the marching feet of the Freedom Movement, the ground was eroding. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, corporate America had shut down its factories and moved on. Cities were dying. With no path to work, an entire generation of Black and Latino men were stranded in the streets. But in the early ’80s, Caribbean drug dealers with a glut of cocaine cooked it into rocks and hired the lost generation to sell it for cheap. The Reagan administration closed its eyes to drug-trafficking Contras who flew in tons of coke to finance their war in Nicaragua.

Hot with cash and guns, the lost generation explored new neighborhoods, bringing their battles to Middle America’s doorstep. Police policy transformed into a sweep of the streets, hauling in masses of Black people who had nothing to do with gangs. At the same time, in these neighborhoods, factories were being closed and prisons built. In the wake of mass deindustrialization, cities across the country darkened, save for the junkies lighting crack pipes that glowed like fireflies in abandoned buildings.


This law-and-order backdrop gave way to a “zero tolerance” approach to combating crime after Rudy Giuliani’s was elected to his first term as New York City mayor in 1993.Giuliani promised to restore order to the city through cracking down on small-scale “quality of life” crimes like turnstile jumping, panhandling and graffiti. In reality, though, this pledge caused police to crack down on low-level dealers and working-class people who lived in low-income communities of color.

Today, every day in the city streets, Blacks, Latinos and the poor are manhandled and pushed around by cops. It’s a “natural” sight because the classic image of the Black “brute” has been transformed into the ghetto thug.

Nearly four million New Yorkers have been stopped and groped by the police between 2004 and 2011. Nine out of ten were innocent. And 87 percent were Black or Latino.

In May, New York City Council members met with police commissioner Ray Kelly to voice their concerns about stop-and-frisk. 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?”

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 in Bedford-Stuyvesant is a live wire of unspoken messages; they told me with suspicious glances that the tall new 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 towards 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. The last time I spotted him on the block, he was walking jerkily 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 afterwards; perhaps he was dead or in jail or rehab. I didn’t really care where he ended up — I was just glad he was gone.

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

We live under a city government 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 all around us. Criminals defy the hypocrisy of society and try to “get some” — but in a selfish, narcissistic way that destroys the neighborhoods in which they live.

This leads to a corrosive division in Black and Latino communities, where we are afraid of each other and, at the same time, 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. When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead in a Florida suburb by George Zimmerman we instantly threw on our hoodies and rallied in Union Square, fueled more by a yearning for our stolen innocence than by our love for victims of brutality.

My First Night in Jail

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

I had been ticketed for drinking a beer in Tompkins Square Park. The bills came in the mail but I ignored them until they were forgotten. Now I cursed myself for being caught by twenty-first-century vagrancy laws. While I sat 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 an ID on them or smoking a joint in the park. Some shouted for hours; some slept; some stared at the wall, projecting a personal movie of where they wanted to be instead.

I thought of what Richard Pryor used to say: “Don’t go to the courts thinking you’ll find justice, because guess what you’ll find — just us.”


Thanks to the New York Civil Liberties Union, we know where the most stop-and-frisks happened in 2011, and where they happen the least. And — surprise — with the exception of Williamsburg, the top stop-and-frisk police precincts are majority black and/or Latino. For the bottom five, all but the 50th Precinct are white neighborhoods.

Top 5

Precinct Neighborhood Total Stops
75 East New York, Starret City 31,100
73 Brownsville, Ocean Hill 25,167
115 Jackson Heights 18,156
40 Mott Haven, Melrose 17,690
90 Williamsburg 17,566


Bottom 5

Precinct Neighborhoods Total Stops
22 Central Park 1,416
94 Greenpoint 2,023
123 Tottenville, Bay Terrace 2,027
17 Kipps Bay, Murray Hill, Turtle Bay 2,060
50 Riverdale, Fieldston, Kingsbridge 2,683

—Karen Okamoto and Tony D’souza

Still Marching for Justice

Thousands of New Yorkers will raise their voices against the NYPD on June 17 without saying a word. The NAACP and the National Action Network along with clergy, unions, community groups and others are organizing a silent march down 5th Avenue on Fathers Day to underscore their opposition to the police department’s stop-and-frisk policies.

“Silence is a powerful force that, like other forms of non-violent protest, holds a mirror to the brutality of one’s opponents,” event organizers said in a statement.

The tradition of silent marches for civil rights dates back to 1917, when NAACP held the first one in New York City to protest lynchings, segregation and race riots in the South. That march, led by NAACP founder W. E. B. DuBois, was the NAACP’s first major public protest, and the power demonstrated by thousands of people marching silently through the streets of New York became an iconic symbol of strength in the face of injustice.

This year’s silent march will begin at 3 pm at 110th St. east of 5th Avenue. For more, see

­— Indypendent Staff

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