Take the Chains Off: The Struggle for Racial Justice Continues

Nicholas Powers Dec 17, 2014

We jumped in front of traffic. Car headlights blinded us; we held up our hands and yelled, “I can’t breathe.” These were the last words of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Black man who was strangled to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo on Staten Island. Running between cars, we slapped high-fives with drivers and held signs above our heads.

On December 3, thousands flooded the New York streets after news broke that Pantaleo had not been indicted after murdering Garner. It was the second time in 10 days that a grand jury refused to charge a white cop who killed an unarmed Black man. On November 24 officer Darren Wilson was cleared in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The two non-indictments, back to back, ignited our sadness into rage; again we saw deadly abuses of power go unpunished.

Protesters march from NYC's Foley Square toward the Brooklyn Bridge on December 4, the day after the Eric Garner verdict was announced.

Even as I write this, somewhere in America a Black man or woman is being beaten or killed by the police. Most die invisibly. For a few, a rough video of their assault or death will surface and their faces will be framed in protest signs. Each new murder swells the movement that compels us to stage mass die-ins in transit hubs and malls, torch stores and block highways. The people are rising against the state, demanding justice it cannot give and the state cannot crush the protests without risking more rebellion.

A great collision is coming, driven by a question that has been asked repeatedly for nearly four centuries. It was asked by 19 Africans, enslaved in the English colony of Jamestown in 1619, and is being asked again by the protesters across the nation. Can Black life be valued in America?

Why Ferguson Matters

“Let me see your driver’s license,” the cop told me. I handed it over; he swiped it and then handcuffed me. In 2011, a warrant was issued for my arrest because I did not pay a fine for drinking beer in a park. 

I spent the night in jail. More men came in, sullen and hard-faced, arrested like me for an outstanding warrant on a minor violation. Staring at the walls, we cursed the police. I knew the mounting anger in that cell was present around the country.  

In the United States there are nearly 1 million law enforcement officers stacked like a giant pyramid of power at the federal, state, county and city levels who are charged with keeping order in a nation of 316 million citizens. They glide through neighborhoods in patrol cars. They stand on street corners in pairs, badges flashing. They watch us.

NYPD cops man a police barricade during the second night of protests over a Staten Island grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner.

But the crime they see is a warped vision of the crime that exists. In the eyes of U.S. police, criminality is visible if contrasted against brown skin. While patrolling highways and streets, they miss vast amounts of ongoing crime committed by whites and especially, wealthy whites. Let the suspect be Black and they will be stopped and frisked, their car inspected, their papers run through the system. The NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet states that white people use illegal drugs five times more often than Black people even though Blacks are jailed at 10 times the rate.

The police crisscross Black, Latino, poor and immigrant neighborhoods and come down hardest on those that are most vulnerable. In Gotham alone, during the 12 years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, the New York Civil Liberties Union reported that the New York Police Department (NYPD) conducted nearly 5 million stops and frisks. A quarter of them involved young Black men, who comprise less than 2 percent of the city’s population. 

The goal remains the same under liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio as it was under Bloomberg. It was best summed up by Bloomberg’s top cop Ray Kelly, who said to state Senator Eric Adams that he wanted to “instill fear in them [Black youth] that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police.”

The police don’t just want to watch us; they want us to know it and to internalize it and watch ourselves, afraid that the smallest misdemeanor can begin an unstoppable descent toward prison. After I was arrested, my time came for court. The officers took me out of the cell and drove me to the judge. As we talked, I asked them about this mass arrest policy.

“We call it the snowball effect,” one of them said. “You know, it just begins small like a ticket and then another citation, some jail time and next thing you know…boom!” I slumped back in the seat, dizzy with anger and blurted, “If you have a name for how bad it is why don’t you stop it!”

“Policy,” he said and looked away. “Policy.”

And every time a cop stops and frisks us, harasses us for sleeping on the train, writes a ticket, embarrasses us in public — it traumatizes the body, fills it with combustible pain. It’s hard to understand if you don’t experience it. Remember Eric Garner telling the police officers, “Please just leave me alone”? Did you know he brought a civil suit against the NYPD for doing a cavity search for drugs in 2007, right in broad daylight as people walked by? Nothing was found. He wrote of the “injuries to his manhood” caused by the officer searching his rectum and genitals for “his own personal pleasure.”

Ferguson matters because every city in America has a Ferguson inside it. A people enraged at the handprints left by police on their bodies, losing money to tickets, losing jobs to jail time, burying the dead and then being blamed for it. The flames in that small town can spread across the nation. Malcolm X once joked that during slavery, when the master’s house caught fire, field slaves prayed for wind. Many of us are praying now.

The Feedback Loop of Violence

“Black on black crime is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said on Meet the Press in November. “White police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other.”

Conservatives say the high Black crime rate is the real danger, not rogue white cops. The danger is gangsta rap or single mothers or dumb hood drama. Biological racism in which one race is better than others has been replaced with cultural racism in which one culture is better than another. Conservatives believe in hierarchy, an order that keeps everyone in their proper place. Black culture is the low point in that hierarchy; it is a cauldron of icky morals, drowning everyone in it or close by.

Jason Riley, a Black writer at the Wall Street Journal who wrote Please Stop Helping Us, followed this tradition in his article “The Other Ferguson Tragedy.” He wrote, “Homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men, who are 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to be murdered. And while you’d never know it watching MSNBC, the police are not to blame.”

The Black homicide rate is part of a feedback loop of oppression. It’s the effect of multiple forces, but is framed by conservatives as a cause. The first of these forces is poverty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ August jobs report said the Black unemployment rate is at 11 percent, compared to the 5.3 percent rate for whites. During the four decades the bureau has kept records on it, Black unemployment has always been higher, a sign that we’re dealing with intergenerational poverty. Nearly 30 percent of Black people are poor. If you do the math, it’s nearly 13 million people out of 42 million.

The image of urban ghettos that resemble warzones is a staple in the public imagination. What the protests in Ferguson show is that segregation followed people of color into the suburbs. Brown University sociologist John Logan described in a recent report, “Separate and Unequal in Suburbia,” the movement of people of color from cities into the older inner rings of suburbs, and the poverty many of them live with. It is often reflected in failing schools that are underfunded, understaffed and have low graduation rates.

And then there’s geography. Much of urban crime is public. Poor families are packed into small apartments and that density “squeezes” crime out into public space. Beefs start in the street. Drug dealing and addiction are in the street. The fight for turf is in the street. All of which makes it visible and easier to police. 

Much of suburban crime, on the other hand, is private. Drug use, sexual assault and violence happen inside homes, where the police don’t often go. Waves of crime roll through the suburbs but go unreported, giving white America a false veneer of safety and innocence. That veneer is being blown apart by the hashtag #crimingwhilewhite, where whites describe their crimes and the soft treatment they’ve received from police.

Suburban neighborhoods of color, however, don’t get this “benign neglect.” As the crisis in Ferguson blew up, the New York Times editorialized, “The police in St. Louis County’s many municipalities systematically target poor and minority citizens for street and traffic stops — partly to generate fines — which has the effect of both bankrupting and criminalizing whole communities.”

Police are overpolicing poor neighborhoods of color. Decades ago, Black and Latino neighborhoods were neglected, something rapper Flavor Flav of Public Enemy made fun of in his song “911 is a Joke”: “Now I dialed 911 a long time ago. Don’t you see how late they’re reactin’. They only come and they come when they wanna.”

The switch to overpolicing accompanied the rise of the “broken windows” theory, which compels law enforcement to target low-level crimes. As the logic goes, going after low-level offenders will prevent larger crimes. Nice in theory, but in practice it creates the “snowball” effect. Danette Chavis of National Action Against Police Brutality said, “Blacks and Hispanics are arrested on the accusation of a crime. They keep them in jail and tell them…if you plead the lesser charge we’ll let you go. But that’s the trick…once you cop a plea you just got got by the city. Now you got a record, you deemed as a criminal which will serve as your death warrant.”

And then there is the conservative cult of the individual. When liberals point at the structural oppression in society, it’s ballyhooed as an evasion of personal responsibility. But crime, particularly robbery and gang-related homicide, is a form of agency. It’s just a reactionary one. It doesn’t reflect the leftist goal of making society more equal. It reflects the conservative vision of an isolated self, driven by personal gain.

The Strain Theory in sociology posits that if an individual believes in the goals of society but doesn’t have the means to attain them, crime can be the result. A very clear parallel exists between Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches novel, Ragged Dick, and Jay-Z’s rap career — except in Jigga’s case he got “his” by selling drugs as a youth and then rapping about it as an adult. A dimension of Black crime exists that is not a threat against capitalism but a celebration of it.

And finally there is our gun culture. We’ve drooled over guns ever since European settlers expanded westward in North America and massacred the indigenous peoples they found in their way. The gun was and remains a symbol of freedom, so it circulates with little regulation and flows into poor neighborhoods. Some 300 million guns exist in America. It’s not a “Black” problem, but the problems Black people face, like poverty, depression and rage, become more dangerous when a gun is used to solve them. 

Yet these effects of structural racism and economic inequality get turned around and recycled as a cause. After his NBC interview, Giuliani doubled down and said, “If there were a lot of murders in a community, we put a lot of police officers there. If I had put all my police officers on Park Avenue and none in Harlem, thousands and thousands more blacks would have been killed.”

We needed jobs, not cops. We needed affordable housing, not cops. We needed gun laws. We needed drug rehabilitation centers and childcare. We still do. 

Protesters hold a die-in in the middle of Grand Central Terminal to commemorate the death of Eric Garner.

License to Kill

That police have a license to kill is a social fact. Compare two cases. In November 2012, 47-year-old Michael Dunn, who was not a cop, got into a yelling match over loud music with four Black teens in a car. He pulled out a gun and shot at them, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. He said it seemed Davis was pulling out a gun. But no weapon was found. Dunn was convicted of first-degree murder. 

This December Phoenix police officer Mark Rine shot and killed 34-year-old Rumain Brisbon after mistaking a bottle of pills in his pocket for a gun. He was Black, and no gun was found on him either. Considering how hard it’s proven to be to indict a cop, Rine probably won’t be held accountable. 

The reason is that officers represent the state, which has a monopoly on legitimate violence. And that legitimacy is derived from it being the only supposedly neutral and universal social body that in an electoral democracy represents everyone equally. It comes from the consent of the governed. 

Yet in practice the state plays an inherently conservative role. It maintains law and order in an unequal society, so the contradictions roil it from inside. It must suppress the very people who are the source of its legitimacy. And it does this by shielding its own agents from public accountability while demonizing its victims. The formula is the same for the cops who shoot unarmed civilians, the CIA agents who torture detainees and the drone pilots who kill innocent people while targeting terrorists. Up and down the chain of command, an aura of untouchability obscures abuses of power.

A woman shares her thoughts with New York’s Finest.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture exposed instances of detainees being beaten, force-fed though their anuses, chained to walls in stress positions and denied sleep for days. It also revealed that President Bush was told about the “full nature” of the torture in April 2006. Yet he said on camera in October 2007, “This government does not torture people.”

You know he won’t be indicted. The president embodies the same unaccountable violence as the cop in the street. And today, even as President Obama directs muted calls for calm toward Black people dealing with police violence, he inflicts it on people of color overseas. Obama is the Darren Wilson of the world.

Crime and Innocence 

“Killer cops must go to jail,” yelled Franclot Graham, the father of Ramarley Graham, a Black teen who in 2012 was chased by the NYPD into his grandmother’s home without a warrant and shot dead. No gun was found, just a small bag of weed. On Saturday, December 13, tens of thousands of New Yorkers came out for the Millions March against police brutality in Manhattan. “Go to jail,” Graham said, referring to the police officer who killed his son. “Go to jail!” The crowd repeated. 

The call for justice is building in Black America and beyond. Players for the St. Louis Rams came onto the football field with their hands up in honor of Michael Brown. LeBron James wore a shirt on court that read, “I Can’t Breathe.” The burgeoning movement, led by young Black activists, is challenging the narrative of crime and innocence in America. It’s flipping the script, using the social consensus about the preciousness of life to challenge the hypocrisy of the state. 

Occupy Wall Street exposed the guilt of elites as they waged class war on the poor. Feminists have targeted colleges and the military, exposing male supremacy and the epidemic of rape hidden from view in these institutions. Fast-food workers are calling out the economic violence they endure as their bosses make astronomical profits. Everywhere people are laying claim to universal values and marshalling them against the institutions that have exploited those values as an alibi for their power.

It begins not with ideas but experience. If you’re wondering why this new movement is happening, let me ask you to look at your hands. For a moment, please think of the person you love most in this life. Imagine holding them. Take a slow breath; exhale everything but them from your mind. Maybe you see a lover, a sibling or a parent. Can you almost feel the warmth of their skin?

Keep looking at your hands, holding the person you love. Now imagine them killed. And the murderer walking away. Do you feel helpless? Do you feel sadness weighing in your body?

The heaviness in your palms is what we lift to the sky. Cops who kill unarmed Black men go free, one after the other. It’s why we march through the streets yelling, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” It’s why we shout the names of our dead. We show our hands because we’re scared of being killed by officers who have been given license to kill Black people and go unpunished. 

I’m asking you to take this weight from us. I’m asking you to hold your hands up too. 


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