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BEYOND REFORM OF LAW ENFORCEMENT
Three months ago I moderated a panel at Brooklyn Borough Hall with over 150 boys from Brownsville, Brooklyn, ages 12–18, followed by a dialogue about policing in their communities. A 13-year old boy stood up to ask the audience a question –that he seemed to be intensely asking himself:
“Why are the there so much police in my neighborhood? Why are they always bothering people? I just don’t understand. It don’t make sense. Why it gotta be like this?”
He was only 13-years old, the same age as Tamir Rice, and we saw how Tamir’s life ended.
Walter Scott was shot in the back and we saw it. Rodney King was pummeled by a gang of cops, and we saw it. Ramarley Graham was chasedinto his home, and we saw it. Sandra Bland was manhandled, and we saw it. Eric Garner was strangled to death, and we saw that. Laquan McDonald was assassinated by the Cook County Police Department, and we saw that. Cameras are the new checks to law enforcement, but are they capable of balances? Further, how does witnessing those atrocities affect the human psyche? To see these real life acts of violence without accountability? How are 13-year olds supposed to process that information, especially since they cannot unsee the brutality?
Beyond the brutality, and the associated trauma, what will it take for us, the adults, to be brave enough to pool our collective intellect and imagination to create systems of community empowerment that relieves law enforcement the assumed deified role as the panacea of all social problems in poor black and brown communities? We look to the law enforcement to address mental health issues, student misbehavior, drug addiction — in poor communities. The results of this lack of imagination and new theory & practice are occurrences like Quintonio Legrier and Bettie Jones in Chicago and Shakara in South Carolina.
This inability to think beyond reformation, and to new structures of community empowerments is killing some and traumatizing millions. Perhaps it is time to address community problems from a strength-based perspective, instead of the deficit-based tried and failed method of retaliatory justice masked as arrest and conviction.
But, the naysayers abound…
(cacophony from the background…)
“But, what about the violent gangs!?” Surely, they need aggressive policing.
I like to use North Lawndale, Chicago and Watts, Los Angeles as case studies for those arguments. Both North Lawndale and Watts have high rates of violent crime and gang membership. But they also have extremely high 18.5% unemployment rate, and the average income of $12,548 is below the national poverty line. They are also the historical example of institutional discrimination through redlining. North Lawndale, once a white middle class neighborhood became a black hood. White flight from North Lawndale came along with city ordinances that conned and scammed blacks by charging them three and four times the value of the home. Once they were able to buy their dream home they were preyed upon by mortgage companies, and lenders who encouraged the new homeowners into contracts that would never result in the paying off of a mortgage. In fact, if you missed one payment the sheriff would be at your door with an eviction notice and a moving company.
Connect the dots. Black families escaping southern terrorism in the form of segregation moved to North Lawndale with monies saved from domestic work, or funds saved despite the predatory system of sharecropping. They were not more than one step away from poverty, they were still surviving poverty. The most economically vulnerable were systemically preyed upon. Hence, one missed payment or inability to keep up with the malicious contract system would result in homelessness and still indebted to the lenders. Even the Bible says the person owing is a slave to the lender. Poverty turns neighborhoods extensions of economic slavery. Economic slavery turns neighborhoods into ‘hoods.
Connect the dots. Hoods as we infamously understand them consist of poor folks, usually black or brown, drug misuse that leads to poor people seeking irrational and sometimes pernicious means to support the drug misuse. It also consists of poor people feeling less worthy because of the dilapidated conditions that surround them; and when people don’t feel good about themselves they tend not to feel good about those around them. So, the misused, overused, and terribly stigmatizing term’ black-on-black crime’ germinates
Connecting the dots, American policy created gangs. Systemic police violence in poor hoods like North Lawndale and Watts is a reaction to the institutional violence that created the intra-community violence sadly synonymous with the hood. Read or watch any primary accounts of the origins of the Crips and it will tell you that one of the reasons they formed was to protect their communities from the police. Young people created organizations to protect themselves from the police…
Young people created organizations to protect themselves from the police.
(cacophony from the background…)
But, now that we know this, why do we still kill each other? “We should just stop the killing if we know this,” is the argument some proffer. This argument, though understandable, misses a bit of context of how trauma and trust works. It also, assumes that these institutional policies no longer exist.
“The racially disparate impact of Ferguson’s practices is driven, at least in part, by intentional discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Racial bias and stereoptyping is evident from the facts, taken together. The evidence includes: the consistency and magnitude of the racial disparities throughout Ferguson’s police and court enforcement actions; the selection and execution of police and court practices that disproportionately harm African Americans and do little to promote public safety; the persistent exercise of discretion to the detriment of African Americans; the apparent consideration of race in assessing threat; and the historical opposition to having African Americans live in Ferguson, which lingers among some today” [Emphasis added].
According to these findings, Black folks can’t “just get over the past,” but the past is very much the present. Hence, how can trust be expected — in Ferguson or anywhere else where poverty and Black people co-exist?
Does this not explain why Eric Garner resisted? Or why Sandra Bland resisted? Or why we kill and re-traumatize each other on street corners through violence? We don’t trust. Trust is a commodity in poor black and brown communities where overconsumption of capricious state intervention into every aspect of daily life has toppled neighborliness? The focus of community-police relations has made invisible the need to build community-to-community relations?
Trust is inextricably linked to trauma. Mental distress does not wither away like the wind, nor does it dissipate with increased access to resources. Bill de Blasio, President Obama, and Erica Holder- men of success and money have all expressed their mental distress associated with raising black children amid discriminatory policing practices. They, however, are able to use their access to afford their children safety, and mitigate their trauma in ways most are unable…the way others like Samaria Rice and Janet Cooksey cannot.
“But the cases of Tamir Rice, Bettie Jones and Quintonio Legrier were accidental,” I can hear the cacophony in the background claiming.
In response I ask, are accidents less traumatizing? Amadou Diallo was an accident. Sean Bell was an accident. Aiyana Stanley Jones was an accident. Rekia Boyd was an accident. Eleanor Bumpers was an accident.
Too many accidents can be understood as intention — conscious or subconscious. Presumptively, the abundance of ‘accidents’ by law enforcement could be understood as systemic mens rea, a guilty mind, to harm Black and Brown folks of all ages and genders. Yet, the law repeatedly gives police departments who have been documented to harm poor black people no such mens rea. The law demonstrates a trust for law enforcement, but not for the people most vulnerable to the law — poor people. Logically, distrust is reciprocated, but with more pervasive consequences. Distrust for law enforcement creates a situation where the only option for help is replaced with helplessness — a desert of tools or resources to deal with social problems. Thus, social disorganization stokes criminality, and criminality thrives when there is no trust.
That’s how trauma works. It exists, it is triggered, and it can have irrational reactions. It can exist in the form of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It creates distrust — distrust that can take years and generations to dissolve. We don’t ask descendants of The Holacaust to “just get over” the slaughter of millions of people solely because of their ethnicity and religion. We don’t ask survivors of the Vietnam War to just get over their experiences while in combat.
Yet, the cacophony in the background (you know who you are) chastise Black people to recover from violence that is recent as Laquan McDonald’s assassination…Bettie Jones’ assassination…Quintonio Legrier…Tamir Rice’s assassination…Rekia Boyd’s assassination…Eric Garner’s assassination…Aiyanna-Stanley Jones’ assassination…Ramarley Graham’s assassination…Sean Bell’s assassination…Eleanor Bumpers assassination and so many others. Why would we expect folks to just move past the systemic oppression that is evident in the system of mass incarceration that exists today — not 70 years ago, but right now. The institutional violence of racist and discriminatory policies still hurts us Black and Brown folks today. The effects of mass incarceration targeted towards Black and Brown poor people can’t be pardoned or washed away through 6,000 prison releases or a VICE documentary.
So, I ask you this, now that we have connected the dots, “what will it take for us to be brave enough to pool our collective intellect and imagination to create systems of community empowerment that do not involve militaristic elements?” Police are structured to fight crime, and guess what…when you fight crime, crime fights back. In NYC, NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, advocated for the addition of 1,000 new police officers to address the spike in violent crime in NYC during the first half of 2015. Capitulating to political pressure, mostly from the police unions, the NYC City Council, known for being vocal against police misconduct, gave Bratton what he asked for and added an extra 300 officers to the 1,000 requested. The return on investment was a 20% increase in homicides in NYC. So, what did the increase in police produce? It produced crime fighting back…
…and crime — crime in poor Black and Brown communities are the product of poverty. Watts, LA, Brownsville, Brooklyn, Jackson, Mississippi, North Lawndale, Chicago are all poor neighborhoods. They were poor in the 1960’s and they are poor today. Police fought crime in those communities in the 1960’s, and they fight crime there now. And crime has fought back every time because crime is fueled by aggression; it is propelled by force; it is stoked by crime fighting. If you add a fire to fire, the fire just continues to conflagrate. The fire requires water, not only to the flame, but to the root of the spark.
The spark in neighborhoods like where baby Tamir and baby Aiyanna were killed and where young Gakirah Barnes was killed are stoked and kept ablaze by the poverty; by the racist redlining; by the criminalization of drug use; by white supremacist ideologies actualized through policies and practices like mass incarceration and militarized policing. Coupled with discriminatory policy and rhetoric by political figures, unconsciously or consciously, like Bill Clinton (tough on crime), Ronald Regan (war of drugs) George Wallace (“segregation now and forever”), J. Edgar Hoover (CoINTELPro), and most recently, Donald Trump (everything he says); those are the fuels that cause unaddressed trauma that explodes into gang violence and state violence towards its citizens.
(cacophony from the background…)
“But innovators in law enforcement are working to reform these problems.”
Interrogating this information even further, Bratton has emphasized the need to increase police-community relations in NYC. Community policing is the latest overused vogue term in law enforcement, like “tough on crime” was to the 1970’s,1980’s and Clinton’s 1990’s. Interestingly, a look into the NYPD proposed budget for 2016 discloses that the Community Affairs department whose focus is to, “to foster positive and productive police-community relations,” is the least funded area within the NYPD. What does that say about a system that purports to want to heal the chasm between community residents and its officers?
Further, what does it say about champions of police reform that are not bold enough to think about ways to accentuate and better resource the strengths of the community? What does it say when we are only capable of seeking ways to improve the police, instead of ways to improve the communities law enforcement “police”? Police were designed to fight crime and to protect property; not to create safer communities. They are not capable or equipped to do so, yet we rely on them to do such things — in poor communities. If only law enforcement professionals would take an assessment of their practice and objectively re-evaluate their role in communities, instead of seeing any attempt to re-evaluate their roles as an attack on their practice. If only we can collectively imagine, theorize, then demonstrate ways to address the root of the fire, and not just the fire.
I want to do that. I want to create spaces in violence-ridden hoods, that reflect the neighborhoods we deserve. Quoting a dear friend and gun violence prevention warrior, Derick Scott, “I want bring the neighbor back to the –hood. Will you help me now that we have connected the dots?
This essay was first published on Medium on January 4, 2016. Reprinted with the author’s permission.
MARLON PETERSON is a national social and criminal justice advocate, writer, organizational trainer, community organizer, and educator who spent 10 years in New York State prisons. He is the founder and chief re-imaginator of The Precedential Group, a social justice consulting firm, and a 2015 recipient of the prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship. He is the former Director of Community Relations at The Fortune Society, and previously served as the Associate Director of the Crown Heights Community Meditation Center, founding coordinator of Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets, and co-Founder of How Our Lives Link Altogether (HOLLA!). Marlon also serves as board chair of Families for Freedom and board member of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. Marlon is a member of the New York City Task Force to Combat Gun Violence. He holds an A.A.S. in Criminal Justice from Ashworth University and a BS in Organizational Behavior from New York University. Marlon believes all the work he does is what he likes to call people work. As a writer, he is a member of the writing collective Brothers Writing to Live. His writings have appeared in Ebony, Gawker, The Crime Report, Black Press USA, The Brooklyn Reader, and featured in the internationally acclaimed blog, Humans of New York. His essays also appear in How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon, and Love Lives Here, Too, by Sheila Rule. He will be the NYCWP’s Afternoon Keynote Speaker at its annual Teacher to Teacher Conference on April 2, 2016. Marlon is working on a project called Child Safe Zones that is exploring ways to reduce community violence and police violence. He imagines a neighborhood were no one feels the need to carry a gun — not even the police.