State Terrorism and Racist Violence in the Age of Disposability: From Emmett Till to Eric Garner
05 December 2014
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout | Op-Ed
"If you want a picture of the future imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever."
The larger reasons behind Eric Garner's execution seem to be missed by most commentators. The issue is not simply police misconduct, or racist acts of police brutality, however deadly, but the growing use of systemic terror of the sort we associate with Hannah Arendt's notion of totalitarianism that needs to be explored.
When fear and terror become the organizing principles of a society in which the tyranny of the state has been replaced by the despotism of an unaccountable market, violence becomes the only valid form of control. The system has not failed. As Jeffrey St. Clair has pointed out, it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do, which is to punish those it considers dangerous or disposable - which increasingly includes more and more individuals and groups. Hannah Arendt was right in arguing that, "If lawfulness is the essence of non-tyrannical government and lawlessness is the essence of tyranny, then terror is the essence of totalitarian domination." 1
In an age when the delete button and an utterly commodified and privatized culture erase all vestiges of memory and commitment, it is easy for a society to remove itself from those sordid memories that reveal the systemic injustices that belie the presence of state violence and terrorism. Not only do the dangerous memories of bodies being lynched, beaten, tortured and murdered disappear in the fog of celebrity culture and the 24/7 entertainment/news cycle, but the historical flashpoints that once revealed the horrors of unaccountable power and acts of systemic barbarism are both disconnected from any broader understanding of domination and vanish into a past that no longer has any connection to the present.
The murder of Emmett Till; the killing of the four young black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama; the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr; the killing by four officers of Amadou Diallo; and the recent killings of countless young black children and men and women, coupled with the ongoing and egregious incarceration of black men in this country are not isolated expressions of specific, marginalized failures of a system. They are the system, a system of authoritarianism that has intensified without apology. Rather than being viewed or forgotten as isolated, but unfortunate, expressions of extremism, these incidents are part of a growing systemic pattern of violence and terror that has unapologetically emerged at a time when the politics and logic of disposability has been normalized in American society and violence has become the default position for solving all social problems, especially as they pertain to poor minorities of class and color.
Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books include: Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013), America's Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) Neoliberalism's War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014), and The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America's Disimagination Machine (City Lights, 2014). The Toronto Star named Henry Giroux one of the 12 Canadians changing the way we think! Giroux is also a member of Truthout's Board of Directors. His website is www.henryagiroux.com.
Tyranny Of The Reasonable: Popular Complacency In An Era Of Economic Exploitation And Perpetual War
By Phil Rockstroh, SpeakOut | Op-Ed
Tyranny Is Bipartisan
By The Daily Take Team, The Thom Hartmann Program | Op-Ed
Police Brutality and the Failure of Liberal Democrats
By Anton Woronczuk, The Real News Network | Video Interview
by MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
David Parkman reported the other day that unnamed sources claim that Darren Wilson, a former Ferguson police officer who murdered Michael Brown, was paid somewhere in the range of $500,000 for his exclusive "first" post-killing interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. ABC News and Wilson both deny the reports of a fee, but it wouldn't be the first time that a major news network has paid big bucks for a grand spectacle sensationalist interview if Parkman is correct.
Copyright Truthout. May Not Be Reprinted Without Permission.
Obama under pressure over response to police killings after Eric Garner decision
President creates task force and pledges to work with New York mayor after latest police killing of an unarmed black man prompts more unrest
The real problem in Ferguson, New York and all of America is institutional racism
by Paul Lewis in Washington
Thursday 4 December 2014
President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will join forces to improve relations between police and minority communities, the White House announced on Thursday, after the two leaders discussed protests surrounding the death of Eric Garner.
There are growing questions about Obama’s response to a prominent set of police killings of unarmed black men and children that have raised questions about alleged discriminatory policing and impunity.
Obama has not visited any of the communities affected by the high-profile killings. They include Staten Island, where Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, and Ferguson, the St Louis suburb where Michael Brown was fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson.
In both cases, grand juries decided not to indict the police officers, prompting large – and, in the case of Ferguson, violent – protests. Nor has Obama visited Cleveland, Ohio, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police officer Timothy Loehmann.
“As the president of the United States and as the mayor of its largest city, the two pledged to work together to help strengthen the trust and bond between law enforcement and the local communities that they serve,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
“The two leaders also discussed how this is not just an issue for New York or Ferguson, Missouri, but a problem that extends to communities across the country.”
In brief remarks on Thursday, Obama said he had spoken with De Blasio about the Garner case and added: “Too many Americans feel a deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals and how laws are applied on a day-to-day basis.”
“Beyond the specific issue, that has to be addressed – making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally – there is a larger question of restoring a sense of common purpose.”
Critics of Obama complain he has failed to implement concrete proposals. On Monday the president lamented how there have been “commissions before, there have been task forces, there have been conversations, and nothing happens”.
Obama’s solution was the creation of another task force. He also resisted curtailing controversial federal programs that transfer military-grade weaponry to local police forces, which became an issue after the extremely forceful response to protests immediately after Brown’s death. Earnest said the country should give “the benefit of the doubt” to Obama’s task force and evaluate its recommendations.
Democrats were united in their dismay at the decision not to indict Pantaleo and over the broader questions emerging about police accountability in the US.
One of the most forceful denunciations of the decision came from the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Marcia Fudge. “Even in the face of video footage, it appears justice will not be served for Mr Garner or his family,” she said.
“In the span of two weeks, this nation seems to have heard one message loud and clear: there will be no accountability for taking black lives,” she said. “As an American, it is growing increasingly difficult to believe that there is justice for all.”
Dena Wessel stands near police officers during protests in Seattle, Washington, after the Eric Garner grand jury decision was released. Photograph: Matt Mills McKnight/EPA
Republicans were split over the wisdom of the New York grand jury’s decision and the existence of wider problems of discriminatory policing, which Obama and his attorney general Eric Holder argue persist in some communities across the country.
The Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, said he would “not rule in or out” the suggestion from one of his deputies, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, for congressional hearings.
“Clearly both of these are serious tragedies that we’ve seen in our society,” Boehner said about the Garner and Brown deaths. “I do think the American people deserve more answers about what really happened here and was our system of justice handled properly.”
McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Republican conference, said in an MSNBC interview earlier on Thursday that the House should “absolutely” hold hearings into the Garner case. “We need to understand why this decision was made,” she said. “I would call for the House to have those hearings.”
Staten Island’s Republican congressman, Michael Grimm, defended the grand jury’s decision.
“There’s no question that this grand jury had an immensely difficult task before them, but I have full faith that their judgment was fair and reasoned and I applaud [district attorney Daniel] Donovan for overseeing this case with the utmost integrity.” Grimm, a former FBI agent, won re-election last month despite facing an imminent trial over federal indictments for fraud, charges he denies.
The most trenchant defence of Pantaleo came from the Republican New York representative Peter King. “I feel strongly the police officer should not have been indicted,” he said. He claimed that had Garner “not had asthma and a heart condition or was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this”.
“I know people are saying that he said eleven times or seven times ‘I can’t breathe,’” King added in a CNN interview. “Well the fact is that if you can’t breathe, you can’t talk. If you’ve ever seen people locked-up resisting arrest – and I’ve seen it, and it has been white guys – and they’re always saying ‘You’re breaking my arm,’ ‘You’re choking me’ during this. So police hear that all the time.”
Eric Garner protest
Students at Emory University participate in a mass ‘die in’ during a protest on campus against the decision of a grand jury not to indict a police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner, in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA
Garner, a father of six, was arrested in July under suspicion of peddling untaxed “loose” cigarettes. Moments before he was apprehended, Garner told police: “Every time you see me, you wanna harass me, you wanna stop me … I’m minding my business, officer.”
An autopsy found Garner died as a result of the chokehold, compressions to the chest, and prone positioning during his restraint by police. The New York grand jury could have considered multiple charges, from murder to a lesser offense such as reckless endangerment, but the Staten Island district attorney, Daniel Donovan, said jurors found “no reasonable cause” to bring charges.
Hours after the grand jury decision was made public, Holder announced a federal Department of Justice investigation into whether Garner’s civil rights were violated.
King, the son of a police officer, also rejected the notion there was a racial or civil rights dimension to Garner’s treatment by the NYPD and took aim at African Americans civil rights leaders representing the families of Garner, Brown and a string of other victims of alleged police brutality in recent months. The Rev Al Sharpton was among those who met with Obama at a White House meeting dealing with the fallout from unrest in Ferguson on Monday, along with law enforcement officials and clergy.
“President Obama, if he’s serious about trying to bring racial peace to this country, the last thing he should be doing having Al Sharpton sit in the White House,” King said. “When he says that people in the African American community don’t trust the police, one of the reason is because agitators like Al Sharpton are constantly criticising and attacking and denouncing the police.”
Cleveland officer who shot Tamir Rice had 'dismal' handgun performance for Independence police
By Adam Ferrise, Northeast Ohio Media Group
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
December 03, 2014
Cudell Rec center shooting:
Justice Department report likely little comfort to Tamir Rice family and others: Mark Naymik
Tamir Rice shooting should be rallying point for real community policing: Mark Naymik
Cleveland officer who shot Tamir Rice had 'dismal' handgun performance for Independence police
Personnel files of officers involved in Tamir Rice shooting released by Cleveland officials
Some Cleveland Council members declare police shooting of Tamir Rice unjustified
Full surveillance video captures a Cleveland police officer fatally shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice Warning: May contain disturbing footage. Police officials release surveillance video that captures a Cleveland police officer fatally shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice at a West Side recreation center
The revolution will be live-tweeted:
by Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Monday 1 December 2014
The events of the past few months, now simply referred to as Ferguson, have touched off nationwide protests of a scale not seen in a half-century. From billboards to T-shirts, protest banners and news headlines – all emblazoned with the words #BlackLivesMatter – we are witnessing the makings of a social movement of the 21st century kind. The revolution that Gil Scot Heron famously said, “would not be televised”, is today, in fact, recorded and tweeted.
The Godfather of Rap and soulful Black Power poet and musician could never have imagined that a hashtag would be the rallying cry of a new generation’s quest for racial justice in the United States of America.
What a remarkable development in the midst of the 50th anniversary of the black freedom movement. What should be the eve of commemorating the final chapter in the century-long battle for citizenship rights by African Americans with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, now marks the prologue to a new human rights drama.
Black Power has given way to #BlackLivesMatter, the devolution of a movement for resources and recognition to a fight to exist, free of state-sanctioned violence. This is the “rearest of rear-guard positions one can imagine,” historian Andy Seal writes at his blog, “petitioning for the right not to die prematurely, a mark of retreat from the larger hopes and assertive agendas” of the 1960s and 1970s.
Or could it be that this is the wrong way to look at it? What if this moment is also a return to first principles: the necessary assertion of the humanity of black life by the democratic crowd beyond the legal fictions of equality?
The fierce critic, essayist and novelist James Baldwin was on to something when he marked the Emancipation Proclamation centennial in 1963. In a message to his nephew in the opening essay of The Fire Next Time, he foretold the flames of Ferguson. Much of the civil rights establishment at the time had their sights on a massive rally on the mall to be held that summer and led by A Phillip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. But Baldwin was less concerned about legislation while the Kennedy administration dithered about the passage of a civil rights bill. Baldwin wanted his nephew and all Harlem youth to build their immunity against the malignancy of self-doubt, by externalizing what the psychologist Kenneth Clark of Brown v Board of Education fame described as the “daily experience” of being disrespected and devalued.
“They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know and do not want to know it,” Baldwin wrote. “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”
Saving black youth meant going beyond ending the legal infrastructure of Jim Crow. It meant inverting the narrative of black pathology embedded in what Darren Wilson calls “high crime areas” or what former mayor Rudolph Giuliani and police commissioner Ray Kelly call “black-on-black crime” today. Baldwin crafted a new narrative and structural analysis of white responsibility for black suffering and premature death, even at the hands of one’s own neighbors and schoolmates.
Like Baldwin, #BlackLivesMatters categorically refuses to trade on respectability, to determine who deserves to die prematurely when the “authors of devastation” control the apparatus of justice. Black people cannot establish different standards of justice, from policing to prison, outside of white decision makers and a predominately white electorate. When Giuliani claimed that crime was black people’s problem for them to fix on their own, he was making a 21st century segregationist claim. Contrary to popular myth, the former New York City mayor’s Italian-American forebears did not save themselves from their own white-on-white crime. Welfarist policies, machine politicians, union jobs and white philanthropists aided them over much of the 20th century.
These reforms were pro-social, life affirming, non-lethal interventions, amounting to a repudiation of criminal justice as the blunt instrument of social order. The lie of segregation has always been that blacks are unfit or undeserving of equality. The logic is that they are either monstrous or childlike, not fully human.
The Black Power movement defied this logic and tried to put into practice the spirit of what Baldwin had said in prose. As a mode of empowerment and self-determination, Black Power was one of many long-running modes of engagement with American racism. Then, as a slogan and a new political imperative it went viral in 1966 – the same year the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California – and soon spread nationally. More youth rallied to Black Power and its many organizational manifestations and theoretical orientations than any other ideological concept. And the Panthers made criminal justice a core focus of their work. “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people,” they listed on their Ten-Point Program.
The Panthers never achieved their goal as they faced insurmountable violence by local, state and federal officials by the end of late 1969. Clandestine attacks and agents provocateurs were the seeds of their undoing. And yet their unfinished work is reinvigorated today in #BlackLivesMatters. Young people again are shaping a movement in their own image. Although, this time it is far more democratic, transparent and inclusive. This time the racial justice movement is about human rights and civil rights. This time change is in the cities and in the suburbs. And this time “the revolution will be live” on Twitter. Stay following.
Share your Ferguson solutions: No justice, no peace, what now? Join the conversation with #FergusonNext and at FergusonNext.com
Young people are shaping a movement in their own image. But this time, it’s far more democratic, transparent and inclusive. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA
The real problem in Ferguson, New York and all of America is institutional racism
Thursday 4 December 2014
by Vincent Warren
About last night: Eric Garner decision – dozens arrested as protesters take to New York streets
Steven W Thrasher: The Eric Garner decision confirms a holiday of horrors
#FergusonNext: No justice, no peace, what now? Share your solutions
Two days later, a grand jury in New York City failed to indict the white police officer whose chokehold killed Eric Garner as bystanders taped the incident. “We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability,” President Obama said on Wednesday.
Black men are not dying at the hands of (mostly) white cops – nor are those cops being excused from legal responsibility – because of mutual distrust between black and brown people and law enforcement agencies. To suggest so simply, and perhaps deliberately, mistakes the symptom for the disease.
Trust, or lack thereof, is based on lived experience, and it is the actions of law enforcement in communities of color that has eroded black and brown Americans’ trust. To present the situation as mutual distrust not only obscures the specific causes of that distrust – it intimates that everyone is equally responsible for the problem. The call for “conversation” as the solution then reinforces this idea that the legitimate problems with law enforcement vocalized by minority communities are really all just one big misunderstanding.
Our political leaders should not begin to offer solutions for a problem if they won’t even name it: systemic, institutional racism exists in police forces throughout our country.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglass famously said. “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
From the prosecutor and the grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island to the halls of Congress – where reform ideas like the End Racial Profiling Act or the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act have hit a dead end – and a thousand places in between, our government institutions have been largely unresponsive to demands for real structural reform. Much like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, grassroots protests in Missouri and New York and across the country – including the hundreds of actions of civil disobedience, bridge and highway shutdowns, and walkouts – are the engines of change, and communities and grassroots organizers are the ones providing the concrete solutions to the problem.
“As young people of color who are often criminalized for our mere existence,” explained Phillip Agnew, the executive director of Dream Defenders, “we are the experts in how our communities are treated by law enforcement. We accepted the president’s invitation so that we could present our expertise and needed policy changes.”
Ferguson Action, a growing national coalition of activist groups from affected communities, already has a national proposal full of needed reforms, including: a comprehensive federal Department of Justice review of police abuse; the development of use-of-force standards and recommendations for training; the use of DOJ funds to support and implement community oversight mechanisms; the withdrawal of DOJ funds from police departments engaging in discriminatory practices; and the demilitarization of local police departments.
We also need a national public database of police killings. Facts are a powerful tool, but they are only useful if they are known, documented and publicly available. When the Center for Constitutional Rights settled the 1999 stop-and-frisk case we brought against the City of New York in the wake of the Amadou Diallo murder, the NYPD was required to track and provide us with information on the stops it made going forward.
The resulting decade of data conclusively showed what black and brown New Yorkers already knew from experience: cops disproportionately stop people of color, and stop them without cause and with greater use of force. That data enabled us to bring a second lawsuit against the stop-and-frisk program, and a federal judge ruled that it violated both the fourteenth and the fourth amendments to the US constitution and the Civil Rights Act. The judge also ordered a comprehensive set of reforms, including a pilot program testing the use of body cameras on police (which is one of the president’s suggested reforms in the wake of Ferguson).
That desire for more facts and more supposedly indisputable evidence – and the hope that visual records can be a deterrent to police violence and harassment – has led to the many calls for the use of body cams nation-wide. Studies have suggested that there is a dramatic drop in abuse when officers are wearing body-cams.
But it’s not enough to slap a camera on every cop’s lapel. First, we need to answer some important questions: Who has access to the data? When? How can it be used, by whom? Where is it stored, for how long? Communities need to be sure we are using the technical capacity to gather data for accountability and transparency, not as a new way to violate privacy and civil liberties.
Finally, affected communities – and youth of color in particular – must be at the center of the process of crafting reform solutions. The heart of the reform ordered after we won the stop-and-frisk case is a joint remedial process that brings community members and other stakeholders together to discuss and hammer out the actual law enforcement and accountability reforms.
A similar model was used in Cincinnati a decade ago, after the city was torn apart by scores of wrongful death lawsuits, a city-wide curfew, a boycott, a DOJ investigation and the most violent summer in the city’s recent history. Bringing those groups to the table yielded a decrease in the number of racially discriminatory stops and the number of civilian complaints, and an increase in black residents’ perception of fairness and professionalism by the Cincinnati police department.
The community-based reform processes in Cincinnati and just underway in New York are the models to follow. But we have to acknowledge that we need far more than a conversation, and right now, the protests in the street are bringing the pressure that will make real reform possible.
The protests are the road to reform.
Share your Ferguson solutions: No justice, no peace, what now? Join the conversation with #FergusonNext and at FergusonNext.com
NYC Stands Up In Response To The Grand Jury Decision For Eric Garner’s Death [VIDEO]
Dec 4, 2014
By Sheryl Huggins / Brandon D. Gillespie / Kenon White
Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of New York City after a Staten Island grand jury on Wednesday decided not to indict New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, the unarmed Black man whose untimely demise was captured on video while in a chokehold, igniting outrage across the country. Local news outlets report more than 30 arrests, and NewsOne witnessed several. However, in contrast to the violence that overtook Ferguson, Mo. last week when a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown, the New York demonstrations were largely peaceful.
Some protesters had plans to disrupt the nationally-televised tree lighting at Rockefeller Center, though it appeared that demonstrators could not get very close to it due to barricades and a heavy police presence. That did not prevent them from voicing their displeasure at a justice system that they believe continues to fail black people. NewsOne caught up with a group of demonstrators making their way uptown from Union Square in lower Manhattan to the tree lighting, and from there, uptown to Harlem.
Garner’s Widow Says “Hell No,” She Doesn’t Accept Officer Pantaleo’s Condolences
#ICantBreathe Protests Erupt On Twitter After NYPD Cop Cleared In Eric Garner Chokehold Death
NewsOne Minute: #CrimingWhileWhite Hashtag Takes Over Twitter In Light of Eric Garner Verdict
Thirty-eight-year-old Douglas Davis from Brooklyn was out among the masses that had gathered at Rockefeller Center after learning of the Eric Garner grand jury decision.
Davis told NewsOne’s Brandon Gillespie, “I got two masters degrees, I’m a professor, I own a house in Brooklyn. I’m married and yet none of that can matter if for whatever reason somebody decides I’m a threat and I don’t have a gun.”
I’m a citizen of the United States of America, this is happening in my country, I am deeply hurt by something that continues to happen to people that look like me.”
He went on to explain why he came to Rockefeller Center to protest the Staten Island grand jury’s decision to not indict Pantaleo for the chokehold death of Garner, “I thought it tone deaf to continue doing what I was doing and not actually give some sort of vent to this.”
Kassaundra Johnson, a 21-year-old Brooklynite, was marching through the streets of Manhattan as crowds chanted “no justice, no peace.” Johnson emphatically said, “Black lives matter. Eric Garner’s life matters. Mike Brown’s life matters and we’re not going to allow this anymore”
Johnson spoke with NewsOne about the grand jury proceedings which many around the nation believe should have resulted in charges being filed against Pantaleo.
“The facts where there, so it really doesn’t make sense that a woman doesn’t have her husband and there is no indictment.”
21-year-old Samantha Lawrence, also from Brooklyn, did not mince her words when talking about her reasons for protesting, saying, “the legal justice system clearly doesn’t support police trying to protect us, so we’re out here trying to get justice for ourselves.”
The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men
And how to reform our bigoted brains.
Mon Dec. 1, 2014
"You're not, like, a total racist bastard," David Amodio tells me. He pauses. "Today."
I'm sitting in the soft-spoken cognitive neuroscientist's spotless office nestled within New York University's psychology department, but it feels like I'm at the doctor's, getting a dreaded diagnosis. On his giant monitor, Amodio shows me a big blob of data, a cluster of points depicting where people score on the Implicit Association Test. The test measures racial prejudices that we cannot consciously control. I've taken it three times now. This time around my uncontrolled prejudice, while clearly present, has come in significantly below the average for white people like me.
You think of yourself as a person who strives to be unprejudiced, but you can't control these split-second reactions.
That certainly beats the first time I took the IAT online, on the website UnderstandingPrejudice.org. That time, my results showed a "strong automatic preference" for European Americans over African Americans. That was not a good thing to hear, but it's extremely common—51 percent of online test takers show moderate to strong bias.
Taking the IAT, one of the most popular tools among researchers trying to understand racism and prejudice, is both extremely simple and pretty traumatic. The test asks you to rapidly categorize images of faces as either "African American" or "European American" while you also categorize words (like "evil," "happy," "awful," and "peace") as either "good" or "bad." Faces and words flash on the screen, and you tap a key, as fast as you can, to indicate which category is appropriate.
Sometimes you're asked to sort African American faces and "good" words to one side of the screen. Other times, black faces are to be sorted with "bad" words. As words and faces keep flashing by, you struggle not to make too many sorting mistakes.
And then suddenly, you have a horrible realization. When black faces and "bad" words are paired together, you feel yourself becoming faster in your categorizing—an indication that the two are more easily linked in your mind. "It's like you're on a bike going downhill," Amodio says, "and you feel yourself going faster. So you can say, 'I know this is not how I want to come off,' but there's no other response option."
You think of yourself as a person who strives to be unprejudiced, but you can't control these split-second reactions. As the milliseconds are being tallied up, you know the tale they'll tell: When negative words and black faces are paired together, you're a better, faster categorizer. Which suggests that racially biased messages from the culture around you have shaped the very wiring of your brain.
I went to NYU to learn what psychologists could tell me about racial prejudice in the wake of the shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri. We may never really know the exact sequence of events and assumptions that led to the moment when Brown, unarmed and, according to witnesses, with his hands in the air, was shot multiple times. But the incident is the latest embodiment of America's racial paradox: On the one hand, overt expressions of prejudice have grown markedly less common than they were in the Archie Bunker era. We elected, and reelected, a black president. In many parts of the country, hardly anyone bats an eye at interracial relationships. Most people do not consider racial hostility acceptable. That's why it was so shocking when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught telling his girlfriend not to bring black people to games—and why those comments led the NBA to ban Sterling for life. And yet, the killings of Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and so many others remind us that we are far from a prejudice-free society.
An impressive body of psychological research suggests that the men who killed Brown and Martin need not have been conscious, overt racists to do what they did.
Science offers an explanation for this paradox—albeit a very uncomfortable one. An impressive body of psychological research suggests that the men who killed Brown and Martin need not have been conscious, overt racists to do what they did (though they may have been). The same goes for the crowds that flock to support the shooter each time these tragedies become public, or the birthers whose racially tinged conspiracy theories paint President Obama as a usurper. These people who voice mind-boggling opinions while swearing they're not racist at all—they make sense to science, because the paradigm for understanding prejudice has evolved. There "doesn't need to be intent, doesn't need to be desire; there could even be desire in the opposite direction," explains University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek, a prominent IAT researcher. "But biased results can still occur."
The IAT is the most famous demonstration of this reality, but it's just one of many similar tools. Through them, psychologists have chased prejudice back to its lair—the human brain.
We're not born with racial prejudices. We may never even have been "taught" them. Rather, explains Nosek, prejudice draws on "many of the same tools that help our minds figure out what's good and what's bad." In evolutionary terms, it's efficient to quickly classify a grizzly bear as "dangerous." The trouble comes when the brain uses similar processes to form negative views about groups of people.
But here's the good news: Research suggests that once we understand the psychological pathways that lead to prejudice, we just might be able to train our brains to go in the opposite direction.
Dog, cat. Hot, cold. Black, white. Male, female. We constantly categorize. We have to. Sorting anything from furniture to animals to concepts into different filing folders inside our brains is something that happens automatically, and it helps us function. In fact, categorization has an evolutionary purpose: Assuming that all mushrooms are poisonous, that all lions want to eat you, is a very effective way of coping with your surroundings. Forget being nuanced about nonpoisonous mushrooms and occasionally nonhungry lions—certitude keeps you safe.
But a particular way of categorizing can be inaccurate, and those false categories can lead to prejudice and stereotyping. Much psychological research into bias has focused on how people "essentialize" certain categories, which boils down to assuming that these categories have an underlying nature that is tied to inherent and immutable qualities. Like the broader sorting mechanism of categorization, an essentialist cognitive "style" emerges very early in our development and may to some extent be hardwired. Psychologist Susan Gelman of the University of Michigan explains it this way: The category of "things that are white" is not essentialized. It simply contains anything that happens to share the attribute of "white": cars, paint, paper, and so on. There's nothing deep that unites the members of this category.
But now consider white and black people. Like other human attributes (gender, age, and sexual orientation, for example), race tends to be strongly—and inaccurately—essentialized. This means that when you think of people in that category, you rapidly or even automatically come up with assumptions about their characteristics—characteristics that your brain perceives as unchanging and often rooted in biology. Common stereotypes with the category "African Americans," for example, include "loud," "good dancers," and "good at sports." (One recent study found that white people also tend to essentialize African Americans as magical—test subjects associated black faces with words like "paranormal" and "spirit.") Of course, these assumptions are false. Indeed, essentialism about any group of people is dubious—women are not innately gentle, old people are not inherently feebleminded—and when it comes to race, the idea of deep and fundamental differences has been roundly debunked by scientists.
Even people who know that essentializing race is wrong can't help absorbing the stereotypes that are pervasive in our culture. But essentialist thinking varies greatly between individuals. It's kind of like neurosis: We all have a little bit, but in some people, it's much more pronounced. In national polls, for example, fewer and fewer Americans admit openly to holding racist views. But when told to rate various groups with questions like, "Do people in these groups tend to be unintelligent or tend to be intelligent?" more than half of those asked exhibited strong bias against African Americans. Even the labels we use seem to affect our level of prejudice: Another study found that test subjects associated the term "black" with more negative attributes—such as low socioeconomic status—than "African American."
More stories on issues of race and racism:
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6 Good Reasons a Black Person Might Resist Arrest
Darren Wilson Is Just the Latest to Go Unprosecuted for a Fatal Shooting
Study: White People Think Black People Are Magical Unicorns
One of the earliest and most insightful researchers on these varying rates of bias was Else Frenkel-Brunswik, part of a pioneering generation of post-World War II psychologists who sought to understand why some people seem to find prejudiced and fascist ideas so appealing. Born in 1908 to a Jewish family in what is now Ukraine, Frenkel-Brunswik might never have managed to do her research at all had she not twice escaped the forces of prejudice herself. When she was young, a 1914 pogrom forced her family to flee to Vienna. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, she sought refuge in the United States.
Frenkel-Brunswik's work came long before the days of high-tech tools like eye trackers and computer games that measure bias based on millisecond differences between reactions. Instead she used something far simpler: cards.
She studied young children, some of whom she had previously documented to be highly prejudiced and ethnocentric. In one of many experiments, Frenkel-Brunswik showed the children a sequence of cards similar to the ones on this page. On the first card, the animal is clearly and distinctly a cat. On the last card, it is just as clearly and distinctly a dog. But in between, the cat slowly transforms into the dog.
At each of the stages, the children were asked to identify the animal on the card. Among the more prejudiced children, Frenkel-Brunswik noted something striking: As the image became increasingly ambiguous, "there was a greater reluctance to give up the original object about which one had felt relatively certain…a tendency not to see what did not harmonize with the first set as well as a shying away from transitional solutions." In other words, for these children, it was much harder to let go of the idea that a cat was a cat.
What Frenkel-Brunswik realized back in 1949, modern research reaffirms. The Implicit Association Test, after all, boils down to how your mind automatically links certain categories. "It's really how strongly you associate your category of 'black people' with the general category of 'good things' or 'bad things,'" David Amodio told me. "The capacity to discern 'us' from 'them' is fundamental in the human brain," he wrote in a 2014 paper. "Although this computation takes just a fraction of a second, it sets the stage for social categorization, stereotypes, prejudices, intergroup conflict and inequality, and, at the extremes, war and genocide." Call it the banality of prejudice.
The process of categorizing the world obviously includes identifying the group or groups to which you belong. And that's where the next psychological factor underpinning prejudice emerges. Much research has found that humans are tribal creatures, showing strong bias against those we perceive as different from us and favoritism toward those we perceive as similar.
In fact, we humans will divide ourselves into in-groups and out-groups even when the perceived differences between the specific groups are completely arbitrary. In one classic study, subjects are asked to rate how much they like a large series of paintings, some of which are described as belonging to the "Red" artistic school and others to the "Green" school. Then participants are sorted into two groups, red or green—not based on their favoring one school of painting, as they are made to think, but actually at random. In subsequent tasks, people consistently show favoritism toward the arbitrary color group to which they are assigned. When asked to allocate money to other participants, the majority of "reds" more generously fund other reds—despite the fact that they have never actually met them. The same goes for "greens."
The upshot of such "minimal group" experiments is that if you give people the slightest push toward behaving tribally, they happily comply. So if race is the basis on which tribes are identified, expect serious problems.
As these experiments suggest, it is not that we are either prejudiced or unprejudiced, period. Rather, we are more and less prejudiced, based on our upbringings and experiences but also on a variety of temporary or situational prompts (like being told we're on the green team).
One simple, evolutionary explanation for our innate tendency toward tribalism is safety in numbers. You're more likely to survive an attack from a marauding tribe if you join forces with your buddies. And primal fear of those not in the in-group also seems closely tied to racial bias. Amodio's research suggests that one key area associated with prejudice is the amygdala, a small and evolutionarily ancient region in the middle of the brain that is responsible for triggering the notorious "fight or flight" response. In interracial situations, Amodio explains, amygdala firing can translate into anything from "less direct eye gaze and more social distance" to literal fear and vigilance toward those of other races.
We've seen how a variety of cognitive behaviors feed into prejudice. But you know what will really blow your mind? The way that prejudice (or rather, the cognitive styles that underlie it) can interfere with how our brains function—often for the worse.
Racism has another, lesser-known effect: It can make us less innovative.
Consider, for instance, research by Carmit Tadmor, a psychologist at the Recanati School of Business at Tel Aviv University. In one 2013 paper, Tadmor and her colleagues showed that racial prejudice can play a direct and causal role in making people less creative. We're not talking about artistic creativity here, but more like seeing beyond the constraints of traditional categories—"thinking outside the box."
Tadmor's team first uncovered a simple positive correlation between one's inclination to endorse an essentialist view of race (like associating racial differences with abilities and personality traits) and one's creativity. To measure the latter, the researchers used a simple open-ended test in which individuals are asked to list as many possible uses of a brick as they can think of. People who can think outside of traditional categories—realizing that a brick can be used for many things other than buildings (it can make a good paperweight, for starters)—score better. This study showed that people who essentialized racial categories tended to have fewer innovative ideas about a brick.
But that was just the beginning. Next, a new set of research subjects read essays that described race either as a fundamental difference between people (an essentialist position) or as a construct, not reflecting anything more than skin-deep differences (a nonessentialist position). After reading the essays, the subjects moved on to a difficult creativity test that requires you to identify the one key word that unites three seemingly unassociated words. Thus, for instance, if you are given the words "call," "pay," and "line," the correct answer is "phone."
Remarkably, subjects who'd read the nonessentialist essay about race fared considerably better on the creativity test. Their mean score was a full point—or 32 percent—higher than it was for those who read the essentialist essay.
It's not like the people in this study were selected because of their preexisting racial prejudices. They weren't. Instead, merely a temporary exposure to essentialist thinking seemed to hamper their cognitive flexibility. "Essentialism appears to exert its negative effects on creativity not through what people think but how they think," conclude Tadmor and her colleagues. That's because, they add, "stereotyping and creative stagnation are rooted in a similar tendency to overrely on existing category attributes." Those quick-judgment skills that allowed us to survive on the savanna? Not always helpful in modern life.
So, yes: Prejudice and essentialism are bad for your brain—if you value creative thinking, anyway. But they can also be downright dangerous.
At NYU, David Amodio sat me down to take another test called the Weapons Identification Task. I had no idea what I was in for.
In this test, like on the IAT, you have two buttons that you can push. Images flash rapidly on the screen, and your task is to push the left shift key if you see a tool (a wrench, or a power drill, say) and the right shift key if you see a gun. You have to go super fast—if you don't respond within half a second, the screen blares at you, in giant red letters, "TOO SLOW."
"It does that to keep you from thinking too much," Amodio would later explain.
But it's not just guns and tools flashing on the screen: Before each object you see a face, either white or black. The faces appear for a split second, the objects for a split second, and then you have to press a key. If you are faster and more accurate at identifying guns after you see a black face than after you see a white face, that would suggest your brain associates guns (and threat) more with the former. You might also be more inclined to wrongly think you see a gun, when it's actually just a tool, right after seeing a black face. (The weapons task was created by psychologist Keith Payne of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in response to the tragic 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant shot by New York City police after the officers mistook the wallet in his hand for a weapon.)
I'm sorry to ruin the suspense: I don't know what my score was on the Weapons Identification Task. The test ruffled me so much that I messed up badly. It is stressful to have to answer quickly to avoid being rebuked by the game. And it's even more upsetting to realize that you've just "seen" a gun that wasn't actually there, right after a black face flashed.
This happened to me several times, and then I suddenly found myself getting "TOO SLOW" messages whenever the object to be identified was a gun. This went on for many minutes and numerous trials. For a while, I thought the test was broken. But it wasn't: I finally realized that rather than pressing the right shift key, I had somehow started pressing the enter key whenever I thought I saw a gun. It's almost like I'd subconsciously decided to stop making "gun" choices at all. (Psychoanalyze that.)
But don't take that as a cop-out: Before I (arguably) tried to dodge responsibility by pressing the wrong key, I clearly showed implicit bias. And it was horrifying.
The upshot of all of this research is that in order to rid the world of prejudice, we can't simply snuff out overt, conscious, full-throated racism. Nor can we fundamentally remake the human brain, with its rapid-fire associations and its categorizing, essentializing, and groupish tendencies. Instead, the key lies in shifting people's behavior, even as we also make them aware of how cultural assumptions merge with natural cognitive processes to create biases they may not know they have.
And that just might be possible. Take the Implicit Association Test: In a massive study, Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia and his colleagues tested 17 different proposed ways of reducing people's unconscious bias on the IAT. Many of these experimental interventions failed. But some succeeded, and there was an interesting pattern to those that did.
The single best intervention involved putting people into scenarios and mindsets in which a black person became their ally (or even saved their life) while white people were depicted as the bad guys. In this intervention, participants "read an evocative story told in second-person narrative in which a White man assaults the participant and a Black man rescues the participant." In other words, study subjects are induced to feel as if they have been personally helped or even saved by someone from a different race. Then they took the IAT—and showed 48 percent less bias than a control group. (Note: The groups in these various studies were roughly three-fourths white; no participants were black.)
Other variations on this idea were successful too: making nonblack people think about black role models, or imagine themselves playing on a dodgeball team with black teammates against a team of white people (who proceed to cheat). In other words, it appears that our tribal instincts can actually be co-opted to decrease prejudice, if we are made to see those of other races as part of our team.
When it comes to weakening racial essentialism, Carmit Tadmor and her colleagues undertook a variety of experiments to try to produce what they called "epistemic unfreezing." Subjects were exposed to one of three 20-minute multimedia presentations: one exclusively about American culture, one exclusively about Chinese culture, and one comparing American and Chinese cultures (with different aspects of each culture, such as architecture or food, presented back to back). Only in the last scenario were subjects pushed to compare and contrast the two cultures, presumably leading to a more nuanced perspective on their similarities and differences.
This experimental manipulation has been found to increase creativity. But surprisingly, it also had a big effect on reducing anti-black prejudice. In one study, Tadmor et al. found that white research subjects who had heard the multicultural presentation (but not the American-only or Chinese-only presentation) were less likely than members of the other study groups to endorse stereotypes about African Americans. That was true even though the subjects had learned about Chinese and American cultures, not African American culture.
In a variation, the same 20-minute lecture also produced fewer discriminatory hiring decisions. After hearing one of the three kinds of lectures, white study subjects were shown a series of résumés for the position of "Sales Manager" at a company. The résumés were varied so that some applicants had white-sounding names, and some had black-sounding names. It's a research paradigm that has often been shown to produce discriminatory effects, which presumably occur through the manifestation of uncontrolled or implicit prejudices—but this time around, there was a glimmer of hope in the findings.
White subjects who had heard the lecture exclusively about American culture (with topics like Disney, Coca-Cola, and the White House) picked a white candidate over an equally qualified black candidate 81 percent of the time. Subjects who had heard a lecture exclusively about Chinese culture picked a white candidate a full 86 percent of the time. But subjects who had heard the culture-comparing lecture selected the white candidate only 56 percent of the time.
These studies clearly suggest that, at least for the relatively short time span of a psychology experiment, there are cognitive ways to make people less prejudiced. That's not the same as—nor can it be a substitute for—broader cultural or institutional change. After all, there is ample evidence that culture feeds directly into the mind's process of generating prejudices and adopting stereotypical beliefs.
Nonetheless, if prejudice has both a psychological side and a cultural side, we must address both of these aspects. A good start may simply be making people aware of just how unconsciously biased they can be. That's particularly critical in law enforcement, where implicit biases can lead to tragic outcomes.
In fact, this phenomenon has been directly studied in the lab, particularly through first-person shooter tests, where subjects must rapidly decide whether to shoot individuals holding either guns or harmless objects like wallets and soda cans. Research suggests that police officers (those studied were mostly white) are much more accurate at the general task (not shooting unarmed people) than civilians, thanks to their training. But like civilians, police are considerably slower to press the "don't shoot" button for an unarmed black man than they are for an unarmed white man—and faster to shoot an armed black man than an armed white man. (Women weren't included—the extra variable of gender would have complicated the results.)
Such research has led to initiatives like the Fair and Impartial Policing program, which has trained officers across the United States on how implicit biases work and how to control them. Few officers look forward to these trainings, says program founder Lorie Fridell, a criminologist; they don't consider themselves to be racist. "Police are very defensive about this issue," she says. "That's because we have been dealing with this issue using outdated science. We treat them as if they have an explicit bias. They are offended by that."
So instead, Fridell's team focuses first on showing the officers the subtle ways in which implicit bias might influence their actions. For example: The trainers present a role-play where there are three people: a female victim of domestic violence, and a male and female comforting her. When the officers are asked to address the situation, says Fridell, most assume that the man is the perp. Then, the trainers reveal that it was actually the woman—and the officers learn that they do, in fact, act on bias. It's not because they are bad people; in fact, in their work, they may have experiences that reinforce stereotypes. Which is why it's important that police officers—who see the worst in people in their everyday duties—teach themselves not to assume the worst.
"You're an officer, you're pumping adrenaline, you don't have time to evaluate whether your implicit bias is driving your behavior."
The program, which receives support from the US Department of Justice, has trained officers in more than 250 precincts and agencies, but it's hard to measure its success—there is no baseline comparison, since prejudiced policing isn't always rigorously documented. But the feedback is encouraging. "I have a new awareness of bias-based policing within my own agency," one participant wrote in an evaluation. "The presentation of scientific data provided me with a more convincing argument that supported the existence of unintentional, but widespread racial bias, which I was typically quick to dismiss."
Staff members at the University of California-Los Angeles-based Center for Policing Equity use implicit-bias research in a different way: They take unconscious prejudice as a given—and try to make changes within communities to ensure that it does as little damage as possible. A few years ago, Las Vegas was seeking to address police officers' use of force, especially against people of color. Most of the incidents occurred after pursuits of suspects on foot, the majority of which happened in nonwhite neighborhoods. Center president Phillip Atiba Goff explains that he knew how difficult it would be to change the pursuing officers' thinking. "You're an officer, you're pumping adrenaline, you don't have time to evaluate whether your implicit bias is driving your behavior," he says. So instead, the center worked with the department to make a small but meaningful tweak to the rules: In foot chases, the pursuing officer would no longer be allowed to touch the person being chased; if use of force was necessary, a partner who wasn't involved in the pursuit would step in. "We recognized implicit bias, and we took it out of the equation," Goff says. "We decoupled the prejudice from the behavior." Sure enough, use of force in foot chases—and, as a result, overall use of force against people of color—declined significantly shortly after the policy went into effect.
Unsettling though it is, the latest research on our brains could actually have some very positive outcomes—if we use it in the right way. The link between essentialism and creativity doesn't just tell us how we might reduce prejudice. It could also help us to become a more innovative country—by prioritizing diversity, and the cognitive complexity and boost in creativity it entails. The research on rapid-fire, implicit biases, meanwhile, should restart a debate over the role of media—the news segment that depicts immigrants as hostile job snatchers, the misogynistic lyrics in a song—in subtly imparting stereotypes that literally affect brain wiring. Indeed, you could argue that not only does the culture in which we live make us subtly prejudiced, but it does so against our will. That's a disturbing thought.
Especially when you consider how biases affect government policy. Consider this: In October 2012, researchers from the University of Southern California sent emails asking legislators in districts with large Latino populations what documentation was needed in order to vote. Half the emails came from people with Anglo-sounding names; the other half, Latino-sounding names. Republican politicians who had sponsored voter ID laws responded to 27 percent of emails from "Latino" constituents and 67 percent of emails from "white" constituents. For Republicans who'd voted against voter ID laws, the gap was far less dramatic—the response figures were 38 percent for Latino names and 54 percent for white names.
You can imagine how this kind of thing might create a vicious cycle: When biased legislators make it harder for certain communities to vote, they are also less likely to serve alongside lawmakers from those communities—thus making it less likely for a coalitional experience to change their biases.
So how do we break the cycle? We could require lawmakers to engage in exercises to recognize their own unconscious prejudice, like the Fair and Impartial Policing program does. Or we could even go a step further and anonymize emails they receive from constituents—thus taking implicit bias out of the equation.
Short of that, you can do something very simple to fight prejudice: Trick your brain. UNC-Chapel Hill's Payne suggests that by deliberately thinking a thought that is directly counter to widespread stereotypes, you can break normal patterns of association. What counts as counterstereotypical? Well, Payne's study found that when research subjects were instructed to think the word "safe" whenever they saw a black face—undermining the stereotypical association between black people and danger—they were 10 percent less likely than those in a control group to misidentify a gun in the Weapons Identification Task.
To be sure, it will take more than thought exercises to erase the deep tracks of prejudice America has carved through the generations. But consciousness and awareness are a start—and the psychological research is nothing if not a consciousness-raiser. Taking the IAT made me realize that we can't just draw some arbitrary line between prejudiced people and unprejudiced people, and declare ourselves to be on the side of the angels. Biases have slipped into all of our brains. And that means we all have a responsibility to recognize those biases—and work to change them.
Chris Mooney is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science. He was a science journalist and podcaster for Mother Jones and host of Climate Desk Live from 2012 to 2014. He is now a staff writer at The Washington Post.
Wednesday, 03 December 2014
by Amy Goodman and Aaron Mate, Democracy Now!
One week after the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case, President Obama has given his first major policy response to the protests from Ferguson and beyond over racial profiling and police brutality. At a meeting with activists and officials from around the country, Obama unveiled a process to address what he called "simmering distrust." The administration's response comes as protests continue nationwide over the non-indictment of former officer Darren Wilson over killing Brown. On Monday, demonstrators walked out of workplaces and classrooms in some 30 cities with their hands raised, the symbol of Brown's death and the movement that has emerged since. As the "Hands Up Walk Out" took place, some of the movement's key leaders were not out in the streets but inside the White House. Obama's guests included seven young activists who have helped organize the protests in Ferguson and in other communities of color. We are joined by one of those activists: Ashley Yates, an activist, poet and artist who is co-creator of Millennial Activists United. "While that is a step towards ending this real problem," Yates says of Obama's reforms, "the real root of it has to be addressed. And the real root of it is racism in America, the anti-black sentiments that exist. Until we begin to address that, we really can't have any real change — all we have are these small steps towards justice. We need leaps and bounds."
AARON MATÉ: One week after the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case, President Obama has given his first major policy response to the protests from Ferguson and beyond over racial profiling and police brutality. At a meeting with activists and officials from around the country, Obama unveiled a process to address what he called "simmering distrust."
PRES. OBAMA: Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis or that area, and is not unique to our time. And that is a simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color. The sense that in a country where one of our basic principles, perhaps the most important principle, is equality under the law, that too many individuals, particularly young people of color, do not feel as if they are being treated fairly.
AARON MATÉ: On the policy front, Obama announced a task force to come up with concrete steps for building public trust in police forces nationwide. Obama announced a $263 million community policing initiative, which includes $75 million to provide body cameras to around 50,000 police officers. Obama also announced an executive order that will tighten rules on the provision of military-grade equipment and weapons to local police forces, such as those used in the crackdown on the Ferguson protests. But, in a rejection of activists' demands, Obama vowed to leave the transfers mostly intact.
AMY GOODMAN: As part of his response to the protests in Ferguson, President Obama also sent Attorney General Eric Holder on a tour of communities nationwide. Holder began in Atlanta at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached during the 1960's. Holder said he'll soon release new federal guidelines to limit racial profiling.
ATT. GEN. ERIC HOLDER: In the coming days, I will announce updated Justice Department guidance regarding profiling by federal law enforcement. This will Institute rigorous new standards and robust safeguards to help end racial profiling once and for all. This new guidance will codify our commitment to the very highest standards of fair and effective policing.
AARON MATÉ: The new guidelines will not apply to state or local police agencies, such as in Ferguson. But, Holder said they will help set an example. The administration's response comes as protests continue nationwide over the grand jury's decision not to charge Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. On Monday, demonstrators walked out of workplaces and classrooms in over 30 cities with their hands raised, the symbol of Michael Brown's death in the movement that's emerged since. In Washington, D.C., a group of protesters held a "die-in" at the Justice Department, laying their bodies on the ground.
PROTESTER: It is our duty to fight.
CROWD: It is our duty to fight.
PROTESTER: It is our duty to win.
CROWD: It is our duty to win.
PROTESTER: We must love each other and protect each other.
CROWD: We must love each other and protect each other.
PROTESTER: We have nothing to lose but our chains.
CROWD: We have nothing to lose but our chains.
AMY GOODMAN: Continuing tactics that sprouted up last week, demonstrators blocked roads in D.C. and other cities, leading to arrests. As the "Hands Up Walkout" took place nationwide, some of the movement's key leaders were not out in the streets but inside the White House. President Obama's guests on Monday included seven young activists who have helped organize the protests in Ferguson and in other communities of color. One of those activists joins us now from Washington, D.C. Ashley Yates is an activist, poet and artist raised in Florissant, Missouri, a member and co-creator of Millennial Activists United, and among the group of activists who met with President Obama at the White House on Monday. Ashley, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what happened at that meeting?
ASHLEY YATES: What happened at the meeting, Amy — thanks for having me once again. What happened at the meeting was very frank conversation from young activists such as myself who have been on the ground. Four of us from Ferguson, three of us from around the nation — New York and Miami. And we just had really frank conversation but what's been happening on the ground in Ferguson and around the nation in general and our experience about being black and brown in America and what that really looks like on a day-to-day basis in real time. the president was very receptive and was open and willing to hear our experiences and really get that viewpoint from the other side.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you tell the president, Ashley?
ASHLEY YATES: I told the president, myself, the reason that I know that this movement has to be maintained. I gave him a very personal story about why I continue to do this work, why I am so committed to this work. My family is a large part of that. In particular, one of my younger cousins, who is a very fast runner and less to run everywhere, and I looked the president in his eye and said, I do this because I want to make sure that unlike Tamir Rice and unlike Trayvon Martin and unlike Mike Brown, my little cousin can make it home safely.
AARON MATÉ: Ashley, what were the policy prescriptions that you offered to the White House on Monday and what's your response to those that they announced; the task force, the tightening slightly of the rules for giving military equipment to police forces, and the body cameras to police?
ASHLEY YATES: Well, the steps that they introduced yesterday are just that, they're steps, right? They have to lead to something. So, we laid on the table what we've said from day one, that 1033 as a program needs to be abolished. There is no reason that our local law enforcement should have military weapons. And especially in the way in which they've been using them. They were given as weapons in order to fight terrorism, but they are the ones in acting terrorism upon our communities, therefore, they have proven that program is not effective. And not only is it not effective, it's being used to oppress American citizens, so it needs to be stripped away.
So, the step that they took yesterday to actually monitor the program, which should have been done in the first place right? But to actually monitor it, that's a step. We do have to have some accountability as to how these weapons are being used on our American citizens, but we have all seen it. We saw it for the last 115 days in Ferguson. So, to me, that monitoring has been occurring for 115 days. So, now we have to see accountability and we need to see those stripped away. So, that is a step towards progress, but we need to see more, and that's why we continue. This movement does not stop.
The body cameras? Once again, a step. But, cameras didn't save Tamir Rice. Cameras didn't save John Crawford. They didn't make sure that John Crawford saw justice. So, we know that while that is a step towards ending this real problem, the real root of it has to be addressed. And the real root of it is racism in America. The anti-black sentiments that exist. And we have to have a cultural shift. It's the reason why Darren Wilson is able to get in front of a grand jury and say that he saw a young black boy as a demon and people can accept that. We have to address why that is reality in our community, and until we begin to address that we really can't have any real change, and all we have is these small steps towards justice, but we need leaps and bounds.
AMY GOODMAN: Ashley, your response to the grand jury decision and to Darren Wilson resigning from the Ferguson police force?
ASHLEY YATES: Darren Wilson should not have been able to resign. He should have been fired over 100 days ago. Also, he is resigning a much richer man. It is profitable to kill a black boy. Not only is a profitable, but you get away scott free, as we saw with the grand jury's decision not to indict him. It's absolutely heartbreaking, and that's why we continue to do this work, because like we have said time and time again —
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by he retired — he resigns as a much richer man.
ASHLEY YATES: I think it is pretty public knowledge that he — there are several people who set up a GoFundMe for him, which is a reason why I don't support that site. They set up a GoFundMe, he raised over $500,000, and there is also speculation out there that the interview he did, he also received some attention for. But, we definitely know that there is money being put into his pocket from several different places, and the only reason is people are supporting him throughout this. The only thing we know about him is that he killed a black boy. He has been scrubbed clean. Meanwhile, Mike Brown has been demonized in the media, and they've done everything they can to dehumanize him and defame his character. So, like I said, it's absolutely heartbreaking that this can occur in America. It is absolutely heartbreaking that we didn't see justice in this case. It's absolutely heartbreaking that I had to sit in front of Lesley McSpadden and watch her breakdown because she had an expectation that the American justice system would work for her family, and it didn't. So, we continue to do this work so we don't have to see another family go through that.
AMY GOODMAN: Ashley Yates, I want to thank you for very much for being with us. Ashley Yates is one of the young activists who met with President Obama yesterday at the White House. Activist, poet and artist, raised in Florissant, Missouri. She is a member and co-creator of Millennial Activists United. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we'll speak with Lehigh University Professor James Peterson. Stay with us.
This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.
Amy Goodman and Aaron Mate
Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,100 public television and radio stations worldwide. Time Magazine named Democracy Now! its “Pick of the Podcasts,” along with NBC’s Meet the Press.
Aaron Mate comes to Democracy Now! after a two-year stint as an independent journalist and as a researcher for the author and journalist Naomi Klein. Through his work as a journalist and activist, he has had the opportunity to visit the Occupied Territories, Haiti, and South Africa. His writings have appeared in publications including the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the Guardian of London. Aaron received his B.A. in Communication Studies from Concordia University in Montreal. He is a regular contributor to the Montreal/San Francisco-based magazine Warrior.
The New York Times
BREAKING NEWS ALERT
Grand Jury Declines to Indict Officer in Staten Island Chokehold Case
A Staten Island grand jury has voted not to bring criminal charges against the white New York City police officer at the center of the Eric Garner case, a person briefed on the matter said Wednesday.
The decision was reached on Wednesday after months of testimony including from the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who used a chokehold to restrain Mr. Garner, who died after a confrontation. It came less than two weeks after a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., declined to bring charges against a white officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown.
For days, the New York City Police Department has been readying for a new round of protests, which began in the city after the Ferguson decision and which were expected to continue and possibly grow if the grand jury declined to bring charges against the officer.
READ MORE »
Cop cleared in chokehold death of Eric Garner
By Larry Celona, Kirstan Conley and Bruce Golding
December 3, 2014
New York Post
A Staten Island grand jury cleared an NYPD cop Wednesday in the chokehold death of Eric Garner during his caught-on-video arrest for peddling loose cigarettes, The Post has learned.
The panel voted a “no-bill” and dismissed all potential charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, sources said.
The blockbuster decision capped weeks of investigation by the special grand jury, which was empaneled in September specifically to review evidence in Garner’s racially charged death.
It was unclear exactly what charges prosecutors asked the grand jury to consider filing, or how the vote went.
Under New York law, an indictment must be agreed upon by at least 12 members of a grand jury, which can have up to 23 members.
Cellphone video of Garner’s July 17 arrest shows Pantaleo wrestling him to the sidewalk on Bay Street, with the white cop’s arms wrapped around the neck of the black suspect.
On the ground, Garner was heard repeatedly yelling “I can’t breathe!” as Pantaleo and other cops held him down and handcuffed him.
The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”
Police union leaders denied that Pantaleo used a chokehold — which is banned by the NYPD — and blasted the autopsy as part of a “political” witch hunt.
Garner’s family has filed notice it plans to sue the city for $75 million on grounds including wrongful death, pre-death pain and suffering, and civil rights violations.
The family and adviser the Rev. Al Sharpton have also repeatedly called on the feds to investigate his death.
In July, US Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department was monitoring the case, and a group including Garner’s mom, widow and Sharpton met in August with Brooklyn US Attorney Loretta Lynch.
She has since been nominated by President Obama to replace Holder.
Killer Cop Who Choked Eric Garner Walks Free
by Andy Cush
December 3, 2014
Daniel Pantaelo, the Staten Island NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold in July, will not face charges for the killing, a grand jury decided today. Garner, who was asthmatic, pled with police about his inability to breathe
"I Can't Breathe": Asthmatic Father Dies After NYPD Chokehold
In the video above, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, can be seen arguing with plainclothes … Read more
The NYPD's own patrol guide explicitly prohibits chokeholds, and Garner's death was ruled a homicide by the New York City medical examiner in August. Pantaleo was the target of two civil suits before Garner's death.
Eric Garner's NYPD Chokehold Death Ruled Homicide by Medical Examiner
The New York City medical examiner ruled today that Eric Garner's death was a homicide by… Read more
NY1, the New York Daily News, and CNN reported the Staten Island grand jury's decision today.
The decision—which comes nine days after a grand jury failed to indicted Ferguson, Mo., cop Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown—will almost certainly inspire protests. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton told reporters this week the department will address demonstrations using the same strategies it used during Occupy Wall Street.
Resisting the War Against the Black and Brown Underclass
Why We Won’t Wait
by ROBIN D.G. KELLEY
November 25, 2014
We’ve all been waiting for the grand jury’s decision, not because most of us expected an indictment. District Attorney Robert P. McCulloch’s convoluted statement explaining—or rather, defending—how the grand jury came to its decision resembled a victory speech. For a grand jury to find no probable cause even on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter is a stunning achievement in a police shooting of an unarmed teenager with his hands raised, several yards away. Distilling 4,799 pages of grand jury proceedings to less than twenty minutes, he managed to question the integrity of eyewitnesses, accuse the 24-hour news cycle and social media for disrupting the investigation, and blame alleged neighborhood violence for why the removal of Mike Brown’s body from the pavement had to wait until morning. McCulloch never indicted a cop in his life, so why expect anything different now?
Some waited hoping for a miracle; most waited because they knew a crisis was brewing. The white folks in St. Louis and surrounding municipalities, as well as the state of Missouri, used the waiting period to prepare for war. Residents bought more guns and ammunition, stockpiled on plywood to cover store windows, installed alarm systems and window bars, stocked up on food and water. Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, calling up National Guard forces from across the state and beyond, training the state militia for riot control and counterinsurgency. The federal government has dispatched FBI agents, some presumably undercover operating inside protest movements. As I write these words, all forces are being deployed against protesters and the Black community more generally, and the governor has requested more National Guard troops.
Meanwhile, as we waited for the grand jury’s decision, a twelve-year-old Black boy named Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police in Cleveland because the officer mistook his toy gun for a real one. Tamir was playing outside of Cleveland’s Cudell Recreation Center, one of the few public facilities left that provide safe space for children.
As we waited, Cleveland cops took the life of Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year-old Black woman suffering from bipolar disorder. Police arrived at her home after family members called 911 to help her through a difficult crisis, but rather than treat her empathetically they did what they were trained to do when confronted with Black bodies in Black neighborhoods—they treated her like an enemy combatant. When she became agitated, one officer wrestled her to the ground and cuffed her while a second officer pinned her “face down on the ground with his knee pressed down heavily into the back for 6 to 7 minutes, until her body went completely limp.” She stopped breathing. They made no effort to administer CPR, telling the family and witnesses that she was sleeping. When the ambulance finally arrived twenty minutes later, she was dead.
As we waited, police in Ann Arbor, Michigan, killed a forty-year-old Black woman named Aura Rain Rosser. She was reportedly brandishing a kitchen knife when the cops showed up on a domestic violence call, although her boyfriend who made the initial report insisted that she was no threat to the officers. No matter; they opened fire anyway.
As we waited, a Chicago police officer fatally shot 19-year-old Roshad McIntosh. Despite the officer’s claims, several eyewitnesses reported that McIntosh was unarmed, on his knees with his hands up, begging the officer to hold his fire.
As we waited, police in Saratoga Springs, Utah, pumped six bullets into Darrien Hunt, a 22-year-old Black man dressed kind of like a ninja and carrying a replica Samurai sword. And police in Victorville, California, killed Dante Parker, a 36-year-old Black man and father of five. He had been stopped while riding his bike on suspicion of burglary. When he became “uncooperative,” the officers repeatedly used Tasers to try to subdue him. He died from his injuries.
As we waited, a twenty-eight-year-old Black man named Akai Gurley met a similar fate as he descended a stairwell in the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York, Brooklyn. The police were on a typical reconnaissance mission through the housing project. Officer Peter Liang negotiated the darkened stairwell, gun drawn in one hand, flashlight in the other, prepared to take down any threat he encountered. According to liberal mayor Bill DeBlasio and police chief Bill Bratton, Mr. Gurley was collateral damage. Apologies abound. He left a two-year-old daughter.
As we waited, LAPD officers stopped 25-year-old Ezell Ford, a mentally challenged Black man, in his own South Los Angeles neighborhood and shot him to death. The LAPD stopped Omar Abrego, a 37-year-old father from Los Angeles, and beat him to death.
And as we waited and waited and waited, Darren Wilson got married, continued to earn a paycheck while on leave, and received over $400,000 worth of donations for his “defense.”
You see, we’ve been waiting for dozens, hundreds, thousands of indictments and convictions. Every death hurts. Every exonerated cop, security guard, or vigilante enrages. The grand jury’s decision doesn’t surprise most Black people because we are not waiting for an indictment. We are waiting for justice—or more precisely, struggling for justice. We all know the names and how they died. Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, Vonderitt D. Meyers, Jr., John Crawford III, Cary Ball Jr., Mike Brown, ad infinitum. They were unarmed and shot down by police under circumstances for which lethal force was unnecessary. We hold their names like recurring nightmares, accumulating the dead like ghoulish baseball cards. Except that there is no trading. No forgetting. Just a stack of dead bodies that rises every time we blink. For the last three trayvonsgenerations, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Eula Love, Amadu Diallo, Oscar Grant, Patrick Dorismond, Malice Green, Tyisha Miller, Sean Bell, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, to name a few, have become symbols of racist police violence. And I’m only speaking of the dead—not the harassed, the beaten, the humiliated, the stopped-and-frisked, the raped.
Meanwhile, Governor Jay Nixon, President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, the mainstream press and every state-anointed Negro leader lecture Black people to stay calm and remain non-violent, when the main source of violence has been the police. Mike Brown’s murder brought people out to the streets, where they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. State violence is always rendered invisible in a world where cops and soldiers are heroes, and what they do is always framed as “security,” protection, and self-defense. Police occupy the streets to protect and serve the citizenry from (Black) criminals out of control. This is why, in every instance, there is an effort to depict the victim as assailant – Trayvon Martin used the sidewalk as a weapon, Mike Brown used his big body. A lunge or a glare from a Black person can constitute an imminent threat. When the suburb of Ferguson blew up following Mike Brown’s killing on August 9, the media and mainstream leadership were more concerned with looting and keeping the “peace” than the fact that Darren Wilson was free on paid leave. Or that leaving Brown’s bullet-riddled, lifeless body, on the street for four and a half hours, bleeding, cold, stiff from rigor mortis, constituted a war crime in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It was, after all, an act of collective punishment – the public display of the tortured corpse was intended to terrorize the entire community, to punish everyone into submission, to remind others of their fate if they step out of line. We used to call this “lynching.”
War? Yes, war. The immediate and sustained resistance to the police following Mike Brown’s murder revealed the low intensity war between the state and Black people, and the disproportionate use of force against protesters following the grand jury’s decision escalated the conflict. To the world at large, Ferguson looked like a war zone because the police resembled the military with their helmets, flak jackets, armed personnel carriers, and M-16 rifles. But African-American residents of Ferguson and St Louis proper, and in impoverished communities across the country, did not have to endure tear gas or face down riot cops to know that they were already living in a war zone—hence Mike Brown’s and Dorian Johnson’s initial trepidation toward the police.
Past and present police violence in the area gave Brown and Johnson good reason to fear Wilson. The prosecution turned what may have seemed like a reasonable act of self-defense on the part of a startled and angry eighteen-year-old kid into an “assault of a law officer in the first degree.” That Wilson feared for his life was all he needed to justify lethal force. But it is the instructions to the grand jury toward the end of the three-month-long deliberations that deserve our attention. After asking jurors to judge Wilson’s actions against Missouri statute on police use of deadly force, the assistant county prosecutors, Sheila Whirley and Kathi Alizadeh, suddenly announced that after “doing our research” they learned that the statute had been superseded by a U.S. Supreme Court decision. In lieu of the decision and the old statute, Whirley wrote up a description of how the law applies when an officer can use force when making an arrest. When a grand juror began asking questions for clarification, Whirley explains that the old law “is not entirely incorrect or inaccurate, but there is something that is not correct, ignore it totally.” She then indicates that they will rely on the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Tennessee v. Garner (1985), “not that that matters much to you. . . . We don’t want to get into a law class.” She went on to focus on the self-defense instruction.
But just a quick glance at the decision reveals that the ruling was intended to limit the use of deadly force, arguing that killing a fleeing suspect constitutes an intrusive “seizure” potentially violating 4th Amendment protections against being deprived of life. If a suspect is not armed and dangerous, the use of deadly force is not warranted and thus the seizure of life is not reasonable.
Whether we call it a war on drugs, or “Operation Ghetto Storm” as the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement dubs it, what we are dealing with is nothing less than permanent war waged by the state and its privatized allies on a mostly poor and marginalized Black and Brown working-class. Five centuries in the making, it stretches from slavery and imperialism to massive systematic criminalization. We see the effects on our children, in the laws that make it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults; in the deluge of zero tolerance policies (again a by-product of the war on drugs); in the startling fact that expulsions and suspensions have risen exponentially despite a significant decline in violent crime. Crisis, moral panics, neoliberal policies, racism fuel an expansive system of human management based on incarceration, surveillance, containment, pacification, lethal occupation, and gross misrepresentation.
The Black community of Ferguson and adjacent communities experience war every single day, in routine police stops, fines for noise ordinance violations (e.g., playing loud music), for fare-hopping on St. Louis’s light rail system, for uncut grass or unkempt property, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” expired driver’s license or registration, “disturbing the peace,” among other things. If these fines or tickets are not paid, they may lead to jail time, the loss of one’s car or other property, or the loss of one’s children to social services. The criminal justice system is used to exact punishment and tribute, a kind of racial tax, on poor/working class Black people. In 2013, Ferguson’s municipal court issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants to a population of just over 21,000, generating about $2.6 million dollars in income for the municipality. That same year, 92 percent of searches and 86 percent of traffic stops in Ferguson involved black people, this despite the fact that one in three whites was found carrying illegal weapons or drugs, while only one in five blacks had contraband.
And yet, defenders of the status quo always deflect critiques of state violence by citing the number of intra-racial homicides in low-income Black communities. Who can forget former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s recent quip to Michael Eric Dyson on “Meet the Press”?: “White police officers wouldn’t be there [in black neighborhoods] “if you weren’t killing each other.” Racist bluster, to be sure, but such assertions have succeeded in foreclosing a deeper interrogation of how neoliberal policies (i.e., dismantling the welfare state; promoting capital flight; privatizing public schools, hospitals, housing, transit, and other public resources; investing in police and prisons,) are a form of state violence that produces scarcity, environmental and health hazards, poverty, and alternative (illegal) economies rooted in violence and subjugation.
Ironically, Giuliani’s vitriol makes a compelling case for the failure of modern law enforcement. If the police are charged with keeping the peace and protecting citizens, but instead have contributed to the “epidemic” of violent deaths, then a case can be made for the complete withdrawal of the police from Black and Brown neighborhoods. The police are trained for combat and often regard the youth in low-income communities of color as potential enemy combatants. This is why the killing of “innocent” Black men in dark stairwells, Black women with kitchen knives, or little boys brandishing toy guns are not accidents. Cops patrol these areas with their weapon close at hand; behind every shadow lurks a suspect, and in war it is kill or be killed.
In light of Missouri’s failure to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown, calling for the withdrawal of the police—even temporarily—is a reasonable demand for people terrorized by state violence and feeling particularly vulnerable over their safety. They want law and order, but the police have shown a consistent disrespect for the law, flagrantly violated the Constitution, and operated with little to no accountability. Instead, the police operate as a rogue outfit, their actions create disorder and fear. Furthermore, failure to indict effectively exonerates the police force, providing a pretext for the police to ramp up violence and repression in response to the legitimate expression of anger and frustration over the government’s failure to protect Black lives and ensure justice. It is already happening in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision, as riot police invade the headquarters of Hands Up United as well as designated safe spaces.
The young organizers in Ferguson from Hands Up United, Lost Voices, Organization for Black Struggle, Don’t Shoot Coalition, Millennial Activists United, and the like, understand they are at war. Tef Poe, Tory Russell, Montague Simmons, Cheyenne Green, Ashley Yates, and many other young Black activists in the St. Louis area have not been waiting around for an indictment. Nor are they waiting for the much vaunted Federal probe, for they have no illusions about a federal government that provides military hardware to local police, builds prisons, kills tens of thousands by manned and unmanned planes without due process, and arms Israel in its illegal wars and occupation. They have been organizing. So have the young Chicago activists who founded We Charge Genocide and the Black Youth Project, and the Los Angeles-based youth who make up the Community Rights Campaign, and the hundreds of organizations across the country challenging everyday state violence and occupation. They remind us, not only that Black lives matter—that should be self-evident—but that resistance matters. It matters because we are still grappling with the consequences of settler colonialism, racial capitalism and patriarchy. It mattered in post-Katrina New Orleans, a key battleground in neoliberalism’s unrelenting war on working people, where Black organizers lead multiracial coalitions to resist the privatization of schools, hospitals, public transit, public housing, and dismantling public sector unions. The young people of Ferguson continue to struggle with ferocity, not just to get justice for Mike Brown or to end police misconduct but to dismantle racism once and for all, to bring down the Empire, to ultimately end war.
Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of the remarkable biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012). He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence.
St. Louis police, Rams feud over apology for Ferguson 'hands' gesture
Where Do We Go After Ferguson?
by Michael Eric Dyson
New York Times
WASHINGTON — WHEN Ferguson flared up this week after a grand jury failed to indict the white police officer Darren Wilson for killing the unarmed black youth Michael Brown, two realities were illuminated: Black and white people rarely view race in the same way or agree about how to resolve racial conflicts, and black people have furious moral debates among ourselves out of white earshot.
These colliding worlds of racial perception are why many Americans view the world so differently, and why recent comments by President Obama and the former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani cut to the quick of black identity in America.
From the start, most African-Americans were convinced that Michael Brown’s death wouldn’t be fairly considered by Ferguson’s criminal justice system. There were doubts that the prosecution and defense were really on different teams. The prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, looked as if he were coaching an intramural scrimmage with the goal of keeping Officer Wilson from being tackled by indictment.
The trove of documents released after the grand jury’s decision included Officer Wilson’s four-hour testimony, in which the 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound cop said that his encounter with the 6-foot-4-inch, 292-pound teenager left him feeling like “a 5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.” He used the impersonal pronoun “it” when he said that Michael Brown looked like a “demon” rushing him. To the police officer and to many whites, Michael Brown was the black menace writ large, the terrorizing phantom that stalks the white imagination.
These clashing perceptions underscore the physics of race, in which an observer effect operates: The instrument through which one perceives race — one’s culture, one’s experiences, one’s fears and fantasies — alters in crucial ways what it measures.
The novelist Ann Petry vividly captured this observer effect in her 1946 novel “The Street,” in which the African-American protagonist, Lutie Johnson, remarks that racial perceptions of blacks “depended on where you sat.” She explains that if “you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like,” because “the Negro was never an individual” but “a threat, or an animal, or a curse.”
After a black man is killed in a failed robbery, she notes that a reporter “saw a dead Negro who had attempted to hold up a store, and so he couldn’t really see what the man lying on the sidewalk looked like.” Instead, he saw “the picture he already had in his mind: a huge, brawny, blustering, ignorant, criminally disposed black man.”
Our American culture’s fearful dehumanizing of black men materialized once again when Officer Wilson saw Michael Brown as a demonic force who had to be vanquished in a hail of bullets.
IT is nearly impossible to convey the fear that strikes at the heart of black Americans every time a cop car pulls up. When I was 17, my brother and I and a childhood friend were pulled over by four Detroit cops in an unmarked police vehicle. This was in the mid-70s, in the shadow of the infamous Detroit Police Department task force called Stress (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), which was initiated after the 1967 riots. The unit lived up to its name and routinely targeted black people.
As we assumed the position against the car, I announced to one of the plainclothes officers that I was reaching into my back pocket to fish the car’s registration from my wallet. He brought the butt of his gun sharply across my back and knocked me to the ground, promising, with a racial epithet, that he’d put a bullet through my head if I moved again. When I rose to my feet, cowering, showing complete deference, the officer permitted me to show the car’s registration. When the cops ran the tags, they concluded what we already knew: The car wasn’t stolen and we weren’t thieves. They sent us on without a hint of an apology.
My recent dust-up with Mr. Giuliani on national television tapped a deep vein of racially charged perception. In a discussion on “Meet the Press” of Ferguson and its racial fallout, Mr. Giuliani steered the conversation down the path of a conservative shibboleth: that the real problem facing black communities is not brutality at the hands of white cops but brutality in the grips of black thugs. He cited the fact that 93 percent of black homicide victims are killed by black people; I argued that these murderers often go to jail, unlike the white cops who kill blacks with the backing of the government. What I didn’t have time to say was that 84 percent of white homicide victims are killed by white people, and yet no language of condemnation exists to frame a white-on-white malady that begs relief by violent policing.
This doesn’t mean that black people aren’t weary of death ravaging our communities. I witnessed it personally as I sat in a Detroit courtroom 25 years ago during the trial of my brother Everett for second-degree murder, and though I believe to this day that he is innocent, I watched him convicted by an all-black jury and sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.
Many whites who point to blacks killing blacks are moved less by concern for black communities than by a desire to fend off criticism of unjust white cops. They have the earnest belief that they are offering new ideas to black folk about the peril we foment in our own neighborhoods. This idea has also found a champion in Bill Cosby, who for the past decade has levied moral charges against the black poor with an ugly intensity endorsed by white critics as tough love and accepted by most black journalists as homegrown conservatism.
But Mr. Cosby’s put-downs are more pernicious than that. How could one ever defend his misogynistic indictment of black women’s lax morals and poor parenting skills? “Five, six children, same woman, eight, 10 different husbands or whatever,” he liked to recite. “Pretty soon you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to. You don’t know who this is; might be your grandmother.”
Journalistic mea culpas are now accompanying Mr. Cosby’s Shakespearean fall from grace. He has been recast as a leering king who is more sinner than sinned against as the allegations of drugging and raping women pile up. But these writers avoid mentioning the sexist blinders that kept them from seeing how hateful Mr. Cosby was toward black women long before he was accused of abusing mostly white women.
Bill Cosby didn’t invent the politics of respectability — the belief that good behavior and stern chiding will cure black ills and uplift black people and convince white people that we’re human and worthy of respect. But he certainly gave it a vernacular swagger that has since been polished by Barack Obama. The president has lectured black folk about our moral shortcomings before cheering audiences at college commencements and civil rights conventions. And yet his themes are shopworn and mix the innocuous and the insidious: pull your pants up, stop making racial excuses for failure, stop complaining about racism, turn off the television and the video games and study, don’t feed your kids fried chicken for breakfast, be a good father.
As big a fan as he is of respectability politics, Mr. Obama is the most eloquent reminder that they don’t work, that no matter how smart, sophisticated or upstanding one is, and no matter how much chastising black people pleases white ears, the suspicions about black identity persist. Despite his accomplishments and charisma, he is for millions the unalterable “other” of national life, the opposite of what they mean when they think of America.
Barack Obama, like Michael Brown, is changed before our eyes into a monstrous thing that lacks humanity: a monkey, a cipher, a black hole that kills light. One might expect the ultimate target of this black otherness to have sympathy for its lesser targets, who also have lesser standing and lesser protection, like the people in Ferguson, in Ohio, in New York, in Florida, and all around the country, who can’t keep their unarmed children from being cut down in the street by callous cops who leave their bodies to stiffen into rigor mortis in the presence of horrified onlookers.
President Obama’s clinical approach to race was cemented after the 2009 Henry Louis Gates Jr. incident — in which the Harvard professor and the white police officer who arrested him for breaking into his own house were invited to the White House to commune over a beer — convinced him that he should talk race only when his hand was forced.
He has employed a twin strategy: the “heroic explicit,” in which he deliberately and clearly assails black moral failure and poor cultural habits, and the “noble implicit,” in which he avoids linking whites to social distress or pathology and speaks in the broadest terms possible, in grammar both tentative and tortured, about the problems we all confront. It’s an effort that hinges on false equivalencies between black and white and the mistaken identification of effect for cause.
MR. OBAMA spoke twice in the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision. He spoke Monday night about America as a nation of laws and said that we must respect the jury’s conclusion, even if we don’t agree with it, and make progress by working together — not by throwing bottles, smashing car windows or using anger as an excuse to vandalize property or hurt anyone.
On Tuesday, the president doubled down on his indictment of “criminal acts” and declared, “I do not have any sympathy” for those who destroy “your own communities.” While he avoided saying so, it was clear that his remarks were directed at the black people who looted and rioted in Ferguson. But their criminal activity is the effect of going unrecognized by the state for decades, a crime in itself. As for the plague of white cops who kill unarmed black youth, the facts of which are tediously and sickeningly repetitive and impose a psychological tariff on black minds, the president was vague, halting and sincerely noncommittal.
Instead, he lauded the racial progress that he said he had witnessed “in my own life,” substituting his life for ours, and signaled again how his story of advancement was ours, suggesting, sadly, that the sum of our political fortunes in his presidency may be lesser than the parts of our persistent suffering. Even when he sidled up to the truth and nudged it gently — “these are real issues,” the president acknowledged — he slipped back into an emotional blandness that underplayed the searing divide, saying there was “an impression that folks have” about unjust policing and “there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion.”
Whose impression is it, though that word hardly captures the fierce facts of the case? Who feels it? Who is the subject? Who is the recipient of the action? Mr. Obama’s treacherous balancing act between white and black, left and right, obscures who has held the power for the longest amount of time to make things the way they are. This is something, of course, he can never admit, but which nevertheless strains his words and turns an often eloquent word artist into a faltering, fumbling linguist. President Obama said that our nation was built on the rule of law. That is true, but incomplete. His life, and his career, too, are the product of broken laws: His parents would have committed a crime in most states at the time of their interracial union, and without Martin Luther King Jr. breaking what he deemed to be unjust laws, Mr. Obama wouldn’t be president today. He is the ultimate paradox: the product of a churning assault on the realm of power that he now represents.
No wonder he turns to his own body and story and life to narrate our bodies, our stories and our lives. The problem is that the ordinary black person possesses neither his protections against peril nor his triumphant trajectory that will continue long after he leaves office.
More than 45 years ago, the Kerner Commission concluded that we still lived in two societies, one white, one black, separate and still unequal. President Lyndon B. Johnson convened that commission while the flames that engulfed my native Detroit in the riot of 1967 still burned. If our president and our nation now don’t show the will and courage to speak the truth and remake the destinies of millions of beleaguered citizens, then we are doomed to watch the same sparks reignite, whenever and wherever injustice meets desperation.
by Khalil Gibran Muhammad
November 29, 2014
Truth is stranger than fiction; it is also most certainly harder to accept.
In a nearly hour-long interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Tuesday, a day after thousands of protesters took to the streets from coast to coast, expressing outrage that yet another white police officer got away with the murder of another unarmed black person, Wilson stuck to his story: “I just did my job. I did what I was paid to do. I followed my training…. That’s it.”
Sure, there are plenty of reasons to doubt his account. If he knew Michael Brown was a robbery suspect, why did he politely stop him and Dorian Johnson for jaywalking only to “have a conversation,” as he described to Stephanopoulos? If the West Florissant section of Ferguson is “really a great community,” why did he testify that it was a not very “well-liked community” and a hotbed of anti-police sentiment?
And yet, despite all the equivocations, the shooting death of the teenager on August 9th and Monday’s grand jury decision not to indict Wilson were entirely unsurprising. They are the predictable outcomes of a criminal justice system doing exactly what it was meant to do. For all the dissecting and debating of the veracity of Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony this week, one thing seems crystal clear. He was in fact doing his job.
Indeed, by this standard, isn’t Darren Wilson actually a model police officer?
He certainly thinks so. When asked by Stephanopoulos if he could make “something good” come of this experience, he said he would “love to teach people” and give them “more insight in uses of force.” That he may have logged more time on first-person shooters—emptying clip after clip to take down demonic super-villains who “run through shots”—than actual police work is beside the point. Darren Wilson has the kind of experience that many Americans value.
Evidence abounds that the United States is the world’s most punitive nation. More people are behind bars and incarcerated at higher per capita rates here than anywhere in the world. African Americans are the nation’s prime suspects and prisoners. White police officers are our chosen protectors, enforcing the law in the name of public safety.
In a Pew research poll conducted shortly after Ferguson made national headlines this summer, researchers found that most Americans have a “fair amount of confidence in local police.” Eighty-five percent of respondents, white and black, gave a fair to excellent rating on police “protecting people from crime.” And on “using the right amount of force,” 66 percent of respondents gave a fair to excellent rating; white support stood at 73 percent and blacks at 42 percent. Though a clear racial divide exists, African Americans are only 13 percent of the population nationally. Everyone is therefore implicated in police performance writ large, if not by choice, certainly through political representatives.
Critics and protesters of police violence among African Americans and on the political left, as polling data suggests, see things differently. They are organizing against the routine killing of unarmed men and beating of helpless women on an unprecedented scale not seen since the anti-lynching movement of the last century. Even with such evidence in hand that black men are twenty-one times as likely to be killed by law enforcement than white men, as analyzed in a recent report by ProPublica, today’s movement like the one before it might fail to overcome deeply entrenched fears of black criminality without a massive shift in white public opinion and a new model for law enforcement.
Most whites do not realize they are reading from very old racial scripts. When Ida B. Wells, the world’s leading anti-lynching activist and black social worker of the early twentieth century, tried to explain to a wealthy suffragist in Chicago that anti-black violence in the nation must end, Mary Plummer replied: Blacks need to “drive the criminals out” of the community. “Have you forgotten that 10 percent of all the crimes that were committed in Chicago last year were by colored men [less than 3 percent of the population]?”
Like Mary Plummer, Darren Wilson is emphatic that the issue is not racism. Brown’s African-American neighborhood is “one of our high-crime areas for the city,” he said during the interview. “You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you. I help people. That’s my job.” On that day, “the only emotion I ever felt was fear,” before my training took over. “We are taught to deal with the threat at hand.”
Implicit bias research tells us that most Americans are afraid of black people and subconsciously associate dangerous weapons and animals with them. They see things often that are not there. Stanford psychologists Rebecca Haley and Jennifer Eberhardt note in a study last month that the more people perceive blacks as criminals or prisoners, “the more people fear crime, which then increases their acceptance of punitive policies.”
The truth is that Wilson has no regrets. He wouldn’t do things differently. He’s looking forward to a new chapter in his professional journey as a teacher, trainer or a consultant. He’s our representative figure—a model policeman—acting on our collective fears.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad
November 29, 2014
The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Telling My Son About Ferguson
By MICHELLE ALEXANDER
November 26, 2014
New York Times
COLUMBUS, Ohio — MY son wants an answer. He is 10 years old, and he wants me to tell him that he doesn’t need to worry. He is a black boy, rather sheltered, and knows little of the world beyond our safe, quiet neighborhood. His eyes are wide and holding my gaze, silently begging me to say: No, sweetheart, you have no need to worry. Most officers are nothing like Officer Wilson. They would not shoot you — or anyone — while you’re unarmed, running away or even toward them.
I am stammering.
For the past few years, I have traveled from coast to coast speaking to just about anyone who will listen about the horrors of our criminal injustice system. I have written and lectured extensively about the wars that have been declared on poor communities of color — the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs” — the militarization of our police forces, the school-to-prison pipeline, the millions stripped of basic civil and human rights, a penal system unprecedented in world history. Yet here I am, on Monday evening, before the announcement about the grand jury’s decision has been made, speechless.
My son wants me to reassure him, and tell him that of course Darren Wilson will go to jail. At 10 years old, he can feel deep in his bones how wrong it was for the police to kill Michael Brown. “There will be a trial, at least — right, Mom?” My son is asking me a simple question, and I know the answer.
As a civil rights lawyer, I know all too well that Officer Wilson will not be going to trial or to jail. The system is legally rigged so that poor people guilty of relatively minor crimes are regularly sentenced to decades behind bars while police officers who kill unarmed black men almost never get charged, much less serve time in prison.
I open my mouth to speak, look into my son’s eyes, and hear myself begin to lie: “Don’t worry, honey, you have nothing to worry about. Nothing like this could ever happen to you.” His face brightens as he tells me that he likes the police, and that he always waves at the cops in our neighborhood and they always wave back. His innocence is radiating from him now; he’s all lit up with relief and gladness that he lives in a world where he can take for granted that the police can be trusted to serve and protect him with a wave and a smile.
My face is flushing red. I am embarrassed that I have lied. And I am angry. I am angry that I have to tell my son that he has reason to worry. I am angry that I have to tell him that I already know Darren Wilson won’t be indicted, because police officers are almost never indicted when they kill unarmed black men. I must tell him now, before he hears it on the school bus or sees it in the news, that many people in Michael Brown’s town will be very angry too — so filled with pain, sadness and rage — that they may react by doing things they shouldn’t, like setting fires or breaking windows or starting fights.
I know I must explain this violence, but not condone it. I must help him see that adults often have trouble managing their pain just like he does. Doesn’t he sometimes lash out and yell at friends or family when he’s hurt or angry? When people have been hurt over and over, and rather than compassion or understanding you’re given lectures about how it’s really all your fault, and that no one needs to make amends, you can lose your mind. We can wind up harming people we care about with words or deeds, people who have done no harm to us.
I begin telling him the truth and his face contorts. The glowing innocence is wiped away as his eyes flash first with fear, then anger. “No!,” he erupts. “There has to be a trial! If you kill an unarmed man, don’t you at least have a trial?”
My son is telling me now that the people in Ferguson should fight back. A minute ago, he was reminiscing about waving to Officer Friendly. Now he wants to riot.
I tell him that sometimes I have those feelings too. But now I feel something greater. I am proud of the thousands of people of all colors who have taken to the streets in nonviolent protest, raising their voices with boldness and courage, capturing the attention and the imagination of the world. They’re building a radical movement for justice, one that would make the freedom fighters who came before them sing from the heavens with joy.
I tell my son, as well as my daughters, as we sit around the dinner table, stories of young activists organizing in Ferguson, some of them not much older than they are. I tell them about the hip-hop artist Tef Poe, who traveled with Michael Brown’s parents to Geneva to testify before a United Nations subcommittee about police militarization and violence. I tell them about activists like Phillip B. Agnew, Tory Russell, Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton, who marched in the streets and endured tear gas while waving signs bearing three words: “Black Lives Matter.”
I’ve met some of these activists, I say. They believe, like you do, that we should be able to live in a world where we trust the police and where all people and all children, no matter what their color or where they came from, are treated with dignity, care, compassion and concern. These courageous young people know the tools of war, violence and revenge will never build a nation of justice. They told me they’re willing to risk their lives, if necessary, so that kids like you can live in a better world.
My son is stirring his mashed potatoes around on his plate. He looks up and says, “Right now, I’m just thinking I don’t want anything like this ever to happen again.”
I’m tempted to tell him that it will happen; in fact, it already has. Several unarmed black men have been shot by the police since Aug. 9, when Michael Brown was killed. But I don’t say another word. It’s much easier telling the truth about race and justice in America to strangers than to my son, who will soon be forced to live it.
Michelle Alexander is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
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