Yes, black folk in this country – specifically black males – have good reason to fear the police. This bad behavior – shoot first and think later – is not new stuff. Nor is the more minor form of the disease / behavior – stopping black folk for the crime of driving while black.
I raised my kids – all boys – in the then and still middle-class neighborhood of Bond Hill, mid-60s to mid-70s. On the west side of the ‘hood, the transition was from white Catholics to majority African Americans. The east side of the ‘hood, where we lived, was white, majority Jewish, mainly Catholic otherwise. We were neither Catholic, nor Jewish, nor much of anything at all. But we were white, in a transitioning community.
My three boys, out walking in the neighborhood with their friends, were seldom in the majority. So Brian and his friends, black and white, started being hassled by cops when they were no more than 6, 7, 8 years old. The other two, who were a bit older as were their friends, got even more hassling over a longer stretch of time. It seemed evident that no one really saw groups of boys who were white, but were hyper aware of groups of boys who were mostly black.
I kept for a while a catalog of all the comments police officers had made to me in my community when I called for police assistance. “What do you expect, living in this neighborhood?” was quite common. Average time for police response was 35 minutes – I documented every call. One call took over 4 hours for a response. When we moved to North Avondale – a more upscale community in 1976 – I only had to call the police once. Response was 4 minutes. Though the distance from the police district station was identical. But when my Brian cut through backyards to walk down North Crescent (now Fred Shuttlesworth) to Walnut Hills High School, he was jumped by a gang and his boom box was stolen. And the police officer said “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to walk down this street?” – meaning that Brian, as a white kid, should have walked down Clinton Springs over to Victory Parkway, not taken a shortcut.
So I’ve experienced racist police attitudes and behavior close up. And been amazed that officers are not trained to de-escalate situations, but almost seem trained to ramp them up into major confrontations. Rather than backing away from a man with a brick, they charge ahead. Rather than ignore a broken taillight – or write up a warning, hand out a pamphlet about why taillights are important, or perhaps a coupon from a car dealer to reduce the price of fixing it – or just in a neighborly way point out that it’s not working – they get scared of black skin, panic and we have another dead citizen.
Officers also never seem to think about the ‘crime’ they are stopping someone for. A broken taillight is not a death sentence. Nor is standing up for one’s rights, or carrying a lawful concealed weapon. Or even running away from a cop for non-payment of child support. Take the guy’s picture and find him later.
So, finally, a black guy who had had to face this kind of racism all his life – no doubt including his time as a soldier in Afghanistan – went way over the line, and killed 5 white cops. Which is absolutely, of course, wrong. But put yourself in any black guy’s place. See with his eyes. This has been his entire life – fear of cops, cops bothering his family, putting his friends in jail for longer sentences than white guys get, being hassled for a little weed when it is legal in much of the country, not able to find a job. This acid has dripped over him every day of his life. So he blew up. We are incredibly lucky that more folks have not blown up this way.
Let’s change, back off, get calm, ask open ended questions, make small talk, forgive fines and tickets that are shoving black men, women and families into debt and debtors prisons, ask how we can help, be less punitive and puritanical.
Or how about that really old piece of advice – Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself. That might work, on all sides.