Black People Vs. The Police: From South Carolina to Southern California

Protest in Seattle against police brutality, January, 2015 | Photo: scottlum/Flickr/Creative Commons

The graphic police shooting this week of an unarmed black man in South Carolina was the center of an unexpectedly lively discussion in my class of seniors who meet weekly at the Macy's in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

Of course, the whole string of fatal encounters between black men and police dating back to Trayvon Martin has been an ongoing topic for the group, which is nearly all black (the name of the course is Contemporary Issues, a more sophisticated term for current events). The discussions provoked by these incidents have always been lively, but this one was something more -- more intense, angrier, harder to wrap up when our class hour was done. It's as if after two years -- really, after the last fifty years -- the North Charleston shooting confirmed beyond any doubt what each student believed about the relationship between law enforcement and black folks.

It was the range of what students believed that surprised me. Many in the class are originally from the South and are no strangers to police violence and profiling. A few are from Los Angeles, but they aren't strangers to it, either. No one has any illusions about how black folks are viewed by law enforcement pretty much everywhere in the country. And yet the video of the slaying of 50-year-old Walter Scott, shot multiple times in the back while being pursued -- it reminds me of nothing so much as a runaway slave -- exposed divisions of opinion I didn't know were there.

One student named Ronald, originally from Memphis and veteran of civil rights protests in the '60s, was outraged. He said that the shooting proves what he already knows, that black lives don't matter. Technology has been helpful in bringing these shootings to light and creating some national outrage, but it distressed Ronald to know that such things have been going on all along -- as long as he's been alive, he said -- and it's only now in the age of social media that we literally see it. He's frankly bitter about the fact that nothing seems to matter until white people say it matters; at the same time, he's heartened that so many whites are now involved with the anti-police brutality movement. He hasn't seen that since the '60s.

Another student, Thomas, took what I call the Bill Cosby approach. What the police did and do all the time is wrong, he said. But black folks should anticipate the wrongdoing and not run or do anything to precipitate a fatal encounter. He put the burden of reasonable behavior on 'suspects,' not on the police. Don't give the police opportunities to kill us, he said. When Ronald said that a black man driving a car in an alley at 2 a.m. is guaranteed to be rousted by police, no matter what he's doing, Thomas said that a black man shouldn't be in an alley at 2 a.m. Being in the alley is the real problem.

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The class vociferously disagreed -- no one should be endangered simply by being in an alley or in any public space. I agreed with them, but I saw Thomas' point. Unfortunately black men have to know how they're perceived by cops, and act accordingly. They can't play into expectations of bad attitude, or they do so at their own risk. Police accountability doesn't figure into it. It's about self-preservation.

Karen has a young son who works a late-night shift, and she worries about him driving home at 2 a.m or thereabouts. She has given him what black people popularly call "the talk" -- what to do, and not to do, when stopped by police. Don't talk back, she told him, don't reach for anything, even if the cop asks you, and whatever you do, don't run. She agreed with Thomas on the need to be sensible. But she's troubled by the idea that young black men -- her son -- have to be responsible not just for their own actions, but for the actions of the police. Not only is that unfair, it's unworkable, because even when black men follow all the protocol, bad things still happen. It's part of the old canard of blacks having to be three times as good, except in the case of police encounters they have to be three times as respectful just to be left alone.

What struck me hardest in the Walter Scott video is what happens in the aftermath of the shooting: nothing. The white officer, Michael Slager, seems calm. He exhibits no emotion, makes no haste. He walks normally over to where Scott is lying still on the grass, grievously wounded, and cuffs him. The officer who joins him is also calm. An eerie but routine kind of silence pervades the whole scene. Scott appears to mean no more to the police at this point than a bag of trash.

Once again we will talk about reforming police procedure, as my class did, when what we really need to talk about is reforming a culture of racism that sanctions not simply hatred, but indifference. That culture belongs to all of us; after all, police misconduct in North Charleston has been going on a long time and virtually nothing's been done about it. It just happened to be caught on video this time, by a young passerby who thought about deleting the video entirely. He didn't, and we saw it this time. But it's what we don't see that still keeps Ronald, and many more of us, up at night.

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