Police Brutality in America
The other day I saw a video on the news of three young black men being violently kicked and detained by the police for jaywalking. Police brutality is nothing new in America, but the contrast between the epic disregard for these men’s dignity and commonality of this infraction (which I “commit” everyday), was especially disconcerting to me. The footage reminded me of a book I once read by Michelle Alexander[i] whose main message was “mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the new Jim Crow”. I was a tad sceptical of some of Alexander’s criticisms of the policing system at the time, but since, videos like these have continued demonstrating what she argues is a failure of the justice system to protect the integrity of the fourth amendment. Especially after watching the video, I sympathize with her assertion that we need a better understanding of the perspective of those people who fall victim to the policing system. So I decided to find out for myself: How does harassment by the police impact the lives of young black men living in inner-city neighbourhoods?
I wanted to know how common such harassment might be, and how severe it typically is. More importantly, I wanted to understand how harassment affected the relationship between young black men and the police, and what kind of repercussions police harassment has on its victims and on young African Americans as a whole. To find the answers to these questions, I headed to Mattapan dressed in a Reebok sweater and construction boots, and struck up conversation with young black men waiting at various bus stops. I choose to go to Mattapan because at 80%, it is home to the highest proportion of African Americans in Massachusetts, and is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Boston.
First and foremost, I wanted to discover what were young black men’s experiences with police harassment. As Alexander suggests, “police tend to concentrate their inspection in coloured neighbourhoods.” I found Mattapan to be no exception: every single young black man I spoke to had been stopped and frisked before. The event was so routine it was really just a common experience of growing up as a young black man. Tyrone (22 yr) has been stopped by the police while walking on the sidewalk twelve times, Robin (26 yr) five times, Levin (25 yr) was arrested six times and stopped around ten, Jared (17yr) was arrested once and stopped eight times, and finally, David (16yr) was arrested five times and stopped more times than he can remember. They all said that the worst part about being stopped and frisked for drugs is the way that the cops speak to you in an aggressive and demeaning manner, always starting with “hey, what are you doing?!”
“Often, they handcuff you and bend you over the hood to frisk you, even though they can’t prove you did anything wrong.” — Tyron
“You can walk away, but they will follow and threaten you. You can run, but then the whole department will chase you and arrest you. So it’s best to just stand there and be humiliated.” — Robin
“Why do you think you get frisked?” I asked, “because the cops rely too much on stereotypes” explained Jared, “if you’re black and wearing a hoodie, you’re a criminal to them.” The constant reference to hoodies as getting you in trouble with police reminds me of Philippe Bourgois’s discussion of “subcultural style”[ii]. On the one hand, hoodies seemed to confirm “the stereotype of inner-city youth in the eyes of mainstream America”, represented by the police, but young black men keep wearing them anyway as a “symbolic expression of identity” in defiance of the police constantly trying to undermine them.
Because police brutality is so routine the distrust for police runs much deeper than what I have described. Jared got a warrant for frequently getting into fights at school and when he missed his 8pm curfew three days in a row, his mother called the police and he was put in jail for 50 days. As if this wasn’t ridiculous enough, after he was discharged he found himself homeless and tried to commit suicide. When in the hospital he got into a fight with a nurse and a police officer intervened, throwing an emotionally unstable boy onto the ground to handcuff him. Jared tried to fight back “because, let me tell you, I was sick of cops by then”, causing the cop to kick him in the face in his own hospital room. Arguably, I don’t know the other side of Jared’s story, but David’s story is beyond even attempting to justify. Back in 2013, his father started beating his mother in the kitchen, so he called the police. They came into the house, and in the heat of the moment, shot his father dead with a bullet to the head. This happened in Malden, MA were I discovered police killings aren’t uncommon. David blames himself. Unsurprisingly, every man I spoke to described feeling abandoned and betrayed by the police system, and made clear: “I. Hate. The Police.”
My most fundamental finding was that the distrust for the police produced by this constant harassment creates even more violence and insecurity in the community. As sociologist A. Goffman suggests, “Staying out of jail becomes aligned not with upstanding respectable action, but with being an even shadier character.”[iii] When I asked each young man whether, in the case of an emergency situation, they would rather call the police or sort out the situation themselves, the answer was always the latter. “Are you saying that distrust for the police means that people die out here of causes, like fights, that could have been broken up by the police?” — “Every. Single. Day.” said Tyron, “people would rather risk their life sortin’ something themselves than call the police and risk and being detained for something they didn’t do. It’s about dignity and survival.” Distrust for the policing system enables violence, not only because it creates a community that excludes the police when they are needed, but also because it fuels a desire to openly confront and reject the justice system. David in particular seemed to embody the consequence of a community constantly betrayed by the police. After his father was killed, his mother and him were left without a household income. They were forced out onto the street, and the stress of the scenario caused his mother to take up a crack addiction. David’s abandonment and loss of both his parents could be traced back to police brutality, so after failed suicide attempts, he decided to “buff up” and start actively “fighting every cop I could.” “I got my friends, who I call my brothers, and whenever cops come after them, I run to the scene and try and beat them up.” In fact, David had only recently been released from juvenile detention for repeatedly hitting a policeman in the head with a rock. This deep mistrust is unfair to the majority of police who are unwilling to use indiscriminate violence and care about the safety of these young men.
This may seem like a war, but I found that policing in the area, in particular the mass incarceration of young black men, enables an oppressive cycle that promotes joblessness, drug addiction, and more crime. As scholar Bruce Western explains, “60% of blacks that were high school dropouts had prison records”[iv], but in a community where harassment by the police is so pervasive, it is difficult for vulnerable young men to graduate high school and reverse the trend. Jared and David had never gotten their GED because they were both in jail by the time they were sixteen. To make matters worse, “it’s real hard to get a job when you’re uneducated and have a criminal record” explained Jared. As Alexander suggests, these young men will “be discriminated against being denied housing, employment, and education numerous times. The final phase is definite and inescapable.” Levin, who claimed to be drug free for a total of three weeks, shed light on what this “final phase” was. “At night, that’s when the werewolves come out. And by that I mean all the drug addicts and drug dealers who unemployed because they’re criminals, who take to the streets either because they need to sell to survive or because they need to snort to escape.” As the nightly arrests indicate, a lot of the people who end up on the streets eventually end up in jail again, adding to their dejection and making it nearly impossible for them to reintegrate into a “normal” life. “The police approach is wrong,” says Jared, because as Bourgois explains, those who consistently find themselves at blame in the justice system “embroil themselves in the underground economy and proudly embrace street culture because they are seeking an alternative to their social marginalization.” However, “hustling” also has a disproportionate effect on these young black men because racial discrimination is still inherent to drug sentencing. In spite of the Fair Sentencing Act, carrying 1g of crack is still penalized eighteen times more harshly that 1g of cocaine, and as is typical in low-income black inner-city neighbourhoods, “crack is the most popular drug in Mattapan” says Levin.
My experiences in speaking to men in Mattapan also suggested that police harassment was at the root of what Alexander would call “a racial caste system”. I was most bluntly confronted with this when I tried to speak to a teenage boy inside a dollar store. As I asked him of his opinion on the policing system, he covered his face with his hoodie and told me “I don’t know anything”. I tried to reassure him I was just a “student reporter”, to which he responded “Bitch, I know what you are! You’re a cop! A white fucking cop!” before he darted out the door. Embarrassed and confused, this was only the first time that I was confronted with the connotations of my white appearance. At one point a taxi driver offered to get me “the hell out of this black neighbourhood”. When I explained what I was doing, the driver got mad at me, saying “You’ll get someone hurt, people seen talkin’ to you will be rumoured to be snitching.” As Jared helped explain to me, this is because intimacy with white people is sometimes viewed as contributing to the betrayal delivered by the policing system, since white police officers are most associated with the violence. “Cops here are mixed black and white, but… black cops always be stepping back, letting the white guys do the kicking, like they are too sorry to hurt us, but don’t care enough to save us.” However, this suspicion and desire to disassociate with whites also has to do with not wanting to be stereotyped as they feel they are by the white police. Robin told me about how he once got a job in a white neighbourhood working at a school, and a local cop there stopped and interrogated him about his “intentions” on his way to work. “After that, he sat waiting for me at the bus station every morning for 3 weeks until he was convinced I wasn’t a criminal.” These experiences reinforce Alexander’s assertion that in modern day policing “whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.” The result is predictable: “I vowed to never work in a white neighbourhood again.” Jared too, admitted “honestly, even though it’s hard for me to get a job in Mattapan, I’d never go work in a white neighbourhood. I feel like people would say I look like a murderer and kill me or something.” Clearly, white suspicion of poor black men has created a black suspicion of the white middle-class, creating a full circle of racial segregation that has the potential to severely restrict the upward mobility of young black men unable to find work in their communities.
I suppose the consistency of stories I was told can be attributed to the fact that I specifically sought out young black men wearing hoodies in a poor neighbourhood, but even if other Mattapan residents may disagree with their stance on the police, I still think it says a lot about the reality of policing. Consistent harassment, intimidation, stereotyping, and disrespect for the fourth amendment on behalf of the police has negatively impacted these young men’s sense of security, citizenship, and racial equality. In fact, Robin described how being frisked made him feel like “a second-class citizen”, and Jared told me “I always tense up when I’m outside, and look back nervously at whoever is behind me. I’m afraid that there’s is a cop watching me… but David’s like that too… it’s just black boys’ trauma.” As Goffman writes “Systems of policing and supervision that have accompanied the rise in imprisonment have fostered a climate of fear and suspicion in poor communities.” I believe this fear applies not only to the justice system, but also to all those apart from fellow “brothers” who are capable of calling the police; leaving young black men feeling incredibly isolated. Of course the police, and those who call them, mostly have good intentions, and yet I cannot disagree with popular notions that developments in the policing system may have created a state of “police terror.” No boy should feel as betrayed by the police as Jared and David, who admit they were too afraid to report to the police when three boys in their juvenile rehabilitation programme were molested. If not to improve the lives of these young men, then the justice system should at least reform knowing that “people will not passively accept their structural victimization”, as Bourgois put it.
I know I will be criticized for over-sympathizing with criminals, but after putting myself through this adventure, I actually struggle to restrain the sympathy in my words. I connected the most with Jared. Although he was considered a classic criminal on paper for aggression, disobedience, trespassing, selling drugs and more, his teary eyes as he tried to express his frustrations told a much different story. It is this side of the story we need to hear more.
[i] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New, 2010. Print.
[ii] Bourgois, Philippe I. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.
[iii] Goffman, A. “On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto.” American Sociological Review 74.3 (2009): 339–57. Web.
[iv] Western, Bruce. Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: R. Sage Foundation, 2006. Print.