In Open Letter to White People, Police Officers, CBC Chairman Writes: “Driving While Black’ has apparently become ‘Breathing While Black”
Dear White People,
You have been calling the police on African Americans for imagined and innocuous reasons, and when you do this it makes an already fraught relationship between African Americans and police even more fraught. In addition to being over policed by police, it appears that African Americans are being over-policed by ordinary citizens; in fact, the former is likely due to the latter, in part.
Below are just a few of many examples of the “over-policing” I’m talking about. All of these examples made national news.
A group of young Black men had the police called on them for walking through Nordstrom. They were falsely accused of shoplifting.
A young Black man was verbally assaulted by a police officers for playing his music too loud on his own porch.
A young Black woman had the police called on her for taking a nap in the common area in her dorm.
A Black family was reported to the police for grilling food in a park.
A young Black woman was violently handled and her body exposed in an altercation at Waffle House.
Outside of another Waffle House, a young Black man in a tuxedo was choked by a police officer.
Two young Black men had the police called on them for standing in a Starbucks.
“Driving While Black” has apparently become “Breathing While Black.” Because of your ignorance and insensitivity, African Americans are being forced into unnecessary interactions with police officers for simply living their lives. In addition, even when these interactions are necessary, police officers are acting more aggressively toward African Americans than they would toward whites in similar situations and settings.
But this shouldn’t be a surprise to you. History will tell you that police officers don’t generally treat us like they treat you — even though we pay our taxes like you do and they’re supposed to serve and protect us too. We’re more likely to be stopped and arrested. We’re also more likely to be victims of police use of force — even when we pose no threat.
I urge you and others to stop viewing African Americans as threats simply because our skin is black and/or we happen to be in the same space that you are in. I also urge police officers to remember that African Americans are citizens too and deserve their respect at all times, even if they are suspected of crimes.
As enforcers of the law, police officers should know that African Americans have the same constitutional rights that other Americans do and those rights are always intact even during interactions with police. They should also know that police departments that receive federal funds violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if they engage in racially discriminatory conduct.
Last week was Police Week. And this year like every year during Police Week, the Congressional Black Caucus paid our respects to police officers who’ve died in the line of duty and those who continue to serve our communities honorably. However, in addition to doing this, we’ve been having honest conversations about the threat posed by the fraught relationship between African Americans and police.
On May 8, we hosted a Twitter town hall on policing and talked with constituents, celebrities, advocates, and activists who are concerned about this issue. In addition, last year we met with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the Fraternal Order of Police to see if we could agree on a set of policing principles. Unfortunately, an agreement was never reached. (In addition, we’re meeting with Starbucks soon to talk with their chief operating officer about the two Black men who were racially profiled by a White store manager at one of their Philadelphia locations.)
In all cases, we’ve turned our conversations into legislation that we hope will one day become law. In some cases, like the Death in Custody Reporting Act that was introduced by CBC Member Bobby Scott, D-VA-03, and signed into law by President Obama, the legislation we’ve introduced is already law, but it’s not being enforced as intended by Congress by the Trump Administration.
The foundation of any good relationship is trust. Unfortunately, trust between African Americans and police officers has eroded, and continues to erode every time an unarmed black man is shot dead by police or a black woman’s body is publicly exposedduring a violent police altercation. Thankfully, because of the prevalence of smart phones and social media the world now knows what African Americans have known for decades — that police officers don’t give African Americans the same benefit of the doubt they give White Americans.
A majority of police officers serve their communities honorably, but there are too many who don’t, and these so-called “bad apples” are making us all less safe by further eroding trust between communities and police. Hollywood, Fox News, the U.S. Congress and other organizations are changing their culture and purging “bad apples,” and we need police departments to do the same. Because one “bad apple” in a police department is the difference between life and death for an African-American man, woman, boy, or girl.
Cedric L. Richmond
Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus
Representative for the 2nd Congressional District of Louisiana