Why I Fear the Police More Than Terrorists
With no indictment for Mike Brown’s shooter, America continues to wait for proof that #BlackLivesMatter
Through the narrative that Michael Brown and his ilk—my ilk—deserve to die, even if there’s only a perception of law-breaking; through attempts to sabotage and discredit the protests in Ferguson; through the KKK threats; through the six-figure GoFundMe page supporting Darren Wilson; through the calls for “restraint”; through the boarded-up windows of businesses, the call for justice has not wavered. The city and state governments’ shroud of secrecy has made awaiting the grand jury’s decision as to whether or not to indict officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown like awaiting the ending of a B-movie we've already seen far too many times. And with the announcement of a non-indictment— news many were expecting but still dreading—we're still searching for an indication that black lives matter.
Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Vonderrit Myers, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Oscar Grant, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Darrien Hunt, Yvette Smith, Tarika Wilson. The names stream past like flotsam down a river of doomed souls. Only thing is, these are sons, mothers, sisters, and husbands, not damned driftwood. You always have to hear both sides, but not seeing the overt racism, not acknowledging the automatic assumption that the black body is a living weapon, is not a luxury afforded me—if I want to stay alive that is.
All of this is happening faster than I can think, faster than I can process or initialize any emotion more complex than a sort of volcanic rage. That rage where you want to tear the world in half, but you don’t even know exactly where to place your hands to get a good grip. The best I can do is compartmentalize it all and move on with my life, shamefully admitting to no one in particular that thankfully this time it was an unknown stranger and not me. By the time I finish this article, there may very well be another soul marched off the earth. [Editor’s note: Indeed, as Rex worked on a second draft of this article, news broke that a police officer had shot and killed a 12-year-old black child for carrying a BB gun.]
Sure, there may be witnesses, or a dashcam, and the case could garner international attention. But then again, there may be none of those things.
The Fear has always been there, and it’s been difficult to reconcile how much The Fear has ramped up in the wake of these murders. Often, F.E.A.R. is dismissed as “false evidence appearing real,” but this is as real as it gets, the all-too-rare justified fear, backed up by generations of documented history and collective pain and loss.
Some cops will tell you that they fear being stereotyped and that they have an inherently stressful and dangerous job. And while these facts of cop life are quite real, there was a choice involved in entering said life. I have no choice in wearing my brown skin every day for the entirety of my life.
Ferguson protestors. By Jamelle Bouie via Wikimedia Commons
A handful of white friends and acquaintances have tried to get me worked up and “terror-fied” over ISIS beheading videos and whatever other depressing news has surfaced regarding the Middle East. I don’t hesitate to tell them that I’m significantly more afraid of cops than some “terrorist.” I do this in the hopes of bleeding off some of the pressure and making them feel what I regularly feel when a squad car screams into my rear-view, fully lit, only to linger for a few seconds, then fly past, nearly taking my heart and stomach with it.
Real terrorists, ones that I can see in person, are right here. They are conducting, then botching, pre-dawn, no-knock raids on bogus tips, destroying property and bodies, hearts and minds with flashbangs and hollow-points and striking names off the list of the living with a recklessness and lack of accountability not observed in most spheres of our “civil” society. And this terrifying fact of life remains: Black people are three times more likely to be killed than whites in a police encounter.
To pick at the flesh of that wound even more, in my fair city of Baltimore (where an officer was recently caught sucker punching a man for no discernible reason), in Ferguson and the St. Louis metro area, and in so many other cities, those in uniform are protected, lied for, propped up, and shielded from consequence. All, it would seem, in the name of maintaining some sort of twisted order, the sanctity of the cops as more than mere men and women.
How to deal with cops is a primary bullet point (pun intended) in “The Talk” that little black boys and girls get, or at least should get, from their parents on how to navigate the pitfalls of America’s white world. More often than not, the talking points are neglected or forgotten, and we have to be reminded over time of who’s in charge during this or that traffic stop. The hope is that the lessons aren’t too hard, too unforgiving, or too permanent.
“Well if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about,” says someone in a cloud of white privilege so thick it’s a wonder they can breathe. Maybe they’d be spot-on if the nation’s police weren’t doing everything in their power to convince us otherwise. We should know by now that doing everything they tell you can still get you shot if the cop is wearing thug-tinted glasses that day (ask Levar Jones of South Carolina). Cops are more like stormtroopers in the black mind, often faceless, but no less deadly, driven by a directive to uphold the law, but not so much our dignity or safety.
My city’s police blotter puts me on notice as much as, if not more than, it does an officer or a conscientious (or nosy) citizen: “In the Pratt Street incident, police said the suspect was a black male, about 5-foot-9 to 5-foot-10, between 30 and 40 years old, wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a dark hooded sweatshirt.”
“Damn, what am I wearing today? Am I on east or west Pratt right now? Nah, hold up, I’m shorter than this dude, so, ok, I’m good.” Or at least that’s what I tell myself. The hell I am.
While it has been encouraging to see an outraged response, subsequent calls for justice, and concerted, peaceful acts of protest nationwide, one has to wonder, (if cynically) what incentive an unfettered majority has to improve the lot of the “other” if in the process they endanger their own supremacy. Intentionally or not, the white American occupying that ever-shrinking, gleaming patch on the hill (formerly known as the middle class) also benefits indirectly from the blunt force trauma of a bigoted copper’s nightstick. The act of violence is a physical manifestation of white hegemony, the reinforcement of a long-standing status quo that stratifies Americans into first and second-class citizens.
Political science argues that one method by which we can gauge the legitimacy and authority of our government is by how many cops it employs and how well armed they are. And considering that those meant to protect and serve are disproportionately dehumanizing, maiming, and murdering black and brown Americans with means meant for soldiers in war zones, ours is a particularly alarming reality.
Yet, what is the equal and opposite force that’s going to stop this shit? I’ve written this in the hope that one person, black, white or anything in between who sees cops as an unconditional ally and protector can come to understand that it just ain’t that kinda party for too many of us out here. And even more optimistically, that maybe even one police officer can see that a change needs to come. The citizens’ response to Michael Brown’s murder has been an incredible display of seemingly ordinary people making an extraordinary push to reclaim their humanity. But the Ferguson grand jury announcing that Wilson will not be indicted should remind everyone how much work there is to be done in this country to prove that black lives truly matter.