By Professor Maurice R. Dyson, J.D
We salute with gratitude the brave men and women serving selflessly, courageously and ethically in our police force all across the nation and we are indebted for their service. Still, far too many on the police force are silent about police misconduct under the tacit “police code of silence”1 and the “bad apples”2 defense we hear each time in this narrative seems to belie the disturbing fact that there is a larger systemic problem in the exercise of force and power across America. Notwithstanding United Airlines’ own fault, this fact has only been confirmed yet again with the Chicago police when they forcibly dragged a doctor off an overbooked flight, giving him a concussion, broken nose and apparent shock. Further, this excessive force and bias seen today remain the case whether the officer is Caucasian, Asian, Mexican, or African-American. That violence to the body happens even when it is tan, beige, or burnt sienna. I’ve witnessed this truth myself. One day, in the intersection of Babylon Avenue and Sunrise Highway in Merrick, New York, racially diverse police officers stopped our car right there on the street, forcibly removed my mother, stepfather, brother, and I. They held my brother and I at gunpoint, spread-eagle across the car hood, while the rest of my family were ordered to freeze. I recall so vividly at the age of 15 what this obviously rookie officer looked like trembling with nerves as he held a shaking gun pressed ever so precariously against my brother’s head, ready at any moment to put a bullet into his brain.
My brother Neal, being 6’2” got the brunt of it. He was certainly making this cop nervous just by being born genetically tall and by being a large brown man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Apparently, our car and the group of us supposedly matched the description of another vehicle also carrying people of the same hue as us. The actual suspects were involved in robbing a store. But we were the unlucky ones to be stopped. We were unlucky in one sense yet very lucky in another. My brother was lucky that the cop never nervously pulled the trigger as he held his gun against the back of my brother’s skull. I was lucky that I too did not get shot or have to watch his brain matter splatter, standing so close next to him. I saw the terror in his eyes, and tears streaming down his cheek as he tried to sob without moving an inch. I saw my mother pleading to my brother Neal to stay absolutely still and not move, but she was just as utterly powerless to do anything as I was. We were frozen by fear and force all at once; frozen like vulnerable ice statues awaiting a blistering fate. It was a fate based entirely on a circumstance not of our own choosing and entirely outside our control. In a blink of an eye, in a split of a millisecond, and with the seeming arbitrariness of a coin flip, the fate of my brother’s life and mine was in the trembling hands of this cop’s ever-shaking trigger finger. In each second that seemed like an eternity, I knew his life could be easily snuffed out. I knew that they would find a way to justify it, a well documented practice.–We see this same victim blaming with police excessive force as we do in sex crimes. Eric Gardner would not have choked to death at the hands of an illegal chokehold by cops if he had not been overweight selling cigarettes. Never mind he said, gasping for air, that he could not breathe eleven times which was captured on recorded video. Sandra Bland would not have been found hanging from her jail cell if she wasn’t so uppity with the police officer.
After twenty-five minutes of a harrowing, terrifying nightmare in broad daylight, the police finally let us go, without an apology, without remorse, but just disgust that we apparently wasted their time merely by being who we were—not criminals. We were innocent human beings stripped of our dignity. I knew the fragility of life, the randomness of it, and the frightful thought that, at any moment, our lives as de facto second-class citizens could be extinguished senselessly. It is a strain on the head and heart to feel that one day, this fear, distrust, hate, or resentment for the “other” would come for me. I saw the many white onlookers stare at us with disapproval yet pleasing satisfaction that we had been apprehended for their supposed protection. They were relieved by the policing of racial spaces in privileged neighborhoods like Merrick we too had called home, but to which we did not belong. It seemed, from their contemptible grimaces, like they never second-guessed our innocence. After all, we were just another confirmed stereotype of criminality. In some sense, we were the confirmation of President Nixon’s intentionally racist campaign to flood the nightly news with Black criminality to subvert sympathy for Black protesters against the Vietnam War.3 Nixon had two principal enemies: the antiwar left and Black people, according to former Nixon Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman. He stated:
You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities . . . . We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.4
Like this candid confession reveals, we were the images of criminality vilified night after night, standing in that intersection. In their minds, I imagine the matching description was not unlike the description that comes to mind when one types “three black teenagers” into a Google query.5 When we do, we see the images of police mug shots of black boys which stands in stark contrast to the J.Crew-looking ads when the words “three white teenagers” are typed instead. Latinos, Blacks as well as other ethnicities and religions are vilified in the mainstream press that continues to this day to permeate the American psyche, now syndicated in worldwide news. That day, among others, my biracial family and I paid the price for that mass mental conditioning. When we asked the officer what was the matching description sent over their APB, the police couldn’t be bothered to say a word. We learned later that we did not match the description. But instead of an apology, we were ordered to stop blocking the intersection in which they had stopped us. We were, undoubtedly, one of the lucky few. If only Anthony Nuñez, Raul Saavedra-Vargas, Vincent Ramos, Terence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott were so lucky.
Officers need to learn to de-escalate conflict, and—only if necessary—reach for the taser rather than the gun. Imagine in each scenario how much life could have been preserved if simply this were done when no deadly force was threatened. Imagine that Amadou Diallo would have still been alive if the officers of the New York Police Department, who were exonerated, had taken the time to use a taser, rather than the guns that shot at him forty-one to forty-six times. In our either-or binary paradigm, it is important to recognize we can support our brave police officers while at the same time acknowledging misconduct when it occurs. Being pro-civil rights does not have to mean anti-police nor should it ever when both groups essentially exist to uphold the law. We must move beyond stereotypes and slogans to affirm our common humanity. But the time for change is now.
If you would like to learn more about what legal changes could help reform the criminal justice system to address implicit racial and ethnic bias, please visit http://www.justicenowforall.com
- John Hein et al., What is the cost of the code of silence? POLICE ONE (Sept. 22, 2016), available at https://www.policeone.com/investigations/articles/223697006-What-is-the-cost-of-the-code-of-silence/
- See Ryan J. Reilly, Jeff Sessions Blames Bad Apples For Police Abuse. He Should Read These DOJ Reports, HUFFINGTON POST (Jan. 11, 2017) available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/police-jeffsessions-civiil-rights-police_us_58767eb3e4b092a6cae4ac97
- See Tom LoBianco, Report: Aide Says Nixon’s War on Drugs Targeted Blacks, Hippies, CNN: POLITICS (Mar. 24, 2016, 3:14 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixondrug-war-blacks-hippie/.
- Jessica Guynn, ‘Three Black Teenagers’ Google Search Sparks Outrage, USA TODAY (June 9, 2016, 1:10 PM; updated June 10, 2016, 11:06 AM), http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/06/09/googleimae-search-three-black-teenagers-three-white- teenagers/85648838