Tag Archives: criminal justice

We are way past body cameras and changing lightbulbs

I recently heard climate activist Bill McKibben speak. The central point of his whole speech was that we are beyond the point where individual actions to combat climate change make a difference. You and everyone you know can change to CFL lightbulbs and drive hybrid cars and we are still totally screwed by melting ice sheets and fracking and the Koch Brothers.

That’s how I feel about body cameras. Did the Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and John Crawford III cases fail to prove that catching the police on video in the act of killing a black person is not enough for their actions to be considered criminal under the law?

This is about police, yes. Racial profiling is a real thing. It can be statistically proven by policies like New York’s stop and frisk as well as explained anecdotally by any number of people of color. I want to say “any person of color anywhere” out of frustration, but hesitate to lump all POCs into one monolithic experience, since of course they are not.

But at the same time, this is not about police. As the brilliant writer Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, it is unfair to point fingers at the police as this uniquely racist body of the American work force. The police are, in general, regular random people who were raised in the same country watching the same television programs and news sources, reading the same books, learning the same version of history as all the rest of us. Whatever racism we see played out in police actions is only a manifestation of the unconscious biases we all harbor – except most of us are not armed and not in the position to confront people we think of, consciously or unconsciously, as dangerous.

Police reforms? Absolutely. But how about some reforms to our mainstream media as well? First of all, no one should ever be allowed to say the words “black crime” on television or in print ever again. There is no type of crime that is uniquely black and by labeling it in that way, we buy into the black pathology – the idea that crime and danger in poor communities of color are due to the inferior moral quality of the people who live there as opposed to ridiculously difficult economic circumstances, which, by the way, were very intentionally designed by our government’s housing and labor policies and are perpetuated by our criminal justice system. (Research consistently shows that one of the strongest predictors of not engaging in crime is having access to quality steady employment, not the number of police officers in the neighborhood). Which is another thing that needs reform, along with the way that our public schools receive funding based on property taxes and the content of our curriculum, which emphasizes white authors and actors throughout history and tells events through their lens. Yeah, it’s about the police, but before the police officers were officers they had mothers and fathers and teachers and books and television shows and the real question we need to ask is why did none of those sources of information try to fight against the all too prevalent stereotype in America that being a black man (or boy, in the case of Tamir Rice) is synonymous with dangerous criminal?

If you are going to protest the police, then you should also protest that former mayor Rudy Giuliani said to Michael Eric Dyson (who is black) on national television that the reason there are so many white police officers in black neighborhoods is because “you won’t stop killing each other.” There will be no actual changes to behavior or policy until there is a paradigm shift in mindset, and we are a long way away from that.