I had a conversation with my young teenage son reflecting on the 1960’s and the Black Panther movement. He asked me what I knew about it since growing up very young in the South side of Chicago and remembering the Panther movement. He also was very perplexed that the core mission that drove the creation of Black Panther Party for Self Defense was the ongoing conflict between Law Enforcement and community, which is the same conflict that the Black Lives Matter movement is focusing on today. For 50 years, this conflict has been going on without significant resolution? He said that protests and riots happened after these conflicts back then and still continues to happen today. He asked me why hasn’t this changed and why do you have to talk to me about how to act if I am approached by Police? Why should I have to act any different than some of my friends? Before I could respond, he said “I guess it is what it is and it is not going to change – Dad”.
At that very moment, I felt disgusted to the very pit of my stomach and my mind raced on how I could respond to my son when the outcome of this conversation will have a long term impact on his perspective. What has really changed and why should he have to behave different than his friends, were the two questions that each Black father has to contemplate when dealing with their young sons. There was another time that brought outrage to Orson Welles in 1946 in his very popular radio broadcast. He responded and addressed the vicious beating by Batesburg, South Carolina Police Chief of a Black solider named Isaac Woodard that resulted in blindness. His stance created controversy with some of his listeners, but created unprecedented awareness.
Since then, our country has 477,000 sworn officers and roughly 12,000 Police departments. The country’s police departments are 12% Black, even though the U.S. Black population is 13.2%. From 2002 to 2011 Police Officers had 32.9 Million face-to-face contacts with White individuals, force or threat of force was used to 445,500 (1.4%). Excessive force was used to 329,500 (1.0%). In contrast, 4.6 Million face-to face contacts with Black individuals, force or threat of force was used to 159,100 (3.5%). Excessive force was used to 128,400 (2.8%). What is more troubling is that prior to President Obama’s second term Police Departments were not required to submit fatal police shooting reports (FBI Supplemental Homicide Reports). Florida departments hadn’t filed since 1997 and New York City last reported in 2007. At least 1000 Police Departments filed a report or reports in 33 years, compared to the 17,000 national police departments. The other side of this equation is what metrics do Police Departments used to measure success? And do those matrices drive certain behaviors? Michael J. Wood, retired ex-Baltimore cop seems to thinks so. In an interview with Slate.com he indicated that, “The citizens just become a statistic, a number that you are going after. I never feared the streets, I constantly feared other officers.” Based on his comments, the infrastructure places more value on statistics than community policing. To achieve those statistics where is the easiest place to pursue. The affluent neighbors or the poorer neighborhoods?
Therefore, I continued to wonder how many layers of issues have exacerbated this multiple generational problem. There was not one single issue, but multiple ones that have contributed to this generational distrust. The one, overarching missing piece is each side looking at the problem through the opposing side. How many people of color are actually taking the time to attend the various Citizens Academies sponsored by local Law Enforcement, DEA, ATF and FBI? To combat an issue, you have to understand how Agencies think, trained and what their core guiding principles of behavior. How often do Police use their professional training to de-escalate a situation? Do the individual Officers view the citizens as people, or become jaded and view the citizens as suspects? How many minorities are assigned to all white districts to protect and serve? Are there similar problems in those circumstances?
The only thing that I could share with my son is how we could take responsibility to force change and never say, “It is what it is”. I told my son that what has changed is the different avenues we can collectively take to reflect the desired change. What if every Black person understood the training that Police officers received, how they are measured and could predict what would trigger their behavior in an encounter? A Commander at Broward Sheriff’s Office in Florida told me that respect is not given it has to be earned. Was this a philosophy held decades ago? I mentioned to my son that some Law Enforcement positions are elected positions and some positions are appointed by Elected Officials like Mayors. We have the collective ability to grade them through our votes and hold each one accountable based on their record. We can collectively go to our Congress person, Senator and Governor express our concerns with solutions and demand that they either support or provide alternative solutions. Lack of response means lack of votes for their re-election. For example, the Florida Governor won his re-election by less than 70,000 votes with a turnout of 22%. What if every eligible Black voter participated in the Governor’s race? Would the outcome be different? Would the Zimmerman prosecution have been the same? The Governor’s Office and Attorney General were responsible for prosecuting or not prosecuting the Zimmerman case. In this case the people have spoken and the State Attorney Angela Corey was out of office with her record on the George Zimmerman, Marisa Alexander and other cases. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand how to connect the state dots and pressure points for elected officials and Law Enforcement. Protests mean nothing without sustained political pressure and mid-term election voting. Never feel that you as a Black person are helpless. Therefore, it never “is what it is -Son”. It is what we allow it to be.
Amnesty International (2015). Deadly force police use of deadly force in the United States.
Bekiempis, Victoria (2015, May 14). The new racial makeup of U.S. police departments.
Bureau of Justice Statistics (2015, November 15). Police use of non-fatal force, 2002 -2011.
Gabrielson, Ryan, Jones Grochowski, Ryann and Sagara, Eric (2014, October 10). Deadly force in black and white.
Neyfakh, Leon and Wolfe Aaron, (n.d.). Why police are so violent towards black men.