Charles Fox, Jr.
Black Folks and the Police: It's Complicated
I sincerely hope everyone is off to a healthy and prosperous start in 2015. In light of recent events involving the police and the (Black) community it has seemingly become commonplace for the discourse to rapidly degenerate from an honest conversation between the public and the law enforcement contingent about police overreach, police misconduct, and how to improve relations into a misguided discussion in which folks one on side express a severe dislike/distrust/distaste and at times, even hatred for police and folks on the opposite end of the spectrum express an almost blind allegiance to the shield coupled with a lack of even the most basic empathy for the likes of Michael Brown, Erick Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others. The dialogue typically descends into a personal indictment of the deceased. While I can understand why our men and women in blue often react defensively to criticism, I do believe that it is counterproductive to making any actual progress in the realm of police-civilian relations. Perhaps it's the inherently dangerous nature of the job that leads officers to rally around one of "their own" but any honest assessment of many of these situations will reveal that, at the very least, human error may have played a factor in the tragic loss of life.
Lately, I've also heard many well-intentioned police friends utter some variation of the phrase: "If people would just follow the law, they wouldn't have to worry about being harassed." Of course, there are more holes in that suggestion than a hunk of Swiss cheese. If the recently released film "Selma" reminds of us anything, it's that there is a valid history of police brutalizing and murdering people of color (and people in general) in defense of the status quo, irrespective of legality. Consequently, if we are going to have an honest discussion about the relationship between police and the Black community, such a conversation has to have its genesis in historical context. Simply put, many Black people tend to view law enforcement through the lens of the Jim Crow era in which police enforced laws that were repressive, discriminatory, and outright hateful. This was a period of time where you could be hit upside the head with a billy club by a man in blue just for sitting at a lunch counter or for trying to register to vote.
With that in mind, it's not difficult to see why some Black people, in 2015, still harbor a severe distrust for law enforcement. If we can agree that generational trauma is a palpable and plausible phenomenon (which, I think it is) then surely it's not hard to imagine that a people who have been terrorized, mistreated, abused, murdered, and harassed among other things may not view police officers with the same willing trust, regard, and admiration that other communities (who have had more positive experiences) might. That's not to say that we don't respect police officers, we do. That's also not to say that there aren't any "good cops" out there, there are. Lastly, it's not to say that there aren't members of the Black community actively working to bridge the lines of communication and trust by working in law enforcement themselves, there are. All of these things being true however, do not negate the fact that there is a tangible and deeply rooted skepticism among some members of the Black community towards police and it can be directly attributed to the ugly and painful history we share.
Much like the distrust that exists between the Black community and doctors (also based on injustices such as The Tuskegee syphilis experiments), our relationship with the police has been and remains complicated. If we are to change that, we must drop our defenses and preconceived notions about one another and find some semblance of common ground. Discounting our generational experiences and attitudes towards the institution of law enforcement will not further that agenda just as blindly screaming "f*ck the police" will not facilitate any meaningful progress either. No one would ever ask a female rape victim (regardless of how much time has passed since the assault took place) why she is uncomfortable and cynical around people, particularly men. Therefore, how can you expect a people just a few decades removed from de jure segregation (and in many ways still living with the effects of de facto segregation) and oppression, often enforced by the same police officers sworn to protect them, to view law enforcement with rose colored lenses. Like Japanese-Americans (post World War Two internment camps), Jews post Holocaust, etc. these harrowing experiences tend to stay with a people and are passed down through generations.
In order to change the dynamic and nature of the relationship between police and the Black community, we must first seek to fully understand the conditions that shaped it. The late Tupac Shakur once said: "The same crime element that White people are scared of, Black people are scared of." We want and need good policing/protection just as much as any other group. It just so happens that many of us have a checkered past with those sworn to protect us. From racial profiling to abuse, our history is littered with such incidents. We have to get to a place where we can talk openly (with those in law enforcement) about why some of us lack trust and confidence in them. Time after time, we hear stories of police killing Black men with no repercussions other than a paid leave of absence.
Of course, not every incident can be attributed to a police officer's poor judgment and overzealousness...but some absolutely can. We've reached a critical moment in our history in which we must look back in order to move forward. You cannot repair a relationship without understanding the totality of why it is fractured in the first place. So to my law enforcement friends, take the opportunity to listen to people's experiences, not discount and invalidate them. To my friends on the other end of the spectrum, understand that cop work isn't easy nor are life and death situations (in which a split second can determine whether you live or die) as black and white (no pun intended) as they may seem. At the risk of sounding idealistic (and frankly, corny), now is the time to come together as human beings and build towards a brighter future. See me as a human before you see me as possible perp and I will see you a human before I see you as a "cop." After all, it's not complicated. Be blessed family.
© Copyright 2015, Charles Fox, Jr.
Past Articles by Charles Fox