When will it stop? The police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, coming on the heals of the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man by a policeman’s choke hold in Staten Island, New York, is yet another painful, traumatic reminder of the long history of occupation, torture, abuse and killing of Black people in America, particularly Black men. Indeed, within hours of the killing of Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, an unarmed Black man with a history of mental problems, was killed in Los Angeles under suspicious circumstances. It doesn’t matter that there is an African American President of the United States or that Blacks are mayors of major American cities, run Fortune 500 companies or are pace setters as high paid and adored hip hop moguls, entertainers and athletes; the killing of Black men continues.
Once again legions of Black people and people of conscience and goodwill are in the streets in Ferguson, Missouri and in solidarity rallies across the country. But, to add insult to injury, in scenes reminiscent of the brutalizing of civil rights protesters in Birmingham and Selma in the 60’s, St. Louis County Police units with sharpshooters, sniper squads, mine-resistant trucks and a “Bearcat armored truck” unleashed a ferocious assault on peaceful marchers, firing tear gas, stun bombs and rubber bullets into the ranks of terrorized protesters. The whole nation and the world witnessed this vicious onslaught against the First Amendment by highly militarized police that looked more like soldiers on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan than the suburb of a major American city. There was “shock and awe” throughout the land.
The question of the hour is, and has been for far too long, when will the killing of Black men and the occupation of Black communities stop? For the past several years, I have been repetitively crying out that there is a State of Emergency in Black America, mostly in poor urban, inner-city areas – the “dark ghettos.” The police occupation of Black communities, the abuse and killing of Black men and, yes, mass incarceration are the manifestations of this crisis. But, lest we only get caught up in the tragic particulars of the moment, we must be clear that the root cause of this crisis is the utter failure of this nation to finish the unfinished civil rights/human rights agenda for equitable inclusion of people of African descent, Black people, into the socio-economic fabric of this society. Black people continue to suffer the consequences of the “bounced check,” the promissory note,” that keeps coming back marked insufficient funds” that Dr. King poignantly pointed out on the National Mall more than a half century ago.
In a book edited by Jill Nelson in 2000 entitled Police Brutality: An Anthology I wrote, “The policy of more police and prisons has been used as a substitute for policies that promote social, economic, and racial justice for people of color. This formula of ill-conceived public policy and policing practices has produced a highly combustible situation in communities of color throughout the nation.” These words were penned in the wake of the police torture of Abner Louima, the police slaughter of Amadou Diallo and the killing of a number of Black and Latino young men in the greater New York area under suspicious circumstances. Nearly fifteen years since the publication of Jill Nelson’s book, much has changed, but the killing of Black men continues.
As Michelle Alexander brilliantly discusses in her milestone book The New Jim Crow, rather than finish the unfinished civil rights/human rights agenda, this nation, including the Mayors and Police Chiefs of cities across the country, embraced the “War on Drugs” and adopted crime containment and community “pacification” tactics clearly targeting America’s “dark ghettos.” The media was complicit in this strategy by helping to create and popularize images of dangerous, crime-infested Black communities and the “dangerous Black man.” Under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani New York led the way in instituting so called “zero tolerance” policing, based on harassing and arresting people for petty offenses, and the militarization of the police by the creation of specialized paramilitary units that conducted sweeps of Black and Brown communities. Racial profiling through the wide-spread use of Stop-and-Frisk was an integral component of a racially-biased and inflammatory policing strategy. The Giuliani method of policing became the model for the nation.
It is useful to provide this background and analysis because the police occupation of Black communities and the killing of Black men will not end until the ill-conceived policies and strategies contributing to the State of Emergency in America’s” dark ghettos” are eliminated and replaced by just and humane alternatives. Black people and people of good will must move beyond essential but episodic protest of police occupation, abuse and killings to more sustained strategies and campaigns to end racially-biased drug, criminal justice and policing policies and practices once and for all. And, these strategies and campaigns must begin at the local/county level and reach all the way to the federal government.
Black people must exercise political and economic muscle to demand greater civilian control and oversight of the police. In Ferguson, Missouri Blacks are 67% of the population but all the political structures are dominated by Whites. This must change. Blacks and their allies must march on ballot boxes to seize the reins of power as a major step towards changing policing policies and practices in Ferguson. However, replacing White faces with Black faces in the corridors of power is not sufficient. Ultimately there must be a change in the policies and practices of the police. In local communities across the country we must demand an end to the militarization of the police, the utilization of military tactics as control mechanisms and the profiling/targeting of Black communities. We must also demand an end to the “broken windows” and “zero tolerance” strategies that insult the intelligence and infuriate Black people. Community-Policing must become the center-piece of a human-centered, holistic approach to crime prevention and public safety in Black communities.
SIRIUS/XM Radio Talk Show Host Mark Thompson has been advocating for increased community oversight of the police through the creation of Civilian Police Review Boards. This is not a new idea, but it is worthy of consideration as long as Review Boards are well funded and have independent investigatory and prosecutorial powers. In the past Fraternal Orders of Police (police unions) have fiercely opposed strong Review Boards. As a result, many of the Review Boards around the country have been like toothless tigers, defanged and incapable of effectively holding police accountable for abuse and misconduct. Rev. Heber Brown, Pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, is also suggesting that Black people lessen their dependence on policing authorities by instituting more self-policing structures and mechanisms in the Black community. This idea seems to be gaining resonance around the country.
Black people must also use economic sanctions/boycotts to complement protests and political action to achieve just and humane alternatives to police occupation and racially biased policing practices. Economic sanctions campaigns should be coupled with demands for private and public sector investment in Black communities to create jobs and develop business/economic infrastructure. Ending bad policing is not enough. Black people must struggle to revitalize Black communities. At all levels, the approach must be holistic.
To devise and implement local action agendas for change in drug, criminal justice and policing policies and practices in local communities, as Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael would say, “Black people must be organized.” There is an urgent need for permanent coalitional/collaborative type structures, comprised of organizations and leaders committed to working cooperatively and collectively to mobilize/organize for substantive change. The effort of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW) to build Drug and Criminal Justice Policy Collaboratives (Justice Collaboratives) in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore could serve as a model for the development of these types of structures across the country.
At the national level we must demand that the federal government stop providing funding for local police departments to purchase the kind of military hard-wear the nation and world witnessed being used in the assault on peaceful protesters in that night of infamy in Ferguson, Missouri. At the direction of President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder should decline to fund proposals for military equipment and expand funding for proposals that promote Community-Policing. There must be a strong signal from the White House and Justice Department that military policing is taboo and Community Policing is the national priority.
As the Institute of the Black World 21st Century strongly advocates in the recently released Report Card on President Obama’s Drug and Criminal Justice Policies (Available here), the President and the Attorney General must vigorously continue dismantling the “War on Drugs” and all the damaging policies and practices related to this longstanding, racially biased strategy. President Obama should also seize the moment to convene an Emergency Summit on Policing Policy and Public Safety to identify and share best practices for building effective police/community relations. Community advocates, scholars/experts in the field, public interest legal organizations, Chiefs of Police and Presidents of Police Unions should be at the table. Though skepticism about such a Summit is warranted, it could have the effect of providing the President and the Attorney General with a high profile platform to articulate principles for a different kind of policing in this country. Indeed, Mayor Bill Di Blasio, as a self-proclaimed new progressive, would do well to convene such a summit among stakeholders in this city — since New York has been the trendsetter for the kind of racially biased policing that has been so destructive of Black communities nationally.
Finally, creating a new paradigm for policing is necessary but not sufficient to end the State of Emergency in America’s “dark ghettos.” The damages to Black families and communities must be repaired. Black America must stridently renew the demand for a “Domestic Marshall Plan,” (IBW has created a framework entitled The Martin Luther King-Malcolm X Community Revitalization Initiative) with massive investment in jobs, economic development, housing, health and education to create safe, wholesome and just communities.
I conclude with the final passage of my essay in Jill Nelson’s Anthology Police Brutality. “Unless and until this nation makes a firm and irreversible commitment to ensure that all people who live in this society will enjoy access to the same social and economic rights – good jobs, quality education, housing, health care, clean environment – instability, violence, and crime will continue to be problems that no amount or method of policing can contain for long. As community-based organizations, civil and human rights organizations, and public-interest advocacy groups struggle against police brutality and misconduct, the fight to create a new paradigm of policing must necessarily be seen as part of the broader struggle to create a more just and humane society. Therefore, the demand for police reform and accountability must necessarily be coupled with the demand for public policies that promote social, economic, and racial justice. Our goal must be nothing short of creating a just, humane, and peaceful society. If there is no justice, there will be no peace in these United States of America.” “It’s been a long time coming, but change gone come!”