History shows police violence is intractable. What should we do? We must end the police.
This essay will appear in July’s “Fun” magazine issue. Subscribe now to get it in your inbox.“Ms. K, they got me again.”
Six words set up the familiar routine. A car ride to the station. An unwanted and unwelcome conversation with the officer at the desk. Rudeness, contempt and that awful perma-smirk. Waiting in anticipation; false alarms. A reprieve: An escape without ransom. More waiting. Finally, the bowed head and slumped shoulders of a young Black man walking towards me. No tears. Where are the tears? Another court date or maybe not. Another record to expunge, always. Then it starts all over again.
I dread summer. It’s the season of hyper-surveillance and even more aggressive policing of young people of color in my neighborhood.
The urban summer criminalization merry-go-round; a kind of demented child’s play. Quotidian terrorism in the service of law and order. Low-intensity police riots against young Black people. My anecdotal observations are supported by empirical data. The ACLU of Illinois says that last summer, based on population, Chicago police made “far more street stops than New York City police did at the height of their use of stop-and-frisk. The CPD stopped more than 250,000 innocent people.” Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those stops involved Black people who, while making up 32% of Chicago’s population, were 72% of the stops.
Some studies suggest a correlation between summer and a rise in “crime.” I can hear the justifications: “If crime increases in the summer, then more police aggression is justified.” This fails to take into account that “routine” interactions between police and young people in my community are fraught all year long. Summer exacerbates these oppressive contacts because many more young people are out of school and usually without jobs hanging out in public spaces.
Public spaces in urban and suburban towns are contested. Residents collude with law enforcement to police and enforce boundaries. Young people of color are criminalized not only by the police but also by community residents.
Yesterday, yet another video went viral on social media. It depicts police officers in McKinney, Texas, swarming a pool party filled with teenagers and one particular officer manhandling a 14 year old Black girl wearing a bikini. The young people are cursed at, have a gun pointed at them, and are taunted for being afraid of the cops. Fifteen year old Miles Jai Thomas explains what happened:
“So a cop grabbed her arm and flipped her to the ground after she and him were arguing about him cursing at us,” Thomas said.
When two teens went toward the cop to help the girl, they were accused of sneaking up on the cop to attack.
“So a cop yelled ‘get those motherfuckers’ and they chased [us] with guns out. That’s why in the video I started running,” Thomas said.
I was scared because all I could think was, ‘Don’t shoot me,'” he said.
Watching the video, I was struck by how the young people were denied the right to be afraid. Their fear was illegitimate. And it makes sense; only human beings are allowed to be afraid. For the cops these youth of color (mostly Black) are not human.
I dread summer.
I attended a conference recently about youth/police interactions. The familiar trope about the need for young people and the cops to get to know each other was bandied about, useless pablum offered as a solution for ending police violence which relies on a faulty definition of the problem. As a young person once told me: “I know the cops here very well and they know me. We know each other too well. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they harass me daily. If they’d stop that, we’d be fine.”
The young people in my community who come into contact with the police can recite their names and badge numbers. Those are unforgettable to them; the stuff of their nightmares. It’s unclear to me how more conversations will change the dynamics of such oppression. For most of the public, whether liberal or conservative, it’s the cops’ job to arrest people, and they are incentivized to do that work. Presumably, then, what would need to change to shift the dynamics are the job descriptions and the incentives.
A persistent and seemingly endemic feature of U.S. society is the conflation of Blackness and criminality. William Patterson, a well-known Black communist, wrote in 1970 that: “A false brand of criminality is constantly stamped on the brow of Black youth by the courts and systematically kept there creating the fiction that Blacks are criminally minded people.” He added that “…the lies against Blacks are propped up ideologically.” I would suggest that they are also maintained and enforced through force and violence.
When the Baltimore police dressed in riot gear turned their violence on high school students at the Mondawmin Mall a few weeks ago, some people were horrified. “These are children,” onlookers exclaimed on social media. I thought grimly of how the cops would see the situation: There are no children here; only targets and threats. Social science research suggests that cops see Black children as older and as less innocent than their white peers. The research confirms what most of us already know: Black children are considered to be disposable and dangerous mini-adults.
This is not new. I came across the story of 13-year-old Beverly Lee when I read the 1951 We Charge Genocide petition many years ago. Lee was shot in the back by a Detroit police officer on October 12, 1947. Here’s the item that piqued my interest as it appeared in We Charge Genocide:
Beverly Lee, 13-year-old youth, was shot by Policeman Louis Begin of Detroit, Michigan. Mrs. Francis Vonbatten of 1839 Pine testified that she saw the dead youth and another walking down the street, saw the squad car approach. She heard “Stop, you little so-and-so” and then a shot. The officer was subsequently cleared by Coroner Lloyd K. Babcock.
I was particularly interested in the incident because I thought that Beverly was a girl and police violence cases involving Black girls and young women have been overlooked. In fact, I haven’t found any historical incidents of police violence against Black women and girls that led to mass mobilization. Current campaigns such as #SayHerName point to the enduring erasure of state violence against Black girls and women.The incident in McKinney Texas featured physical violence against a Black girl underscoring the fact that girls (cis and trans) are consistently at risk of law enforcement abuse. On further research, I learned that Beverly Lee was actually a boy.
On the day after Beverly Lee was shot, the Detroit News reported on the incident:
Shot in the back as he tried to evade arrest, a seventh-grade schoolboy was killed by a Detroit patrolman late Sunday. The boy, Beverly Lee, 13, of 2637 Twelfth street, was shot by Patrolman Louis Begin, of the Trumbull station, when he disregarded orders to halt. Begin and his partner, Patrolman William Owens, were called to Temple and Vermont avenues where Mrs. Mabel Gee, 1930 Temple, reported her purse stolen. Approaching the intersection, they saw Lee, ordered him to halt, and Owens fired a warning shot. Begin shot him as he continued to run away from the scout car. A watch belonging to Mrs. Gee and $18, the amount she said was in her purse, were found in the boy’s pockets. The purse was recovered nearby. Begin and Owens made statements to William D. Brusstar, assistant prosecutor. They said Mrs. Gee referred to her assailant as a “man” and, when they encountered him, they thought he was an adult [emphasis mine]. Lee was about five feet, six inches tall. Other victims of recent purse snatchings were being invited to view the body at the County Morgue. Lee attended Condon Intermediate School. His body was identified by his mother, Mrs. Leah Lee. [10/13/47]
The discrepancy between these two accounts is unsurprising. As we have so often seen, there is usually a variance between initial press reports and official police accounts and community narratives. Notice that the cops and the alleged robbery victim said that they thought Lee was an adult. The adultification of black children has long and deep roots that date back to chattel slavery. In fact, before the Civil War, half of all enslaved people were under 16 years old. Enslaved children were property and were expected to work. Children as young as 6 years old worked the fields.
Beverly Lee was the third black boy killed by police that year in Detroit. Community members were furious and organized protests over Lee’s killing. Despite the uproar, only eight days after the shooting, the prosecutor closed the investigation into Lee’s death calling it “justifiable homicide.” The Detroit NAACP met with the prosecutor and called for an inquest into the facts to the case. They presented him with signed statements of witnesses who contradicted his findings. It appears that the community, led by the NAACP, continued to organize around Lee’s case without any success at bringing charges against Officer Begin. Police impunity has a long history in this country. In the end, a 13 year old Black boy was shot in the back by police and died. To quote Ossie Davis, black people understand that “we live with death and it is ours.”
Most often, it’s police shootings and killings that spark urban uprisings. However, the daily indignities and more invisible harms are ever-present and are the foundation of hostilities between young people of color and police. Routine state violence carried out by the police happens outside of public view under the guise of addressing gun and other forms of violence. If past is prologue, my community can look forward to another summer of intense, relentless, and surely illegal police harassment of young people of color and specifically of young black men.
Young people riding their bikes on sidewalks, instead of being ticketed as prescribed by law, will be hauled into police lockups where they’ll be accused of resisting arrest and then funneled into Cook County jail. Teenagers leaving summer programming will be followed by cop cars and asked where they are heading. One cross word will lead to being roughly thrown on car hoods in front of the whole neighborhood. Walking through alleys as a short cut to head home from work, young people will be hounded, provoked, dragged to the station – but not before being beaten in the car without any concern for health conditions like seizures. Trans and gender non-conforming youth will be bullied and verbally harassed for walking down the street. Young people will be picked up without cause and driven into rival gang territory where they will be dumped without wallets or phones only to hear the cops announcing for all to hear that they belong to the rival gang. Young women walking down the street minding their own business will be sexually harassed by those sworn to “protect and serve.”
I dread summer.
Besides stops and frisks and other violations, young people in my community are also subjected to warrantless searches of their homes. One young person I know narrated his experience in the 2014 We Charge Genocide report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT):
We’re sitting in a house playing video games and we hear a banging on the door. Before we know it, the door is kicked down and there’s five special-ops officers with their huge M16s drawn, pointed at us: Three 15 year olds playing video games. And they tell us get on the ground. They say if we move they are gonna kill us; “Don’t look at me, we’ll fucking kill you in a second!” Pointing their guns at us. Then they don’t find anything. They let us all go, they laugh, try to joke with us, apologize, then leave out. And we’re sitting there like, “What just happened?” They tear up the house. They stole money…
Lest you think that this is an innovation of zero tolerance militarized policing born out of the war on drugs, here’s an example from 80 years ago. When the people of Harlem rioted in 1935, it was once again an incident of police violence that lit the fuse. A rumor that Lino Rivera, a 16-year-old Black Puerto Rican young man, was killed by New York City Police led to nearly 4,000 Harlemites taking to the streets. 700 police officers were dispatched to the community. When all was said and done, three people had died and over $200 million in damages were sustained from the riot. In the aftermath, Mayor LaGuardia commissioned a report to understand the causes of the uprising. In a section titled “The Police in Harlem,” the report’s authors maintained that cops routinely entered the homes of Black Harlemites “without a warrant and searched them at will.” Instead of drugs, Harlem cops in the 1930s were searching for policy slips in an effort to crack down on illegal gambling. Reprinted in the report was a letter by a Harlem resident addressed to the Mayor. Below are a few excerpts:
On Tuesday morning, April 16, 1935, between 10 and 11 o’clock, the superintendent of the house rapped at my door. Upon opening it, I was confronted with three men (men in civilian clothes) who the superintendent said were policemen. He explained that the men were searching the house, for what he did not know.
The men entered the room, and proceeded to search without showing shields or search warrant. I asked twice of two of the men what was the reason for such action. I received no answer from any of them.
My dresser drawers were thoroughly gone into, dresser cover even being raised. My bed came in for similar search, covers were dragged off and mattress overturned. Suitcase under my bed was brought up and searched. My overcoat hanging on the door was gone over and into. My china closet was opened and glassware examined. After this startling act the men left my room, still without saying a word.
These types of violations span centuries for Black people, and are one reason for a racial disconnect in discussions about privacy and civil liberties. Black people have always been under the gaze of the state and we know that our rights are routinely violable. Civil liberties and individual rights have different meanings for different groups of people. They also have different priorities depending on social contexts. A review of Black history suggests that considerations of civil liberties are always embedded within concepts of equality and social justice. In other words, by design or necessity, Black people have focused on our collective rights over our individual liberties. This makes sense in a society where we don’t just assume individual Black guilt and suspicion: We are all guilty and we are all suspicious (even if we may want to deny this reality). In that context, individual liberties and rights take a back seat to a collective struggle for emancipation and freedom. Additionally, as a people, we have always known that it is impossible for us to exercise our individual rights within a context of more generalized social, economic, and political oppression.
History offers evidence of the intractability of the problem of police violence. What should we do then? Quite simply, we must end the police. The hegemony of police is so complete that we often can’t begin to imagine a world without the institution. We are too reliant on the police. In fact, the police increase their legitimacy through all of the non-police related “work” that they assume: including doing “wellness” and “mental health checks.” Why should armed people be deployed to do the work of community members and social workers? Why have we become so comfortable with ceding so much power to the police? Any discussion of reform must begin with the following questions: How will we decrease the numbers of police, and how will we defund the institution?
On the way to abolition, we can take a number of intermediate steps to shrink the police force and to restructure our relationships with each other. These include:
1. Organizing for dramatic decreases of police budgets and redirecting those funds to other social goods (Defunding the police).
7. Creating abolitionist messages that penetrate the public consciousness to disrupt the idea that cops=safety.
8. Building community-based interventions that address harms without relying on police.
9. Evaluating any reforms based on these criteria.
Importantly, we must reject all talk about policing and the overall criminal punishment system being “broken” or “not working.” By rhetorically constructing the criminal punishment system as “broken,” reform is reaffirmed and abolition is painted as unrealistic and unworkable. Those of us who maintain that reform is actually impossible within the current context are positioned as unreasonable and naïve. Ideological formations often operate invisibly to delineate and define what is acceptable discourse. Challenges to dominant ideological formations about “justice” are met with anger, ridicule or are simply ignored. This is in the service of those who benefit from the current system and to enforce white supremacy and anti-blackness. The losers under this injustice system are the young people I know and love.
I really dread summer…