White Americans don’t understand being the automatic target of police

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One of my acquaintances is a 55-year-old black man whose interactions with the justice system have been confined to a couple of parking tickets and one moving violation which he disputed, though he didn’t argue about it because what black man argues with a white cop on the side of the road at night?

My colleague is a college-educated professional, always suit-and-tied, yet he has been stopped by police more than 20 times.

Let that sink in.

Freddie Gray is apprehended by police April 12. He died April 19 after sustaining injuries while in police custody.
Freddie Gray is apprehended by police April 12. He died April 19 after sustaining injuries while in police custody.

More than 20 times, he has been stopped by the police.

And not casually, mind you, not “We’re checking this area,” but “Get out of your car,” “ Hands up,” “Up-against the wall,” and “ Spread ‘em” encounters.

It is doubtful that his white male counterparts have had this happen to them even once, let alone more than 20 times.

Comedian Chris Rock is rich and famous but has taken to documenting how often he has been pulled over by police for driving while black– three times in less than two months just this year.

So every time I see a poll in which white Americans say that life in these United States is better today racially than 10, 15, 25, 50 years ago, I always want to ask: “How would you know?”

We have entirely different perspectives on everything from the way we’re treated as customers in shops to our attitudes toward the police.

How many white women can remember going with their mother and sisters to a major department store in their hometown and having to buy clothes and hats without being allowed to try them on because of their race?

How many white people have ever been refused service in restaurants because of the color of their skin? Been charged higher interest rates for cars and houses?

Yet how different is a white person’s life today than in years past? Or, for that matter, yesterday when walking through a strange neighborhood?

Anyone call the police as happened to that “suspicious black man” (actually 57- year old Sureshbhai Patel is an East Indian, but minor detail) in an Alabama residential neighborhood where his son lived? He’s partially paralyzed now, having been slammed to the ground by a cop.

How many 12-year-old white boys sitting on a swing in a park near their home playing with a toy gun are shot and killed by a cop like Tamir Rice was in Cleveland?

Let that sink in if you’ve got a 12-year-old son.

Less than 2 minutes after the police cruiser pulled up to the park, an officer took aim and shot to death a kid on a swing.

William Wingate, 70, was out strolling, just walking down a street in Seattle. He stopped at a corner and casually leaned on the golf club he’d had for years and was using as a cane. A police woman in a cruiser pulled up and demanded that he “put it down.” The golf club is “a weapon,” she said and, except for the video, her version of events that he swung at her with the club might have stuck. Wingate got arrested and he is suing the Seattle for $750,000 in damages. But he is alive.

Maryland's National Guard keep the peace in Baltimore in the aftermath of the riots. (Erik Hoffman)
Maryland’s National Guard keep the peace in Baltimore in the aftermath of the riots. (Erik Hoffman)

So many others aren’t.

Michael Brown, 18, Ferguson, Missouri. Eric Garner, 43, New York, N.Y. Yvette Smith, 47, Bastrop, Texas. Andy Lopez, 13, Santa Rosa, California. Walter Scott, 50, North Charleston, S.C. Those are just a few of the unarmed people of color killed by police.

And most recently Freddie Gray, 25, who was arrested by Baltimore police for running away from them, which brings us to Baltimore.

I could see that a nasty confrontation was about to happen long before the protests about Gray’s death while in the custody of police got out of hand. The crowds were growing and people in front of the lines of police were being pushed by those behind.

On Monday, opportunists and, as President Obama said, a handful of “criminals” started taking advantage of rising tension between police and residents, by burning, looting stores and beating up people. The chaos promptly gave some observers and commentators justification for skipping over the underlying reason for the protests in the first place.

As I watched the flames and smoke rise and the young thugs “shopping with rocks,” how I longed for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, hospital scene. The line of disciplined suited-and-tied and hatted black Muslims, the Fruit of Islam, standing at attention outside a Harlem hospital where one of their own, injured and in police custody, has been taken. Their quiet soldierly posture when Malcolm X dismisses them when he learns that the man in custody is on the mend. I wanted them there in Baltimore to contain and focus the crowd and honor Gray’s family’s request that the protests remain dignified in his honor and spotlight the problems with police.

The CVS on North Avenue. It set afire Monday during the riots. (Anthony C. Hayes)
The CVS on North Avenue. It set afire Monday during the riots. (Anthony C. Hayes)

But they weren’t and the riots broke out.

Even the ranks of black men to be counted on for a disciplined response has been thinned by America’s “War on Drugs” –whose punishment fails disproportionately on people of color—by the prison industrial complex’s mass incarceration and lack of economic opportunity for the working class.

The inchoate anger that festers along with the thousands of micro-inequities visited on African Americans from slavery to the present erupted, from frustration, from anger, but mostly from long simmering grievances against the Baltimore police.

Some white Americans, are going to say, well, police kill white people, too, and start to talk about how rioting and looting only strengthen stereotypes and won’t stop the police brutality.

Statistically, most white Americans didn’t know about police brutality that targeted African Americans like that documented in the Justice Department report on Ferguson, Missouri, a situation that black Americans, like my colleague who has been stopped by police more than 20 times, can tell you from experience isn’t isolated.

Please, just tell me what will stop it because I’m old and all this just gets so tiring after a while. Whatever it takes won’t magically transform police and community relations overnight. The culture and custom of the police and their relationship has taken years to develop, it will takes years to improve.

Meanwhile, thousands of rifle-toting National Guard members have been deployed in Baltimore in the wake of the rioting, taking up protective posts around a police station.