The rap group Public Enemy famously stated that “911 is a joke”. But that was in 1990. These days 911 is dead serious. Anyone in the United States can dial those three numbers and summon people with guns and handcuffs to participate in their anti-black paranoia. It’s racial harassment, sponsored by the government and supported by tax dollars.
When one calls 911 in New York City, the first question the dispatcher asks is “What is your emergency?” I wonder how the white people recently in the news for calling the police on black folks would have answered that question. “Two men sitting at Starbucks.” “Four women golfing slowly.” “Graduate student napping.” “Man moving into apartment.” “Women moving luggage out of a house.”
The people who call the police are not the main problem. Of course those people are, to use an old-fashioned word, prejudiced. It is difficult to imagine them being made anxious by white people going about the business of their everyday lives. But this kind of racism for black people is, in fact, everyday.
This does not mean that it is acceptable: everyday racism is aggravating, health draining, and, for its survivors, labor intensive. Everyday racism requires a performance when a black person navigates white spaces. You conspicuously display your work ID. You look down on the elevator. You whistle Vivaldi.
The people who call the police can fill a black person with a productive rage or a corrosive kind of hate. In my ideal world, when people call the police on black people for no good reason, they would be taken to a public place and beaten with sticks. By black people. They are spirit murderers. But still they are not the main problem.
Everyday racism requires a performance when a black person navigates white spaces
The main problem is the response of the state. “We’ll send a squad over right away.” The caller has offered a short pitch for a white supremacist fantasia, and now the dispatcher green-lights it. She sends a crew over to the set identified by the caller and the spectacle is produced.
Black people are forced, by armed officers of the government, to justify their presence. They have the burden of proof; the person who called the police is assumed to be correct. That the black gets to make her case at all is an incremental evolution in justice from the antebellum south, where white people could and did make all manner of false accusations against blacks but black people were not allowed to be witnesses against whites in any official proceeding.
In recent cases, black people have offered excuses like “golfing”, “napping” and “moving”. For two African American men at the Starbucks in Philadelphia, “waiting for a friend” is deemed insufficient. The men are placed in handcuffs and taken to jail. The Philadelphia police chief, Richard Ross, says “the police did absolutely nothing wrong”. Later, when the arrests created a national firestorm, the chief apologizes. He says that, as a black man, he should have known better.
What I want to say is that usually the police know better, and it does not matter. Darren Martin had the police called on him when he was just moving into a new apartment in Manhattan. A neighbor claimed he was breaking down the door and had a weapon. Martin had the presence of mind, and courage, to livestream the police response.
The six NYPD officers who reported to the scene discovered a young black man moving stuff to a fifth-floor walk-up. Still the cops put Martin through the procedure, interrogating him and forcing him to show ID. When Martin protested, the officers stood there with a stupid look on their faces. It’s the “we are just doing our jobs” expression.
The sad thing is that they are exactly right. Enforcing a racialized law and order is an important function of police work in the 21st century. In my book Chokehold, I suggest that the problem is not bad apple cops. The problem is the system is working the way it is supposed to. The US criminal legal process is all about keeping people – especially African American men – in their place. Even when trespassing white space is not an arrestable offense, it can occasion a fraught encounter.
The Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr wrote: “Black men swap their experiences of police encounters like war stories, and there are few who don’t have more than one story to tell.” The crazy thing is that Gates wrotes this in 1995, long before he was arrested by the Cambridge police after a neighbor called the police to report he was trespassing on his own front porch. I have more stories than I can count. The time the police followed me when I was walking in my neighborhood and told me to go in my house to prove that I lived there. The evening I worked late and the night security guard barged into my office and demanded my work ID. Afterwards the primary emotions are anger – no matter what you do you still get judged by the color of your skin – and relief – at least you got out of this one without being arrested, beat up, or killed.
The structure that allows this cannot stand. I make that claim hopefully, as when Martin Luther King Jr said: “the arc of the moral universe curves toward justice”. I also make that claim descriptively, as when King said “no lie can live forever”. In Chokehold, I suggest ways of improving relations between the police and communities of color, including having more women and college-educated cops, who the data suggests, respond to these kind of situations more effectively. Ultimately the whole culture of policing must be transformed, from the “warrior” mentality that Barack Obama described, to one of “guardians.”.
It turns out that, back in 1990, when Public Enemy described 911 as a joke, they weren’t even talking about the police. Their complaint was that paramedics didn’t show up when they were summoned to the hood. Those were the first responders who the community would have welcomed. Long before the viral videos of police abuse, many black folks had already given up on the cops.
- Paul Butler is a law professor at Georgetown University and an MSNBC legal analyst. He is a former federal prosecutor and the author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men