A few weeks ago, when the news was about Debra Harrell, a black single mom who left her 9-year-old daughter at the park for the day while she went to work at McDonald’s, I talked on the Slate Political Gabfest about why I’m reluctant to call the police, especially on black people. The day that show taped, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old unarmed black man, got into an argument with the police in Staten Island and was killed when one officer put him into a chokehold. The video of this incident, shot by a friend of Garner’s from the street, shows a shockingly swift escalation from Garner’s words to the cop’s violence. As I got tweets and emails from Gabfest listeners flagging it for me, I had that sick feeling you get when something awful happens that proves your point.
It was just one anecdote, just coincidence. Except of course, it wasn’t. Last Saturday, police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed. Police Chief Thomas Jackson says Brown hit an officer and tried to take his gun; on Thursday, Jackson added that the officer had gone to the hospital and that his face was swollen. The friend Brown was with, Dorian Johnson, tells a different story. Johnson says he and Brown were walking down the middle of the street when a police officer told them to get on the sidewalk, and that Brown used only words, not his fists, to object. Another witness said she saw Brown tussling with an officer at the window of a police car, and that Brown fled as shots were fired.
Maybe we will find out who is telling the truth about Michael Brown’s death, and who is not, but it’s hard to have faith in that right now, as the St. Louis County Police Department, which is investigating the shooting, turns Ferguson into a military zone. The images and descriptions of cops in riot gear, training huge guns on protesters and shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into peaceful crowds, are just unreal. Or at least, they should be. I know there was looting in Ferguson over the weekend, but now, as my colleague Jamelle Bouie points out, it’s the police who are jacking up the conflict, with their armored vehicles and gas masks and SWAT gear (courtesy of the federal government). Instead of calm, they are bringing chaos, refusing to release the name of the officer who shot Brown and last night, arresting two journalists.
Meanwhile, black people across the country are responding with moving images in the Twitter feed #iftheygunnedmedown, and showing solidarity, soberingly expressed in this photo from Howard University. Black writers like Jamelle and Jelani Cobb are explaining why Brown’s death resonates, adding it to a list of other suspect police shootings and explaining how, as Cobb put it, “the race-tinged death story has become a genre itself, the details plugged into a grim template of social conflict.”
I’ve been thinking about something related but different: Why writing about legal issues for 20 years has taught me that black people are at risk from the police in a way that the rest of us are not—and how that shapes my own choices.
Maybe the unfairness I’m talking about is obvious to you, whatever your race. There is plenty of evidence that black men, in particular, bear the brunt of arrests, convictions, and long sentences, out of proportion to their crime rate. The divide opens early in life: Black kids are far more likely to be suspended, expelled, and funneled into the juvenile justice system than nonblack kids. Again, the disparity can’t be explained by their behavior: It reflects the heavy hand of systemic bias. There are incredibly depressing studies suggesting that “racial bias also factors into officers’ split-second decision to shoot a suspect,” as Rebecca Leber lays out in the New Republic. It does not help that police officers tend to be white more than the communities they serve (especially outside of large cities). In Ferguson, for example, two-thirds of the residents are black, and 50 of 53 police officers are white.
In covering the law, I’ve had more chances than I want to remember to watch these patterns play out in people’s lives. It’s become pretty much a given for me that if the criminal justice system gets a hold of a black person, especially if he is poor, there is a terrible, heightened risk that it will try to crush him. I know we need law enforcement. I know most cops are good people who are trying to do their jobs. But the police have so much power. And often, they are not made to answer when they abuse it—even when, as it appears in Garner’s case, they broke their own rules.
But I don’t just know this because of my job. I’ve known it since childhood, because I grew up in Philadelphia, and I’m old enough to remember the frightening, overt racism of Frank Rizzo’s police department and the sorrowful night in 1985 when a black neighborhood burned. Rizzo was gone by then, and we had a black mayor, but the long-running conflict between the police and the black liberation group MOVE helped give rise to that fire, which killed 11 people and burned down 61 homes.
You might say, that’s a crazy extreme, and it happened a long time ago. (Or you might have, until you saw Ferguson last night.) Here’s a memory of an incident that’s far more ordinary but for me more indelible, because I didn’t see it refracted through a TV screen. It’s from 1998 or 1999, just across the border of New Haven, where I lived, in the town of Hamden, on a street called Cherry Ann. I was visiting a black family, four sisters and a mother. Bear with me while I explain what I was doing there. I met this family in 1993, when I was an intern at the New Haven Advocate. I was supposed to write about them as an example of successful reunification after foster care. It turned out that the story was more complicated than that. The girls were the victims of prolonged and serious sexual abuse at the hands of the father of the youngest one, who had lived with them and their mother. When I met them, his trial was a month away and the two oldest sisters were to be the main witnesses. They were 11 and 13. I spent the summer reporting their story, which mostly meant hanging out with them on their front porch, going to the park, and swimming at the public pool. The prosecutor in the case was dedicated, caring, and full of concern for them. The girls gave their testimony, credible and solid, and the man who hurt them went to prison for a long, long time. That part of the story is about the criminal justice system working.