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Walking while black: Michael Brown, black men and white police officers

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Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2014 12:58 pm | Updated: 12:16 am, Thu Aug 14, 2014.

I understand.

Violence and looting have ripped apart North County since the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. It was disheartening to watch as young children were ushered into stores through broken glass windows to grab free trinkets. It was disappointing to see young black men videotaping themselves looting and eventually burning down the QuikTrip that has become a rallying point for protesters. It was disconcerting to watch our people running out of destroyed buildings with rims, hair weaves, shoes and more.

It was wrong. It was reprehensible. It was also inevitable.

The tension between police officers and young, black men is nothing new. It’s not isolated to Ferguson or North County or even St. Louis. Though slavery ended nearly 150 years ago, young black men have been treated as second-class citizens by politicians and police ever since. You would think the election and re-election of our first black president would’ve signified that the United States has defeated racism and prejudice.

On the contrary, President Barack Obama’s election has brought racism to the forefront, as many refuse to acknowledge, respect or work with him as commander in chief, as if a black man couldn’t possibly be worthy to lead our nation.

As a lifelong St. Louis resident, I can honestly say that the moment I received my driver’s license is the moment I became a prime target for police officers. Officers in North County and Mid County practiced “Stop and Frisk” well before it was officially enacted in the boroughs of New York. Between the ages of 16 and 25, I’m certain that I was pulled over more than 50 times.

There were a handful of legitimate stops, such as speeding, failure to come to a complete stop or expired plates, but the vast majority were nonsense. The reasons given for the bogus stops were numerous. Driving While Black (DWB) is real. For Brown, so was Walking While Black.

I understand.

During my teen and young adult years, I recall being pulled over for a having a non-working license plate light, despite the fact that it was shining brightly. I was pulled over for having a license plate partially obstructed by snow while it was snowing. I was stopped for having a small crack in my windshield, as if the officer could see that from 50 yards away.

Far too often after their bogus reasons (sometimes they gave none at all), the officers would ask the same questions. Where was I coming from? Where was I going? What was I doing in the area?

The message was clear. My blackness was seen as a threat, even in my home neighborhoods. One officer swore that I was high and threatened me with arrest on my way home from work because he said my tongue was green and that meant “cannabis sativa.” My tongue was actually blue from the Powerade sitting in the cup holder. Luckily for me, after I passed all his sobriety tests with flying colors he was kind enough to let me off with a stern warning.

Since I moved away from North County, I vowed never to return as a resident. I grew tired of looking over my shoulder for police officers or the feeling of being nervous when an officer was around, rather than safe and protected. Like many black mothers, mine felt compelled to teach me how to respond to police officers. She knew that I could’ve easily ended up like Brown for having the wrong reason, speaking in the wrong tone or making the wrong movement.

I understand.

Not all police officers are bad. I know and respect some good ones. But people with the power to take away your life or your freedom should be held to a higher standard.

How many black bodies must we see laying in cold blood at the hands of police before we get serious about civilian review? How long will we allow the fraternity of officers to decide the guilt or punishment of their own brothers and sisters?

The inherent danger of their jobs means officers must form a tight knit bond and stick together. That bond impacts situations like this where, despite the apparent rogue actions by an officer, his department would rather protect him from prosecution and afford him all of his rights. They protect him, despite the fact that he denied Brown the most basic right of all: the right to live.

As black men, there are steps we can take to protect ourselves.

First and foremost, we must stop perpetuating the negative, dangerous image of black men that the world is so comfortable viewing. While looting and destruction got the world’s attention, it also reinforced the popular idea that young black Americans are all violent criminals.

Nearly every rap song on the radio glorifies “the trap,” guns and drugs, despite the fact that many of the artists recording those songs are far away from the ‘hood and that lifestyle. If I hear another rapper glorify the thug life and still mention the name of Trayvon Martin, I’m going to lose my mind. Nearly every reality TV show features black women cussing, fighting and plotting against each other.

The first step to saving young, black lives is to clean up our image. The second is to clean up our neighborhoods. The fact that someone took the time to spray paint “snitches get stitches” on the Ferguson QuikTrip highlights the fact that we can’t expect the police to protect us when we’re not willing to participate in that protection. We can’t turn a blind eye to black-on-black crime, then riot and rally when an officer kills one of our young in cold blood.

We also can’t afford to be too friendly with or fearful of those committing violent crimes in our community. Sound familiar?

In the end, the entire St. Louis community (and nation, by extension) will have to come together to solve this issue. It’s been no secret in the black community that black lives aren’t valued by the authorities. But with every tragic, televised killing, it’s become more evident to those who don’t have the same experiences as you and I.

Those who feel comforted, instead of intimidated, by police presence are getting a glimpse into what it’s like to be black. Therefore, now is the time to be unified, to come together to find solutions of inclusion, diversity and building better relationships. Now that the world is watching, we must have a message worthy to share.

Follow this reporter @IshmaelSistrunk.

  • Discuss

Welcome to the discussion.

7 comments:

  • ChaseLane posted at 7:21 pm on Wed, Aug 20, 2014.

    ChaseLane Posts: 7

    Acting good helps others and will in turn help yourself. I grow weary explaining to whites that racism is as alive and well as ever, and that our society is not fair to minorities, blacks being the most aggrieved.
    Still, don't blame the cops or Wilson when the dust settles and all of the businesses have left. The good will of people sweeping up after protests will only go so far. I can't really believe you are really defending criminal action that hurts others. I hope not. If you want to be pissed at the white man, believe me that I understand.
    During one summer camp session when I was young I had two incidents of knives being held to my throat. One holder was white. One was black. Who do you think I hated or feared more? Neither. After a while I hated everyone, though. I excused much of my own criminal conduct, because "I GOT SCREWED!"
    As I have said here and elsewhere, I was lucky. Yes, I was mostly lucky because I am white. Had I continued down my path, though, I would be as dead now as Michael Brown.
    Protest. Be angry. Affect change. Thinking it will happen by criminal acts will do just the opposite.
    I share your feelings and thank you for them, but I do not share your words, if that makes sense.

     
  • ill-show-ye posted at 7:06 pm on Wed, Aug 20, 2014.

    ill-show-ye Posts: 1

    I agree with sb1908. Although I appreciate the first part of your article, which hopefully enlightened those of us who haven't experienced or often, sadly, don't even notice institutionalized racism, I found some of what came after "As black men, there are steps we can take to protect ourselves" very distressing.

    How is telling black men that if they just look and act super good, that'll help? 1) It's not realistic. You can't tell and expect all people to do nothing bad ever. It's the prejudice of others that will see black men and women as a threat no matter what they do. 2) Many white people are criminals, and yet that hasn't sullied our good name. Wonder why that is. It's all biased perception. White people doing illegal acts are assumed to be a minority not representative of the whole, but other racial groups aren't afforded the same courtesy. Changing the person's behavior who is victim to such prejudice won't end the prejudice and isn’t where our efforts should be directed.

    We should all be fighting to end institutionalized racism. We can't stop everyone from doing racist things but we can work to erect barriers of protection. Criticize the media who perpetuate the image of black men as a threat, have police reviewed by outside parties to determine wrongdoing, demilitarize our police force, punish police who use unwarranted force, recognize that racial profiling is a fact all over this country and implement ways to identify and track it and ensure consequences when found.

     
  • sb1908 posted at 10:10 am on Mon, Aug 18, 2014.

    sb1908 Posts: 1

    Sorry but "clean up" our image? I'm not going blame black people who make poor choices nor our entertainment on why whites are racist against us. Blacks have felt racism since the beginning and we've been fighting against that bias for hundreds of yrs, the crime came after. Also,there are plenty of examples of blacks doing well and being upstanding citizens. I would hazard the majority of us are. If white person, looks at black criminal and after meeting me, a college educated middle class black woman and can't distinguish between us, I'm not blaming the criminal, the problem lies, w/the intellectual laziness of said white person. And if you think that if all black people were to clean up our image and it would stop racism, please see the example of the Obamas of how you can never be good enough.

     
  • ChaseLane posted at 12:25 pm on Sat, Aug 16, 2014.

    ChaseLane Posts: 7

    @In My Opinion
    The article points out a view that people should own up to themselves, while being gracious to the oppressors, yes, oppressors.
    I've had a distasteful view of "white society" and our "lack of justice" system for some decades now. I just don't think anyone needs to kill themselves in shame, hoping to impress someone else. I do believe in talking it out. However, I do not believe throwing a black cop (Johnson) into the situation is going to take care of race relations long term.
    Michael Brown's family needs to realize their son was not a teddy bear. Everyone needs to realize that crime is not a good thing. In another post, I said the same about myself.
    Johnson is helping diffuse the situation, and I think in agreement that I can say that anything they do at this point will not help overall. African Americans will still be stopped by police at extremely high rates. They will either eat their shame (though they should not be ashamed) or vent it. We need to get to the root of this.
    Unless she has passed in the last year, one of the murderers of Emmett Till is still walking around. She may not have physically killed him, but was with those who did.
    Some thoughts:
    Integration means to blend in, merge, whatever. If integration is so important, then capitulation is required on both sides. In some ways we overdo this. In others we do not.
    If you look at books on North Webster or even the old South Side of Chicago you see functioning black communities, with little crime. No real opinion here on what is better. Back then blacks would not be in a white world. They would have a functioning society and culture. Integrated, many get the joys of rising to the top. Many wind up being slaughtered by a justice system that says aye to the death penalty for blacks, but doesn't treat whites so coarsely.

    I was beat up a ton as a kid for being in ill health and overweight. If I could change the color of my skin and have all that taken away, I would have done so in a heartbeat. Getting beat up daily is not cool. Explaining to mom where the bruises came from was embarrassing. As hard as it was in ill health, I took ownership of myself and lost weight. I never got much healthier, but I did what I could.

    Is it too much to ask for people to not commit crimes? It then becomes reasonable to make white society change how they do things. I'm skeptical, too.

    I am forever reminding friends that white on black crime still outweighs black on white crime, but that still is not the issue here. Michael Brown should not have died.

    I am not into slave mentality. I read the Bible and want us all to love each other. I have been in an interracial marriage for thirty years, long before it was "cool". I do not want people to be blind to color. I want people to love color and its diversities.

    I do understand your ax to grind. I just wish it wasn't so... not just for you, but for all. God Bless,
    Chase

     
  • In My Opinion posted at 11:13 am on Sat, Aug 16, 2014.

    In My Opinion Posts: 4

    You all have that slave mentality. Your article shows exactly what is wrong with the people of St. Louis and its suburbs.

    You are scared!

    One day you will get over your fears.

    None of this has anything to do with a police officer shooting someone in the back.

    The African American image can never be changed in the minds of some of these racist.

    We just wanted to integrate not emulate. We are who we are, all different. Accept people as they are.

    There is no moral police, just like there is no judge, jury, and executioner police.

    VOTE! Vote out the mayor. Then fire the police chief. Hire a new police chief, then fire all 53 of those racist rednecks.

    Yes, I am stereotyping the entire Ferguson Police Department like they stereotype all African Americans and like they would do me if I were in Ferguson right now.

     
  • ChaseLane posted at 5:09 pm on Thu, Aug 14, 2014.

    ChaseLane Posts: 7

    This is a truly enlightened article. The balance is that which we should all seek.

     
  • BirdzFan posted at 9:18 am on Thu, Aug 14, 2014.

    BirdzFan Posts: 1

    Best article I've read on this subject. Please continue your message Ishmael.