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.
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.
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.