In the last year I’ve been thinking a lot about the criminal justice system in the United States. I’ve been thinking how unfair it is to People of Color-especially black people. In the wake of Michael Brown, Jr’s death at the hands of ex-police officer Darren Wilson, I found my reality turned upside down. The world that I knew-a world where law enforcement officials were good, honest, and treated all citizens with fairness and equality-that world quickly began crumbling. As I read more about Michael Brown, Jr. and the circumstances surrounding his death, I found myself despairing. The whole situation seemed unjust. It looked like the deck was stacked against him. And then I saw the support pour in for Darren Wilson. I saw the money people were raising in his name. I saw the supportive comments from cops. I saw the racist commentary from civilians in the comments sections of news articles. And I felt my anger rise. I thought “How is this right? This cop killed Michael Brown, Jr. He judged this young man to be guilty and he gave him the death penalty.” Brown was never given access to due process (but Wilson was). If I thought my frustration at Brown’s death was bad, I would soon discover that was only the tip of the iceberg.
As the protests broke out in Ferguson, that anger rose and rose. The police response was surreal. Equipped with rubber bullets, tear gas, and LRAD cannons, legions of law enforcement officials stepped in, ostensibly to protect the community. From the images provided by Black Twitter however, they looked far more like an invading force of armed thugs empowered by the state, rather than a group who were supposed to serve and protect. These enforcers of the law appeared like they were prepared for war against an implacable enemy determined to destroy them.
On the other side though? There were women, children, men. Oh sure there were reports of a molotov cocktail here and a gunshot there, but there was nothing-nothing-that justified the militaristic response from local and state law enforcement. I began to finally comprehend and understand why so many African-Americans distrust the police.
As my awareness was growing, so too was my distrust for the authorities. Not as a result of any negative interaction with police officers on my part. No, my relatively few interactions with law enforcement officials had all been calm, reasonable, and measured. I’d never experienced harassment or unfair detainment. I’d never had the experience of being treated as if I were a “thug” for a minor traffic infraction or being angry at being pulled over for no good reason. I was never the victim of racialized policing like Stop and Frisk or Broken Windows. As I said though, my awareness was growing. Like most people, I viewed the world through my own eyes. Trite as that sounds, it’s true. For all that I’d long had an ability to empathize with people…for all that I’d long had the ability to view the experiences of others with some degree of sympathy, understanding and comprehension…I’d never done that for African-Americans angry about law enforcement officials. So here I was, beginning to view the criminal justice system and its agents through the lens of black eyes. And what I saw was horrifying. What I saw contributed to my unease around and distrust of law enforcement officials.
I saw a world in which African-Americans couldn’t walk with their hands in their pockets without being accosted by police, where walking with a toy sword could land you in the morgue, where children were the victims of no-knock drug raids, and more. I began to see a world where black people were yanked off horses and choked to death, killed in a Walmart while innocently talking on their phones, shot and killed for running around outside naked, and more still. The world around me had opened up and I began to see that black people were treated as criminals worthy of death for illegally selling cigarettes, that the simple act of running from a cop was suspicious enough to warrant being shot, that 12-year-old black boys could be shot and killed without warning and within seconds of the arrival of cops, and that police officers would lie about their interactions with black people, even as video evidence contradicted them. As the months passed, I saw that black trans women were treated horribly by police, that cops could taser a woman to death with impunity, and that black women were often the victims of sexual assault or rape at the hands of police officers. I peered out into the world and everywhere I turned, I saw that black people were treated abysmally during interactions with the police. I trembled when I learned that a black woman was arrested for improper signalling and was discovered dead in her cell several days later, when I heard that a black man was given a rough ride in a police van and wound up dead a week later, and when I read about a black man who was pepper sprayed while have a stroke. All of this recent history has informed my view of how African-Americans have been treated by USAmerican police forces. Even worse, there is a history of racist policing in the United States. A long history. A really fucking long history:
The very concept of community policing – the model of law enforcement responsible for what we today know as “police officers” – did not originate in ancient times, nor even during the medieval period. Instead, it was conceived by Sir Robert Peel in 1812. Even then, that’s just when Peel theorized the concept, it was not actually implemented until 1829. It was still some time before it caught on in the United States.
Peel was a twice British Prime Minister and Conservative lawmaker. In fact, the popular British equivalent of “cops” is “bobbies” – originated from his name “Robert”. Another similar slang term in Ireland is “peelers,” also from Peel.
Peel’s theorized model of “policing” communities was novel, completely new and was not adopted in the U.K. for another decade and a half, when the Metropolitan Police Service was established on September 29, 1829 in London as the first modern and professional police force in the world. Peel created the modern Conservative Party on the ruins of the old Toryism in the U.K., and he also created “cops”.
Yes, there were more ancient forms of prefects and guards, as well as soldiers, but there was nothing remotely resembling policing as we know it today, before Peel and before the implementation of “bobbies” in the U.K. towards the late 1820s.
There were even private “brotherhoods” or “hermandeades” in places like Medieval Spain, but these arose because there was no real government protection, they were not government agents policing communities, they were the communities standing guard over themselves. Take any course on criminal justice or any history course addressing this period in British history and they will all unequivocally inform you that the Metropolitan Police Service was the first professional police force in human history, and it did not emerge until 1829.
But this model did not make it’s way to the United States through the same route…
Instead, inspired by this approach, the United States first adopted the community policing model for the purposes of organizing “slave patrols.” That is, the first implementation of Peel’s “community policing” model did not happen until the days of slave revolts – Nat Turner and John Brown – when more and more human beings, kept in forced captivity and labor, took the risks to run away for the freedom of the Northern states.
What we know today in the United States as “police” can be directly traced to slave patrols. In fact, were it not for this perceived “need” of catching runaway slaves and squashing slave revolts, it is unlikely that tax-payer funded community police would have won out to massive private detective agencies and existing bodies of law enforcement that did not proactively “police” our communities.
As a result of that history, I’ve reached a conclusion: African-Americans have no reason to believe they will be treated equitably during encounters with law enforcement, nor do they have the luxury of hoping that cops will treat them well. As a result, any distrust of law enforcement officials is entirely warranted. The long history of racial animus from officers of the law toward African-Americans means that black people cannot trust that interactions with the police will end positively.
I’m reminded of Schrodinger’s Rapist:
Schrödinger’s Rapist is a term coined by novelist and PI Phaedra Starling to describe the experience of women encountering unfamiliar men in a society with rape culture, where any man could potentially be a rapist. The term was first used in Shapely Prose guest blog post Schrödinger’s Rapist: Or a Guys’ Guide to Approaching Women Without Being Maced.
The term Shrödinger’s Rapist is a reference to an aspect of the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, namely the one where, until the box is opened, the cat inside cannot be determined as being dead or alive. Similarly, as an example, a woman walking alone in the streets cannot determine whether an approaching man is an intending rapist or not until the encounter has reached its conclusion.
Unlike the cat-in-poison-box thought experiment however, the Schrödinger’s Rapist is a
prolonged situation, since one rape-free encounter with a given man does not prove
anything about his potential of raping later on. This even more true for the experience of women who know that the majority of rapes occur between people who know each other, and those aware of rapists employing grooming and similar tactics to gain social leverage against their victims.
The analogy is not a perfect one. For one thing, rapists don’t have state sanctioned power over life and death. They certainly devastate the lives of their victims, but that power isn’t enhanced by the government. Also, while women have the option of deciding whether or not they want to interact with a man based on threat assessment (in many cases, at least), when black people encounter cops, they usually cannot avoid dealing with them. But the analogy doesn’t need to be perfect for my general point to be understood. Like women dealing with men who are unknown to them, black people have no way of knowing how they will be treated by police. Because of the history of racialized policing in the United States, the distrust of police officers by blacks is justified. All police officers.
So all the people complaining that blanket condemnation of police officers is wrong…all those people saying “it’s just a few bad cops”…all those people saying “don’t condemn all cops because of the actions of a few bad apples”…? Shut the fuck up. USAmerican police departments are rife with racism and African-Americans have been the target of that racism for centuries. Black USAmericans are justified in not trusting police officers and casting that net of distrust far and wide. It is up to individual police officers to demonstrate that they can be fair and treat blacks equitably. It is not the duty of black people to prove why they shouldn’t trust cops, it is incumbent upon cops to show black people why they should be trusted. So the next time you hear a black person say “I don’t trust cops”, think about Schrodinger’s Cop before you pull your “#notallcops” bullshit.