“When you shoot somebody, that’s not the only person that you’re killing.”
— Nona Gaye, Marvin Gaye’s daughter, testifying after his death
I attended a neighborhood meeting on racism. Afterward I mentioned the comments I heard in that meeting regarding law enforcement to one of our law enforcement officials. “It’s hopeless,” he said when I conveyed the negative comments from the seminar, “when that’s how they feel about us.”
So I stepped out from behind his hopelessness and asked to meet with another public relations representative from the local police department to see what could be and/or what is being done about this impasse between the electorate and their peace officers.
Broad publicity has been given to the cases of O. J. Simpson, Rodney King, and Henry Louis Gates (and his meeting with President Obama) when each of these celebrities of color had run-ins with the law. Another famed activist, Angela Davis, is a proponent for the rights of inmates and speaks out on prisons as factories that house an inordinate number of young Black men compared to their ratio in the American population.
The perception of unfairness and injustice by law enforcement officials toward persons of color was voiced at that meeting on racism. At a local college, a Black male student told me, “They stopped me, not him!” (his White male companion} for some perceived petty and minor infraction.
People of color are fearful and paranoid of the police. Parents as role models can influence children with the attitude they hand down about peace officers. Incitement by peers is also effective in fostering attitudes.
Is a police officer a savior in times of danger and/distress? Someone who will protect? Or a punitive parental authoritarian figure, a disciplinarian out to enforce rules? The peace officer I spoke to told me, “It’s behavior, not skin color or culture, that we’re targeting.”
Who exactly is responsible then for crime?
Some people feel allegiance to law and order; others feel their loyalty has been betrayed by police brutality. An officer in Minneapolis, the treatment of Hmong in the Como area, and even a civil lawsuit won against St. Paul police for an incident on the East Side are recent examples. A Black man in South Minneapolis was spread-eagled on the ground for having a fractured rearview mirror.
The “You did this to them!” stance still prevails — illegal activity was forced by desperation and the conditions of poverty. There is Black-on-Black crime here in Minnesota, and in Chicago, a young Black boy, Eric Morse, was killed by another young Black boy who lived in crime-riddled high-rise housing.
In one of Walter Mosley’s books, his protagonist claims that crimes against Black women — murders — are not given the same priority as similar crimes against Whites.
And yet Minnesota requires an associate degree with a law enforcement endorsement and P.O.S.T. (Peace Officers Standards of Training) to qualify as a candidate for licensure as a peace officer. We sought to avoid the mayhem and the chaos of Serpico and other big-city law enforcement operations.
“I don’t call the police,” a Black woman told me. “You wanna’ know what’s goin’ on, ask a kid. They know.” A policeman said one of his greatest pains was abused children; one of his greatest fears, said a Black man, is to be stopped by the police.
Elizabeth Ellis welcomes reader responses to ellisea51@hot mail.com.