Have you ever seen the movie Crash starring – among others – Don Cheadle (my celebrity crush), Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Larenz Tate, Ryan Phillipe and Terrence Howard? It was nominated for 6 Academy awards (2004) and won 3 including Best Picture, Best Film Editing and Best Original Screenplay. Crash is a not so subtle crime drama about the intersection of racism, elitism and xenophobia in the lives of Los Angelenos. While it is true that the way the various storylines are woven and the dialogue sometimes makes the movie seem contrived, the actual spirit of the movie is dead on; particularly as I sit here and watch the protests of the Eric Garner grand jury decision on CNN.
In the movie, Matt Dillon plays (convincingly I might add – he was excellent) a blatantly racist cop who’s outspoken and inappropriate behavior makes his new rookie partner (played by Ryan Phillipe) very uncomfortable. Phillipe is young, fresh and idealistic and believes – or at least he thinks he believes – that we all should be treated fairly without any preconceived notions based on race and/or ethnicity. Along the way, Phillipe’s character encounters Larenz Tate whose character is living the thug life while carjacking people with his buddy, played by rapper turned actor Ludacris. At some point Phillipe becomes acquainted with Tate and a superficial relationship forms. All along Phillipe wants to push away the racial stereotypes being espoused by his partner and society, but you can see him bending under the pressure. Ultimately this culminates in one of the saddest and most powerful scenes in this movie when Phillipe sees Tate hitch-hiking on the side of the road and stops to give him a ride. After grilling him about his whereabouts and not believing his answer, Phillipe and Tate are riding along when Tate notices a statue of St. Christopher in Phillipe’s car and comments about how they are indeed not that different. Phillipe scoffs at the notion. Of course the two of them are different; he’s a cop and Tate’s a criminal. In order to prove his point, Tate reaches inside his jacket to pull out his statue of St. Christopher to show Phillipe, who immediately becomes nervous because he doesn’t believe Tate is reaching for a statue, but rather a gun. Tate assures him that he is just reaching for his statue and Phillipe panics and shoots him. Phillipe looks in Tate’s lifeless hand and sees the statue. He then dumps Tate’s body and sets his own car on fire to destroy the evidence. It’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the picture. You should watch the movie.
Let’s get this out-of-the-way first: I have had no personal problems with the police. In no way am I saying that all police are corrupt or racist. What I am saying is that all police are human. They are not superheroes, although often they are heroic. Police, just like doctors, lawyers, teachers, zoo keepers, bakers, computer technicians, phlebotomists and absolutely EVERYONE are influenced by their environment and life experiences. It is unreasonable and irresponsible to believe that police officers do not bring personal bias into their job because we all do. That’s normal. To take it a step further, if you look at the origins of police departments and their role in policing Blacks and other minorities, all of this unrest over Ferguson and New York makes a lot more sense. Obviously Mike Brown and Eric Garner are not the first Black men to die at the hand of a police officer and they won’t be the last. This is nothing new to the Black community, however social media has made it new outside of the Black community. The world has now taken notice.
When it comes to African-Americans, most of whom lived in the south during the 1800’s, the establishment of police groups was never intended to serve or protect us. They were established with the express intent to control us. Originally serving as slave patrols to capture runaway slaves, they also served to intimidate slaves to dissuade them from trying to escape. As time went on and the end of slavery came. the job of the police didn’t evolve much. They still served to intimidate Blacks, enforce new segregation laws ( Jim Crow), and control any civil unrest that later came with the Civil Rights movement. There is this really interesting article entitled The History of Policing in the United States written by Dr. Gary Potter, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University School of Justice Studies. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the prelude to modern-day policing in America however, it is very informative. Keep in mind that we are talking about hundreds of years of an intentionally adversarial and brutally oppressive relationship between police and Black people. Now, just being logical, how do you think that would turn out?
I know that this isn’t going to be a fun or sexy read where I’m all ragey with indignation. Believe me, I’ve done that – in my home, on social media comment threads, while watching television coverage of protests and listening to commentary. However, I think that we must look to history to gain the proper perspective because we are not talking about something that is new to this country, just new to this generation. I do know that there are those of you that will not go with me because you think it’s all BS. That’s fine. In fact shut it off now. However, for those of you who are really trying to get it, to understand how to move forward, looking to our past is necessary. This didn’t happen in a bubble. It has taken hundreds of years.
Okay, here we go.
According to a study conducted at University College in London, it takes a person on average 66 days to develop new habit (habit: a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously). So often we think of a habit as being something innocuous like starting each day with a banana and cereal or going to the gym over our lunch hour or my complete obsession with q-tips. Habits can also be ways in which we think about or treat others based on some subconscious or unintentional conditioning. What does this have to do with policing and African Americans? Well, here’s a brief history lesson.
1607: The first settlers came to Jamestown.
1619: The first documented African slaves were brought to Jamestown.
1704: The 1st Slave Patrol was established in the Carolina colonies. Slave patrols were the predecessor to police departments in the South.
1787: The Constitution was signed. The Constitution granted no rights to African slaves. The Constitution was not originally written for African slaves.
1838: City of Boston establishes the first police department. By the mid to late 1880’s all major cities had municipal police forces.
1863: The Emancipation Proclamation was signed. This was NOT the end of slavery.
1865: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the Unites States was ratified. THIS was the end of slavery.
1866: The Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave full citizenship to African – Americans.
That took 247 years, from the time the first slaves arrived to being granted citizenship. Plenty of time to form a habit. If you look at this time line, you’ll see that policing was established right in the midst of slavery, particularly in the south where most people of color lived. We were not treated like human beings, but rather as property to be bought and sold, beaten and killed with no regard for our families and well being. The bigger and stronger we were, the more money we brought at auction. Yes, auction. You know, where we now bid on vacation weekends, and sporting event tickets? The items up for auction were once people. The reality of it is disgusting and tragic, but that is the reality in which these policing units were birthed. Under the circumstances, there was no need for mutual respect. Police (overseers and slave patrols) had power and slaves had fear. In fact, if you take this timeline even further to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that put an end to Jim Crow and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, you have 346 years of official inequality toward African-Americans. 346 years. Think about that.
So where do these attitudes come from toward Blacks? That we are to be controlled and subdued? That our lives are less valuable? That if given too much freedom our neighborhoods would become “…like the wild west…” (sadly, I’m quoting Charles Barkley)? Why do Black view the police with mistrust and animosity? We only need to look to our own history. This country and our policing agencies have a habit of treating Blacks and other people of color poorly. Have we evolved as a country? Yes, with a lot of hard work and lives lost from all kinds of people who believe in justice. Do we have further to go? Yes, with more hard work for all kinds of people. I know that there are those who say all of this history stuff is done… in the past… let it go. Here’s what I say to you: Everything and everyone has a history. It may be 10 minutes or 10,000 years long, but history is the foundation on which we stand. I see history as a valuable tool to learn from and I firmly believe that you can not make any significant progress until you fully understand how you got to where you are, no matter how ugly it is.
I’m all for respectful dialogue that leads to real plans of action, but we have to be honest with ourselves and each other. If you’re a bigot and you’re comfortable with that, then say so. Really, it’s okay and I have a lot of respect for honesty. However, move over because you’re in the way of people who feel otherwise. It’s possible that we all have developed racially biased habits that are the result of years of conditioning that we have to work to reverse. It is a conscious effort to change from within, not just our policing, but ourselves.
Remember that scene from the movie Crash that I told you about earlier? Remember how I said that at times the movie seemed contrived? Late last month, a young man by the name of Akai Gurley was walking down the stairs of a New York City housing project with his girlfriend when he was shot by a police officer. There was no confrontation, Mr. Gurley (28) wasn’t in any trouble, he was unarmed and in fact he and Officer Peter Liang (27) never actually came face to face. No one really knows what happened , but the New York City Police Department and Officer Liang admit that it was a horrible accident. You can read the New York Times article here, but I can not think of any form of an apology that can make up for that. Officer Liang is reportedly devastated and stated that “It was so dark, I was so scared” when he entered that stairwell. I’m sure he was. My heart goes out to him as well. That movie doesn’t seem so contrived anymore, does it?