The Origins of Black Animus Toward Law Enforcement and the Bloody Summer of 2014

As the smoke continues to clear from the Bloody Summer of 2014, the mainstream news monolith has gone on to other things while the people who were most affected by these trying times continue to sort through the rubble.  Starting in June, there have been four widely publicized incidents involving African Americans who were killed by police officers in the line of duty. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford and John Crawford are the ones that are recalled the most. However, there have been several other less publicized circumstances as well. James Boyd and Dante Parker got far less press, but each died under similar circumstances. Black people in America have long suffered under the psychological strain caused by the idea that their lives are worth less than those of other citizens in the United States. Police brutality and failure to prosecute officers who kill Blacks has been the primary example given for this belief for more than a century. 

As we all know, nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything comes from something else either in thought or practice. Many police departments of Southern and Northern municipalities originated as slave patrols to recapture runaway slaves, starting with the Carolina colony in 1704. Slave patrols would turn into Klu Klux Klan marauders during and immediately following the Reconstruction era.  Like-minded individuals would eventually melt into the law enforcement entities that we’re familiar with today; local police departments, sheriff departments, jailers and judges. Though it is nearly impossible to place a number on the amount of racist provocateurs who legitimized their actions under the guise of law and order, circumstantial evidence provided by the historical precedence of law enforcement officials who have unmasked as being Klan members over the years lends credence to this line of thought.

Known KKK associates Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and sheriff candidate E.G. Barnett would be implicated but acquitted in the infamous Mississippi Burning murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner in 1964.  The secret association between the Klan and some in law enforcement continues to this day with the revelation that Florida police officers David Borst and George Hunnewell were members of the KKK while pledging to serve and protect the people of Fruitland Park, Florida. That just happened this year. For many in the African American community, the police department is synonymous with the KKK. Though that relationship is not as blatant today as it was in the 1920s.

However, for many, the Klan by any other name, is still the Klan. The very same Klan that conservative estimates say lynched 5,000 Black people in America between 1882 and 1968, and even that gruesome tally is a modest estimate. According to stats archived by the Tuskegee Institute, lynchings were largely a bi-racial problem in America early on. In fact, there were far more White people being lynched than Blacks from 1882 through 1885. The only other time when the numbers were even comparable was in 1888. After that point, the number of Whites who were lynched in America plummeted while the numbers for people of African descent skyrocketed. There were no reported lynchings in American in the last four years such stats were compiled, but that’s likely because the means through which Blacks were intimidated and kept in line segued from the increasingly out of fashion KKK cross burnings and lynchings to appropriate the guise of heavy-handed law enforcement and community policing in segregated Black communities in the South and increasingly Black ghettoes of the North.

Though times have certainly changed and the Klan as an institution carries far less weight, the ideas that it espoused live on in the hearts of individuals who believe the Klan and its belief system are part of their very history and birthright. 

Similarly, the African oratory tradition as it exists in the United States has been largely used to pass down tales of terror and survival in the face of soul withering racism. While the voracity of the institutionalized racism of old in modern times is debatable, its existence is irrefutable. Dig deep enough and most Blacks can find a story that’s forever embedded within the canon of their family’s lore regarding race and the police.

This is the context in which the angst ridden relationship between law enforcement and poor and lower middle class African Americans is framed. For years, many young men have had “The Talk” with elder men in the family, be it a grandfather, father, uncle or older brother, about how to communicate and interact with law enforcement as it is simply an inevitability of Black life. However, the manner in which this interaction takes place could mean the difference between life and death. 

Though the racial beliefs of officers in many instances are ambiguous, the framework of their actions often is grounded in racist practices. The Stop and Frisk policy in New York, racial profiling of motorists by New Jersey State Troopers and the Rockefeller Drug Laws are just a few of the many, many examples of race-based criminal justice practices. Though many African Americans are not aware of the historical context of race-based police practices, it is easy for some to discern when and where his or her race is the impetus for being scrutinized by law enforcement. We’re taught to smile, place our hands in plain sight, and to do whatever the police officer tells us to do, even if we know the entire affair is unwarranted, possibly racist and probably illegal.

However, the demonization of the Black male by way of negative conservative cable news outlets, hip-hop imagery, the commercialized gangster lifestyle, moneyed Black elders of questionable purpose and militant feminism, make it very easy to target Black males as they are constantly depicted as public enemy number one in America. Seemingly feared over Muslim immigrants, Mexican migrant workers and Russian mobsters. Fear of a Black Planet has always been more than a cool name for an album. Conversely, police officers are human beings who are bombarded by the same media messages and are also inundated by the real life rigors of policing in high-crime areas, where many of the residents have negative emotions toward the criminal justice system in general, law enforcement officers in particular. Though the greater African American community has been under a disproportionate amount of police scrutiny since the advent of the traditional police as we know them in America, the feelings of animus toward law enforcement have spread across racial, ethnic and economic lines in the last decade.

On Saturday President Barack Obama addressed the issue of mistrust of law enforcement by individuals who need them the most while speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual awards dinner.

“And that has a corrosive effect—not just on the black community; it has a corrosive effect on America,” the president said. “It harms the communities that need law enforcement the most. It makes folks who are victimized by crime and need strong policing reluctant to go to the police because they may not trust them. And the worst part of it is it scars the hearts of our children. It scars the hearts of the white kids who grow unnecessarily fearful of somebody who doesn’t look like them.  It stains the heart of black children who feel as if no matter what he does, he will always be under suspicion. That is not the society we want. It’s not the society that our children deserve. Whether you’re black or white, you don’t want that for America.”

Like most speeches made by men in leadership positions, President Obama’s words were pleasing to the palate but lacked substance, but they didn’t address any of the legitimate reasons why many African Americans distrust the police. In certain neighborhoods, they are seen as the true gangsters, the occupying army, and the dark hand of a criminal justice system that has been very rough on Black people for a very long time.

This is further highlighted by the fact that there seems to be another wrongfully convicted brother freed from a lengthy prison sentence by DNA results or recanted eye witness testimony bi-annually. In 2007, the Innocence Project announced it helped exonerate its 200th client. Most of those men are of African descent. Whether it’s the callous shootings of unarmed Blacks, excessive and brutal use of force against helpless civilians or the cover ups and denials that often follow these sordid affairs, the underlying premise continues to be institutional racism. Yet, the greater society is resistant to that belief.

According to a study by post-doctoral fellow Rebecca Hetey and fellow advisor Jennifer Eberhardt for Stanford University’s Psychology department, white participants were more likely to support laws that perpetuate inequality when presented with anecdotal data suggesting that more black men were incarcerated relative to their population percentage. Study participants believing that fewer African Americans are in prison were more likely to support legislation that eases laws that feed mass incarceration and were more likely to sign petitions in support of laws that lead to mass incarceration when presented with data that suggested more Black men were in prison.

Though one cannot say that the small number of White Americans participating in the study are indicative of the thinking of an entire nation of White folks, but they do create significant cause for pause when weighed against the backdrop of the Bloody Summer of 2014 when the world was once again reminded that the United States’ claims of freedom and justice for all is a misnomer at best, a sickening lie to many others.

In the civil unrest that followed the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson (MO) police officer Darren Wilson, the schism between police and the African American community has been broadcast across the globe with great fervor. It almost seems as if the world gets a kick out of seeing America contradict herself. In the months immediately after Brown’s slaying, the Ferguson police department has responded in a paramilitary manner that has shocked and saddened individuals on both sides of the political spectrum.

Though many eyewitness accounts have said Wilson shot an unarmed man whose was in the act of surrendering, Wilson has yet to face any charges. In the meantime, many of his comrades have donned rubber wristbands with the words “I Am Darren Wilson” on them. Though have been ordered to remove them since this came to light a week ago, many officers are still wearing them and are reportedly covering up the identifying information on their uniforms as well. Once again, a dichotomy of “Us versus Them” has emerged between African Americans and local law enforcement.

By the end of the year U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, the first African American to ever hold this position, will step down. Under his stint, Holder has attempted to address many issues of inequality as it relates to African Americans in the criminal justice system. His departure, as well as the pomp and lack of fury concerning racial matters in the Oval Office, hints at precarious days ahead for a nation that continues to struggle with race and law enforcement officials who seem indifferent to the plight of African Americans as a whole, particularly so when it is one of their own members accused of violating our civil rights. 

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