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The American Tradition of Anti-Black Vigilantism

Black people in America have been under surveillance ever since the 17th century, when enslaved Africans were forced to labor in the tobacco and rice fields of the South. Colonial law quickly made a distinction between indentured servants and slaves and in so doing invented whiteness in America. It may have been possible for a free African or mixed-race person to own slaves, but it was not possible for a European to be taken into slavery. The distinction helped keep blacks and poor whites from seeking common cause. 

The slave patrols that originated in the 17th century would be largely made up of poor whites—patterollers, the members of the patrols were called. To stop, harass, whip, injure, or kill black people was both their duty and their reward, informing their understanding of themselves as white people, something they shared with their social betters. Of course, their real purpose was to monitor and suppress the capacity for slave rebellion. While the militias dealt with the Indians, the patterollers rode black people. 

Police forces in the North may have been modeled on Sir Robert Peel’s plans for London, but because the jobs were connected to city politics, part of the machinery, the policemen themselves, from Boston to Chicago, were Irish, people who had been despised when they first came to America. That they lived next to or with black people told them how close to the bottom of American society they were. In every city the Irish did battle with their nearest neighbors, black people, in order to become American and to keep blacks in their place, below them. North and South, the police were relied upon to maintain the status quo, to control a dark labor force that was feared. 

White Southerners during Reconstruction resented black police officers and their power to arrest a white man. Redemption, the triumph of white supremacy, pretty much eliminated black police officers. In W. Marvin Dulaney’s Black Police in America (1996), the story of blacks on American police forces until the 1970s is one of tokenism and distrust by white colleagues. 

Meanwhile, police forces and their relation to black people in general is a long tale about the enforcement of whiteness and blackness. When in 1968 Carl Stokes, the newly elected black mayor of Cleveland who had won due to a coalition of black and white voters, assigned black police officers only, no white ones, to black districts of the city that had experienced riots, white police officials were indignant. What had the mayor taken from them? 

In the 1960s, the nation was told every summer to brace itself for a season of urban unrest, much of it, as remembered in essays in Police Brutality (2000), edited by Jill Nelson, ignited by confrontations between police officers and black people. There are the names of past victims of police killings that we have forgotten, and there are names chilling to invoke: Eleanor Bumpurs, shot twice by police in New York City in 1984 because she was large and held a kitchen knife.

But starting with Twitter keeping vigil over the body of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, and last summer, and already this summer, there is no more denying or forgetting. Social media have removed the filters that used to protect white America from what it didn’t want to see, thereby protecting the police as well. Instead of calling 911, black America now pulls out its smartphones in order to document the actions of the death squads that dialing 911 can summon. 

The camera has made all the difference. A camera can mean that there is no ambiguity about what happened. Feidin Santana just happened to be where he was with his cell phone when Walter Scott was killed in North Charleston, South Carolina, on April 4th, 2015. We see Scott on the police car dashcam video getting out of that black Mercedes with the supposedly broken brake light and running. Then we see, on Santana’s video, Michael Slager firing eight shots into Scott’s back. We don’t see Scott trying to grab Slager’s Taser, as Slager alleged. 

After so many years of hostility to the notion that we are under constant watch, not only do we now accept cameras, but we are in favor of the democratization of surveillance.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5th of this year, two cell phones captured two white policemen pinning Alton Sterling on the ground by a parked car in front of a convenience store. Footage from one cell phone is interrupted as one of the policemen yells “Gun!” and several shots are heard. The woman filming from a nearby car has dropped down in her seat, and she can be heard screaming. But the other cell phone, used by the owner of the convenience store, doesn’t blink. It records an officer removing something from Sterling’s pocket after he is dead. One of the things that will have to be determined is where his gun was before he was shot. 

Brandon Jenkins, or “Jinx,” a cool-voiced black anchorman for the online news service Complex News, reported that in possessing a weapon, Sterling was in violation of his probation, given his record—and he offered this information, Jinx added, in the spirit of a transparency that he hoped the Baton Rouge police department would also show. The store owner, whose CCTV footage had been confiscated by the police, said that Sterling armed himself because street sellers of CDs, as he was, had been robbed recently in the neighborhood.

Jinx also said that the two white police officers, Blane Salamoni, with four years on the force, and Howie Lake, with three years on the force, both put on paid administrative leave, were heard to say that they felt justified in the shooting. The officers said that the body cameras they were wearing fell off or were knocked out of order during the struggle.

On July 6th, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds went on Facebook moments after her fiancé, Philando Castile, was shot four or five times in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, outside St. Paul, and, with her four-year-old daughter in the back seat ready to console her, she became like a broadcast station from the car: “He was trying to get his ID out of his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was, he had a firearm, and was reaching for his wallet, and the officer just shot him in his arm . . . Please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him . . .” 

Philando Castile would turn out to have been pulled over by police 52 times in the past 14 years, so he knew how to respond to a police stop. He also had more than $6,000 outstanding in fines—the pressures of municipal revenue generation. 

The Castile family was demanding that the police vehicle dashcam footage be released, as well as the name of the police officer—Jeronimo Yanez (“Chinese,” Reynolds called him)—who has been on the St. Anthony, Minnesota, police force for about four years. (Why does CNN correspondent Chris Cuomo address in public members of the Castile family older than he is by their first names? Young white people don’t always consider how disrespectful rather than friendly that can seem to older black people in his audience.) 

In Reynolds’s broadcast on her Facebook page, the panic and unpreparedness are evident in the shrieking of Officer Yanez that can be overheard. He is still pointing his gun in the driver’s window as Castile, a popular school cafeteria supervisor, lies dying. He blames his victim. Reynolds knew instinctively what authority demanded, and she repeatedly addressed the white man who had just ruined her life as “sir.” “You shot four bullets into him, sir.”

After Reynolds has been taken from the car in handcuffs, her phone on the ground, Yanez can be heard shouting, “Fuck!” Many of the killings in the past three years seem to have at their core the fury of these police officers that they have been defied by black men, that they have been challenged, not been obeyed. 

Most police officers don’t want anything to go wrong, a retired New York City detective, a black officer, a former marine, explained to me last year on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri. The first thing that happens, he said, is that they get taken off the streets, put on leave or put behind desks, and can’t make any overtime. Moreover, your colleagues don’t want to work with you, because you’ve become a problem. Most officers do not in their entire careers use their weapons in the line of duty. When they do, what happens is not a matter of the training that was often some years ago and even then only for a few weeks. It is a matter of the individual officer’s character, what he or she is like in an emergency. 

Until recently, grand juries were reluctant to indict police officers for shootings, and when they did, trial juries tended to return dutiful not-guilty verdicts. Some black activists had hoped that white policemen going to jail for killing unarmed black men would act as a deterrent. In 2014, Sgt. Jason Blackwelder was convicted of manslaughter in the Conroe, Texas, death of Russell Rios, 19. Blackwelder was dismissed from the police force, because a felon can’t serve, but he was not imprisoned. He received a sentence of five years’ probation. There was no video of the crime he was tried for, but the forensic evidence—Rios had been shot in the back of his head—contradicted the policeman’s story. 

Black Baltimore rioted following the death on April 19th, 2015, of Freddie Gray, from spinal injuries sustained while in custody in a police van. Three of the six officers charged were white; three were black. One was acquitted of assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct; a mistrial was declared in the manslaughter trial of another officer. Four are awaiting trial.

In the video of his violent arrest, Gray is screaming, and the man filming yells at the police for “Tasering him like that.” Officer Lisa Mearkle’s camera on her Taser recorded the shooting death in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, in 2015 of David Kassick, a white man, while he was facedown in the snow. Not every officer involved in police violence is male. She was acquitted. 

In Chicago in 2014, the killing of Laquan McDonald, 17, captured on a squad car dashcam was so horrible that a court ordered the police to release the footage. The shooter is offscreen, but you can see puffs of smoke from some of the 16 bullets striking McDonald and the street around him where he lies. After 16 seconds, Officer Jason Van Dyke enters the frame and kicks away what is probably the knife that had been in McDonald’s hand. The case has been turned over to a special prosecutor. It is ironic that after so many years of hostility to the notion that we are under constant watch, not only do we now accept cameras, but we are in favor of the democratization of surveillance. 

The police can be charged, yet the murder of black men, armed and unarmed, at police hands hasn’t stopped. Just as creepy people who want to mess with children try to get jobs that give them access to and authority over children, so, too, are losers who want to throw their weight around and intimidate others with impunity often drawn to a job like that of police officer. “The best way to deal with police misconduct is to prevent it by effective methods of personnel screening, training, and supervision,” the president’s Crime Commission report recommended—in 1967. 

The camera has accelerated the decriminalization of the black image in American culture.

Jurisdictions like Ferguson, Missouri, know who their “trouble” officers are. They accumulate histories of racial incidents. They even arrive as known quantities. It’s time to make it harder to become a police officer. The ones ill-suited for the job are burdens for the ones who are good at it. The videos of police killings also help explain those doubtful cases for which there are no accidental witnesses. The footage shows not only bloodlust, state-sanctioned racism, or the culture of the lone gunman in many a police head, but also incompetence. 

Nakia Jones, a mother and policewoman in Warrensville Heights, outside Cleveland, says in a moving Facebook post, “I wear blue,” telling other officers that if they are afraid of where they work, if they have a god complex, then they have no business trying to be the police in such neighborhoods. They need to take off the uniform: “If you’re white and you’re working in a black community and you’re racist, you need to be ashamed of yourself. You stood up there and took an oath. If this is not where you want to work at you need to take your behind somewhere else.” 

Officer Jones’s passion recalls Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. Jones also asked black men to put down their guns, to stop killing one another, and to mentor young black males. 

The camera has accelerated the decriminalization of the black image in American culture. The black men about to lose their lives in these videos don’t seem like threats or members of a criminal class, and we have been looking at and listening to President Obama every day. The Willie Horton ad isn’t coming back, and those who try to use the old racist slanders as political weapons only make themselves into caricatures. The racist is an unattractive figure in American culture, which is why people go to such lengths to achieve racist goals by stealth. 

Then, too, just as black identity is found to contain layers, so the majority of young whites might be embarrassed by a racial identity that bestows privileges the protection of which has become harmful to the general welfare. They want a fluid identity as well, a new kind of being white. To intimidate and imprison an urban black male population is unacceptable to them as the task of our police forces.

Before Black Lives Matter, there was Occupy Wall Street, which, in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, had a significant black presence because of union participation alongside the integrated camps of students. The great demonstrations against the Iraq War had had no effect, and many went home, discouraged, for years. But the Occupy movement reopened the street as the platform from which marginal issues could be launched into mainstream consciousness. 

The Washington Post reported in June 2015 that 385 people had been killed by the police in the first five months of that year, mostly armed men, a number of them mentally ill. The Post further reported that two-thirds of the black and Hispanic victims were unarmed. A website, Mapping Police Violence, displays the photographs, stories, and legal disposition of the 102 cases during the five-month period in which the murdered were unarmed black people. Another site, The Counted, maintained by The Guardian, allows you to catch up by calendar day on the 569 people killed by police so far in 2016 and who they were. 

Moreover, some urgent books in recent years have had considerable influence—works on racial profiling, stop and frisk, discriminatory sentencing practices, the disproportionately high black prison population, the profitability of the prison industry, the hallucinatory disaster of the war on drugs, and the double standard when it comes to race and class and the law. A quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in the United States. Reform of the criminal justice system is a mainstream issue. 

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Excerpted from Busted in New York and Other Essays by Darryl Pinckney. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux November 12th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Darryl Pinckney. All rights reserved.

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