By Jacqueline Michael Whatley
Recent national news headlines remind us that police abuse against the citizenry is simply out of control and law-enforcement protocol at large needs re-invention. Particularly disturbing — but not surprising — is the frequency with which law-enforcement officials use excessive force against unarmed Black people.
NYPD officers unlawfully choked Eric Garner to death in Staten Island on July 17th. The officers alleged that the unarmed father of six children, who was previously abused sexually by police officers, was selling bootleg cigarettes. Although Daniel Pantaleo (the officer who choked the life from Garner) has been stripped of his badge and gun, he is still on paid administrative duty while an internal investigation takes place. Pantaleo has two pending civil-rights lawsuits against him, one for subjecting two men to unlawful strip searches and another for “misrepresenting facts in a police report,” both in 2012.
In a July 22nd press conference, New York Police Chief Bill Bratton explained that he doesn’t believe that “race” was a contributing factor to Pantaleo and the other officers’ actions toward Garner. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio expressed during a July 28th press conference at New York’s City Hall that it is too soon to say whether or not race was a factor in Garner’s death and that “everyone deserves due process. It’s not appropriate to pass judgment in the Garner case until all the facts are looked at.”
Both Bratton and De Blasio’s contentions are typical and point to a more pressing issue that requires reckoning: the tendency of White people — especially those employed in law-enforcement — to deny that anyone employed in that capacity reacts to Black civilians out of deep-seated, anti-Black racism and/or prejudice.
Not all White people are prejudiced against Blacks, neither are all White cops. Not all White people believe, as Founding Father and former slave-owning president Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in 1787’s Notes on the State of Virginia, that “Blacks are inferior to Whites in the endowments of body and mind.” However, significant evidence exists that suggest that there are many Whites employed in police work in America who hold such attitudes.
We also need to acknowledge that the law-enforcement officials who subscribe to such views and opinions will likely treat Black civilians in hostile and unjust ways. Some law-enforcement officials express anti-Black sentiment behind the anonymity of on-line message boards and discussion forums on sites like PoliceOne.com and TheeRant.yuku.com. Some of them express such views in face-to-face interactions with the Black and Brown youths whom they often accuse of being up to no good. Some of them are even active members of their local Ku Klux Klan chapters.
On July 23rd, USA Today reported that “members of Internet sites that allow law- enforcement to air out issues are expressing outrage and offense over public reaction to last week’s death” of Eric Garner. Many said members of these sites who are posting anti-Black vitriol in the message boards appear to be law-enforcement officials.
The following post appeared on Police One:
Mayor you killed our effectiveness on the street, when you killed Stop and Frisk. Because of a few bleeding heart liberals and a few ethnic groups who believe they are the only ones being stopped. You shut down the whole system. Because now all those baggy … pants you see walking around are probably locked and loaded.
On Thee Rant, another post stated:
ERIC GARNER? Yeah! Sure you are! A Nordic/Germanic given name and Anglo-Saxon surname! How dare you steal our names! You are hereby posthumously renamed MOBUTU TAKANUKU!
In 2012, a drunk, off-duty LAPD officer was caught on tape making racist comments during an exchange with Black youths outside a bar in Norco, CA. In the recording, Officer Hillman can be heard referring to one of the five Black youths on the scene as “a monkey” and “full-blown bro who looks like Lil Wayne.” During a disciplinary hearing, Hillman denied making such remarks. He was not fired, but was instead suspended for 65 days and ordered to seek substance abuse counseling.
Last week, ABC News reported that Deputy Chief David Borst and Officer George Hunnewell of the Fruitland Park Florida Police Department were members of the Ku Klux Klan. This same department dismissed an officer in 2009 as a result of his KKK affiliations. According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the State of Florida is home to a “fairly large number of hate groups” and “right up through the 1960s there were very large numbers of police officers who were members of the Klan or largely sympathetic.”
Can any of the above-mentioned law-enforcement officials be expected to adequately serve and protect Black people? Can they be expected to behave toward any non-White person in ways that are not abusive, hostile and un-affected by anti-Black racism and prejudice?
I’d urge Whites who deny the existence of such anti-Black racism and prejudice in the attitudes and behaviors of law-enforcement officials to remember a factual account of American history, without selective amnesia. Every social institution in the United States — at some point — advanced, endorsed or acted in accordance with some form of anti-Black racism or prejudice. As cultural anthropologist and Duke University Professor Lee D. Baker explains in his book From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race 1896-1954, policy makers were informed by the pseudo-scientific studies of racists like Daniel G. Brinton, who advanced theories of an alleged “fixed hierarchy of races” with Whites at the “civilized” top and Blacks at the “savage” bottom. In fact, it was Brinton who wrote in his momentous 1890 publication Races and Peoples, that “the mental differences of races are real and profound” and “true negroes are passionately fond of music, singing and dancing.”
Brinton is also largely responsible for espousing the idea of Blacks resembling apes. In another publication, Basis of Social Relations, Brinton places the “African negro midway between the Orang-utan and the European white” and states that the “African black presents many peculiarities which are termed pithecoid or ape-like.” It is also important to mention that Brinton served as a professor of American archaeology and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. At one time, he served as President of the American Folklore Society and as a member of the Anthropological Societies of Berlin and Vienna and the Ethnographical Societies of Paris and Florence, among others.
U.S. policy-makers who were informed by this type of racial theory created a mandate for hostile anti-Black attitudes to flourish in societal institutions at large. This particular brand of scientific racism also formed the basis for popular culture discourses on “race” and on Blackness, in particular. For many years, it was legal in this country for law-enforcement officials — and even everyday citizens — to kill Black people and not be convicted or jailed. Many southern White families spent afternoons watching Black people hang from trees as a form of family entertainment.
When law-enforcement officials possess anti-Black views, it is unwise to believe that they can adequately “protect and serve” Black people. How could they when many of them don’t view Black people as human beings, like themselves, and therefore deem them to be unworthy of protection?
In recognition of this reality, it is time for a radical transformation in the manner that law-enforcement officials are trained and what behaviors constitute protocol. Also, we must address how problematic it is that police policy is largely created and ratified from within, providing law-enforcement officials with a license to treat the citizenry in any ways that they see fit, even when such behaviors are abusive, excessive and unjust.
According to Sgt. Denise Joslin, the California Highway Patrol’s (CHP) Southern Division Public Information Coordinator, CHP policy is created and ratified from within. In a recent email message she explained,
Policy is written within the Department and approved by a governing body at the Headquarters (oversees the CHP statewide) level… The Legislature enacts laws that the Department is required to enforce throughout California. If a piece of legislation is enacted that affects the functionality of the Department, those laws will be applied to current policy or written into new policy.
Sgt. Joslin also stated that since 2008, the CHP voluntarily enrolled with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) — a credentialing authority that serves as a watchdog over law-enforcement agencies and their practices.
The CHP’s CALEA certification may mean little to many concerned, non-White Los Angeles residents like me who are especially concerned about the outstanding and exhaustive history of violence exercised toward Black and Brown civilians by California-based law-enforcement agencies. Especially disturbing is CHP officer Daniel L. Andrew’s recent pummeling of mentally ill Marlene Pinnock in her head and face on the 10 Freeway. When Officer Andrew brutalized Pinnock on July 1st, she was unarmed, subdued on the ground and not resisting him. His reaction to her unlawful meandering on the 10 Freeway was excessive to the max.
When asked about what concerned citizens can do to affect change in CHP policy, Sgt. Joslin had this to offer: “approaching an officer with your idea or recommendation is one easy and often effective method.” Readers: I would not suggest exploring this particularly risky tactic. In fact, this is what Eric Garner did moments before he was choked to death by Officer Pantaleo and his cohorts. He said, “Every time you see me, you mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops now.”
Sgt. Joslin did offer another suggestion:
Members of the public can also contact their local Area office and provide feedback to a supervisor or they can contact the local division office that oversees their geographical area. The public can find the location of CHP Area and Division offices on the Department’s Web site (www.chp.ca.gov), where they can also obtain information for contacting the Department via email, Facebook, or Twitter.”
This approach seems safer and more effective. Perhaps concerned California residents can continue to flood the virtual mailboxes, phone-lines and social-media properties of their regional CHP officials with their concerns, among which might be a demand for a series of mandatory town-hall meetings where CHP officials answer the general public’s questions about protocol.
Also, all CHP officers and California law enforcement officials at large should be re-taught how to deal with the general public in ways that are not abusive, especially where Blacks and non-Whites (a majority population in the state) are concerned. This can be achieved if those law enforcement officials who are, in fact, racists are forced to finally address what they refuse to confront: their own internalized anti-Black racism.
Small steps in this direction may be achieved by enforcing mandatory training for all current CHP employees and recruits, the list of components of which should include the following: teach-ins designed by cultural anthropologists, critical race theorists, critical legal scholars and sessions with cognitive behavioral therapists and other specialists like Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary whose work specifically aims to help racist individuals confront and reckon with their own internalized anti-Black attitudes and beliefs. Perhaps those officers who have been proven to subject citizens to racialized differential treatment, abuse and excessive force should be banned from working in any law-enforcement capacity, at least until they are rehabilitated and can demonstrate that they are capable of truly serving and protecting all people — Black people included.
While these proposals may seem far-fetched, transparency from the CHP and radical changes in how the CHP deals with the public can happen, as can ensuring that CHP policy is no longer strictly created and ratified from within. It is our right to propose such shifts in our institutions when they fail to adequately serve us and yield especially violent outcomes for those of us who are not White. Perhaps these suggestions to the CHP can also be proposed for other California-based law-enforcement agencies like the LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriffs.
Legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs reminds us that “getting upset about injustice is simply not enough.” Instead, we must “mobilize mass actions.” Mass actions stir-up the citizenry and apply pressure to policy-makers to amend mandates. I urge Southern California-based readers to take Sgt. Joslin’s advice. Flood the email and voicemail boxes of your regional CHP official with demands of a series of town hall meetings that address CHP protocol and policy. Express these concerns to your CA representatives in the senate (http://senate.ca.gov/senator) and to your local California State Assembly members (http://assembly.ca.gov/assemblymembers) . If you are a singer, sing about this. If you are a writer, write about this. Coordinated actions can produce positive outcomes. After all, our lives depend on it.