By Ron Kipling Williams
The uprising that took place in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder is indicative of the crisis that America has been facing since its inception. From the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Tulsa Race riots, Jim Crow segregation, Civil Rights, and into today, we have experienced how race and class have served as powder kegs to our explosions, and has resulted in deep wounds from which we have yet to heal.
The issue of police brutality is the perfect intersection of race and class; those who have been marginalized and targeted because of their skin color and their socioeconomic background. We have witnessed this time and again over the last 50 years, from the lynchings in the south, to the police involved homicides in the North, from Amadou Diallo to Freddie Gray.
Amidst the condemnation by many, particularly in the media, for the mayhem and looting that took place, we must ask tough questions that get at the core of who we are as a society: if it were not for the uprising, would there have been attention to Gray’s murder? One case in point is the homicide of Tyrone West, who was brutalized and murdered by police on July 18, 2013. Though the autopsy determined that West died due to a heart condition which was exacerbated by the struggle with police, it is clear that police used excessive force to subdue West. No citizen should be aggravated by anyone to the point of death. We saw similar cases with Eric Garner in New York, Oscar Grant in Los Angeles, and Anthony Anderson again in Baltimore.
Another question that needs to be raised is, why have we given law enforcement such power over citizens that they can operate with impunity? The Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights has given police officers a myriad of protections that have almost given them carte blanche to conduct themselves in a rogue fashion knowing that they have not only the “blue wall of silence” facilitated by the Fraternal Order of Police, but that they have due process above and beyond the average citizen. It denotes an established hierarchy of citizenry; that the people who are sword to serve and protect us are viewed in a higher class, and the vocabulary used toward them is reflective of that.
For example, the looters in last week’s uprising were characterized as “thugs” for destroying property. The six police officers who were clearly responsible for Gray’s death were not. It is unfair and unjust to be similarly situated but treated differently. In fact, that establishes a prima facie case for discrimination. Even after the evidence revealed the police officers’ culpability, no elected official, save City Council President Jack Young, recanted their characterization of the citizens who vandalized and looted, nor did they move the police officers into the “thug” category.
Peering deeper into the lens of class, we see that police are viewed as professionals, often middle class, valuable members of society. Coupled with formidable union support, they enjoy perceptions and protections that those who are poor, lower economic class, service industry workers, unemployed, underemployed, do not. Essentially, in this post 9/11 world, police officers are regarded as heroes of our society, while “the others” are viewed as our dregs.
We are all human beings, citizens of this nation, and neighbors in our communities. However, many who are marginalized and targeted by law enforcement are the same ones this society views as predators, leeching off social programs, filling our prisons, and not contributing to the tax base. This is far from the truth. Everyone, regardless of their background, desires to have gainful employment that results in a life of decency and dignity. Our young people desire to have a school system that facilitates their learning and their future success. We all want communities that are sustainable, that has access to healthy food, health care, safety, protection, and recreation. There are no groups that are bad; that is a consistent characterization by those who have privilege, who ironically gained their privilege by exploiting the same poor and working class blacks and other minorities for profit. It is time that we cease to demonize the most challenged of us, and enact ways for them to become self-sustainable. We possess the collective community will; there must also be the collective political will to accomplish this.
Until there is fundamental change in our societal structure, there will continue to be a gross disparity in quality of life for all of our citizens, and subsequently a difference in treatment by law enforcement, which historically became licensed to protect the state. Only later did it transform to protect the citizenry. We must stop the mentality of “us” versus “them”. It only polarize and segregate us, and amplifies the kind of tragedies that we have observed with Freddie Gray and others.
The fact that 70 percent of police officers live outside of Baltimore is a very telling indicator of what is wrong with our police department. If a police officer is not from the community, then they are not connected to the community because they have no stake in it. When a person is disconnected from a community they begin to view it as “them”, “the other”, “those people”. From there the characterization disintegrates into viewing the community as less than human, which begets objectification. When one objectifies, anything is possible, because now the community is seen as merely objects, not as a collection of human beings.
We must enforce a combination of policies that cultivates law enforcement from our own communities and enact the appropriate punishment, including incarceration for those who break our laws. We need to create the kind of culture that lets our police officers know that they are a part of us, and they are accountable to us. We need to have a very strong civilian review board, and implement a mechanism that allows our city council representatives to enact legislation that strengthens the citizen-law enforcement bond.
But herein lies the rub. Police offers are human beings. A significant number of them come from our communities. Though they are sworn to uphold the law; they do not create it. They do not craft legislative or executive policies. That is the job of our bureaucratic institutions, and when institutionally racist and classist policies result in civilian casualties, police officers are the ones to fall on their sword. Consequently, neither the appropriate and swift punishment nor incarceration ever reaches the upper ranks of the ‘blue wall’ or City Hall. It seems that police are pitted against us, used as pawns in a sociopolitical chess game that serves the status quo, while we are served up as collateral damage.
I have been involved in community activism for a number of years, and I have seen the beauty and resiliency of our neighborhoods and communities. We are a loving, caring city that deserves to be protected and served. We should not allow any factions to destroy what we have built, but make no mistake, we will always rebuild whatever is destroyed, whether it be by citizens or law enforcement.