A com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship

It is too of­ten as­sumed that blacks are al­ways averse to law en­force­ment

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - E.R. Shipp E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize win­ner for com­men­tary, is the jour­nal­ist in res­i­dence at Mor­gan State Uni­ver­sity’s School of Global Jour­nal­ism and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Her col­umn runs ev­ery other Wed­nes­day. Email: er.shipp@aol.com.

It hap­pened like this: Last Friday a man wield­ing knives in a threat­en­ing way in Waverly was shot by two po­lice of­fi­cers re­spond­ing to a 911 call. That sparked un­rest among those who saw or heard some ver­sion of what hap­pened. So folks, in­clud­ing a woman with an in­fant, protested the next day at the site of the shoot­ing. But in the mid­dle of all that, the child be­came alarm­ingly ill. Who comes to her aid? The po­lice — specif­i­cally, Ma­jor Richard Gib­son, who was nearby and per­formed CPR.

In some quar­ters this has be­come an op­por­tu­nity to wag fin­gers, say­ing, “You black folks hate cops, but you still run to them when you are in trou­ble.” Wrong in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Peo­ple are not one-di­men­sional, de­spite the fact that politi­cians and ad­ver­tis­ers thrive on fit­ting us neatly into boxes that suit their needs. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has ob­served that “protest and love of coun­try don’t merely co-ex­ist but in­form each other.” You might sub­sti­tute “re­spect for po­lice” for “love of coun­try” here. I will de­cry in­jus­tice at the drop of a hat. I will also just as quickly give credit where credit is due, as did Duane “Shorty” Davis, a well-known thorn in the side of mis­cre­ant po­lice. He shook Ma­jor Gib­son’s hand and, as re­ported in City Pa­per, said, “I ap­pre­ci­ate you.”

Too of­ten blacks are seen as un­re­lent­ingly averse to law en­force­ment, though like other Amer­i­cans we have po­lice and mil­i­tary folks in our fam­i­lies. The story is com­pli­cated.

Polic­ing grew out of pa­trolling to keep en­slaved peo­ple in line, to thwart their nat­u­ral de­sire for free­dom. There’s a tan­gled his­tory that stretches from the 13th Amend­ment, which out­laws slav­ery and servi­tude “ex­cept as a pun­ish­ment for crime,” and the gen­eral crim­i­nal­iza­tion of black bod­ies. If you don’t be­lieve me, check out Ava Duver­nay’s pow­er­ful doc­u­men­tary “13th” and see how words like “law and or­der” and “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” are heard by many blacks as coded mes­sages for the op­po­site of, say, “black is beau­ti­ful.”

We see dis­par­ity in sen­tenc­ing for co­caine based on the type of drug pre­ferred by blacks and that by whites. A few years ago, the ACLU re­ported that in Bal­ti­more blacks were more than five Po­lice gather ev­i­dence in the po­lice shoot­ing of a man wield­ing two knives at a bus stop near the old Boule­vard Theatre in Waverly. times as likely to be ar­rested for mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion than whites, though us­age was about the same among them. Re­cent find­ings of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice about the un­con­sti­tu­tional be­hav­ior of the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment merely af­firmed what many of us have long known. As re­ported in this news­pa­per: “Po­lice prac­tices in Bal­ti­more ‘per­pet­u­ate and fuel a mul­ti­tude of is­sues rooted in poverty and race, fo­cus­ing law en­force­ment ac­tions on low-in­come, mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties’ and en­cour­age of­fi­cers to have ‘un­nec­es­sary, ad­ver­sar­ial in­ter­ac­tions with com­mu­nity mem­bers,’ the re­port said.”

And yet the de­sire to pro­tect and serve beats no less in the hearts of black and brown peo­ple. We fight to join po­lice — and fire — de­part­ments. It took a con­certed cam­paign be­fore the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment hired its first black of­fi­cers in 1937. Decades later, it was a mat­ter of race pride in the U.S. when Bishop Robin­son be­came Bal­ti­more’s first black po­lice com­mis­sioner. The news was right there in Jet magazine on page 37 in the July 9, 1984, is­sue of the then-weekly pub­li­ca­tion.

The de­sire to be safe is also strong — and that means tak­ing steps to rid our neigh­bor­hoods of crim­i­nals, de­spite the preva­lence of a coun­ter­vail­ing “don’t snitch” cul­ture. Even ex-cons want to be safe, as one told me at Fred­die Gray’s wake last year. He said he would not hes­i­tate to call cops for help. On the other hand, many of my stu­dents at Mor­gan State Uni­ver­sity say they would never call cops for help be­cause they have seen the con­se­quences of trig­ger-happy of­fi­cers who view too many black peo­ple — ir­re­spec­tive of age, gen­der or in­fir­mity — as threats. In both in­stances, the con­cern is safety.

Given all this his­tory of malev­o­lent and mis­guided poli­cies, the more po­lice and those they serve get to know each other, the bet­ter off we will be. T.J. Smith, the chief spokesman for the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment, can tick off all sorts of meet-and-greets and fun in­ter­ac­tions be­tween po­lice and civil­ians. Po­lice may also be seen at com­mu­nity fo­rums like one that’s sched­uled for tonight in West Bal­ti­more at The Open Church of Mary­land, a church I at­tend.

We are ul­ti­mately on the same side: We want jus­tice. We want safety. Some­times protest is a last op­tion to as­sure ei­ther.


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