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Yeah, I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Reasonable Doubts,” 3/31): Living while black is hard in America. I, too, have lost my trust for Officer Friendly. I’d rather not call a cop when I’m in trouble. Within my 50 years, I have experienced a rape, a carjacking (witnessed), a hold-up by gun, a burglary, and more, ad nauseam. In all of the cases, the cops did nothing except take a report, and I never heard from them again. In a hit-and-run on my bicycle, the cops claimed they could do nothing. I took the car tag number witnesses had obtained and easily tracked down the offender. I, too, wish there were fewer officers on the street (and fewer cop shows).
Unfortunately, Coates’ essay reflects a common experience among black people. I mentor two young black boys, ages 13 and 15. Already, the 15-year-old has had to drop to the ground with revolvers pointed to his head while they frisked him. He’s never been in trouble and makes good grades at Thomas Jefferson High School. He and his two Latino friends were just hanging out. (Do three young men equal a gang?) Too often, young black and brown males are detained, frisked, dehumanized, demonized, and humiliated by cops.
I resent the necessity of teaching these kids “what to do if approached by a cop: Keep your hands out of your pockets, empty, and in plain view; make no sudden movements; look the officer in the eyes when you speak; say, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’; follow their orders; and breath deeply, exhale slowly, relax, and maintain your cool.” These are lessons in self-preservation, and less out of respect for the officer. As a white friend puts it, “If the robbers don’t get you, the cops will.”
I was born five years after World War II in Furth, Germany, a suburb of Nuremberg. Parts of Germany were still in ruins. Our maid told us stories about how the Nazis had searched them without cause, demonized them, stripped them of their rights, and stolen their possessions. One maid showed us the deep scar she had received from an ax wound when she resisted. Their stories remind me too much of how we Americans allow police to treat people today.
The police have institutionalized Jim Crow. The “hate stare,” the unwarranted searches, the suspicion, the harassment, the fear and distrust, and even the lynchings have become legitimized through the ever-expanding police force and prison-industrial complex. Unfortunately, too many black officers have also bought into the oppressive mentality as well.
The most frightening social development in the U.S. today is that the fastest-growing industry is prison construction. We have more people in prison than any other country in the world, second to Russia. Although nonwhites represent only 25 percent of the population, they constitute 80 percent of the prison population. Today, 89 percent of new inmates are nonviolent offenders, and of these, 60 percent are first-time drug offenders. One-fourth of black men have been or are incarcerated, on probation, on parole, or under some kind of judicial surveillance. These are folks who can no longer vote. Women with children are the fastest-growing unit among prisoners. Numerous states now spend more money on prisons than on education. Money is drained from social services. And there is a huge list of people waiting for drug treatment, affordable housing, and day-care or Head Start enrollment. The nation’s infrastructure is collapsing, and we’re rapidly becoming a fascist country because we believe the way to resolve social problems is to lock people up.
So what can you do to stop this craziness? Write letters to the editor, to your legislators, to your councilmembers. In numerous surveys (including the Gallup Poll and Parade Magazine’s, as well as all states’ that have run medical-marijuana initiatives), 60 percent to 75 percent of those polled or voters have expressed a desire to change the drug laws to less draconian measures. Demand that your representatives and authorities honor the voice of the people. Join organizations supporting changes to the drug war, and ask that your church or organization do, too. The groups who’ve been at it for a while include Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Drug Policy Foundation, and the National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws.
And don’t forget, when they come for black people in the morning, they’ll come for you later that day. Act now before it’s too late!
Takoma Park, Md.