We Can't Breathe

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Roll call. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akil Gurley, Tamir Rice and all the other unarmed Black males that have been murdered by police saw no justice. These recent police involved deaths of African American men, have prompted more and more people to question their local law enforcement’s authority, as well as demand a stop to the racist violence. Demonstrations in protest against the murders have taken place not only across America, but also throughout the world, representing diverse ethnicities, races and stations in life. Many have held signs, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” or “I can’t breathe,” in honor of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
An NBC News Marist poll found that 47 percent of Americans believe that police use different standards for Black people than whites, while 44 percent disagreed. When just looking at a Black population, 82 percent of African Americans say that police follow different guidelines when dealing with that group of people. Half of whites disagree.
But look at the recent event of Dirck Morgan, a white man with an extensive criminal record, which includes convictions for assault, drugs and weapons’ violations.
He fatally shot Grady Waxenfelter, another white man in Oregon, and participated in a shootout with police and now he is under police watch at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Local law enforcement captured him in Los Angeles. He’s in critical condition from a gunshot wound. The distinct treatment of a white criminal is glaring. Even though White was armed and shooting at police, they still handled him with better precaution and had more respect for his life than any of the numerous unarmed black men shot by police.
In a press statement recently released, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will place new restrictions on federal law enforcement agencies. Those restrictions will be implemented to prevent and stop racial profiling.
“I have repeatedly made clear that racial profiling by law enforcement is not only wrong, it is misguided and ineffective because it can mistakenly focus investigative efforts, waste precious resources and, ultimately, undermine the public trust,” Holder said.”
The new guidelines are expanded from a policy that came out in 2003. Instead of just addressing race and ethnicity, the new policy will also look at national origin, gender, gender identity, religion and sexual orientation. The guidelines apply to national security and any intelligence activities that the Justice Department conducts. State and local law enforcement officers are not exempt if they participate in any federal task forces.
“In light of recent incidents we’ve seen at the local level and the concerns about trust in the criminal justice process which so many have raised throughout the nation it’s imperative that we take every possible action to institute sound, fair and strong policing practices,” Holder said.
Though this is a huge step towards progress, racial profiling is not the end-all solution. Laws are only as good as the people who make them, respect them and those who interpret them. When a grand jury didn’t indict the Ferguson, Missouri police officer who fatally shot Mike Brown, people got angry. And they became angrier when the Staten Island, N.Y. officer involved in Eric Garner’s death was not indicted. Let’s not forget 12-year-old Tamir Rice, he was shot by a Cleveland policeman while playing with a toy gun. These incidents, on top of all the other police involved deaths, have stirred up a wave of protests across the country and racial tensions keep rising.
President Obama addressed the nation last week after the grand jury decided to not charge Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death. One of the things Obama announced was that $263 million will help law enforcement agencies across the country add an estimated 50,000 more body-worn cameras. The funding would have to be matched though by both local and state police.
Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said the city’s own officers will be getting body-cameras within the next two months. Besides figuring out the cost of the program, the questions they are still trying to get answers to include where will the footage be stored and for how long? But the real question is about training and changing the stereotypical images some people, like police officers, may have about Blacks. Further, police protocol, including processes and procedures must be reinforced.
What happened to asking the suspect to ‘put down your weapon and raise your hands above your head?’ That certainly could have worked with Tamir Rice.
When making an arrest, officers must have either witnessed a crime or have probable cause. They can’t use excessive force. After Garner’s death, Chicago aldermen want a clear ban on chokeholds. Ald. Ed Burke (14th) proposed an ordinance on Monday at a Finance Committee meeting that clearly lays out the law. The city’s police officers would not be able to use the chokehold method when handling suspects. Ald. Will Burns (4th), Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) and Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) also support the ordinance. The aldermen did not vote on it since the ordinance was just introduced on Monday. If it passes, the full City Council will get the chance to vote in January.
Mya B., a Chicago native and film director just showed her latest documentary, “Afraid of Dark.” It looks at Black male stereotypes and the historical context from which they derived from.
“The ones they’re threatened by are the “brute.” They see the Black man as violent and angry and we can see that stereotype from how Mike Brown was portrayed,” she said.
And these negative stereotypes are put out there by the media, said Dennis Woods, author and creator of the publishing company Life to Legacy. Those misconceptions have consequences, he said.
“A lot of white Americans are informed through the media and it tends to heighten the anxiety of these relations, perpetuating stereotypes that are not reflective of our people in general,” Woods said.
“The African American people are not a monolithic society, no society, no ethnicity is monolithic,” Woods said.
“We all have a vast diversity of expression and how we do things, however, because we are faced with a media that portrays negative stereotypes, we have a lot of people who think all Black people are the same.”
Woods said that others often see African American youth as being older, which takes away their innocence.
“They are then able to see us as subhuman like Darren Wilson’s description of Michael Brown, he said he was like [professional wrestler] Hulk Hogan.”
Woods said that when a person’s innocence and “humanness” are taken away, it becomes easier to feel justified in prejudice thinking.
“You feel justified in the attitude that supports a racial, prejudice and bias lack of opportunities because of stereotypical opinions,” he said.
Woods said that the added body cameras are a good move, but to really see positive change, more needs to happen from within people.
“They would help, but as the arguments have been made, in New York City, [with Eric Garner] you had the whole thing on video and the person who was recording got arrested,” he said.
“What needs to really be changed is the video camera of the heart, people’s hearts and minds need to be changed.”
But first, as Eric Holder said, “America needs a conversation about race.” Only then can we begin to transform the hearts and minds of people. We can then exhale and breathe again as a people.

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