To Serve and Protect Whom?

Police officers shoot and kill an unarmed black man. We’ve all read and heard this script ad nauseam, to the extent that when it resurfaces we are no longer surprised; we’re immune to a certain degree, but still distraught. It has played out verbatim so often we know the outcome. The accused officers will be suspended pending an investigation. Community “leaders” will march, protest and demand justice be served. The good Rev. Al Sharpton will more than likely have some words to speak in reference to police brutality and the disproportionate targeting of African-American males in the criminal “just-us” system. And in the grand finale, the police officers will have been found innocent and to have acted reasonably within the line of duty. Justifiable homicide, case closed.

To serve and protect whom?


The latest incident of deadly force involving police officers takes place in Cleveland, Ohio, where a 25-minute pursuit from Justice Center in downtown Cleveland ends in the death of an African-American woman and man. The chase ended on a dead-end access street in East Cleveland where, according to reports, at least 137 rounds were unloaded into the suspects. No guns or shell casings were found in the suspects’ vehicle. And apparently the shots fired were so excessive and arbitrary that some of the police vehicles involved had bullet holes in them, leading to the conclusion they were obviously the result of friendly fire.

Quite naturally the African-American community in Cleveland is outraged. The group Black on Black Crime organized a rally and the NAACP Cleveland branch sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department requesting an investigation. The city held a forum Thursday, December 6, one week following the shooting, to answer questions from the community and discuss the facts of the case. But at the conclusion nothing was achieved, no progress was made. According to one of the attendees, Clarence X:

“This is senseless, meaningless. Nothing is going to change. There is no justice for black people in America.”

A telling statement that reveals the broader sentiment of most blacks in America as it relates to police and the criminal justice system. A 2004 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of whites compared to 43 percent of non-whites surveyed indicated that they “had a great deal/quite a lot” of confidence in the police. Historically, dating back to the post slavery early years, blacks have always held a deep-seated  suspicion and distrust of law enforcement, understandably so.

In analyzing not just the recent incident in Cleveland but all of those involving the use of brute force by police towards African-Americans, men in particular, one has to take into consideration the history of the police force as an institution and how it was used as an instrument of oppression of blacks. As sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, W.E.B Dubois, so perfectly encapsulates in his literary work, The Souls of Black Folk:

For, as I have said, the police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of criminals; and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first and almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of reënslaving the blacks. It was not then a question of crime, but rather one of color, that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge. Thus Negroes came to look upon courts as instruments of in-justice and oppression, and upon those convicted in them as martyrs and victims.

Dubois goes on to write,

For such dealing with criminals, white or black, the South had no machinery, no adequate jails or reformatories; its police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.

Despite the fact Dubois wrote these words more than a century ago, they remain very much relevant today, not just in the South but throughout the U.S. It explains why George Zimmerman felt within his right to confront and murder Trayvon Martin without jurisprudence. It is why Michael David Dunn felt justified in gunning down 17-year-old Justin Russell Davis, killing him after an argument over loud music. And it is why the 13 officers who fired 137 rounds of bullets into an unarmed vehicle filled with two African-Americans will never see the inside of a prison cell.

In 2012 being “black in America” still translates to the usual suspects. But don’t take my word for it. According to a 2004 report by the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Inc., evidence from public opinion polls and research studies indicates that whites widely believe that blacks are prone to criminality. In response to a question in the 2000 General Social Survey, 48 percent of whites think that blacks are “violence-prone.” Even in an AP poll as recent as 2010 revealed more than half of those whites surveyed harbored “explicit” anti-black views.

So much for a post-racial America.