Life and death in the US urban free-fire zone against young black males
by Richard McLachlan

It is so easy to fall for the stereotype, the young black male, the baseball cap, low-slung pants, dark glasses, some attitude perhaps. One afternoon, I’m coming home on the R Train from Bay Ridge, tired and trying to shut out the world, absorbed in my e-reader. A group of African American high school boys gets on the train loudly talking street Brooklyn. Calling each other niggah and motherf***er and generally being seventeen.

I am wishing they would shut up or move along the carriage, when I catch a few words of conversation. I realize they are having a full-on debate about the formation of the National Assembly in revolutionary France. They are discussing, noisily, just what Robespierre was doing at the time, and why it was necessary to kill the Emperor.

As we leave the train at the same stop, my preconceptions circling the plughole, I talk to one of the rowdier guys about a book I’m still in the middle of. It’s about Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins – Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. He pulls out pen and paper, thanks me politely, notes down the details – and then heads off down the platform with his friend discussing the possibility of getting a Kindle. There are so many things a young black man can learn from history.

Senseless deaths are a predictable result of cracking down on minor offenses. (sub-heading from Jamelle Bouie in Slate, 5 August)

On 17 July this year Staten Island police killed Eric Garner on the pavement. The African American father of six was put in an illegal chokehold and then held down by several officers until he died. The death was ruled a homicide.

Ramsey Orta, a bystander, recorded the killing on phone camera. It is shocking footage to watch. So shocking that when Orta was later picked up by police for a crime he had allegedly committed, the arresting officer’s response to his complaint about the violation of his rights was “shut your mouth”, followed by “Karma’s a bitch. What goes around comes around.”

Before any investigation into Garner’s death had taken place, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was publicly asserting the homicide had nothing to do with race. Garner had been arguing with police. He had been accused of selling loose cigarettes on the street – an illegal act.

There is a theory informing police behavior in New York referred to as ‘broken windows.’ Its premise is that a vigorous response to small-time offenses somehow helps prevent more widespread criminality. It is a theory whose validity is contested within the social sciences, and increasingly outside of them.

The ‘broken windows’ theory was put into practice on the street under Mayor Bloomberg’s ‘stop, question and frisk’ policy. Often justified as a search for handguns, the effect was to criminalize large numbers of young African-American men who just happened to have marijuana in their pockets.

Very few guns were found. Many people ended up with criminal records – many more black people than white people. As many, if not more, white people as African Americans carry a joint or a pipe while walking in the streets of New York – but they are frisked far less often.

According to a recent New York Civil Liberties Union study of NYPD arrests for minor offences between 2001 and 2013, eighty-one percent of those arrested were black or Hispanic. See here and also here.

“If you’re black they’re going to stop you” (Ferguson resident)

In Ferguson Missouri, where 18 year-old Michael Brown was shot dead on 9 August by white officer Darren Wilson, African Americans are twice as likely to be searched, and twice as likely to be arrested as others. If you don’t show up for the court hearing over your broken tail-light violation, you get additional fines. If you cannot afford to pay the fines, or are late for the court hearing, in a town with 14 percent unemployment, and where 22 percent of residents are living below the poverty line, you can go to jail – and then lose your job, and your house. One. Wrong. Move.

According to St Louis watchdog group, ArchCity Defenders, in 2013 the Ferguson Municipal Court issued around 3 arrest warrants and 1.5 court cases per household. Of the 60 municipal courts scrutinized in the area, 30 courts (including Ferguson) were engaged in illegal or harmful practices. The city profits from this, to the extent that fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city.

See also this evidence that “driving while black’ is more likely to be a cause for being pulled over.

“If he did nothing wrong….why is he not still here” (father of John Crawford III)

On 5 August, 22 year-old African American, John Crawford III, was shot and killed (again by a white policeman) in an Ohio Walmart for taking a pellet gun down off the shelf. He was holding it while talking to the mother of his children on his cellphone. He was killed because he didn’t drop it quickly enough when told to by an armed policeman.

The grand jury did not indict. No-one stood trial for that. An explanation given by the prosecutor was that the officers involved had recently been “taught to be aggressive” in response to active shooters.

“Why did you shoot me?”

On 4 September, on a gas station forecourt near Columbia South Carolina, State Trooper Sean Groubert ordered Levar Jones out of his car. Jones had undone his seat belt as he pulled in to the pumps. Who doesn’t?

Following the trooper’s instructions to the letter, he gets out and then, on further command, turns back into the vehicle to get his license. Groubert panics and fires at him four times, one of them after Jones has put his hands up, one of them hitting him in the hip. Lying on the ground being handcuffed, Jones can be heard apologizing and asking what he had done wrong.

Groubert, thanks to dashboard cameras in police cars, was fired within a week, and may face 20 years in jail if convicted of “assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature”.

“You see this? Taking my money, man, taking my money.”

And now back to something local – just down the road at Coney Island. On 16 September Lateefah Joye filmed her brother Lamard being shaken down by a white NYPD officer who, Joye says, took $1300 from his pocket and then pepper sprayed him in the face. The brother and sister had intervened in the police ‘roughing up’ another man. They had called out, “is this necessary?” Lateefah is pepper sprayed when she asks for the officer’s badge number. Other officers stood by and watched.

Last year the Washington DC-based Sentencing Project reported that “one in every three black males born in the US today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every six Latino males, and one in every 17 white males, if current incarceration trends continue.” Also “Blacks are also far more likely than whites to be stopped by the police while driving”, and the report attributed “the racial disparities in both traffic and drug arrests to ‘implicit racial bias’ on the part of the police.

A year or so after the 2012 killing of seventeen year-old Trayvon Martin [pictured left] by neighborhood watch ‘volunteer’ George Zimmerman, Attorney General Eric Holder, addressed the NAACP in Orlando FLA. He reported sitting down with his 15 year-old son to “have a conversation”. That’s code for advice on how to behave as a young black man when interacting with police. America’s top justice official told the audience it was “ a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down.”

Getting out of the car is when the trouble starts

This past 24 September in Indiana Lisa Mahone, another African American, was stopped for not wearing a seat belt. Her partner, Jamal Jones, declined to follow the officer’s order to get out of the car, claiming he felt unsafe and wanted to see ‘a white shirt’, or supervising officer.

“You’re going to come out of the car one way or another. You want your kids to see you come out through the window?” was the message to Jamal Jones. The cop then smashed the passenger window with an iron bar and used a taser on Jones.

The children were in the back seat, both hit by broken glass. The 7-year old girl can be heard crying. The 14-year old boy is filming the whole incident. The woman is on 911 frantically, and futilely, trying to get help, saying she feared for her life. And see also this link.

To suggest Jamal Jones should have followed police instructions to get out of the car increasingly seems a naïve failure to recognize the very real risks black people face when confronted by police.

Don’t forget the ‘ham sandwich’

On Wednesday 8 October, another young African American male was killed. VonDerrit Myers Jr. was shot by a 32-year old and as-yet unnamed, St Louis policeman. He killed Myers while working, off-duty but still in St Louis police uniform, as a private security guard. He claimed he tried to stop the 18 year-old for something called ‘a pedestrian check’.

He said the youth was carrying a gun and had shot at him. The police story on the exact circumstances of the shooting keeps changing – significantly. Myers variously ‘jumped from some bushes and struggled with the officer’ (there are no bushes at the site of the shooting), turned and fired while running away from ‘the pedestrian check’, and then in another version, tripped and fell, then fired from the ground.

The boy’s mother, Syreeta Myers, said he was carrying a sandwich, not a gun. Indeed there is CCTV footage of him buying a sandwich moments before he was shot 17 times. She, and other members of the family, say he was definitely not armed and that the weapon found on the scene could have been planted. “Police lie.” she said, “They lied about Michael Brown too.” See also this link.

Ironically – and I think that’s the appropriate word here – a ‘ham sandwich’ is New Orleans Police Department slang for a gun planted as false evidence. It’s ‘clean’; it cannot be traced. The term was made famous during a trial of police officers after the Danziger bridge police killings of civilians during Hurricane Katrina. The ‘ham sandwich’ has existed for years, under the seat of the cruiser in a Ziploc bag. As one man who had been an NOPD officer during the 80’s and 90’s told a reporter “Every cop I knew carried a ham sandwich. I carried mine with me wherever I went.

We may never know whether VonDerrit Myers Jr was carrying a sandwich, or a gun – or a sandwich and a gun. Or whether the gun was in fact a ham sandwich. Or whether or not traces of gunshot residue were really found on VonDerrit’s body as claimed by the St. Louis police department.

All this is now far less important than a much bigger and irrefutable truth – that black people in this country have good reason to both fear and mistrust the police. They have known it since their ancestors first arrived in this country. Now cell phone cameras are bringing the rest of us up to speed.

As these events emerge, often via cellphone cameras, into public awareness, the discourse follows a predictable path: Eric Garner waved his arms when arguing, John Crawford held the toy gun too long, Jamal Jones reached into the back seat to get documentation (“I thought he was going for a gun”), Levar Jones returning to get his license became, “you dove head-first back into your car”.

The focus on the killing of Vonderrit Myers Jr. was very much on the gun that he may or may not have been carrying. In the USA, owning a gun is protected by the second amendment of the constitution. Thirty-seven percent of American households contain a gun. Personal safety is by far the main reason given for owning one.

If personal safety is considered a valid reason for gun ownership, and there are strong arguments put forward for it here in the US, the uncomfortable truth it seems, is that young black men have more reason than most to carry a weapon. Their lives are at risk for merely existing – for just going about their business.

These events, in addition to validating the mistrust and fear by black people of the police, illustrate the fear police have of young black men, and their tendency to misconstrue their actions as threats. “White police officers are fearful of young black males, but that doesn’t justify profiling them each and every day when they’re out and about,” Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nasheed was quoted as saying in the NY Times.

As Levar Jones, appalled and apologetic, discovered, and Jamal Jones feared, it is unsafe even to do as they tell you. White America often remains blind to the historical context in which a young black man who makes a wrong move could end up like 14 year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, tortured and mutilated at the bottom of the river.

Whatever struggle took place between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, Brown had done nothing more serious than walk on the road rather than the pavement when approached. He was left dead and unattended in the middle of the road for four hours.

Emmett Till interacted the ‘wrong way’ talking to a white woman – and died for it, in an era when lynching was finally dying out in the South. Looking at the very limited data available on white police on black citizen homicide rates, witnessing a small-town, overwhelmingly white, police force armed to the teeth with military hardware, and reading of widespread petty arrests and convictions including stop-and-frisk policies, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that someone is continuing the tradition of keeping the ‘uppity Negroes’ under control.

The contemporary and very visible death of Michael Brown, and the ensuing rage in the Ferguson community, can be read about in newspapers all over the world. But it takes place in a dark historical context. Right up to the 1960s there were thousands of ‘sundown towns’ all over the US – places where official edict stated at the city limits, “if you are black you’d better be gone by nightfall” – a pretty succinct summary of what the county police told the protesting crowd on the street in Ferguson Missouri – before the teargas and arrest of journalists began.

As Mark Piepmeier, prosecuting attorney in the grand jury hearing over the Walmart killing of John Crawford III noted, “the law says police officers are judged by what is in their mind at the time. You have to put yourself in their shoes”. In many of these events, a closer look into the workings of ‘their mind’ could well be instructive.

Across the country, about two African American men are killed by white police officers per week. This is a consistent figure, shown in data collected in the seven years prior to 2012. Fifty percent of those killed are under 20. The data is incomplete – only 750 agencies out of 17,000 provide their ‘justifiable homicide’ data to the FBI. For example, the entire state of Florida is missing. The collection has now stopped due to lack of Federal funding, so there is effectively no national database of police killings in the US.

The killings are disturbing if viewed as discrete events. Police are also at risk of course and, when faced with threatening situations, are empowered to use deadly force. However, death in a showdown with a police officer is a distinctly possible outcome of the risks black men face daily in the course of being harassed and humiliated for minor offenses.

The Attorney General again, “I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to catch a movie”. What if he hadn’t stopped when told? Or answered back? As Eric Garner said just before he was killed, “I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today”.

Perhaps this grotesque continuum revealed by dashboard cameras in police cruisers and alert citizens with cell phone cameras points to a need for citizen surveillance of those with power over them – not the other way round. It is certainly getting harder for people to look the other way and pretend this is not happening.

In 2009, now ex-Attorney General Holder, addressing his Justice department staff, described the US as “essentially a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing matters of race. Currently we are waiting to find out whether Darren Wilson will stand trial for killing Michael Brown. It seems there may have been a struggle, that Brown may have fought back. People are saying ‘all hell will break loose’ if Wilson is not indicted. Whatever the outcome, Holder’s ‘nation of cowards’ may soon be forced to find its spine and start talking properly about race in the USA.