If you’ve never feared the police — if you don’t get a dull ache in the pit of your stomach when you see red and blue flashing lights, even when you know you’re not doing anything wrong — consider yourself lucky.
If you’ve never worried about your teenage son mouthing off to the wrong officer on the wrong day, and being shot dead — you’ve missed an experience no mother or father should bear.
If you wouldn’t suspect, deep down, that if your child was killed, the chances of his killer walking free would be high, so long as his killer was white or a policeman; the death tucked away into the archives of an internal police investigation, stamped with words like “justifiable,” and “tactics” — tell the Lord, “Thank you.”
And if you trust that you would find justice in a court of law for your teenage boy, raised with nervous care as he navigates from suspicion to suspicion, if, God forbid, somebody gunned him down, then you are a lucky person indeed.
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For millions of Americans who happen to be black or brown, that core bond of trust with the government that governs closest to you, is too often broken. “States rights” and “localism“ are catch phrases long associated with the indignity of red-lining, schools that suspend your child where another might get just a talking to, a patchwork of access to healthcare or voting restrictions that respond with elastic speed to your increased presence at the polls.
Local government is a gamble that can have disastrous consequences when it fails.
It’s no secret that black Americans tend to have more trust in the federal government, with its National Guard that responds to natural disasters like the raging waters of a hurricane with rescue; and its Justice Department Civil Rights Division that responds to manmade disasters like discrimination with a well-timed lawsuit.
Of course, the federal government’s capacity to be an ally depends mightily on who the president is. Just as the chances of police being allies often depends on the mayor, and his relationship with the local community.
White America rarely comes into close contact with these realities. A few who are journalists on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, have gotten a taste, as they’re menaced by heavily armed, militarized police; criminalized for simply standing still or arrested and tear-gassed by officers without name tags. For many African Americans, what’s happening in Ferguson is a larger-scale rendering of the fundamental tension and disrespect they experience with police all the time. For many white Americans, it’s a revelation.
To be sure, police do a dangerous job and take tremendous personal risks to safeguard the public. Most officers just want to do their jobs and go home alive.
And the black community holds no monopoly on being the objects of police-involved violence. In 2004, 21-year-old Michael Bell of Kenosha, Wisconsin, young and blonde, with a military veteran father and his mother and sister bearing witness, was shot dead, at close range, by a police officer who remains on the force to this day.
But statistics show the more common story is that of Raymond Herisse, who died in a hail of gunfire on a busy stretch of Miami Beach on Memorial Day weekend in 2011.
Herisse, 22 years old, had been drinking the night he was pursued by squad cars down that main drag. As the car slowed to a stop near the intersection of 16th Street and Collins Avenue, a dozen officers from two jurisdictions bore down. With a cellphone camera rolling overhead, the officers let fly with a barrage of some 116 bullets, a thunderous volley that injured four bystanders, and left Herisse dead behind the wheel, having been hit 16 times.
The investigation into Herisse’s death dragged on for two years, and included allegations that officers smashed a second witness’ phone. Herisse’s arrest record, mainly for drugs and missed traffic court dates, was dragged into the media glare. He was an imperfect victim, so his death was more YouTube sensation than cause célèbre. No officer was charged. The family has filed a civil lawsuit.
If you’re black, Herisse’s story will, sadly, not shock you. If it does, lucky you.