On What the Black Lives Matter Movement Actually Stands For

Many critics of the Black Lives Matter Movement have tried to paint the movement as anti-police and anti-White-people.  Many have called the phrase “Black lives matter” racist and exclusionary.  According to them, it says that White lives don’t matter, or the lives of other people of color don’t matter, and “all lives matter” would be a better slogan.  So, I want to make two points in regards to what the Black Lives Matter Movement does and does not stand for.

Firstly, the movement is not anti-police or anti-White-people, it is anti-police-brutality and anti-racist-policing.  Note the difference.  We know that all police officers are not overtly racist, and we know that all police officers are not violent and abusive towards Black people.  We recognize that police officers serve a necessary function in society.  But we also know that all people – including ourselves – hold unconscious racial biases.  Brain research tells us this.  And, in situations in which people have to make snap judgments in dealing with persons of a particular racial group, they draw on those biases and readily available stereotypes to make decisions about what to do.  Police officers are no different.  Unfortunately, this has resulted in differential treatment for Black people in interactions with the police, and research on police trends has shown this as well.  Black people are stopped on the street and in their cars, frisked, arrested, incarcerated, and killed at disproportionate rates, at rates that far exceed those for White people, and rates that exceed even what makes sense given our percent contribution to total crime.  So we want reforms on policing tactics and accountability for all officers because history has shown that when no one is held accountable for anything they do ever, some officers abuse their authority.  Sure, there are people who don’t like the police, or even hate the police, and their minds may never be changed.  Sure, there are people at protests who chant and bring signs that say ‘F*ck the police.”  Sure, there are people at protests who are prejudiced and don’t like White people at all.  But these sentiments do not reflect those felt by the vast majority of the movement’s participants, its organizers, or the official positions articulated by dominant organizing groups.  Far from it.

Secondly, we know all lives matter, but all lives aren’t victimized by the police at the same rate.  A Black person is killed by the police every 28 hours.  That’s not happening to White people.  White people aren’t racially profiled. Black people are.  Too, Black people and White people have very different experiences within the legal system.  As I already mentioned, Black people are arrested and incarcerated at alarming rates, and we often serve longer sentences than White people who commit the same crimes.  Our call is not “Black lives matter” because we want to exclude White people or the experiences of other people of color, but because Black people’s history and our present require of us that we affirm our worth.  This is not just about the death of one person or the deaths of two people, this is about the deaths of countless unarmed Black people, the hundreds of thousands of Black people whose lives are unjustly and unnecessarily lost to mass incarceration, and a centuries-old history in this country that has seen the constant devaluation of Black lives.  And movement supporters who are not Black get that, which is why they join us in our call for justice.

So, we know you matter, too.  We only wish you knew the same of us.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter, and is an aspiring journalist.


I Am Michael Brown; I Am Not the Community

In press conferences and statements since protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri following the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a city police officer, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson has spoken about the events in his city since that day.  He has expressed concern for the safety of Ferguson residents and protesters, hoped for healing following what he calls the “tragic” loss of Michael Brown, and has expressed a desire to repair the relationship between the Ferguson Police Department and members of the Ferguson community.  Too, on news casts daily, reporters have referred to protesters as frustrated and grieving members of the “Ferguson community.”

But Jackson’s sentiments strike me as hollow, and the term “community,” a misnomer.  Why?

Because for the first five days of protests, the Ferguson police department treated Black residents as non-community members.  It treated them as outsiders, as the enemy.  It used isolated instances of looting on the first night of protests as an excuse to employ military style tactics against peaceful protesters for five days.  Officers aimed large military-grade semi-automatic assault weapons at protesters with their hands in the air.  Snipers and sharpshooters aimed at demonstrators from atop tactical ops tanks. Officers policed the streets with dogs, in scenes reminiscent of the civil rights era.  They fired tear gas, pepper balls and wooden and rubber bullets at attendants of prayer vigils.  They pepper sprayed children.  They harassed, assaulted, and arrested people who did not clear the streets by 9pm – people who had every right to be there as late as they pleased.  They called protesters “animals.”

That Wednesday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon brought in the Missouri Highway Patrol to take over protest security under the leadership of Captain Ron Johnson, a Black man.  That same day, patrolmen posed for pictures with protesters in shows of solidarity.  By that Saturday, the highway patrol had, too, refused to distinguish between peaceful protesters and intentional provocateurs  – the former of which vastly outnumbered the latter – and returned to teargassing the masses over isolated instances of violence, most of which had and still consists of mere bottle throwing.

Images from Ferguson have so shocked the world that Egypt, Iran, China, and the United Nations have spoken out against the use of force there, with the Egyptian foreign ministry urging US officials to “show restraint” with protesters, and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon calling for Missouri police to abide by “Constitutional and international standards.”

So I ask: the Black residents of Ferguson, to whose community do they belong?  The Ferguson Police Department clearly does not see them as belonging to theirs.

When the people charged with protecting and serving you turn their weapons against you, they have excluded you from their community.  When they tell you your Constitutional rights expire at a certain time of day, they have excluded you from their community.  When the governor of your state remains silent and allows such civil and human rights violations to continue for five days, he has excluded you from his community.

President Obama spoke Thursday about the events in Ferguson, saying that we are all a part of the “American family,” united by common values including “reverence for the dignity of every man, woman, and child.”  Families mourn the loss of one of their own, and you can tell who’s seen as belonging to a family or community by who the community mourns.  When Black people die, Black people mourn, the nation does not.  When Black people die, it makes local headlines at the nearest news hour.  When White people die, it’s national news for days, if not weeks.  When a Black person dies, the media launch investigations into the potential criminal history or gang affiliations of the murder victim.  When a White person dies, they interview the victim’s loved ones about how great a friend, father or mother, sister or brother, he or she was.

Michael Brown’s murder is troubling for me for the same reason unnecessary and unprovoked extrajudicial killings of Black men and women are always troubling for Black people: it could have been me.  It could have been either of my brothers, any one of my cousins, or any one of my friends.  It could have been them the last time.  And it could still be any one of us at any given point in time.  And that scares the hell out of me.

But the murder and subsequent police attacks on protesters are also frustrating because they are fresh reminders that, as a Black man in America, I am the other.  Black people face constant reminders that we are the other.  That we do not belong.  That we are not welcome.  That we are not wanted.  And that we are not equal.  For centuries, White people have been fearful and suspicious of Black folks and have treated us as non-community members.  White power structures have operated in an oppressive and exclusionary fashion.  And the events of Ferguson throughout the past week, and the murder of Michael Brown itself, are yet new examples of this oppression, and new reminders of these notions.

So you can put a Black man in charge of protest security.  You can publish pictures of patrolmen posing with protesters in shows of solidarity.  You can tell me that Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson’s sentiments of communal mourning and support reflect those of mainstream America.  But I’ve seen, heard, and experienced otherwise.  Michael Brown was shot twice in the head and at least four more times elsewhere after surrendering with his hands in the air.  To Officer Darren Wilson, he was not the community.  And it has become clear to me that neither am I.

Hands up. Don’t shoot. I am Michael Brown.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a Senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.

By Iggy Azalea’s Grammy Nominations, We are Reminded that Black Culture is Popular, Black People are Not

For the fourth time since 2010, it looks like a White rapper is going to win the award for Best Rap Album at the Grammy Awards.  In January, Macklemore won the award for his debut album The Heist in a predicted yet still incredibly frustrating upset over hip hop heavyweights Drake, Kanye West, and Jay Z, and newcomer Kendrick Lamar, whose debut major label release Good Kid M.A.A.D. City was celebrated by many as an instant hip hop classic, and who was the favorite for the award amongst virtually the entire Black hip hop community.  Many were upset that Macklemore was placed in the rap category at all given that, although he raps, he makes more uptempo, spunky, tracks that often sound more like pop music than traditional hip hop.  Too, many speculated that Macklemore’s skin color attracted the attention and votes of many of the predominantly White (and often older) Grammy voters who, more likely than not, had not even listened to – let alone understood – most, if any, of the rap albums nominated for the award (it was later revealed that Macklemore’s album was not even included among the original list of nominees for the award by the rap nominating committee, but that decision was overridden by a higher committee).

This year, Eminem and Iggy Azalea are nominated for the award for their albums The Marshall Mathers LP 2 and The New Classic respectively among such nominees as Childish Gambino, Wiz Khalifa, and Common and, if history is any indicator – every time a White rapper has been nominated for Best Rap Album that rapper has won, excepting one year – one of them will win it.  Though Eminem’s most recent albums have been less than exceptional, many in the hip hop community don’t take so much issue with him winning awards because a large portion of his catalogue is phenomenal, and he’s hailed by many as one the greatest rappers to ever bless the microphone.  But the prospect of Iggy Azalea winning the award next year has many people upset for a number of reasons, perhaps even more so than they were when Macklemore won this year.  For one, like Macklemore, her music sounds more like pop than it does like hip hop, so some don’t think she should have been included in the rap category at all, myself included.  Two, despite her commercial success, which is in large part due to the fact that her music does sound so popish and is so Top 40 radio-ready, she just isn’t that good a rapper and, even if you do consider her music to be rap music, there are a ton of other rap albums released this year that were better than hers and deserved a nomination over hers.  But, third, and most importantly, Black people are furious because Iggy Azalea appropriates a stereotypical image of Black women in her rap persona.  A lot of Black rap fans don’t like Macklemore, myself included, because, aside from the fact that his music is mediocre, his skin color has allowed him to position himself, and White fans and critics have celebrated him as, the non-violent, tolerant, cleancut alternative to vulgar Black rap artists while simultaneously expressing himself through an art form that evolved out of the very culture, and was created by the very people, that he has distanced himself from.  Macklemore is not the first rapper to talk about stuff besides money, hoes, and clothes, but because of his skin color, he is able to appeal to a wider – and different – fan base than Black artists who have done the same thing, and achieve far greater success.  Iggy, on the other hand, has not distanced herself from that culture, but has appropriated and exploited it and has become widely successful doing so.

Iggy Azalea is a White woman from Australia who sounds Australian in interviews or when out in public, but raps in a Black American accent – performing what has been dubbed vocal blackface – and a particularly southern one, using Black American slang.  Like many other Black female rappers, she presents a “bad bitch” image of herself and, through usages of urban Black cultural symbols and actual Black people as props in her music videos, she attempts to connect herself to urban Black culture and urban Black spaces. Take, for example, her music video for her song “Pu*sy” (you can check it out here http://vimeo.com/29514207) which went viral in 2011 and was the video that first got her looks from major record labels.  The video begins with Iggy in the kitchen with curlers in her hair eating cereal out of a large mixing bowl while sitting on the table next to an elderly Black woman (presumably her grandmother? Her aunt? Who knows.  It doesn’t match, that’s the point).  She runs out of milk, and the woman adds water to her bowl.  She exits the house and can then be seen on the front stoop chilling with two Black women, presumably her friends, and a little Black boy as they vibe to her track.  At one point, the boy, hanging over her neck, makes gun trigger gestures with his fingers and nods in the camera with a grit on his face.  As the video progresses, two Black men are seen leaning against a fancy car wearing shirts that say “Drugs Not Hugs.”  Iggy and her friends then are seen dancing in front of an ice cream truck as they lick ice cream snacks seductively.  All this is going on as Iggy raps about how much she likes oral sex and as the hook repeats its refrain “pu*sy, pu*sy, pu*sy.” Watch the video yourself.  It’s rife with cultural appropriation, and blatantly so.  The video looks like every rap video filmed in the hood in the early 2000s.  It’s problematic for so many reasons.  It reinforces for her White audience negative stereotypes about urban Black people and their culture.  From the blatant association of Black men with drugs and aggression, to the subtle association of even Black children with guns and violence, to the hypersexualization of, and characterization of Black women as promiscuous through the images of Black women licking ice cream to the sound of the song’s raunchy lyrics, the video hits on almost every Black stereotype in the book.  Also problematic is the image of the elderly Black woman adding water to Iggy’s cereal bowl when they run out of milk, associating Black people with desperation and poverty.  To White youth, this is “ghetto” Black culture (a term which I hate: it’s racist: it’s used to stigmatize and belittle urban Black culture because of its distance from mainstream cultural norms), a culture that is different from and beneath their own.  But at the same time, they are fascinated by this culture and they think it’s cool.  Black urban youth have long set the trend for what becomes popular among American youth nationally, be it how we dress, the slang we use, the dances we invent, or the music we create.  By associating herself with Black people and with Black culture, and by pretending to be a Black woman – though she’s one of only two White people in the entire video – Iggy earns cool points with her White audience who buy her records and pay for her concert tickets.  White kids already pay for Black culture from Black artists, but they are even more willing to buy it from a White artist who they can see themselves in.  So Iggy has achieved a level of success that other Black women artists doing the same things have not been able to achieve because, frankly, White people can sell Black culture to White people better than Black people can.  Iggy profits from exploiting Black culture and Black people while simultaneously degrading the culture and the people she’s exploiting. That video was from 2011, before she became the superstar she is today.  But, as I mentioned earlier, it was that very video that initially made major record labels pay attention to her, and it is those very tactics which she employed in the video which propelled her into superstardom.  Last year she became the first female and the first non-American rapper to be featured on the XXL magazine freshman class cover, a highly coveted position recognizing the year’s 12 best and most influential new rap acts (I would consider her the latter, certainly not the former).  Her song “Fancy” was number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven consecutive weeks this year, and she broke several records among women artists of any genre. But Iggy Azalea is not the only White person to achieve success by pimping Black culture in recent memory – far from it.  2013 was a particularly irritating year for Black music fans and followers of pop culture because a handful of White artists achieved incredible success last year by appropriating Black culture.  Miley Cyrus twerked her way into the spotlight performing – or attempting to perform – a style of dance that, whether people like it or not, has become a cultural staple among Black youth (and, now, youth nationally, as many of our inventions often become).  Robin Thicke finally broke into the mainstream with his song “Blurred Lines” which features a bounce reminiscent of 1970s funk. The song became the most downloaded song of all time and – literally – the most played song of all time on the radio.  Thicke was sued, however, by Marvin Gaye’s family who claimed the song was copied from Marvin’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.”  Justin Timberlake (whom I’m actually a fan of) released his long-awaited third studio album which featured traditionally African American R&B styles, and his live performances of the album on tour, at award shows and on late night talk shows featured heavily jazz-influenced song arrangements performed by largely Black band members accompanied by largely Black back-up singers, and sometimes included nods to popular rap songs like “Bands A Make Her Dance” by Juicy J and “N**gas In Paris” by Kanye West and Jay Z.  Justin Bieber, whose image – from his baggy, sagging jeans, to his backwards fitted caps and beanies, to his gold chains – has been molded in that of urban Black youth, was constantly in the news because of the shenanigans he pulled with, as the media was keen to point out, his Black rapper friends.  And Macklemore not only (we felt) stole the Best Rap Album Grammy from Kendrick Lamar, but was recruited to perform his song “Same Love,” which is celebrated by fans and music critics for its embrace of gay rights and marriage equality, at a mass gay and lesbian wedding ceremony at the award show when he is suspected to have stolen his biggest hit “Thrift Shop,” which became the most played rap song of all time, from a Black gay rapper from New York City named Le1f (listen to the two songs; “Thrift Shop’s” beat and the flow Macklemore uses in his delivery are almost identical to those of “Wut” by Le1f; too, pay attention to the introductions and the first rap lines of both songs).

All this transpired over the course of last year while, at the same time, Black people were anxiously following the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin.  So as White artists were winning and breaking records for appropriating Black music, Black culture, parts of Black identity, Black people were losing – reminded that, like awards that Black artists compete for against White musicians, because of the very identity that White competitors were exploiting, not even our lives are guaranteed to us.  These reminders continued into 2014 with the non-indictments of officers in the killing of Michael Brown and the strangulation of Eric Garner on camera, and the shooting deaths of Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and countless other unarmed Black men, women, and children by police officers.  So, for many Black rap fans, myself included, it has been particularly painful to watch Iggy Azalea shoot to fame this year by pretending to be a Black person yet not having to share in the experience of what it means to be Black in America and while, like Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, and Justin Bieber, remaining silent on the issues that impact us.

Azealia Banks, a 23-year-old Black female rapper from Harlem, New York, in a frank and emotional interview with New York radio station Hot 97 last week, articulated why she takes so much of an issue with Iggy Azalea and with award shows that give awards to White artists who make Black music and exploit Black culture.  Banks explained that, “and when they give these Grammys out, all it says to White kids is, like, ‘Oh yea. You’re great.  You can do whatever you put your mind to.’  And it says to Black kids ‘You don’t have sh*t.  You don’t own sh*t.  Not even the sh*t you created for yourself.’”

Indeed, what it says to White youth when White artists who appropriate Black culture win awards over actual Black people, is that they can even be Black people better than Black people and do Black culture better than Black people do it.  But what it says to Black youth is that they are less than. Indeed, the message I take from White people succeeding by appropriating Black culture is that, as a Black person in America, I can’t have anything of my own.  So much of African American history has been Whitewashed and erased – inventions that were created in Africa but have been intentionally attributed to other people, Black American contributions to American society that are overlooked and ignored in official historical narratives and excluded from teachings in school, stories and “facts” about American history and historical narratives about Africa pre-colonization that are completely fabricated.  So, as Azealia Banks articulated in her interview, it is hard to watch rap music, one of the few things that we know is ours – that we know we created, because we did so only within the past 45 years – co-opted and exploited by White artists, and to watch Black rappers compete with White ones for awards they probably won’t win.  Banks put her feelings on the matter bluntly: “I don’t want to share this with y’all.”

Now, I don’t personally feel this way. I’m not saying that White people shouldn’t rap.  I’m not saying they should not use slang or do the Dougie or twerk or wear their baseball caps backwards.  But what I am saying, is that I hate watching them do it, or use Black people who do it as props, and get rewarded for it at the expense of Black people who do it better than them, and Black youth who do it and get nothing for it. Too, White rappers should understand their place in hip hop as White people, and that’s not to say that their place is beneath Black artists either. Eminem is demonstrative of that – he has been embraced by Black hip hop fans as one of the best ever, better than most Black rappers. But it is to say that White rappers should understand their place in a historically Black genre of music and one that evolved out of, and as, a Black sociopolitical movement. Hip hop evolved in the hood in New York City in the early 1970s following the Civil Rights Movement and during the Black Power Movement. It was a vehicle for the expression of Black reality by Black youth, and continues to be so in many respects. With this as its roots, hip hop has spread to become a global phenomenon. But in this country, given our racial history and present, and the origins of rap as an art form, it is important for White artists to understand where they stand in the modern landscape. It is important for them to use rap as a vehicle to express their reality or, if they choose to express an alternate one, as many rappers in fact do, it is important for them not to wear someone else’s culture as a costume in doing so, in an attempt to fit into the rap landscape, or as a gimmick to sell records. Eminem is a shining example of this. Eminem today expresses his reality, his truth, but early on in his career he often portrayed an invented character, yet one that was informed by, and fit into, the culture he was familiar with having grown up as a poor White kid in Detroit, Michigan. Eminem pretended, but he didn’t pretend to be Black.

It’s insulting to watch White people celebrate each other for appropriating things that we created.  And, because of this (among other reasons), after Macklemore won in January, I made the decision to stop watching White award shows – music, film, or otherwise – or atleast stop caring about who wins an award, and instead give my attention to award shows like the Soul Train Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards, the BET Honors, and BET’s Black Girls Rock, shows where Black people celebrate Black culture and Black people’s contributions to society.  I don’t need White people to tell me that my music is good or that my movies are worth watching in order for me to believe it.  I know my own worth.  I know the value of my culture.  Yet still, the Grammy nominations for the 2015 awards, which were announced earlier this month amid heightened racial tensions and emotion following publicized police killings of unarmed Black people, could not have come at a worse time.  They are yet new reminders that, as a Black person in this country, I can’t have anything: not the culture or the music I created for myself, not even my identity – not even my life.

Amid reminders that many White people don’t like us, Black people face, too, reminders that many do like our culture.  They imitate it and then celebrate each other for doing so.  Iggy Azalea can pretend to be Black and reap the commercial benefits of Blackness and Whiteness at the same time without having to struggle with the traumatic reality of actually being Black in America.  She doesn’t have to walk around in constant fear for her life because of her skin color.  She doesn’t have to memorize the names of dead people who look like her.  She doesn’t have to endure constant reminders that the masses think she is less than.  As popular as Black culture is among the White masses, despite the fact that Black youth continue to set the curve when it comes to popular trends among American youth, Black people remain incredibly unpopular.  We remain under assault.  And Iggy Azalea’s omnipresence in the Grammy rap categories serves as a reminder of both of these notions at the same time.  That’s why I don’t like Iggy Azalea.   That’s why the prospect of her winning Best Rap Album is biting for so many Black people.  It’s a slap in the face amid slaps in the face.  But neither notion looks likely to change anytime soon.

You can watch Azealia Bank’s interview with Hot 97 here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFDS-VEEl6w

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.  Follow him on Twiiter @myblackmindd.

What I Learned from #CrimingWhileWhite

Over the past two days, in response to the Eric Garner grand jury decision, White Twitter users took to the web to share stories about times where they were confronted by the police after breaking the law and came out of the incident with no punishment – basically, they admitted to crimes they got away with.  Garner died after being choked to death by an officer during an encounter that began over him, allegedly, selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.  Many of the confessions referenced teenage and college offenses, but many also confessed to crimes committed well into adulthood.  Participants reported having contributed to the hashtag in order to acknowledge their White privilege in a racially biased criminal justice system.  Some of the tweets are below (and you can find others by searching the hashtag on Twitter):












As a 21-year-old Black man, I would never imagine saying or doing to a police officer some of the things people have admitted to doing.  I wouldn’t dare tell a cop to “f*ck off!” or blow weed smoke in his face (I don’t smoke) for fear of retaliation.  Some people have gotten away with some pretty serious offenses, like drunk driving, and others have gotten away with or gotten off pretty easily on some not so serious offenses but, nonetheless, offenses for which Black people, particularly young Black people, are routinely locked up, such as possession of marijuana, fighting (on assault charges), and petty theft from a department store.  But after reading dozens of tweets by White people acknowledging their privilege, I also came away with new insight into the minds of many of the people who won’t acknowledge any such privilege, and who eagerly and unapologetically give the police the benefit of the doubt in almost every situation.  It occurred to me: of course most White people support the police! Of course they give them the benefit of the doubt!  The cops they are used to dealing with drive their drunk kids home to make sure they get there safely after a night of partying.  They call teenagers’ moms to come pick them up from the mall after they get caught stealing or fighting.  They take young adults’ weed and tell them to go home, instead of charging them with a crime for which they could face years in prison.  When White officers go into affluent White communities and catch kids stealing, fighting, drunk or high, they see kids with futures that they don’t want to ruin.  White people, especially those with class privilege, have very different experiences with law enforcement than Black, Brown, and poor people, but they assume that police generally engage with everyone with the same level of respect and concern with which they engage with them.  They can’t fathom other officers, even the very same ones that police their communities, going into other communities and engaging with people in the way that many Black people allege the police have engaged with us.  The stories we present must sound preposterous to them.  The cops they’re used to dealing with would never do the things we claim they have done to us without a good reason.  And they almost certainly couldn’t be doing them so frequently and to so many people.

But when officers go into poor and minority communities and encounter Black and brown kids doing the same things, they don’t see kids with futures, they see potential criminals, potential threats – on drugs.  There is a fundamental difference in how police perceive White middle-class youth and youth of color, and thus a difference in how they interpret their behavior, and that translates into major differences in how officers engage with them respectively.  Ultimately, it culminates into major differences in legal outcomes for White people and Black people:  1 in 13 Black men will see prison in their lifetime; 1 in 117 White women will.

But police antagonism, brutality, and over-policing aren’t new to the Black community.  This has been going on for decades, centuries even.  But now we have cameras and social media with which to expose it.  The #crimingwhilewhite trending topic and the numerous shootings of unarmed Black people in recent months paint images of two very different Americas – one for Black people and one for White people, both with different sets of laws. But as one person pointed out on Twitter, the way which officers engaged with all of the confessors is how officers should engage with people – with everyone: using compassion and discretion.  When Black people begin to see a shift towards this kind of engagement from police, then we will see a change in the tide of distrust between Black American communities and the local police forces that are charged with protecting and serving them.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.

In Defense of the Ferguson Riots

On the night the grand jury’s decision was announced in the Michael Brown shooting case, though Brown’s parents for weeks had called on demonstrators to protest peacefully, riots broke out during protests against the jury’s decision.  Several police cars were overturned, their windows broken and their frames torched.  Bricks and bottles were thrown at police.  A number of stores were looted and vandalized.  And at least a dozen buildings were set on fire, including several small businesses, some of which burned completely to the ground, including a Walgreens and a hair salon.  While most protesters, indeed, demonstrated peacefully, the property damage done by the few was significant.  Many, from the governor of Missouri and the mayor of Ferguson, to leadership in a number of civil rights organizations, to clergy, to the President himself, denounced the riots as unacceptable and counterproductive.  President Obama said he had “no sympathy” for rioters and that “… the bottom line is, nothing of significance, nothing of benefit, results from destructive acts.  I’ve never seen a civil rights law, or a health care bill, or an immigration bill result because a car got burnt.”  While I, myself, was a participant in a number of peaceful demonstrations in Washington, D.C. following the decision, I wholeheartedly empathize with the demonstrators who have chosen to express their indignation alternatively.

Reverend Jesse Jackson said in an interview following the riot with CNN news anchor Don Lemon that “Injustice leads to anarchy.  Justice leads to peace.”  We have seen in recent years, and historically, in Egypt and Libya, in Crimea and presently in Hong Kong, that Rev. Jackson’s words hold true.  Peoples that have felt persecuted and oppressed all across the globe have risen up against their governments and retaliated with violence, toppling regimes in many cases. Granted, the rioters in Ferguson did not target government buildings or entities, but they did choose to retaliate against the state system by lashing out against its most immediate manifestation – the police that occupied their community – by defying officers in the most immediately destructive and convenient way possible – through the destruction of police property, and destruction of that which the police (supposedly) came to protect – private property.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said (providing greater context for his comments than I have here) in response to the race riots of the 1960s, that “riots are the language of the unheard.”  People lash out physically when they feel they are not heard when they lash out verbally, and I completely understand that anger and that frustration and that desire to be heard, because I feel the same way.  I also recognize that some in Ferguson see no need to respond to the decision non-violently, because the system has not been non-violent with them.  They are, after all, responding to a state-sanctioned murder of an unarmed teenager.  Too, in the August weeks following the initial shooting, Ferguson police and Missouri National Guardsmen responded to peaceful protesters with teargas, wooden and rubber bullets, harassment, abuse, and unjust arrests.  So I don’t think it’s quite so unreasonable for some residents to react to the decision the way they did.  It is unfortunate that the destruction took place in their own community, nonetheless, it follows logically given the physical presence of the state (police and guardsmen) in their community, and the burning desire to lash out against it.  Even if you don’t agree that these words justify the riots, you must concede, at least, that they explain them.

I saw a young man on Twitter the other day express how silly he thought it was for someone to compare the destruction of property during the Ferguson riots to the Boston Tea Party of 1773.  But they aren’t so different: both were physical manifestations of the anger and indignation of a people who felt they were targeted and oppressed by an unjust system.  The difference is, the Boston Tea Party has come to be embraced as a riot that birthed a movement that birthed a nation, so history has justified its perpetrators.  But resistance to oppression works no differently today than it did 240 years ago during the colonial era, or 50 years ago during the riots of the 1960s, or 20 years ago after Rodney King, or than it does in other parts of the world in present day  just because “violence” has been deemed socially unacceptable in today’s American society.  People can only bear so many compounded injustices before they explode.  And some in Ferguson have exploded.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.

John Crawford and Tamir Rice: How Black People Can Die for Carrying Toy Guns In An Open Carry Gun State

In August, 22-year-old John Crawford was gunned down by Ohio police in a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio, outside of Dayton.  Police were responding to a call reporting a man waving a rifle in the store.  Just this past Saturday in Cleveland, Ohio, an officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice after responding to a call reporting a male with a gun outside a recreational center.  Both John and Tamir turned out to be carrying toy guns.  John was carrying a gun he had picked up in the toy gun aisle in the store, and from the Walmart surveillance video released from the incident, it appears that he was merely checking out the toy while talking on his cell phone.  Tamir was carrying a bb-gun from home.  The orange safety cap that was supposed to indicate that it was a toy had been removed.  Police in both cases argued that they could not distinguish the toy guns from real ones.  The problem is, Ohio is an open carry state, so even if the guns had been real, it would have been legal for John to carry his as long as he had a permit and, though Tamir was underage, the officer that shot him reported believing that he was around 20 years old (a ridiculous claim when you see how baby-faced Tamir was, and a claim reflective of the perceived aging of Black children to rationalize suspicion of them, but that’s a conversation for another essay) so, from the officer’s point of view, Tamir very well could have been old enough to have a permit as well.  But police engaged with neither of them to determine whether that was the case.  They fired immediately upon arriving at the scene, in Tamir’s case, less than two seconds after exiting their vehicle.

Officers’ responses to John and Tamir contrast starkly the responses of officers to armed and dangerous suspects in a number of recent cases, such as James Holmes in the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012 and, more recently, the manhunt for cop-killer Eric Frein in Pennsylvania.  In the Aurora case, 25-year-old Holmes entered a movie theater armed with four guns: an AR-15 rifle, a 12-guage shotgun, and two .40 caliber handguns, and 600 rounds of ammunition.  After murdering 12 people and shooting 58 others, Holmes exited the building to police officers who engaged him verbally, persuaded him to surrender, and successfully apprehended and arrested him without any shots fired on the part of officers.  The weeks-long manhunt for 31-year-old Frein, who murdered a state trooper and seriously injured another, too, ended with his surrender through verbal persuasion.  Police described Frein as a “survivalist” and “armed and dangerous,” and as they traced him through the woods, they found three rifles including one AK-47, two fully-functional pipe bombs, ammunition, and military gear belonging to him.  Frein was unarmed when apprehended but, nonetheless, officers approached him with far more restraint than officers did John and Tamir, who had not been reported to have injured anyone at all.

The differences in police’s approach to suspects in each of these cases beg the question: why, in a state in which the right to openly carry real guns is sanctioned by law, have two individuals within the past three months been killed by police for carrying openly what turned out to be toys, especially when officers have demonstrated that – as they are trained to do – it is completely possible to engage with, disarm, and apprehend suspects without using any force at all?  The answer: because John and Tamir were Black; James and Eric were White.

Differences in stereotypes associated with Black people and White people influence how officers approach individuals of different races in their encounters with them.  In the mainstream, Black people, men in particular, are seen as aggressive, violent, dangerous, and criminal.  These are the images of Black men we see paraded across our television screens daily in newscasts and TV shows.  However, White people are not seen in this light; by contrast, they are seen largely as peaceful, law-abiding citizens.  So when Black people commit violent acts, according to the mainstream, it is to be expected.  But when White people do the same, as in the cases of James Holmes and Eric Frein, the perpetrators are seen as anomalies, persons who almost certainly can and should be engaged with and dissuaded from continuing or initiating the violent acts which they likely would not be prone to under different circumstances.  Unarmed Black people are judged more likely to be dangerous just by virtue of their color; so put a gun in their hands, and that sentiment is heightened.  Put a weapon in the hands of someone assumed to be dangerous, and it will be further assumed that they have that weapon for offensive purposes, or, to use in a crime.  They become even more of a threat than usual, and even more in need of neutralization.  But put one in the hands of someone assumed to be a law-abiding citizen, and it will be further assumed that that individual has their weapon for defensive purposes.  When these assumptions are made by law enforcement, they produce the differing outcomes that resulted for John Crawford and Tamir Rice, and James Holmes and Eric Frein.  The latter had already demonstrated that they were dangerous, and still, police approached them with the intention of diffusing the situation peacefully.  And that’s what they did.  But to the officers that approached John Crawford and Tamir Rice, John and Tamir were already more likely than not to be violent, so when they arrived at the scene, they took no chances in letting either of them carry out the violent acts which they had already been assumed to be plotting.  These officers weren’t the first to make such hasty judgments, and they won’t be the last.

There needs to be an open and honest dialogue in the political discourse about the role that unconscious racial biases play in the disproportionate number of killings that result for African Americans in encounters with law enforcement.  It is unfathomable that persons equipped with assault weapons and bombs can make it out of encounters with law enforcement alive, but individuals carrying toys cannot.  As much as some like to deny it, there is overwhelming research that indicates that implicit and unconscious racial biases do exist and are prevalent in the American public, and they do influence how people interact with one another.  Police officers are not exempt from these biases, and we should not pretend that they are.  On the contrary, we should pursue changes to police training, racial profiling policies, and other policies that govern how police are and are not allowed to engage with members of the public.  John Crawford and Tamir Rice did not need to die, but there was nothing that could have saved them from the officers’ biases – not their right to carry guns, nor the fact that they weren’t real.  But we can prevent more Johns and more Tamirs by talking about that thing we don’t like to talk about – race.  Until we are willing to have that conversation, no progress can be made on these issues, and more lives will be needlessly lost.  We can fix this problem, and everyone can contribute.  All it takes is a conversation.  The time to have that conversation is now.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.

Analyzing dynamics of race and gender in social issues, politics, and pop culture. New post every weekend.