The Root to the Problem, More than Freddie Gray’s Case

By Ron Kipling Williams

The uprising that took place in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder is indicative of the crisis that America has been facing since its inception. From the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Tulsa Race riots, Jim Crow segregation, Civil Rights, and into today, we have experienced how race and class have served as powder kegs to our explosions, and has resulted in deep wounds from which we have yet to heal.

The issue of police brutality is the perfect intersection of race and class; those who have been marginalized and targeted because of their skin color and their socioeconomic background. We have witnessed this time and again over the last 50 years, from the lynchings in the south, to the police involved homicides in the North, from Amadou Diallo to Freddie Gray.

Amidst the condemnation by many, particularly in the media, for the mayhem and looting that took place, we must ask tough questions that get at the core of who we are as a society: if it were not for the uprising, would there have been attention to Gray’s murder? One case in point is the homicide of Tyrone West, who was brutalized and murdered by police on July 18, 2013. Though the autopsy determined that West died due to a heart condition which was exacerbated by the struggle with police, it is clear that police used excessive force to subdue West. No citizen should be aggravated by anyone to the point of death. We saw similar cases with Eric Garner in New York, Oscar Grant in Los Angeles, and Anthony Anderson again in Baltimore.

Another question that needs to be raised is, why have we given law enforcement such power over citizens that they can operate with impunity? The Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights has given police officers a myriad of protections that have almost given them carte blanche to conduct themselves in a rogue fashion knowing that they have not only the “blue wall of silence” facilitated by the Fraternal Order of Police, but that they have due process above and beyond the average citizen. It denotes an established hierarchy of citizenry; that the people who are sword to serve and protect us are viewed in a higher class, and the vocabulary used toward them is reflective of that.

For example, the looters in last week’s uprising were characterized as “thugs” for destroying property. The six police officers who were clearly responsible for Gray’s death were not. It is unfair and unjust to be similarly situated but treated differently. In fact, that establishes a prima facie case for discrimination. Even after the evidence revealed the police officers’ culpability, no elected official, save City Council President Jack Young, recanted their characterization of the citizens who vandalized and looted, nor did they move the police officers into the “thug” category.

Peering deeper into the lens of class, we see that police are viewed as professionals, often middle class, valuable members of society. Coupled with formidable union support, they enjoy perceptions and protections that those who are poor, lower economic class, service industry workers, unemployed, underemployed, do not. Essentially, in this post 9/11 world, police officers are regarded as heroes of our society, while “the others” are viewed as our dregs.

We are all human beings, citizens of this nation, and neighbors in our communities. However, many who are marginalized and targeted by law enforcement are the same ones this society views as predators, leeching off social programs, filling our prisons, and not contributing to the tax base. This is far from the truth. Everyone, regardless of their background, desires to have gainful employment that results in a life of decency and dignity. Our young people desire to have a school system that facilitates their learning and their future success. We all want communities that are sustainable, that has access to healthy food, health care, safety, protection, and recreation. There are no groups that are bad; that is a consistent characterization by those who have privilege, who ironically gained their privilege by exploiting the same poor and working class blacks and other minorities for profit. It is time that we cease to demonize the most challenged of us, and enact ways for them to become self-sustainable. We possess the collective community will; there must also be the collective political will to accomplish this.

Until there is fundamental change in our societal structure, there will continue to be a gross disparity in quality of life for all of our citizens, and subsequently a difference in treatment by law enforcement, which historically became licensed to protect the state. Only later did it transform to protect the citizenry. We must stop the mentality of “us” versus “them”. It only polarize and segregate us, and amplifies the kind of tragedies that we have observed with Freddie Gray and others.

The fact that 70 percent of police officers live outside of Baltimore is a very telling indicator of what is wrong with our police department. If a police officer is not from the community, then they are not connected to the community because they have no stake in it. When a person is disconnected from a community they begin to view it as “them”, “the other”, “those people”. From there the characterization disintegrates into viewing the community as less than human, which begets objectification. When one objectifies, anything is possible, because now the community is seen as merely objects, not as a collection of human beings.

We must enforce a combination of policies that cultivates law enforcement from our own communities and enact the appropriate punishment, including incarceration for those who break our laws. We need to create the kind of culture that lets our police officers know that they are a part of us, and they are accountable to us. We need to have a very strong civilian review board, and implement a mechanism that allows our city council representatives to enact legislation that strengthens the citizen-law enforcement bond.

But herein lies the rub. Police offers are human beings. A significant number of them come from our communities. Though they are sworn to uphold the law; they do not create it. They do not craft legislative or executive policies. That is the job of our bureaucratic institutions, and when institutionally racist and classist policies result in civilian casualties, police officers are the ones to fall on their sword. Consequently, neither the appropriate and swift punishment nor incarceration ever reaches the upper ranks of the ‘blue wall’ or City Hall. It seems that police are pitted against us, used as pawns in a sociopolitical chess game that serves the status quo, while we are served up as collateral damage.

I have been involved in community activism for a number of years, and I have seen the beauty and resiliency of our neighborhoods and communities. We are a loving, caring city that deserves to be protected and served. We should not allow any factions to destroy what we have built, but make no mistake, we will always rebuild whatever is destroyed, whether it be by citizens or law enforcement.

U.S. Department of Justice probes police department

But what will happen afterwards?

By Benjamin Land

Police brutality cases keep trending on social media and on news channels throughout America. While the police-related shootings of Michael Brown and Vonderrit Myers Jr. in Missouri have justly garnered most of the public scrutiny on police brutality, Baltimore was recently added to the cities affected last month.

The Anniversary of Tyrone West’s Death Protest. Photo credit: http://www.themsuspokesman.com
The Anniversary of Tyrone West’s Death Protest.
Photo credit: http://www.themsuspokesman.com

Last month, the incident involving Baltimore resident Kolin Truss and police officer Vincent Cosum made local headlines as the latest addition to police brutality altercations from the Baltimore City Police Department. This particular incident found itself spotlighted in local publications across the city, which in turn reminded readers of similar cases in the past. These incidents were frequent enough that it provoked the Department of Justice to initiate a probe into the BCPD for police brutality as well as officer misconduct.

The DOJ’s probe’s hasn’t been released to the public, yet, but the sheer fact that there is a probe to begin with has galvanized local civil rights leaders into calling for a more invasive one. According to the Baltimore Sun, the local branch of the NAACP is spearheading the move for the second probe, citing reasons such as distrust of the current mayoral administration as to why a federal investigation should be carried out. The current probe is a “collaborative review” that was agreed upon by both the mayor’s office and the DOJ.

At the moment, opinions on the outcome of the probe and what it means are mixed. But all concerned parties seem to agree on the need for an internal reform of the current police department. Cases like the above, and several settlements that are currently being paid from the city to residents, are indicative of the threat that violent cops who remain in the department pose.

Earlier this month, the city released a report that discussed on- going changes within the BCPD. The report stressed two suggestions: increased staff to man the Internal Affairs Division and the Force Investigative Team, as well more equipment that will assist in the investigation of police misconduct. The second suggestion is equipping officers with body cameras for a more “in-depth” view of any altercations with residents.

The latter suggestion is widely popular with the City Council and criminal defense lawyers, as well as being supported by activists and citizens via the social media coverage of the Missouri protests. If implemented completely, the suggestions could be the first step in repairing the relationship Baltimore City residents have with the BCPD in the immediate future.

Is diversity in politics and law enforcement worthwhile?

By Benjamin Land

In the wake of repeated police brutality cases making the news, public scrutiny has turned to whether our police forces and political representatives truly represent the diverse bodies that they serve. This is especially the case in the aforementioned fields, as the police are tasked with the duty of upholding the laws passed by our politicians, who are themselves elected by the public to be “face” of their state. So does diversity in both politics and law enforcement makes a difference with establishing the trust between those that serve and represent the people and the public?

Research shows that diversity isn’t as prolific as one might assume. A recent analysis by the Associated Press of the racial makeup of police agencies around the U.S. have shown that Hispanics are more underrepresented than Blacks, in communities that consists largely of minorities. These communities include Anaheim, California, where more than half of the community is Hispanic versus the 23 percent of Hispanic police officers.

In East Haven, Connecticut, the Hispanic population is nearly 9 percent with a 1 percent representation in the police department. Providence, Rhode Island has a 40 percent Hispanic population compared to the 11 percent on the force. These disparities are particularly interesting due to the narrowing of Blacks being represented in police agencies over the years. Baltimore has a higher percentage of white officers patrolling the city (48 percent), with only 28percent of the residents being white.

Yet, even in cities where the police force’s diversity is indicative of the represented areas, discrimination still occurs, thus creating mistrust that plagues so many police departments. This mistrust is again evidenced in the case of Kolin Truss, who received a beating from an onduty officer while unarmed. At the time of publication, Officer Vincent Cosum was suspended following this incident while facing a seven-count lawsuit from attorneys representing Truss.

This larger sociological issue seems to also play out into the game of politics as well. A 2012 Gallup poll shows an overwhelming trend of the Republican Party consisting of mostly white individuals, with Democrats showing a more diverse electoral body. Hispanics are more represented when they identify as independent voters than when they claim either one of the two dominant parties. This diversity, or lack thereof, carries over to the ethnic and racial groups that vote for their representatives into office. Meanwhile, the recovering economy has led to a rise in voters shifting their default political leanings as independents.

The lack of diversity within the GOP is a source of constant concern for the Republicans, who are looking to rebrand the party in an effort to attract more minorities in the future. But by the looks of things, it seems that mistrust is the main roadblock to the rebrand being successful. And even among communities in the U.S., mistrust of the authorities is a major problem that needs to be addressed for diversity to truly make an impact.