By: Cynthia Brown
Watching recent events unfold, it looks like we are finally going to reckon with the crimes committed against black people since they were brought here on the first slave ship in 1619. Hopefully we will have the courage and discipline to make the hard choices and big changes that are needed to make our country a real democracy with equality and social justice for everyone.
I write these words as the news from Atlanta is coming in – the latest in a series of brutal incidents where a black person – in this case a man who was in his car waiting in the take-out line at a local Wendy’s – was killed by a white police officer. These endless incidents are heartbreaking and enraging.
That being said, I believe we are making a mistake if we only blame the police for the massive unrest we are witnessing. The need for law enforcement “reform” is urgent, but the harder more important part is changing the laws.
I speak from having over four decades working closely with our nation’s cops – chiefs down to patrol officers. In the late 1970s, I accepted a part-time job working on an early community project with the Boston Police Department. I had never met a cop or been in a police station in my life. At that time, the relationship between the Department and the people of Boston was tense. A federal court had ruled Boston schools were unconstitutionally segregated and ordered students bused outside their neighborhoods to correct the situation. Anger, particularly, in the white neighborhoods, resulted in near-riots and numerous incidents of violence.
My job was in a busy police station in one of the most crime-ridden areas of the city. At that time there were very few women or minorities on the force. Most of the 200 male, white officers assigned to the station where I worked were very outspoken about their conservative views on everything from the Vietnam War to women’s rights to homosexuality. After he learned I drove my car to work, one officer actually asked me, “Who let you ‘girls’ have drivers licenses?” It was quite a culture shock for a liberal-minded young woman who came of age in the 1960’s to find herself plopped down in the middle of this strange world. Their nickname for me was “Jane Fonda.”
I worked there for three years, organizing and facilitating meetings between residents and the cops who patrolled those neighborhoods. It was the first community policing program in the country – over 40 years ago. Bill Bratton, a lieutenant with the Boston police Department still in his 20’s, was in charge. We shared an office. I can still see Bill’s desk that tilted to one because it was missing a leg.
Working in the basement of that precinct, I saw firsthand the officers’ constant dealings with armed assailants, drug dealers, drunks, rapists, gangs, the homeless, the mentally ill, and a whole range of garden-variety crooks. I was shocked to see a lot of these people hung out at the police station – it was the place they felt safe. One time a pregnant woman locked herself in a bathroom, and went into labor. She would not unlock the door so the officers finally broke it down – gently – to help her deliver the baby.
I was continually amazed at the restraint, humor, and humanity those officers showed. I also witnessed extraordinary acts of human kindness and compassion. I will never forget the time I came back to the station and found an older officer, alone in the role call room, sobbing—the kind where your head is between your knees and your whole body heaves. He had just returned from a call where he found a three-month-old baby dead in a bathtub. He was struggling to write the report.
The day of Christmas Eve the first year I worked there, I saw one officer take home a particularly violent eleven-year-old boy so he wouldn’t have to spend Christmas eve alone in a cell. The boy was black. The officer, who had six children of his own, was white.
Then there was the policeman who was reading the book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Susan Brownmiller’s seminal history of the crime of rape, after he responded to a brutal sexual assault of an older woman near a church. When I asked him about it, he seemed a little embarrassed. He told me, “I’m just trying to figure out why it would happen. My daughter told me to read this book.”
Police work in a paramilitary environment. For the most part they follow orders. The enforce the laws but it’s the people with power – businesses, churches, politicians, the media – who support the politicians who write the laws.
If the system is corrupt, and it is, the laws need to change. Michael Brown’s tragic death in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, lifted a veil off the draconian ordinances that were bringing in desperately needed revenue to the state from steep fines levied against people living in segregated black neighborhoods. For the politicos in Missouri, who refused to raise taxes or change policies and statutes, it was all business as usual. But the fines forced on the state’s poorest residents were astronomical - $500 for burning leaves or having a headlight out. The police along with all their other jobs, were now serving as tax collectors adding to the divide and animosity.
The hard work of eliminating America’s systemic racism means big changes need to be made to our economic system. Most crucial is we must create a robust social safety net for America’s 50 million people living in poverty. We need to overhaul of our tax laws so guys like Jeff Bezos – the richest man in the world – pays something.
Americans desperately need a universal health care system like every other industrialized country has. We need affordable housing, better schools, and clean water. As we move to make these changes, law enforcement needs to have a seat at the table as do all our public sector employees - teachers, public works, transportation, public health, corrections, parks, libraries and so on.
The first slave was brought to this country in 1619. For 400 years this nation has brutally discriminated against black people. James Baldwin once said, “I knew when we couldn’t pick cotton, they’d find a way to lock us all up.” Baldwin was prophetic. Visit any prison and you will be shocked to find them filled to overflowing with young black men, most for minor drug offenses.
We need to change those laws – that’s the path to serious reform.
Blaming law enforcement and the police is a dangerous distraction and an easy scapegoat. We need to have them on board to effectively tackle racism and poverty. It will require taking on some of the most powerful interests in the U.S. – insurance companies, big pharma, banks, and the tax code.
That’s going to be a lot harder than getting rid of the president of the Minneapolis police union.
Cynthia Brown lives in New York City. She is the author of Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Pride, Pain and Courage, 15 in-depth profiles of NYPD officers.