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Month: July 2016

I Asked a Black Cop What He Thinks About America’s Policing Problem (Vice)


It’s easy to say fuck the police. But we know we need them. We need the police to protect us, although quite often it seems like we need to be protected from the police. But when people agitate for more effective policing they are not suggesting the institution be eliminated, but demanding that police do their jobs better. But while it’s important to be critical of the police, especially in the midst of a national policing crisis, we cannot escape or even comprehend our policing crisis without knowing what the police are thinking.

Earlier this year I met a black police officer who currently serves on the force of a major American police department. Each time we spoke I was impressed at how willing he is to be critical of his fellow officers, and how blunt he was in assessing the state of policing in the United States today.

Most police officers are not allowed to give interviews, which is perhaps understandable, but also a shame, because it denies people the opportunity to add their perspective. My cop friend, who I’ll call Marc, agreed to let me publish one of our conversations, as long as he could remain anonymous. Below is our interview, lightly edited for clarity.

Toure: Why do you think so many shocking policing incidents have happened over the last year?
Marc: Some of it has to do with the petulance of police. What I mean by the petulance, and I’ve argued with some co-workers about this, we have to be held to a higher standard. We took an oath. The community didn’t take an oath to protect the community—we would like them to, we would like them to be part of the solution. But they made no promises and took no oath. We did. We volunteered for this job and we are held to a higher standard.

In a lot of the situations I’m referring to, we’re not talking about how police deal with criminals. We’re talking about unarmed people who may have committed some basic violation, or done nothing wrong, and then things go way off the rails.
That’s entitlement. Remember on South Park when Cartman started talking about, ‘Respect my authori-tah?’ And then he starts beating people? It’s an entitlement thing. You have to get back to the basic question of why do people want to do this job? And if you’re not from the inner-city but you wanna police the inner-city, I kinda have to question, why do you wanna do that? Not saying that that’s not honorable, but what are your motives behind that?

And I think it’s an entitlement thing. It’s like, ‘I’m wearing this badge and you need to respect me.’ So I pull you over and I expect your respect, but you’ve been harassed by police and disrespected and you have somewhere you want to go, so you give me a little bit of attitude. But instead of being an adult and controlling the situation and de-escalating it, now I escalate the situation and say shut your mouth. You say ‘Hold on sir, I’m a grown man. I won’t shut my mouth.’ Now we’re going back and forth and no one’s de-escalating the situation, it goes from zero to 100. And I think the police’s job is always to de-escalate the situation.

Like Sandra Bland, that situation irritates me because it was a simple ticket that shouldn’t even require anything. OK, she doesn’t like the police. People have a right to not like you. Get over it. It’s a God-given right for people to not like you. But, you can’t be disorderly to the police, so people need to understand the disorderly conduct thing.

But I also think cops have to understand not to take it too personal. I’m in a confrontational job and 99 percent of the time when I deal with someone it’s gonna be in a confrontational environment. Therefore it’s my responsibility to de-escalate the situation at all times.

But what we hear from the police is a fear of being overpowered or having their authority lost to a particular young, unarmed black man. You hear that narrative over and over.
It would be nice if everybody who is in law enforcement were skilled marital artists and skilled fighters. But unfortunately in a job that’s hard to get people to apply for anyway, there are people who are walking around this nation with a gun and a badge who have never been in a real fight. Never. Never been punched in the face before. So [they] don’t have confidence in that skill. So when a person balls his fist up or comes after you, the first thing you think is, ‘I know I can’t fight. And I have a gun on me.’ And there’s a fear that you’ll be overpowered and killed with my own weapon. A lot of cops have died this way.

They show you these videos in the academy. “How we die.” It’s not just fear of the black man, it’s fear of people within itself. But then we have the perception from the media that the black man is the animal. He’s stronger, bigger, faster, more aggressive. So the white person who never grew up around blacks, all he has is this perception that these individuals have this superhuman strength. And it’s like, before the fight even begins I already think I’m gonna lose. And the reality is if you can beat me up and overpower me then you have the ability to take the gun off my hip and kill me with my own weapon. That’s a strong possibility. And if I’m afraid for my life that’s all I need to use deadly force.

We hear cops saying over and over in these incidents, ‘He went for my gun, I feared for my life.’ It seems like there’s this playbook coming down from someone telling them, ‘If something happens say this, it’ll get you out of jail.’ Is there some reason why we keep hearing the same story over and over?
One of the main things they focus on in the academy is liability. You have to know the liability of the law. You’re carrying a tool that can end somebody’s life so you have to know when you can use it and when you can’t. It’s taught in the academy you can only use your weapon when you fear for your life or your safety, or the safety of others. It’s beat down that this is when you can use it. So officers across the nation will always say ‘Well, I was in fear for my life.’ You can’t say anything else because there’s no other reason to shoot somebody.

When you look at all these incidents which one makes you the sickest?
The Cincinnati one.

Sam Dubose.
You can’t put yourself in harm’s way in order to use deadly force. Yes, we don’t wanna chase people and yes, if somebody runs from me it sucks to chase them, but you can’t just be bustin’ off at cars because they drive away. Especially if it’s not for something major. It’s not like this person was a rapist or a killer. We’re talking about a traffic stop. So that one was sickening. And South Carolina was sickening.

Walter Scott.
That was sickening. The guy’s running away. That’s called a chase. It’s time to run. Catch up to the person, tackle ’em, and then take ’em into custody. It sucks. God knows I don’t wanna run all the time but unfortunately that comes with the territory.

So this narrative of black lives being taken by cops, and then making national news so each incident becomes a big story on its own—has that had an impact on cops on the ground and how they do their job?
I think so. I truly honestly believe and think so. And I don’t think it’s just the movement, I think it’s a combination of stuff. They don’t feel like they’re gonna be backed by the mayors. I think one of the things we all want in our jobs is job security and the hope that we have bosses who support us. We all want supervisors to support us. And the community doesn’t support you, they never really have. If a cop dies there’s no national outcry, the community doesn’t really care. The mayor doesn’t support you because the mayor is a politician. The mayor, the county councilmen, they want votes. They want to win. So everybody has this fear they’ll set you up just to make national news and say ‘See we’re doing something.’

It’s almost like instead of saying ‘Lets get the facts,’ it’s, ‘Nah, lets make ’em [cops] guilty and we’ll figure it out later. To quiet the storm because we don’t want these Black Lives Matter people protesting in our backyard so we’ll hang the officer out to dry. Well who wants to be in a job where you’re hung out to dry?

Are you saying cops are going out on stops and feeling extra stress and tension and anxiety and thus officers are not de-escalating incidents, and they feel an anxiety because they don’t feel supported and they’re growing more aggressive toward citizens? Is that what you’re seeing?
Yes. I think cops are stressed out. It’s a stressful job anyway. And then it’s stress that your command will set you up just to appease the citizens. And the community now is more emboldened. More people are walking up to your face and sayin ‘f you’ and putting cameras in your face and almost becoming more disorderly. That’s happening now more than ever. You still have to be in authority cuz you don’t ever wanna lose authority. But you’re like why am I dealing with this?

Do you think policing biases officers against black people? That they’re so constantly interacting with or hearing about black men doing the wrong thing that they start to become biased against black men and expect that from them and any time they’re pulling over a black man they’re behaving more aggressively toward them.
Ninety percent of my job is confrontational. No one really wants to see me when I’m there. Therefore I’m not gonna [encounter] the best type of person. And over time seeing criminals, murderers, drug dealers, criminals, you begin to develop this baseline norm. This is why I don’t hang with a lot of cops. Because cops who hang out with cops then dwell in their own thoughts and perceptions of what reality is when that’s not reality. So what we end up becoming is an occupying force, no different than what our military does. Not to mention that a lot of law enforcement are prior military. I was in the military, too.

So they’ve now brought whatever aggressiveness and occupying force [mentality] into the department and deal with it the same way almost. I think all the community wants is accountability. I think police fail to realize that. And then the police say you’re not accountable to yourself so I’m not listening to anything you say because your points aren’t valid.

Essay originally appeared on August 27, 2015 in Vice.

Is Black Snapchat Replacing Black Twitter? (Vice)

These days, Twitter feels like a nightclub that’s just past its prime. It’s the sort of spot that used to be hot, but its best days are behind it. One of the primary reasons is that there’s no accountability. Conversations on Twitter can become so toxic so fast because people can sign on as whomever they want and say whatever they want. I love freedom, but absolute freedom in a community means some users will take it as an invitation to be their worst selves, poisoning the atmosphere for everyone.

The people who govern Twitter provide us with no practical policing mechanism, they only act when someone complains. Just this week, writer Julia Ioffe was getting Nazi flags tweeted at her. She complained privately to no avail and then tweeted, “Guy tweeting Nazi flags at me, says @twitter, is not in violation of Twitter policy.” That’s outrageous. And apparently someone at Twitter HQ agrees because after Ioffe put out that tweet, the offending accounts were suspended. But why didn’t they stop it before it got that far? Remember, this is not a First Amendment issue. Twitter is a private company, they can establish rules of conduct that combat hate speech.

Instead, the overabundance of racist, sexist, and anti-semitic trolls are destroying the Twitter experience for many people. The New York Times article “Why I Left Twitter” pointed out the existence of all sorts of handles that are overtly anti-semitic and pro-Hitler. Last week, I was accosted by someone called @fuckblacklives. Why should I have to see that? Why should anyone have to see that? I think every woman who’s active on Twitter can tell you about the horde of insane things that are sent to them. It’s not helping Twitter’s image or user experience to be tacitly supportive of racists, misogynists, and anti-semites who attack people in public. Putting aside the obvious moral implications, these problems are not good for the business of Twitter, which is beginning to really struggle.

That said, I still derive great joy from Black Twitter. Like an amazing virtual barbershop, you can talk politics with Marc Lamont Hill and Joy Reid and Netta Briellerielle, then basketball with JA Adande and Bomani Jones, then culture with Questlove andJamilah Lemieux and Reggie Hudlin and Soledad O’Brien, and on and on.

I feed off of Black Twitter’s bravado, strength, and wit. I love the way the collective community has an ego that emanates from each user and becomes an ultimate badass party. Black Twitter also gives me a reason to watch stuff like Scandal and the BET Awards in real time. Even when Twitter as a whole seems to be in its twilight, Black Twitter still feels homey and entertaining, and it can still be a space for protest when needed.

Protest hashtags like #iftheygunmedown and #ByeAnita and #BeingABlackGirlIsLithave given me life. And the news posted on Black Twitter continues to inform me about tragic incidents before mainstream media begins covering them. The experience of moving through my network of Black Twitter followers can become an emotional journey, from the insider jokes to the stories of death to the moments when someone jumps in with a comment that helps me destroy a racist like a friend jumping in to help you win a fight.

Though we often think about Twitter as one primary network, academics describe Twitter as a series of virtual neighborhoods. And according to University of North Texas professor Meredith Clark, who wrote a dissertation on Black Twitter titled “To Tweet Our Own Cause: A Mixed-Methods Study of the Online Phenomenon ‘Black Twitter,'” there are multiple Black Twitters within that broader network that reflect the diverse array of black people in America. These sub-neighborhoods of Black Twitter surely overlap and intersect, but often they function separately. They also at times come together as a sort of meta-network, coalescing around a certain hot button subject like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen or #AskRKelly.

When you’re in your own neighborhood of like-minded folks and Twitter friends and perhaps offline friends, you’re among family. But when you intersect with someone from another hood, a nasty sort of bloodsport can emerge. Next thing you know, you’re getting attacked by a horde of people more virulently racist or sexist or hateful than any you’ve ever encountered in real life.

It may not be a physical attack, but having that sort of venom spewed into your day can have an impact that’s not always easy to shake. Professor Clark says, “It is a comfort to me to know I can log on and my people are gonna be there and we’re gonna be talking about the issues that concern us whether it’s street harassment or a miscarriage of justice or the everyday things we have to deal with that have to do with outright racism, prejudice, and bigotry. Having the kind of network and safety net there is of use to me. It’s comforting to me, but the fun is not there as much anymore.”

It’s a choice to be black (or gay or female, etc.) on Twitter. You may say I’m just being myself and that may be, but as Professor Clark reminds us—you had the option to be someone else. We are free to construct our online identity however we wish. On Twitter, that’s done with the picture you choose, the people you talk to, the words you use, the subjects you discuss, and more. These are highly politicized choices in a vitriolic environment. Being black on Twitter makes you a target for abuse, just as being a woman or being gay or being Jewish does. Part of why I love Black Twitter is because the folks who make up Black Twitter are making an affirmative choice to be boldly Black in spite of the negativity it attracts. I often find myself admiring the elegant and witty ways some in Black Twitter repel trolls.

But there are days when I don’t want to fight. I want my social media to be fun and relaxing. That’s why I’m increasingly spending less time on Twitter and more on Snapchat, which recently passed Twitter in daily active users.

While Twitter has become a space where I feel I always have to be prepared for verbal combat, Snapchat is just fun. It doesn’t have a mechanism to give easy feedback about each piece of content. Without that constant judgement, it’s easier to just relax and be yourself. When I post a silly snap, zero strangers call me a gorilla idiot. That contributes to a freedom of expression on Snap that no longer exists on Twitter.

Perhaps because of that freedom, there’s a lot of people creating interesting snaps and stories—and there’s a lot more people with innate filmmaking talent than I ever suspected. Snapchat makes your phone into a customizable TV network and there’s so much interesting content being produced by black users, I feel like I’m watching the ultimate BET as filtered through the selfie generation.

I’ll watch anything from Solange (nappyandsnappy) who’s an artiste with her snaps, Baratunde (snapatunde) who’s consistently funny, and DJ Khaled (djkhaled305) who’s inspirational. Then there’s Gabrielle Union (gabunionwade) and D-Wade (mrwade82) who are aspirational and a really fun couple. There’s Rick Ross (FerrariFatboy), who’s always flossing, and Kevin Hart (kevinhart4real), who’s hysterical. Serena Williams (serenaunmatched) loves to be silly, Usher’s (howusnap) snaps are smooth, and Michelle Obama (FLOTUS) just joined this week which is a cultural breakthrough for Snapchat even though the president is covered on Snap via The White House’s feed (the White House).

I’m sure there are many more to discover. When I’m moving through those feeds it feels like there’s a community unspooling before me. I’m able to jump in and out of the lives of these cool Black people, and in that way snapchat feels like a community—my friends who let me peek in on their lives. It’s starting to feel like there’s a Black Snapchat community brewing. This could never be what Black Twitter is because of the architecture of Snap. It’s not built to create the same kind of dialogue. But when I’m alone with Snap and able to take little trips outside of my life into the lives of people I like, it really feels special. It’s a community that’s much more pleasant and affirming than what Twitter has become.

Essay originally appeared in Vice on June 22, 2016.

I See My Life in Philando Castile’s Death (Vice)

i-see-my-life-in-philando-castiles-death-body-image-1468012395-size_1000We are a nation with a collective mind filled with horrific images. Many of us have watched the seemingly endless stream of videos of black bodies being destroyed in the streets. We have watched these videos over and over. What is the impact of us watching these graphic murders over and again? What is the influence of us walking around with indelible images of murder in our minds all the time?

I can see Eric Garner choking, Tamir Rice falling, Michael Brown laying in the street for hours. And, new this week, I see Alton Sterling on the ground with cops all over him and a gun pressed to his chest, and Philando Castile in his car, bleeding all over, while an officer holds a gun on him and his girlfriend screams. When Castile’s four-year-old daughter tries to console, I crumble. We have consumed so many graphic images of violent deaths that prove the fragility of the black body. What they accomplish is the same thing the widely-distrusted photographs of lynchings once did—to remind everyone that black bodies are disposable.

When I was growing up, Blockbuster Video always had a few copies of Faces of Death available for rent in case anyone wanted to watch people dying in gruesome ways. I never wanted to see it. Who wants so many horrible images in their head? But nowadays it feels like I’m being forced to watch the macabre, black version of it.

Still, we have to watch—at least I have to watch. Because I have to know. Even though the quantity makes it all overwhelming, I have to know what’s going on. I have to feel the pain and the anger. The moment demands it. But how much can one nation take? How much can black people take?

I don’t watch these videos and see abstract events. These are things that could happen to me. I watch them and feel like what’s happening onscreen is happening to my body. With each new video, I die again and again. Maybe you do, too. I have to watch, but what is it doing to me? Probably causing further scarring on a soul that’s already wounded. Black people in America are in trauma. We are like Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds pleading with Jesus,don’t let him be dead. But he is bleeding. Over and over, again. Our nightmare is our reality.

Thursday’s horrific mass shooting of Dallas police officers is more evidence of a nation in pain as well as a nation with access to too many weapons of war. I have problems with the way American police officers perform their jobs, but dear God I do not wish for dead cops. I wish for policing that is more effective, more judicious, and more empathetic. But to get there we need a radical restructuring of how America sees black people. We are viewed as the problem. We are viewed as prey. We are expendable and exploitable. All that means that black people are policed differently than white ones. Until that changes this policing crisis will continue.

That crisis has been going on for longer than I have been alive, it just feels hotter now because of the ubiquity of video cameras. And it will continue for as long as the broken windows theory continues to shape policing. Broken windows says you pursue small crimes aggressively and that will prevent more serious crimes. Garner was selling cigarettes on the street. Sterling was selling CDs. Castile had a broken tail light. If not for broken windows, they may have never talked to the cops that fateful day.

The crisis will continue as long as there is an over prevalence of guns in America which leads to police officers working in fear. Both Sterling and Castile were legally armed—which seems to have made them more vulnerable, not less. (Don’t expect the NRA to stand up for them—the NRA is here to protect the gun rights of white people.)

The crisis will continue as long as officers are taught that blacks are to be targeted and arrested. The idea that the problem is merely a few bad apples is a fallacy. Yes, the overwhelming majority of police officers are good and serious people, but the direction they get from on high is that black people can be targeted and arrested. From black people they can extract revenue. We are the lambs they shear and slaughter.

We need a revolution in how America perceives and polices black people. There has been momentum growing since Michael Brown was killed. There is a much needed movement working to try to make things better. Body cameras here, consent decrees there, Black Lives Matter growing—there is a movement. I fear the Dallas massacre will discredit and derail that movement and leave us further than ever from progress. We are a nation in pain and that pain is only going to spread.


Originally appears on July 8, 2016, in Vice: