What the Videos Say About U.S. Cops and Blacks

While the United States is proud of its first black president and of laws that forbid racial discrimination, forlorn statistics reveal a nation that still struggles to free itself of the ghosts of its past.

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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Police in riot gear advance on protesters following the funeral for Freddie Gray, on April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. Credit: AP
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

The viral videos showing youths throwing stones at police in Baltimore, or the mother who smacked her masked son at a protest, tell only part of the story. The rage of these youths, and of tens of thousands of others who took to the streets of the United States over the last months to protest police violence, is an expression of the growing gap between the neoliberal discourse, which sanctifies equality and political correctness (as long as we all partake in consumer culture, of course), and the reality on the ground.

While the United States is proud of its first black president and of laws that forbid racial discrimination, forlorn statistics reveal a nation that still struggles to free itself of the ghosts of its past.

Take, for example, the Baltimore police, which has had to pay over $5 million in damages over the past four years after being hit with some 100 lawsuits over use of excessive force. African-Americans filed most of the suits, among them a woman who was pregnant when arrested, a 65-year-old pastor, and an 87-year-old woman. Meanwhile, blacks in America are six times more likely than whites to be arrested for misdemeanors, like marijuana possession, and much more likely to be victims of police violence and receive jail time.

The national unemployment rate of African Americans was twice that of whites in 2014 (10.1 percent versus 4.7 percent).

Behind these numbers are names: Natasha McKenna, a schizophrenic 37-year-old woman who died in February in a Fairfax, Virginia jail after being tasered four times with 50,000 volts while her hands were cuffed and her legs shackled. The manner of death, according to the local Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, was “accidental” (“manner of death” in McKenna’s case was different from “cause of death,” which was “excited delirium”). No prison staffer has been charged.

It’s safe to assume that if it weren’t for the riots that drew media attention, the death of Freddie Gray, which ignited the current wave of protests in Baltimore, would also have been classified as an accident. Gray, 25, died of his wounds a week after allegedly being tortured in a police van taking him to an investigation. Thus, he joined the lengthening list of young African-Americans whose encounters with law enforcement ended in death, among them Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

But these extreme incidents are only symptoms of a broader phenomenon. It’s enough to sit in a class in leading universities like Columbia or NYU to notice immediately the nearly total absence of African-American students. Thus, the demonstrations in Baltimore are not a violent outburst by bored youths or gangs of drug dealers. It is a protest movement that has a number of goals: to rally community support and mourn the deaths of young people killed by cops, to make it clear to the American public that racism is not a relic of the past, and to demand policy changes to severely punish police who transgress.

For the first time it looks like at least some of the goals were achieved. Last Friday, the six policemen involved in Gray’s arrest were indicted for charges ranging up to second-degree murder. But even if they are convicted, it is doubtful whether that is sufficient to put an end to the current wave of protest. As U.S. President Barack Obama said last week, “This has been a slow-rolling crisis.”

Considering the varied and hidden ways in which racial discrimination in the United States thrives, it looks like the protest is far from over.

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