The People and the Police
A round table on police violence
The following conversation took place on Sunday, November 23, 2014, in response to the murders of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, in New York, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, in Cleveland. The following week, a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Akai Gurley, Omnipresence, Gentrification
Cosme Del Rosario-Bell: I assume you heard about this guy who got shot on Thursday night, Akai Gurley. He and his girlfriend are leaving her apartment in a project in East New York called the Pink Houses, and the elevator doesn’t work. So they take the stairs. At the same time that he’s about to enter the poorly lit stairwell, two rookie cops are doing what’s called a vertical patrol. This entails going to the top of a project-housing building and working their way down via the staircase — and one of the cops was doing it with his gun drawn and flashlight out. When one cop saw a shadow move on the landing below, he shot immediately and hit Gurley in the chest. Who knows why, but the cops shot this dude and then left.
Dayna Tortorici: Police Commissioner Bratton used the quick reflex as an excuse. Like it was an accident — he used the phrase “accidental discharge” — because there was no verbal exchange.
Elias Rodriques: But that’s what safeties are for! That’s why you have a safety on a gun! You don’t pull the safety off until you’re ready to shoot someone!
Doreen St. Félix: There’s also the whole problem of the practice of vertical patrol in the first place. These cops have their weapons drawn when they’re going down the staircase.
Del Rosario-Bell: According to Bratton, there’s no official protocol on when you’re allowed to patrol with your gun out. It’s up to the discretion of the cop. But at the same time, he implied that the cop would need to have reasonable cause to have his gun out — there would need to be a reasonable expectation of danger. But still, Bratton’s press conference was so strange. He kept saying “accidental discharge.”
St. Félix: Akai Gurley went around a corner in a way that made this policeman nervous. Fifteen years ago, Amadou Diallo pulled out his wallet and the cop saw a phantom Negro weapon.
Del Rosario-Bell: I think that the term furtive movement was created to explain why white people are shooting black men. What does that even mean? Why would you even need a term like furtive movement to insert into police lingo? It implies a small or sly, threatening movement. So — anything.
St. Félix: Yes. That slippage is institutionalized even in case law, where probable cause is defined as more than a suspicion but less than certainty. Time and again we find that probable cause is grounded in action closer to a whim or a hunch.
This is part of a larger, structural conversation about racialized housing and segregation in New York City. One reason I think white people might feel they can’t comment on police brutality is because they don’t see it on the daily basis on which it occurs. Because they don’t live in these neighborhoods, it’s invisible to them. The only apparent reason the police come to these neighborhoods is to patrol and protect, but if you study the chronology of how a lot of these shootings take place, it’s totally the other way around: black men and women are just walking around, and they’re perceived as being dangerous by the police, and that’s when the “interaction” — to speak like Bratton — takes place. Brutal policing happens casually. It’s a lot more mundane than media theater around certain fatal policing instances makes it seem.
Del Rosario-Bell: In St. Louis, the week before the young leaders in Ferguson made a national call for outside support, this guy, Vonderrit Myers, was in a pretty nice St. Louis neighborhood, Shaw. He bought a sandwich and was walking down the block with his friends when an off-duty cop saw him and decided, “These guys look dangerous, I’m gonna follow them.” So they ran, because they were being followed by some random dude in a car. He was shot eight times, six in the back of the legs. Seventeen shots total were fired. The officer said Myers was shooting at him. Even if he had a gun, that situation was created by a cop deciding to escalate the situation by hunting them down.
Tortorici: The police bring violence to nonviolent situations for reasons that are not logical. People are just being singled out and harassed.
Rodriques: And what is the point? To what end? What the fuck do you gain from doing this?
Del Rosario-Bell: I guess what’s implied is that these spaces, these public black spaces, are violent — to say nothing of how violence is created by state-sanctioned racism, state-sanctioned white-supremacist cordoning off of poor and black folk in areas of poor opportunity. All of the details of the Akai Gurley killing were evidence of how the state just don’t give a fuck about poor black people. Their housing: “We’re not going to fix the lights in their building because, fuck it, they don’t pay any money for it. We are not going to send experienced cops to protect them because, fuck it, we don’t actually care if we are actually protecting them. We’re not protecting them, we’re policing them.” Even when Bratton was saying it, it didn’t make any sense. He was like, “Well, we need to send cops to patrol violence in ‘high-impact zones.’” Then why are you sending two dudes who just left the academy eighteen months ago?
Rodriques: These places are a state blind spot: no one has to give a shit because for the most part no one is seeing it. It would be a different thing if the police stopped and shot a dude walking through Grand Central. But so much of this happens in this New York blind spot, where people — and by people I really mean people whose voices are, let’s say, heard, or have the power to be heard — don’t see or interact with them. Which is not to make some naive claim that if everyone saw this violence everyone would want to stop it. I know better; that’s not how people work.
St. Félix: We’ve been talking about hiding, visibility, lighting, and illumination . . . Um, “Omnipresence,” I don’t know if you have heard about it.
Del Rosario-Bell: Motherfuckers have more lights outside of the project than in the stairwell!
St. Félix: Exactly, exactly. And so . . .
Tortorici: Wait, can you explain what Omnipresence is?
St. Félix: Omnipresence is a new iteration of a centuries-old system of policing in which police officers are set up in high-crime areas to be omnipresent, to surveil. To be sentinels. I think one part of Omnipresence is that police stand on corners 24-7, just being there, and then another thing is having lights shine in from the outside of the housing project. They’re very bright during the night, and you can’t sleep because these floodlights are entering your bedroom, entering your bathroom. And they’re also just really loud, because the generators set up to keep them running hum through the night.
Del Rosario-Bell: Nobody’s investing money to put in good, unobtrusive lighting in public housing so that people can walk through the projects without being afraid. No, it’s: Put up these big-ass, loud, super-bright NYPD-branded lights, and then put a cop car on every other block, with the lights flashing, plus cops on foot.
St. Félix: This is why we fail if we say that police brutality is a black issue. Because the NYPD’s ability to do these things is implicitly — they never say it, but it is — to protect whiteness. So if you are policing blackness, the policing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. You’re doing it because black people are considered dangerous to white people.
Take gentrification. It’s not a coincidence that stop-and-frisk numbers went up super, super high in the late ’90s to the ’00s, as a lot of out-of-staters started moving into communities on the border of the projects. You move into Bed-Stuy, but a couple blocks down there’s Marcy Houses. The migration of white people to typically urban black areas tends to increase police presence, and therefore brutality, on the borders, all in the name of increasing safety for ostensibly white residents. Gentrification is really violent, and yet is described in mostly passive ways . . . If we think about policing as traumatic — as literal removal of black people from their homes, making them feel that their homes are never truly their homes, that they are always a place to be policed — I think that’s where we might see that white communities are complicit in police brutality and in the new methods that are being used.
Rodriques: Well, newish. Making black people feel that they are always being policed is not uncommon, just to think even of police forces post–Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, right? Maybe it’s just because I am teaching Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: there’s one chapter where she’s talking about her brother who’s trying to escape slavery and how he’s just looking around, constantly worried that wherever he goes, he’ll see, somewhere, a sign with his face on it saying ESCAPED SLAVE. Since the Fugitive Slave Act had passed, there was nowhere that was safe for him. Or for freed black men, for that matter.
Copwatch, the Panthers
Del Rosario-Bell: I’m part of an organization called Copwatch, which is a volunteer group that watches and films police patrols. On the one hand it’s very direct and very hands-on, which feels really good. So you’re out, you’re patrolling, doing what cops do, except against the cops. When people see you and recognize what you’re doing, they’re like, “That’s what’s up. We’re glad you’re out here.” Visibility is really powerful. But at the same time it’s the most passive active thing you could possibly do. We roll up to stops and do as much as possible to not do anything that will actually do something.
Rodriques: What would be a more active act you could do?
Del Rosario-Bell: Like putting hands on these cops, physically stopping these cops? Actually protecting people. Because all we can do is film it, maybe try to give whoever is involved some tips. For example: “You don’t have to answer that question.” But you can get in trouble for giving people advice and information, so a lot of the time we’ll be like [speaking loudly], “Hey, Elias, does that guy have to answer that question?” And you’d be like, “No, I don’t think he does! He doesn’t have to answer that question.” Because overstepping that boundary can land you in jail. Like it did me!
Tortorici: What happened?
Del Rosario-Bell: It was completely innocuous. So we approach a traffic checkpoint on 145th Street in Harlem, coming across the 145th Street Bridge from the Bronx into Manhattan. The cops are randomly pulling people over — checking their license, checking their registration — and they have like four, five cars lined up at a time. So we go up and start filming, and the cops say, “You gotta go down to the end of the block.” We’re on a public sidewalk, so we basically say, “No. We’re not gonna leave.” It was very quick: a few minutes of back-and-forth, and they arrested us. It was fairly routine, and it wasn’t too violent; we did everything we trained ourselves to do. And we got arrested.
St. Félix: Makes me think of the surveillance state. In videotaping the cops, you’re sort of flipping the relationship of who watches whom. But that reversal can only happen around the type of policing that’s visible on the street. I’m thinking of how surveillance never seems to be in service of protecting black people, especially black women; the intentional lack of policing around issues that affect black women is instrumentalized through police brutality.
For example, two black girls, teenagers, were found hog-tied on the side of the highway in Florida this past September, and the police search for their killers, not to mention the country’s attention, has been pitiful. Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw is a serial rapist who attacked black women in his custody for years unchecked. Forty percent of the people who are missing in America are people of color, and of that percentage, which doesn’t account for unreported cases, black women constitute the majority. Sixty-four thousand black women and girls have been reported missing since 2010.
About a month ago, Carlesha Freeland-Gaither was kidnapped in Philadelphia. She happened to be walking through a wealthy white neighborhood, which was next to a “good” high school, and so the kidnapping was caught on the school’s security camera. She was found within twenty-four hours. I remember, I was on Twitter a lot — I mean, I am always on Twitter — and in that moment a lot of the black feminists I follow thought, “Thank God she was walking by this particular high school and not the high school in the ghetto,” because that high school isn’t outfitted with those cameras. Nobody would even have known that she was missing, let alone would she be found. Some of the violence that is enacted on black women — I will speak for myself as a black woman — by the police is actually their lack of policing.
Del Rosario-Bell: I don’t know about this particular situation, but I don’t like the word negligence. It’s almost like an “oops.” These are not mistakes, these are decisions. Whenever I walk by projects I think, “Yo, this is punishment.” It’s not just that city planners tried to do some social good and messed up and kind of forgot about it. No, they’re letting housing projects turn into these violent, bad places to live. That is a decision. Somebody is deciding to cut funding, someone is deciding to cut food stamps.
The system isn’t broken, it is working exactly as intended. Even if that is not completely correct, I am at that point. I am not here for any fucking reformist fucking bullshit — “Nah, we just need to pass a bill, we just need to outfit all cops with body cameras.”
Tortorici: I hear that. At the same time, I get frustrated whenever I hear white male radicals make that argument, “Revolution or nothing.” I think: You can say that because you feel so safe! This is about safety for people. I think it’s pretty revolutionary to demand safety.
It’s also crazy to me that people are discouraged, even in casual conversation with friends, from expressing what they don’t like about something unless they propose a solution. As if you were having an argument over what to eat for dinner: “If we’re not having chicken, what do you want to make?”
Del Rosario-Bell: As if the chicken that you don’t like isn’t a product of hundreds of years of dedicated and deliberate work by white supremacists! And you then have to be like, “Oh, I have the perfect recipe for this turkey!” Like one person is supposed to have a ready alternative to something that has been created and re-created, and reinscribed and remade, over and over again.
Tortorici: But then when people do have solutions, they are branded as terrorists. If you read the Black Panther Ten-Point Program from 1966, number seven is “An Immediate End to Police Brutality and Murder of Black People,” and the right to self-defense against police violence. Like Copwatch with guns, with interception.
Del Rosario-Bell: Copwatch does come from that legacy, of Huey P. Newton going around in his neighborhood with an unloaded shotgun and a law book. The Panthers would roll around their hood, with an unloaded shotgun and a law book, and come across police interactions, flip to a page, and speak up. Saying, “Nope. They can’t do that!”
Tortorici: Which makes sense, since the onus is on citizens to know their rights. Cops don’t obey the law. But also, speaking of “terrorists,” the fact that last year, in 2013, Assata Shakur became the first woman on the FBI’s top ten most-wanted-terrorists list. She’s living in Cuba under political asylum, but the FBI raised the bounty, basically, on her head, to $2 million. Anybody can go kidnap her, a former political prisoner, or kill her, for $2 million.
Del Rosario-Bell: Modern day, modern day . . .
Tortorici: Fugitive Slave Act? Kinda, yeah.
Del Rosario-Bell: Also: How do you expect black men to have the answer to how to replace an entire system that is oppressing them and their sisters, when very obviously this system is so ingrained in them that they’re policing people on the streets themselves?
Black Boys Can’t Be Black Boys
St. Félix: Last Saturday, a black boy, a child, Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was killed in Cleveland. He had an airsoft gun. The person who called 911 said twice: “I think this person’s gun is probably fake.” I don’t know why, if you thought the gun is fake, you would call 911. But at any rate the police shot him twice in the stomach, and he died this morning. Even me, I had been naively operating under the assumption that a 12-year-old is almost unilaterally seen as a child, a preadolescent. Yet he was already being boxed into the “suspicious black male” narrative. I think if we’re going to chip away and get to the specific communities that are at risk by police brutality, we’re talking specifically about youth, we’re talking about kids. Michael Brown was 18. Vonderrit Myers was 18. John Crawford was 22, I think.
Del Rosario-Bell: Ramarley Graham was 18.
St. Félix: Right. And so what I experience as someone who talks a lot to activists within the black community is a generational difference. When black people make it, by the grace of God, past the age of 25, they do whatever they do, they reach their middle-life stage where they forget what it’s like to be a teenager. So many illegal activities are sanctioned when we think about teenagerdom. You smoke weed.
Rodriques: Drink underage.
St. Félix: Exactly. Because you’re a teenager and you’re not supposed to be making rational decisions. But then, how does that —
Del Rosario-Bell: Get thrown out the window?
St. Félix: Yeah! That tacit, “Oh, you’re free, you’re doing your own thing.”
Del Rosario-Bell: “Kids!”
Tortorici: “Boys will be boys!”
St. Félix: But black boys can’t be black boys! NPR had this barbershop series a couple of years ago with black men looking back — they were in their forties — and they were like, “Damn, all these things my mother and my father told me to do in the presence of whiteness and police to keep myself alive . . .” This expectation of how black teenagers should behave and how they should comport their bodies is untenable.
Rodriques: I think about how impulsive I was as a kid, yet I was expected to act like a calm, grown-ass man. If I thought someone was going to threaten me, I might run, you know? I’m fucking worried, I’m a kid, I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t take that long to think about things because I’m not very calm. I’m 14 or 15, I make irrational or dumb decisions. In the face of fear, I only become more irrational. And I should be allowed to be unreasonable. I shouldn’t be worried that this might result in my death. When I was growing up, people said, “You shouldn’t run from the cops, you might get shot in the back.” It’s true, but if I am a 14-year-old and I think that I’m fast and I’m worried that I’m going to die, I’m just going to bolt.
Del Rosario-Bell: Black youth are always being seen as irrational and wild, but if you imagine how intelligent you have to be to navigate, not only your personality and what you say but your body in these different spaces . . . when you’re with your friends, you have to act a certain way so you don’t get punked. When you’re in front of white people, you have to act a certain way so that they don’t think you’re violent or threatening. The amount of social and physical intelligence that a 14-year-old is required to have is paralyzing and incredible in the worst way.
Just thinking of myself growing up: I have a white mom, and she was kind of oblivious to this stuff, which meant I never had “the talk” — the talk that black mothers have with their children about how to not get killed by cops. And so I was sort of blissfully unaware of how dangerous things were for me. I guess I had other things going for me — being light skinned, going to a diverse school — but I’m thinking now, wow. I was saved from so much of that preemptive policing, just because my mom didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I remember being able to consider myself as a person and as a body very freely as a kid, without these constraints, and that’s because my mom was oblivious and my dad was being a present-but-not-present dad. A lot of kids don’t get that.
St. Félix: This touches on unspoken intentions of respectability politics, on the ways you’re taught to choreograph your innocence to the outside, to make your body seem not guilty, and how that can also be read as assuming stereotypically white affectations. It’s an assurance that says, “Listen, I’m more like you than I am like other black people,” and explicitly does not say, “I am like blackness.”
Turning 14 was critical for me in terms of performing this choreography, if subconsciously, because I got a scholarship to go to a fancy school on the Upper East Side. I don’t think I’d ever been past Times Square before then — I’m from Canarsie. It’s only now, looking back eight years later, that I realize that I was aggressively stopped and frisked, sometimes sexually harassed, all the time by the police, and that was probably because my attempt to choreograph innocence seemed suspect to them. How twisted, because my parents taught me that to protect myself I had to know how to play white.
Playing white is like when animals play dead. The performance is meant to trick your predators into thinking you’re not prey. But it doesn’t trick, and nothing works. And knowing how to play white meant I didn’t have the knowledge to know what was even happening to me by the police. When I turned 21 last year and was protesting Ray Kelly at my school, then I realized, “Shit! This thing was happening to me.”
Rodriques: I don’t know what it would mean to be safe and black. I don’t mean “to be safe” in the way of “nonthreatening to other people,” I mean “safe from possible violence.” My image of safe is white. I think of a nice, white family in the suburbs. And I say this as somebody who frequently claims to be really happy that he is black. At the same time I don’t know if I will ever stop feeling unsafe. I don’t know if I can feel safe and be black.
St. Félix: Sometimes I find myself shielding myself with white bodies to feel safe. I have friends of all different groups of people, but I experience a surfeit of body creativity, of doing whatever I want with my body, if I’m surrounded by white girls. When I mean safety, I also mean freedom of expression. It’s not just about not being seen as dangerous — it’s about being seen as a happy person, someone who can be approached, and someone who can be quirky. Quirk is the fullest reckless freedom white people traffic in . . . It’s the quirky-industrial complex.
Quirkiness is white bodies expressing the immense space the state and culture carves out for them to be free and safe. Safety is always at the expense of policing black bodies, because again, neither whiteness nor blackness exists in a vacuum. If quirkiness is eccentricity or white-girl-weird, then it’s about making new movements, tics — and they can be affectations — that are peculiar but never seen as threatening. Black people are often forced to keep making old movements, in our bodies, speech, the way we live, because the space for whiteness to see us as safe if we’re unpredictable barely exists. It is not just a matter of you being dangerous, it’s that that potential is rarely seen in white bodies. How does that affect me and the way that I comport myself? Am I limiting my creativity?
Rodriques: In relation to the freedom one has when surrounded by white bodies, I have never been stopped and frisked while with somebody who is white. When I’m alone, there are all of these things that go through my mind. How do I present myself? How do I walk? Then, if I get stopped, I’m like, “Fuck, I fucked up and I wasn’t looking unsketchy enough.” You don’t have to think about that when you are surrounded by these threat-diffusing factors.
Tortorici: That’s really intense, what you’re describing — the sense that if you’re stopped, you’ve failed yourself, you’ve failed your performance. It’s not like, “Oh shit, I’m getting stopped.” You almost forget why you are performing, and the failure to perform adequately feels like a personal failure.
Ferguson and the Art of Protest
Tortorici: You went down to Ferguson last month. What happened when you were there?
Del Rosario-Bell: Nothing too crazy. The cops were on their best behavior, given the previous months and the media presence on that particular weekend. But there were some showdowns with riot cops, for sure. A tank thing. Blatant intimidation by police toward regular folk. It was so tense! But then, you know, we were able to leave. It felt good, it felt terrifying, but those kids who are there every day, that’s what they’re dealing with. Though we are dealing with the same thing in New York, it’s not different — that’s what needs to be the common thread. Eric Garner, Mike Brown — it’s a list, a list of people who need to be individually memorialized, sure, but we can’t see their deaths as separate, specific incidents. They need to be seen together and given a collective importance.
The other thing is that in St. Louis, in Shaw, in Ferguson, the people on the front lines are kids. And they get it. They’re putting their bodies on the line. People are so afraid to put their bodies on the line, and I understand! I don’t want to die. But if there’s anything to be taken away from the kids in Ferguson who are leading those protests, it’s that they get it, they know they’re at risk of dying, and they’re going to do it anyway. And they’re 16.
St. Félix: That’s a radical mode of self-care. Not to say that people who aren’t protesting aren’t caring for themselves, but one of the ways that you can, when your life is under siege, is to go out against the threat.
Trauma is a huge effect of being a policed person, whether she is protesting against that policing or not. I mean, by the fact that she continues to live, she is protesting. But trauma isn’t often talked about in public-health circles like this. Because you’re still going to work, taking care of your kids, doing what you have to do, but you’re still traumatized.
Del Rosario-Bell: But then we also have to recognize that these communities are amazing at taking care of one another, in spite of being attacked from all sides. The fact that black bodies are facing trauma every day, and yet somehow people are still fighting and people are still living. It’s sad that we have to be so good at celebrating, and it’s sad that we have to be so good at taking care of one another, even when people say that we’re not! But shout-out to acknowledging that even if Darren Wilson doesn’t get indicted, people will keep figuring out ways to be OK in spite of the trauma that they face.
Rodriques: I think you’re right. One of the things I think a lot about in moments like this is this classic Teaching Tolerance resource that says, “Don’t always talk about the oppressed as victims. Teach that they are also agents, be positive and teach how they keep themselves and one another alive and give one another support.”
Del Rosario-Bell: When I was in Ferguson, some of the most amazing forms of protest we saw were these kids just partying at the police station, in front of the police station, chanting, freestyling. And then later these kids were doing the most incredible improvised avant-garde hip-hop performance pieces that were both memorializing the death of Mike Brown and obviously very cathartic. There’s an awesome hip-hop artist collective in New York called Rebel Diaz that was in Ferguson that weekend; they brought their portable sound systems, and the kids who were there loved it. They were playing beats and these kids were just bugging out, only feet away from the front line of cops protecting the Ferguson Police Department.
At one point, in the dark, a bit down the road from the main crowd, the group of kids started freestyling about Mike Brown. Some of them laid on the street, laying bandannas over their faces as if they were all dead, while the others kept rapping . . . It was beautiful, and haunting, and really crazy — an impromptu, deep, amazing, and powerful celebration, memorializing and cathartic, directly in front of this stone-faced system.