A Latino family in Manassas, Virginia, is celebrating the baptism of their two young boys, at a party held in their grandfather’s backyard. The police arrive in response to a noise complaint, and ask to see the grandfather’s ID. The family’s account says that he provided it, but the police report say that he refused; both accounts agree that the grandfather was then Tasered three times in rapid succession, on his own property, and then charged with ‘public intoxication.’ The pregnant mother of the two boys ran to help him as he lay on the ground — and was also Tasered, then charged with assaulting a police officer.
I’ll say it again — all parties agree that county police officers arrived at a children’s baptism party being held at a private residence, then Tasered a 55-year-old Bible study teacher three times and Tasered a pregnant woman once, in front of a yard full of kids, including her kids, and family members. Then they read rights. To the grandfather and the pregnant woman. For ‘public intoxication’ and ‘assaulting a police officer,’ respectively. As they lay temporarily paralyzed on the ground.
Can you imagine being one of those two boys, and watching as your own mother, pregnant with your sibling-to-be, is electrocuted by police officers and arrested, for rushing to the side of your grandfather as lay paralyzed on the ground? How would that make you feel about your relationship to the police, as a young Latino man about to grow up in the astonishingly xenophobic state of Virginia?
Does that make you angry? It makes me angry. It’s natural to feel anger in this situation.
So let’s be angry. Let’s be so angry that we don’t call anyone a racist.
Why? First, we need to heed Jay Smooth’s advice to call the actions racist, not the people. Imagine yourself as an unenlightened Youtube commenter watching this video. Clearly the cops aren’t racist. Why? Because they’re Latino too! Duh! And if you asked if the police if they’re racist, they’d say no! Case closed!
If you were in charge of a police force’s PR, you’d be thrilled if an officer got called racist. Because it’s a conversation killer. All you have to do is cast the slightest shadow of doubt on the assertion (he voted for Obama! he saved a Black basketball player’s life!), call the accusers reverse-racists, and take the rest of the week off. Or, if the guy is racist (i.e. nothing short of a robed Klan member), fire him and hire a new guy. Either way, you’re not pulling any overtime making sure nothing like this happens again.
Now, you and I spat out the post-racial kool-aid already. We know that ‘racism’ can mean something other than a white hood, and that even the most diverse police forces can still practice racial profiling or act on ingrained prejudices. But we also know that most people’s understanding of race only gets as far as the mainstream media is willing to discuss it — and if Henry Louis Gates and Oscar Grant are any indicator, the media loses interest right around the word ‘systemic.’
So it’s up to us to push this conversation. Instead of talking about who is or isn’t racist this week, we need to talk about how police are trained, why they’re so quick to reach for the mace, or the Taser, or the gun, and why ‘non-violent’ and ‘non-lethal’ have become sickeningly interchangeable. We need to talk about racism, but not in terms of intent — we need to talk about racism in terms of impacts and outcomes, in which communities of color are more heavily policed by more heavily armed officers with less accountability to the people they serve. We need to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, or why Bushwick kids need to take a class on what to expect during a stop-and-frisk.
In short, we need to talk about systemic racism, and how to address the persistent disadvantages faced by communities of color. It’s a big issue, and it’s tough to talk about. That’s exactly why it’s too important to let red-herring claims of racism take its place.
Of course, individual police officers who use excessive force should face consequences. And it’s natural to get angry about brutality toward a mother in front of her own kids. So let’s get angry. Let’s get so angry that we fix the system, so that nobody else has to feel angry like this again.