President Obama offered his “deepest condolences” to the family and community of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot to death by police Saturday.
“I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding,” Obama said.
“We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds. Along with our prayers, that’s what Michael and his family, and our broader American community, deserve.”
Talk with one another? Prayers? With all due respect, Mr. President, we need more than calm reflection and quiet conversation. We need outrage. We need change.
Our criminal justice system has been crying out for it since well before the shooting of Trayvon Martin (whose killer walks free: what happened to that FBI investigation?). Should we just keep “reflecting” as we add names to the ever-growing list of unarmed black men like Amadou Diallo, Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Timothy Russell, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Jonathan Ferrell and so many others killed by cops?
Reams of studies document over and over again what should be our national shame: that our criminal justice system is rife with racial bias. From hugely disproportionate policing in inner city neighborhoods, to who is considered suspicious, to disgusting racial disparities in arrests, convictions, incarceration and beyond.
From start to finish, it’s a major advantage to show up on our streets or in our system with white skin. In judgment calls where a suspect may be held or let go, African Americans are more likely to be detained than whites accused of the same crimes. If arrested, whites are more likely to be permitted to plead down to a lesser crime. When tried and convicted, whites get lighter sentences than blacks for the same crimes.
To take a particularly repulsive example, first-time child offenders, black kids are six times as likely as white kids to be sentenced to prison for identical crimes.
(Rich, white) Wall Street crooks whose criminal actions torpedoed our economy in 2008 walk free. No one’s gone to jail, though megabanks have paid out billions in civil fraud and corruption settlements. Yet police are all over (poor, minority) inner cities, stopping and frisking “suspicious looking” residents – which we all know, and which exhaustive empirical evidence documents, means young black men.
In Ferguson, Missouri, for example, African Americans are far more likely to be subject to traffic stops, far out of proportion to population numbers, even though whites, when stopped, are more likely to be found with contraband. A New York City stop-and-frisk study had the same conclusion: minorities stopped more, whites more likely to be carrying something illegal. Even after police knew this, they continued to stop and hassle mostly young black and Latino men.
“All we ask of America,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his final speech, before he was gunned down by a white shooter, “is be true to what you said on paper.”
We need action to make that a reality. Specifically:
1. Every police car in American should have a dashboard camera recording every incident. If we can afford a $25 billion annual drug enforcement budget for local law enforcement to harass, arrest, prosecute and incarcerate mostly nonviolent drug-users, surely we can afford $60 dashcams in every cruiser so we can see what our tax dollars are paying for in local police activity.
In 2014, we shouldn’t be enduring a 20th century inquiry into what happened in the shooting of Michael Brown, combing through witness accounts of what happened. We should have a video.
2. Every police force in America should reflect the racial diversity of the community it serves. Ferguson, Missouri is 65 percent African American, yet, shamefully, only three of its 53 police officers are black. Residents have complained of police harassment for years.
When 80 percent of white Americans test for moderate or severe implicit racial bias against African Americans, meaning that we walk around with subconscious negative stereotypes against blacks, race matters. Wishing it didn’t is understandable. Ignoring the evidence that it does is inexcusable while young people are being shot to death.
Every police force must also require continuing education in racial and cultural sensitivity. This isn’t a Kumbaya, feel-good measure. Understanding that black skin does not equate with criminality saves innocent lives. Good programs are working in pilot cities. Expand them, now.
3. Rethink “broken windows” policing – targeting offenders for petty infractions – because it has too often become official abuse of the poor. Michael Brown was walking with a young friend on the road, not the sidewalk, so the police got involved. Are you kidding me? I walk in the road nearly daily in my nice Los Angeles suburb (sidewalks are sometimes nonexistent or unwalkable in my neighborhood) and never once has a police officer pulled up. Clearly road-walking is an infraction only for black folks.
Police officers swarm poor neighborhoods across America and virtually ignore the suburbs unless they’re called. The result is that black Americans get arrested for “blocking the sidewalk” – standing in front of their own home – drinking in public, or marijuana possession. Though whites and blacks smoke pot at the same rates, four times as many blacks are arrested for it.
Enough. How many painful stories of police abuse, how many beating, chokehold and shooting videos do we need to wince at before we make a decision to focus police on serious, violent criminals? How much longer can we as a nation accept allowing our armed police officers to demean, smack around and shoot the poor?
4. Transparency, transparency, transparency. When police like those in Ferguson appear to have made a terrible mistake (or worse), being open and honest with the public is the first step in accountability.
Three days after Michael Brown was shot on the street by a police officer, we don’t even know how many bullets were fired, the identity of the officer who shot the teenager, whether Brown was shot in the front, back or both, inside or outside the patrol car, or many other important details.
When the police withhold this information, one must wonder whether they are circling the wagons to protect their own, allowing the shooter to come up with a story that’s consistent with the evidence, or getting their witnesses’ accounts in line. Perhaps they’re not, but it is reasonable to suspect such misbehavior as the facts remain hidden.
Condolences are not enough when we know what needs to be done. If we truly value the lives of all of our children, we’ll go beyond expressions of grief at another tragic loss.
Can we get on with it?
Citations for facts in this piece appear in Bloom’s recent book SUSPICION NATION: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It.