Anyone who has ever lived in New York City knows that summers can be brutally hot. With all of the concrete and apartment buildings where central A/C is a luxury, people from all walks of life use the streets as a place for community and a temporary escape from their stifling apartments. Yesterday as I waited to buy a pack of ice from my local grocery store in Harlem, I did my best to avoid staring at the Daily News cover plastered with the bloody body of Alton Sterling, who I watched get wrestled and pinned to the ground before being shot six times in the chest just hours before. What did capture my attention however, was a conversation between two men who looked to be in their early to mid-40’s debating the value of purchasing in the city.
As I walked out of the store listening to the two men discuss the “insane” property taxes, I couldn’t help but feel angered by the privilege that they enjoyed walking around a place like Harlem. On the northeast corner of 111th street and Saint Nicholas, looking to the left I saw men walking from a group home to hang out in a small plaza near the train station, in front of me were the two white men discussing real estate strategies as they casually walked down the street during rush hour and to my right I saw a police car sitting. The same police car that has been sitting on the corner of 112th and Saint Nicholas for the past four months.
Some days it’s a car, some days it’s a van, but every time I see it I, like the well-to-do white men in front of me, wonder “is this what my taxes and rent are paying for?” The only difference between them and myself in paying for 24/7 police surveillance, after a long work day, if I’m lucky enough, I could be stopped and frisked for “looking suspicious” while walking past that car or van.
It got me thinking about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, along with every other person of color living in heavily policed communities across America that pay into a structure that treats us like animals. At what point do black people in this country get what we pay for with regard to safety in our communities?
Growing up in Detroit and living in Washington, D.C., prior to its total transformation, I’m not a stranger to experiencing crime. As a child, I remember hearing the sounds of glass breaking and my mother’s alarm going off as people broke into our home. What I’ll never forget was the police responding to the incident the next day. In college, I remember having a gun placed on my temple as I was robbed at gunpoint and having to argue with the responding officer about what the robbers looked and where they went despite being the only person present for the incident.
Those experiences compounded with routinely seeing footage of officers strangling, shooting and breaking the limbs of people in the very communities they were sworn to protect is enraging. Aside from the sheer brutality and lack of logic in these reoccurring encounters, the livelihood of these officers depends on tax dollars from the very communities they routinely abuse. In essence, we’re paying them to be harassed.
In the last few years, the 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out over $100 million annually in settlements and court judgments in police-misconduct cases, including $248.7 million in 2014 alone. When do we get to demand more out of the services we pay for?
Instead of paying for wrongful deaths, why aren’t police departments conducting thorough background checks for racial bias, doing social media past histories of violence and looking at their candidate pool under the same critical lens many corporate entities do? If they did, maybe they would have discovered the problematic attitudes of officers like those in San Francisco before their offensive commentary made national headlines. Instead of paying for more arsenal, why not more training on how to diffuse someone resisting arrest? Are rubber bullets costlier than metal ones, or is that not standard protocol?
Lastly, if you’re going to sit in cars on every corner and drive around patrolling the same five block radius just waiting for an incident to occur, why aren’t these officers getting involved in the lives of the people in these communities? I shouldn’t have to shudder like I’ve just committed a crime at the sight of a man or woman in a blue uniform. I don’t do it when I see a firefighter, so why am I conditioned to do so when I see a cop?
There’s a lot of work to be done to build any layer of trust between minorities, especially black Americans, and the police because of the decades of violent acts committed against us by law enforcement, but the conversation is two sided. If we’re expected to play the game of respectability politics by pulling up our pants, not swearing in public in the United States of America and abide by curfews, then the people who are wrongfully and aggressively enforcing these “rules” should have a code of conduct as well.
Our communities would likely be a lot safer, we’d actually save money and live far less stressful lives if we worked together to demand more out of our officers. I’m pushing for the day that the sight of a pair of red and blue lights on the street, or in a rearview mirror, will actually be a sign of safety rather than the familiar feeling that another brother, sister, mother, father or neighbor is about to turn into another hashtag.