Right now much of Brooklyn is tense and on edge. This week hundreds held vigils because on Saturday night a 16-year-old boy named Kimani Gray was shot and killed by undercover police. The complete story is unclear. Officers say Gray had a .38 and pointed it at them.
If that’s true then it’s a justified killing. But some doubt that story. Some eyewitnesses say Gray did not have a gun. I’d like to see if his fingerprints are on the gun found at the scene. Officers say they yelled “don’t move,” but others say they did not identify themselves as NYPD and Gray may have thought he was being robbed. What was Gray doing to attract police attention? Standing on a corner. When they approached he walked away and grabbed at his waistband. Cops zeroed in.
This is part of the culture of stop-and-frisk where young black men are treated as suspicious until proven not. NYPD recently conducted their 5 millionth stop-and-frisk, 4.4 million of them on black and brown men, and the overwhelming majority of them were not arrested as a result. Now comes the part where the boy gets put on trial: if he had a concealed weapon, if he was in a gang, if he had prior convictions–then the logic goes–he cannot be defended. But the law is not here only to protect the angels among us.
Soon you’ll hear a lot about how the cops in this case were black and Hispanic, which means it’s not racial–but we know that’s not true. We have a way of criminalizing black boys and those biases infect both blacks and whites.
Stories like Gray’s are far too common throughout America.
Cops using excessive force after years of antagonistic policing that sows distrust in the communities they’re supposed to protect and serve but are actually occupying. Why is it axiomatic for black men to fear and hate the police, for them to be a militarized force instead of part of the community?
A book called Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force by UC Berkeley law professor Jerome Skolnik and former NYPD officer and Temple University criminal justice professor James Fyfe says police often view their work as an us-versus-them war rather than about community engagement. They also say excessive police violence persists because of a lack of official accountability. Policing is extraordinarily difficult and dangerous, and most cops worry whether they’re going to go home every day. But the fear-based response means treating citizens like enemy combatants, which can lead to many dead and to million-dollar-settlements in many major cities.
This in a world where David Kennedy has had massive success by instituting community policing which focuses on personal outreach and deterrence. This in a world where unarmed Amadou Diallo is shot 41 times in New York and Orlando Barlow is shot and killed while on his knees surrendering to police in Las Vegas and Oscar Grant was shot and killed in the back while in handcuffs in Oakland, the officer convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and Aaron Campbell shot and killed in his mother’s house in Portland–a jury would say it resulted from flawed police practices–and Steven Washington, an autistic man, was shot and killed in LA, and Ramarley Graham shot and killed in his Bronx home for which cops have been charged with manslaughter. If you think just listening to that list is tough, imagine living through it.
When they march for Kimani Gray they’re not just marching for him, they’re marching for all those names and more, marching in pain for all the Black men and boys killed by police who assumed they were criminals, guilty until proven dead.