by Ashlee Pitts
On 19 April 2015 a twenty five year old African American man succumbed to his fatal injuries while in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. An autopsy was performed on the victim and the final report concluded the cause of death was a spinal cord injury. In addition to his spinal cord injury the victim also received repeated blows to the head throughout his bumpy ride in the back of a police vehicle where he was handcuffed, shackled at the ankles and unsecured without a seatbelt. The Baltimore native was seized by law enforcement officers after they determined that what they believed to be a switch-blade, which is illegal under Maryland law, was in the victim’s possession. They used this knife as probable cause to arrest. As a direct result of his injuries Mr. Freddie Gray fell into a coma and died just one week after his arrest.
Civil Disobedience and Unrest
The death of Freddie Gray ignited protests, riots and a nationwide discussion on police brutality in the United States of America. Mr. Gray’s death is yet another tragedy in a string of events in America where an African American male has been victimized by a police officer. Countless communities across the United States have been impacted by police involved shootings, brutality and harassment. Although the majority of police officers in the United States are law-abiding and take the oath to protect and serve the community seriously, the officers who have demonstrated their abuse of authority continue to grapple headlines. Within the past three years there has been a string of events triggering a national debate around excessive force of law enforcements and young men of color. The following unarmed African American men that generated nationwide coverage and controversy included: eighteen year old and college bound student Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, seventeen year old Trayvon Martin of Miami, Florida, forty-three year old Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York, fifty year old Walter Scott of North Charleston, South Carolina and the youngest, twelve year old Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Ohio.
Each horrific event sparked national outrage and protests resulting in community unrest, media scrutiny, anti-police sentiments as well as victim blaming narratives. The images captured of the riots and protests that transcended across the country were something of a war between civil society and law enforcement. In the aftermath of the death of teenager Michael Brown, the world witnessed the violent and hostile interactions between members of the National Guard, Ferguson police officers and the hundreds of people protesting throughout the streets of Ferguson. Military tanks, riot gear, tear-gas and assault rifles were introduced by law enforcement with the purpose of dispersing the crowds and claiming order in the public but their efforts produced the exact opposite of effects. Members of law enforcement were met with anger, cries and an unbreakable formation of the Ferguson community.
“Hands up, don’t shoot” became the motto of the Ferguson riots. “I can’t breathe” became the motto of the 2014 New York riots. “I can’t breathe” were the final words that Eric Garner cried out as while multiple police officers drove his body into a New York City sidewalk. This event took place in broad-daylight and was recorded on a bystander’s mobile device. By the end of the video footage we see Garner’s motionless body and his hands cuffed behind him. The cause of death was compression of the neck, also known as a “choke holds”. Despite the clear evidence of excessive force on the part of the NYPD officers, no officer involved in the encounter were indicted on charges related to Garner’s death. Though the video footage failed to bring an indictment against any of the involved police officers, it did however shed light on how certain police officers are choosing to work and the power of social media to not only confirm but also dispute a police officer’s testimony.
“Black Lives Matter” became a nationwide motto that represents the frustration and resentment that many people of color in America continue to harbor and their mistrust for the judicial system that many African Americans believe to be working against them. It represents a movement that recognizes the everyday struggles of many people of color that are living in America. “Black Lives Matter” is about eradicating racially charged injustices, prejudices and stereotypes that continue to plague the Black community.
The riots that broke out in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s passing were not unprecedented nor were they exactly surprising. There has been a long-standing mistrust between members of the African American community and law enforcement agencies across the country for decades. The ongoing cycle of abject poverty and systematic oppression are sources of the animosity in many communities throughout the US and events like the Freddie Gray shooting allow the built-up resentment, anger, pain and frustration to boil over into turmoil.
In 1991, officers of the Los Angeles Police Department were recorded on camera beating a then twenty-six year old African American man named Rodney King. King was struck repeatedly with batons, tasered, kicked and punched whilst other police officers stood by. The video became an instant media sensation and the heinous beating that Mr. King endured was indisputable. Despite the evidence, all officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 ensued as a result and the pictures that we see today of the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson are eerily similar.
Youth Resistance in the Social Media Era
The youth in America have shown a great deal of commitment to social change whether it be for the rights of the LGBT community, immigrants or equal pay for women in the workplace. The youth have played an especially large role in the protests and numerous acts of civil disobedience throughout the country in response to injustices and racial profiling. They have utilized social media to raise awareness and to educate the public about police targeting young men of color. It is important to note that without the counter video testimony of the Walter Scott shooting, the Eric Garner choke-hold and Freddie Gray’s arrest, the general public would only be able to base their opinions solely on the word and testimonies of the involved police officers. In all three of those cases, the police’s testimony did not align with the evidence produced in the video footage. Faulty police testimony allows miscarries of justice and it speaks to the frustration of many people.
It is important to the note that a heightened level of anxiety and mistrust towards law enforcement also exists within people of White, Middle Eastern, Asian, Hispanic backgrounds as well. For many young men of color the mere sight of a police officer is enough to draw sweat. From a young age some are taught whether it be through direct instruction or lifelong negative interactions with law enforcement that the police are not on their side; that the police are not to be trusted but feared.
Although the Black youth in America are not growing up in the days of Jim Crow or legally imposed segregation, they have however grown up in the era where stereotypes of urban areas have given birth to the “Broken Windows” theory and the now banned “stop-and-frisk” practice of the New York City Police Department. The “Broken Windows” theory works under the idea that preventing small crimes like vandalism or theft will lessen the likelihood of more serious crimes and to do so will require monitoring urban areas that look to the naked eye undesirable and broken. This theory is inherently biased and allows a legal avenue for law enforcement to incorporate racially charged assumptions and prejudices in their day-to-day rules of procedure. The “stop-and-frisk” is a policy that allowed law enforcement to stop and question a civilian and search them for weapons, contraband or anything deemed to suggest illegal activity. From the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and 2014 protests in Ferguson, the youth of America have shown time and time again that there is strength in numbers and real change can be made by one chant, not one bullet, at a time.
Much Needed Cooperation
Society needs the unwavering and unconditional support of law enforcement to keep communities safe without prejudice. Law enforcement needs cooperation from society to help them in the efforts to do so. When there is a mutual distrust on both sides of an equally dependent relationship of civil society and civil servants, precious lives and communities fall through the cracks of a system that is meant to protect everyone. Police officers risk their lives every day in America to protect and serve and their lives matter too. History can serve and educate us as we use it to create and influence the future. Civil society and civil servants are more than capable of working together to encourage a more positive and just system where all Americans can truly live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”