There was Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Vonderrit Myers, Kajieme Powell, and now, Freddie Gray.
The oldest were 25 years old, the youngest, 12. They were from Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and more recently, Baltimore.
They had the same skin color in common: black. They were not armed, and they all died in the last eight months during altercations with the police.
“In Barack Obama’s country, young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white compatriots.”
Each one of these cases occurred under specific circumstances. Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun. John Crawford III was buying an air gun at Wal-Mart. Kajieme Powell had mental health issues.
But without surprising revelations from the investigation into the death of Freddie Gray, they were all victims of the same phenomenon: police brutality that disproportionately affects the black community in the United States.
This epidemic is not new. And paradoxically, the increase in cases is good news to some extent. In fact, the American police force is not killing more people than ever, said David Harris, a police behavior expert at the law school of the University of Pittsburgh.
“What has changed is that these police actions are more visible and less tolerated these days.”*
Smart phones and social media helped shed light on dozens of cases that, in the past, would not have been considered by any local newspaper.
David Harris believes that police violence has long been inadequately covered by the media, which tended to report the police officers’ version of the story. “But today, the police have lost control of the story.”*
The abscess is about to explode, and it reveals a sad reality.
In Barack Obama’s country, young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed than their white counterparts, noted ProPublica, an investigative journalism site, in October 2014.
Without the full database of records of police blunders resulting in a death, these statistics remain a rough estimate. But it gives us an idea about the magnitude of this racial divide.
In three years, the city of Baltimore paid nearly $6 million to victims of police violence, notes the Baltimore Sun in a long investigation covering 100 of these complaints. Among the victims are a pregnant woman, a 15-year-old kid, an 87-year-old grandmother.
This culture of police violence is strongly anchored in Baltimore, highlights the author of the investigation, Mark Puente. It’s beyond racial divides since, in a significant number of cases, the police officers who abuse blacks are also black themselves.
The Baltimore case is particularly interesting. The city where Freddie Gray died 12 days ago has an African-American mayor. The chief of police there is black, just like half of his troops. The black community is not a victim of political exclusion. But a part of the community, concentrated in run-down neighborhoods with boarded windows ravaged by poverty, suffers from social exclusion, even at the hands of the local African-American middle class.
The police violence culture in Baltimore is the result of poorly targeted policies, coupled with incompetence. That’s the conclusion of a long testimony published yesterday by David Simon, author of “The Wire” series, which is about the police and the toughest neighborhoods of this city.
However, David Simon believes that the brutality of the Baltimore police officers stems from the obsessive war on drugs and the unbridled pursuit of better safety statistics. The Baltimore police wanted “to clean the streets”* of the city. And all means were acceptable to achieve this goal, including abusing its citizens, under any pretext, and especially in the black and poor neighborhoods of the city.
A Washington Post journalist, Michael Fletcher, a black man from Baltimore himself, explained how he reported the theft of his car to the police.
“What do you guys do to find stolen cars?” he asked the officers taking notes on the incident.
“If we see a group of young black guys in a car, we pull them over,” answered the officer, apparently ignoring the skin color of the person speaking to him. It’s the banality of racial profiling at its best.
In summary, police violence toward black people is a real epidemic that is still still poorly documented, but we’re becoming more and more aware of it. It’s a phenomenon worsened by the relative impunity of the police officers responsible for serious abuses.
The disease is now diagnosed; the abscess has become impossible to ignore, but it’s not easy to take care of.
The publication of the overwhelming Baltimore Sun investigation forced the police to re-evaluate their procedures. Indictments for police brutality have declined by 20 percent, notes the journalist Mark Puente, but it has not ended.
“It is clear, at long last, that we are seeing a pattern,” notes the analyst David Harris: a pattern based on mutual mistrust, fear and racial prejudices that spoil relations between police and people from one end of the country to the other.
What should we do then? First and foremost, we should recognize that it’s not about local and episodic incidents, but about a widespread problem that needs to be prioritized by the nation.
*Editor’s note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.