Faculty Forum - Featured Post Posted on Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Reason for Hope – Policing in America

“There is an unbroken line of police violence in the US that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery.”
-Angela Davis

“America is a divided nation, and cops are perched perilously on the divide.”
Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe

Underlying the debate about policing in the United States is the central question of how well our democracy has worked for different groups of people and the role that the police have played in American history.

The precursors to today’s police institutions, from the vigilante-style slave patrols hired by plantation owners to the “fee-for-service” watchmen used to protect wealthy merchants, capitalists and politicians and to brutally bust unions, set the path that determined who had the right to be protected and who had to be policed.

This is the foundation upon which modern day policing stands.

Since the August 2014 tragic killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, MO, Police Officer Darren Wilson, who was not indicted, issues of policing and the failure of the criminal justice system have caught fire. The shooting sparked fervent protests in Ferguson and across the country.

At first, it was no surprise that mainstream media simplistically covered the shooting as an isolated incident. But this time it was different. Ferguson protesters and leaders in the African-American community effectively pushed the discourse from one of isolated police violence to expose how the Ferguson police department was used to exploit and criminalize thousands of innocent people and to collect fines in the Black community for “crimes” such as driving with a broken tail light.

We have seen all too often how routine police encounters can have lethal consequences for people of color. According to Mapping Police Violence, African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet police killed at least 102 unarmed Black people in 2015 – 5 times the rate of the killing of unarmed whites in 2015.

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Die-In at 75th Precinct following the police killing of Akai Gurley December 27, 2014 Photo: Courtesy of Tami Gold, Photographer.

Michael Brown’s death, along with the deplorable police killings of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY; Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, NY; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH; Freddie Gray, in Baltimore, MD; Sandra Bland in Waller County, TX; Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA; and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN – to name a few – has been carefully documented by The Counted, a project of The Guardian, which records the number of people killed by police in the U.S. These tragic events make the 2004 documentary, Every Mother’s Son, which I produced with my colleague Kelly Anderson more relevant than ever in depicting the complexities of race and excessive use of force by the police.

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Demo at 75th Precinct following the police killing of Akai Gurley December 27, 2014 Photo: Courtesy of Tami Gold, Photographer.

We began filming Every Mother’s Son in 1999 immediately after four police officers from the NYPD Street Crime Unit killed unarmed Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets as he was standing in the vestibule of his apartment building. The Street Crime Unit, famous for its motto “We Own the Night”, was the elite force of more than 300 plain-clothes police officers who patrolled the streets in unmarked cars looking for suspicious activity.

We decided to focus on the Giuliani years to show the impact of an out-of-control police department on diverse communities in the New York City. We choose three very different cases where unofficial but pervasive policing tactics – such as racial profiling, excessive use of force and the “blue wall” of silence led to the death of three men.

While police brutality in communities of color, specifically Black communities, is at epidemic proportions we also wanted to show that when there is a culture of policing which uses excessive force and fails to hold anyone accountable, its victims can be anyone and anywhere.

Every Mother’s Son Caption: Photo: -- Iris Baez , Kadiatou Diallo and Doris Busch Boskey. Courtesy of Anna Curtis, Photographer. © ANDERSONGOLD Films

Every Mother’s Son Caption: Photo: — Iris Baez , Kadiatou Diallo and Doris Busch Boskey. Courtesy of Anna Curtis, Photographer.

The film tells the story of three mothers Iris Baez, Kadiatou Diallo and Doris Busch Boskey, who refused to stand by silently after their children had been unjustly killed by law enforcement. They demanded justice and accountability, and to this day they continue to seek systemic changes.

Every Mother’s Son Trailer

While focusing on the mothers’ stories, Every Mother’s Son looks at ‘Stop and Frisk’ and ‘Broken Windows’ policing strategies to understand the circumstances that resulted in the killing of their children – Amadou Diallo (1999), Anthony Baez (1994) and Gary Busch (1999).

‘Broken Windows’ policing cracks down on “quality of life” crimes – hanging out in groups, selling individual cigarettes, turnstile jumping, loitering, and drinking beer in public – under the premise that these types of behaviors lead to more serious crimes. Similarly, ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ authorizes police to pat down and search any individual who they determine looks suspicious of carrying a concealed weapon or in the possession of drugs. People of color know that walking or driving while Black is sufficient reason to be stopped.

There has been considerable debate among criminologists about the effectiveness of the ‘broken windows’ law enforcement policies. Some argue that ’broken windows’ policing punishes low-income communities of color for engaging in activities that have in most part not been considered criminal behavior in the city’s white middle-and upper-class communities.

In the case of ‘Stop-and-Frisk,’ when someone is stopped-by police they can be forcibly stripped to their underclothes in public and experience physical violence and degrading treatment, which has a significant emotional, psychological and economic impact. Nearly 9 out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own report.

In 2011 alone, under the Bloomberg administration, there were 685,724 stop-and-frisks – a more than 600 percent increase over the past ten years. Black and Latino people are stopped at a disproportionate rate: nearly 85 percent of all stops.

The police responsible for the death of Amadou Diallo in 1999 were part of the Street Crime Unit, which was an essential tool for the ‘stop-and-frisk’ policing strategy.

Outside the home of Ramarley Graham where he was killed by police officer Richard Haste in February 2, 2012 Photo: Courtesy of Tami Gold, Photographer.

Outside the home of Ramarley Graham where he was killed by police officer Richard Haste in February 2, 2012
Photo: Courtesy of Tami Gold, Photographer.

Every Mother’s Son also follows the growth of the national organization Families Against Police Brutality, which began in the early 1990’s. Mothers, fathers, siblings and grandparents who had lost loved ones at the hands of law enforcement marched on Washington D.C., occupied the offices of district attorneys, and participated in civil disobedience, crying out for fundamental changes in policing.

These families are the precursor to the newly formed Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) of today.

But it is also different.

As was so vividly exposed in Ferguson, the M4BL critique of policing goes beyond individual cases and brings policing full circle to its racist and classist foundation that lives on today. It connects policing and the criminal justice system with America’s long and painful history of racial discrimination in employment, housing, and education.

We are at an historic moment. The exponential growth of M4BL and the explosion of social media, which has exposed images of police brutality on a level never seen before – has opened up opportunities to rethink and finally change the role of policing in the United States. The M4BL platform, released in August 2016, made exciting waves across the United States and beyond as it delivered a deeply comprehensive vision toward societal transformation and empowerment for Black individuals and communities.

However, it does not stop there. The sharp crystallization of the M4BL platform embraced by Asian, Latino and white allies has created a space for healing and to honestly and bravely undo the grips white supremacy.

We are in a moment of truly unprecedented opportunity.

“We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people.”

-Excerpted from the from the M4BL platform

This post appears as part of a Roosevelt House series on race and law enforcement. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Tami Gold is a professor at Hunter College, a filmmaker, visual artist and activist. Her work has consistently been at the forefront of social justice, focusing on race, gender, sexual identity, labor and police brutality. For over 20 years Tami has produced and directed award-winning documentaries — RFK in the Land of Apartheid, Out at Work: Lesbian and Gay Men on the Job, Juggling Gender: Politics, Sex and Identity, Passionate Politics: The Life and Work of Charlotte BunchPuzzles: When Hate Came to Town and Every Mother’s Son. Her films have reached audiences near and far, airing on PBS, HBO and on television in Nigeria, South Africa, Germany, France, Turkey, Serbia, Russia, Mexico, Lagos and Vietnam. Her work has also screened at the MOMA, the Whitney, The Chicago Arts Institute, The Kennedy Center, the American and British Film Institutes, Sundance, Tribeca and The New York Film Festival, and in over 150 film festivals worldwide. She is recipient of Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships.