Author/Humanist/Non-theist/Social Justice

Who’s Looking Out: An Analysis on Police Brutality of Black and Brown Bodies in the United States

police brutalityBy now we are all aware of black and brown human beings being gunned down by police officers in the streets and in their homes around the United States. There are the shootings of women like Yvette Smith, Eleanor Bumpurs, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson and many others around the country. The policing killing of the 25-year-old Freddie Carlos Gray, while in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland, the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri,  the police choking death of Eric Garner, in Staten Island, New York City and others.

These killings have aroused waves of protests across the country in defense of black and brown people’s human and civil rights. Of course, even as theses protests are well needed as they call attention to this issue, there is, however, a missing element to the framing of the protest movement. That is the movement has been framed mainly around male bodies. The names of the deceased women mentioned above have not been verbalized in the movement’s cry for justice.

The “Black Lives Matters,” movement is certainly concerned about all black and brown lives. In fact, all lives.  However, the male body seems to have become the archetypal representation of all black and brown bodies. This is indeed a shortcoming of the “Black Lives Matters” movement that needs to be addressed. With that said, we are witnessing people refusing to remain silence and inactive, taking to the streets marching and demanding that the perpetrators of these injustices be held accountable.  

Despite the clear human and civil rights violations of black and brown lives by the police officers involved, we are constantly being told by the authorities that these police officers have done nothing wrong. Both on the federal and state levels, police officers are almost always sure to be found not guilty for shooting unarmed black and brown men and women. There is a serious issue, which, on one level, is wrapped up in the question of how the police must be policed. It is clear by the conviction record of police officers for committing these crimes there is a lack of commitment to that end. This lack of commitment to prosecute police officers for violating black and brown lives is embedded in the idea of protection for individual police officers. In other words, the authorities are protecting these police officers against retributions, which cannot and should not be taken lightly, of course. This protection, however, should not be pursued to the point of allowing the violation of civilians’ human and civil rights to go unpunished.

Another dynamic that continues to color the American justice system’s view of black and brown human beings is wrapped in the belief that black and brown people are inherently evil. Intrinsic to the American understanding of black and brown people is embedded in its Christian understanding of race. The long relationship the Western world has with Christianity and its theology has shaped the way most, if not all, white American sees black and brown human beings. From the Roman acceptance of Christianity as a state religion, it has been the majoring informing factor of the white Western world understands of race. Christianity’s ideology has designated non-Christians as unimportant, and, as demonstrated during the period of Western slavery, black and brown people were held as beings inherently immoral and evil. Designating black and brown people as such, of course, transcends the idea of just being non-Christians, but also incorporated their skin color as a maker of inherent immorality and evil. The belief that black and brown people are immoral and criminals has not been eliminated from the consciousness of the Western world. It remains in the understanding of many white Americas, and is a nonverbal acceptance about the character of black and brown in law enforcement of the United States today.

Righting the Wrong                                                                     

“Protection for police officers and no justice for the victims” is the consensus cries of the victims’ loved ones and the communities affected. Indeed, a police officer shooting to death an unarmed black man or women would not admit that he or she killed that unarmed individual because of his or her skin color. Therefore, for the federal government to bring civil rights charges against that officer is virtually impossible. After all, they are not mind readers. Despite this being the case, if all Americans are earnest in their attempt to understand the issue, race cannot be ruled out as the major part of the story.  Take former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson explanation to the grand jury concerning his perception of Michael Brown. He looked like a “demon,” officer Darren Wilson explained.

“When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” Wilson said. “Hulk Hogan, that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm” [1]

Michael Brown was the big, bad man akin to an angry, aggressively approaching gorilla. In the eyes of this white police officer, he was some type of a being with mystical powers that cannot be killed. Darren Wilson said this of Michael Brown. “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him,” Wilson said. “And that face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there; I wasn’t even anything in his way” [2]. This is the worldview many White Americans have of black and brown people.

Harboring this anxiety about black and brown people has allowed the cry against police brutality to fall on deaf ears for years. Studies have shown that even whites who promote egalitarian views on race are not immune to holding and acting upon racial prejudice [3]. The fact is that the belief that black and brown people are intrinsically immoral and naturally criminals have a long history in White America’s consciousness and continues to be the case to this day.

This being the case, the question then becomes: What would it take to correct the wrong being done against black and brown bodies? The cry of police brutality by black and brown people is not new. The brutalization on black and brown bodies in America has a long history, and although the cries went out from the inner cities of America, the belief that black and brown people are innately criminals, informed the rest of the country to dismiss the concern as false.

I am certainly not a supporter of violent protest. One cannot, however, deny that it was the violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, and in Baltimore, Maryland, after death of Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr., while in police custody, are responsible for pushing the nation media complex to take notice. It is not what we want, but it is what it took.

Given this reality, how can we remedy this malady that is plaguing black and brown communities. Of course, the issue is not limited to the physical violation of black and brown bodies, but also includes disparities in economic and education, for examples.  In the wake of the violent protest in Baltimore, Maryland, the faith community was instantly visible. The God men came out from the churches and became the faces being promoted as the solution to the problem.

One important step into righting a wrong is moral repair, and community has an important role toward this goal. Within the black community, the faith community, being the largest and most organized, does play an important role towards this effect. We witnessed in Baltimore the faith community urging for calm and a return to nonviolent protest as soon as the protests took a violent turn. This move by the faith community was indeed the right one. There are some, however, who view this call for calm as a call to compliance. It has been argued that the people calling for nonviolence are the very same people who are vested in the system that has been violating black and brown bodies.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic, writes that “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con” [4]. He went on to say that: “None of this can mean the rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is” [5].

There is indeed a frustration in Ta-Nehisi Coates words, and it is frustration we saw on display in the violent riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. It was not, “misguided souls and that the resultant activity is worthy of denouncement without factoring in the source of agitation requires an encyclopedic ignorance of U.S. history, the mechanics of human nature and psychology, and an impressive unawareness of race-based propaganda transmitted through political and cultural systems both uncritically accepted and propagated generation after generation” [6], as the authorities would like us to believe. Instead we were witnessing the language of the unheard. It is an attempt by the unheard to get even with the wrongdoer. However, as legitimate many of us may think that revenging a wrong done, be it on a personal or on a group level, this is not the best way to get results. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, it is not “correct” nor is it “wise.” Reverting to personal inflecting pain on those who wronged us, will simple solidified the belief that black and brown people are indeed criminals, as the authorities attempted to do by labeling the rioters as “misguided souls” and “criminal elements.”

There is a question to be asked as black and brown communities formulate a way forward? What is the relationship between the church and social justice? Reflecting back, despite the presence of numerous secular black and brown human beings as an active driving force behind the Civil Rights movement, the faith community has been a huge part and the most visible aspect of the movement. Speaking on the faith based alliance that became the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), Anthony B. Pinn writes that it was from the work of this organization and its members, under the leadership of Martin L. King Jr., “the struggle for equal assess to public transportation grew into a movement for civil rights across the United States” [7].

Can we have such an organization tackling the social struggles facing black and brown communities today? Indeed, despite fighting what appears to be similar, or, in most cases, the very same fight that was fought during the Civil Rights Era, the system that violates black and brown bodies today operates very differently. They use different methods to manifest the very same results. There are no longer skin color based posted signs that designate separate lunch counters or water fountains for black and white citizens. There is indeed no Jim Crow existing today. Yet we are seeing today some of the most outrageous disparities ever. Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow elucidates the vast race disparity that exists within the United States’ criminal justice system, for example. “The fact that some Africans Americans have experienced great success in recent years,” Michelle Alexander writes, “does not mean that something akin to a racial cast system no longer exists” [8]. Race was and continues to be a major factor influencing the relationship between black and brown Americans and white Americans in the United States.

The number of people incarcerated in the United States has quadrupled over the years, exceeding an estimated 2.3 million people. The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world prison population. Of that 2.3 million people in prison in the United States, 1 million are African Americans [9]. This, of course, cannot be viewed in a vacuum. The United States is witnessing massive growth in wealth disparities along racial lines. As recorded in 2013, the wealth of White household is 13 times the median wealth of black household [10]. Inner city neighborhoods are financially disseminated, and schools are left financially unsupported. Students are left, undereducated, and idle with nothing to do.  In essence, the neighborhoods of black and brown people are left abandoned by the government and business community. In turn, the government imposed what they call “aggressive community policing,” attacking petty crimes, which has been the driving force behind the disparities in incarceration and the killing of black and brown men and women. Remember that Eric Garner was choked to death, by a Staten Island police officer for selling “untaxed cigarettes.” The inner city schools have been turned into a “school to prison pipeline” industry. Misbehaving black and brown children are not given the help needed to improve their lives, but instead are automatically channeled into the criminal justice system, and into prison owned by for-profit companies.

To make matters even more complex, the Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1964, making it easier for states to suppress black and other minorities’ vote. “The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The provision of the landmark civil rights law that designates which parts of the country must have changes to their voting laws cleared by the federal government or in federal court” [11]. This is important because by taking this step, the Supreme Court now allows states that are inclined to suppress people from voting to act with impunity. In other words, a state that has a history of suppressing black vote would not have to get preclearance from the Federal government before implementing something as a Voter’s ID law, which seeks to suppress the voting rights of the already disenfranchised. 

With these facts informing protests for substantive change, where does the church and faith community stand? Well, “as the 1960s came to an end, the vast majority of the nation’s black churches lost their commitment to social activism” [12]. Over the years the church has been charged with abandoning the social activism cause of disenfranchised black and brown people, especially as the church saw its leaders enjoying an ever larger monetary success. The focus of the churches’ leaders then shifted to what they refer to as the “Prosperity Doctrine,” with the rise of mega churches around the nation, and store front churches, which literally dots every block in black and brown people’s neighborhoods, hoping to cash in on the already desperately poor.

“As philosopher Cornel West points out, after the civil rights movement many members of the black elite maintained at least a rhetorical connection to the struggle for black advancement, but much of this was really self-serving. As of the late 1960s “the message was clear: beneath the rhetoric of Black Power, black control and black self-determination was a budding, ‘New,’ black, middle class hungry for power and starving for status” [13].

It is within this context that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words seem to ring true. In that the people calling for nonviolence may indeed have an investment in maintaining the status quo, offering no real answers to remedy the system that Freddie Gray and the countless number of the black and brown people experienced, many ending up dead or into a “for-profit” prison system. With all that said, the question remains this: If we cannot depend on the church as a viable vehicle to real social activism, where do we turn? Who can create the next MIA type organization to continue the fight for human and civil rights justice for black and brown human beings? I am looking at you, the growing black secular community.  

  1. Officer Wilson: Michael Brown Looked Like A “Demon” During Confrontation,” BuzzFeedNew, 2014
  2. Ibid:
  3. Adam R. Pearson et al., “The Nature of Contemporary Prejudice: Insights from Aversive Racism,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (2009)
  4. Nonviolence as Compliance,” an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, 2015  
  5. Ibid:
  6. Language of the Unheard: Why We Riot,” an essay by Sincere Kirabo, Patheos, 2015
  7. Anthony Pinn, “The black church in the post-civil rights era,” (Orbis Books, New York, 2002), p.13
  8. Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” (The New Press, New York, 2012), p. 21
  9. Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” NAACP
  10. Rakesh Kochhar et al., “Wealth inequality has widened along racial, ethnic lines since end of Great Recession,” Pew Research Center, 2014
  11. Voting Rights Act Section 4 Struck Down By Supreme Court,” Huffington Post, 2013
  12. Anthony Pinn, “The black church in the post-civil rights era,” (Orbis Books, New York, 2002), p.13
  13. Ibid:


This entry was posted on June 12, 2015 by in BLOG, RACE MATTERS.
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