It was March 2010 and I was 17. I was waiting in the Portland, Maine airport because I had gotten back from visiting Colby College as a prospective student. Bored and caught with a sweet-tooth, I went to buy a bag of candy from a vendor. I slipped the candy into my sweatshirt and walked back to the waiting area. Suddenly, two thirty-something year old cops ran right towards me and started screaming. I froze where I stood.
My mom warned me that something like this will happen one day. This happened to my friends all the time. But I knew the drill: don’t talk back, don’t make sudden movements, and do not resist arrest. Be polite and talk in a low tone of voice.
“TAKE OFF YOUR SWEATSHIRT AND GET ON THE FLOOR!” He yelled. I quickly unzipped my sweatshirt and lied belly first on the ground. I didn’t make eye-contact with him.
“What’s in the shirt!?” He yelled.
“Candy.” I answered in a low voice. Why didn’t his dumbass just look instead of ask?
They eventually looked through the sweatshirt and saw the threat to human life called Reese’s Pieces (diabetes is real, y’all) and eventually told me to up and pick my sweatshirt up. So like a
dancing monkey good citizen, I collected my sweatshirt while everybody else was watching.
“Alright, you can go now.” The guard said. I didn’t look back at him or thank him. I think he caught a few more imaginary terrorists and criminals that day. He was a real John Wayne.
I joked about the incident to the others, saying that my teamster White father looked more suspicious and was a bigger threat than I was. Humor is usually how I cope with idiocy, trauma, and all alike.
Needless to say, I played “Fuck Tha Police” as soon as I got back home. If only for that moment, I was allowed my rage at my powerlessness and the humiliation as a result of it. Who wouldn’t be?
That day in the Portland airport gave me a first hand experience at just how much my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness/property was contingent upon the whims and mercy of the State and all its agents. Sure, they could protect me when I need it most. But they could also snuff out my very existence like blowing out a candlelit flame. I had seen it before with Oscar Grant earlier that year. And of course, there was Rodney King, who survived a vicious beating from a horde of LA officers.
I am not appealing for victim-hood or supporting a “woe is me” narrative. I’m not known for self-pity (only self-deprecation). I’m just telling you a fact that makes folks uncomfortable: cops looked at a man of color with something in his pockets and assumed the worst. I was not the only person walking around with candy in their pockets. But, the PATRIOT Act made it okay for law to stretch the limits of civil liberties, probable cause, and searches and seizures.
Remember, we the people made it to be this way.
Just this morning, the prosecutors decided the drop the charges against the remaining three of the six officers who were implicated in Freddie Gray’s death. Never mind that the coroner’s office declared Gray’s death to be a homicide. Never mind the violations of procedure that took place inside the van. Make no mistake: Freddie Gray was killed inside that van with his wrists tied behind his back…but no one killed him. Why? Because the State says so.
Now, no one philosophy or ideology necessarily defines me, but I subscribe to Max Weber’s theory on the power of the State. According to one of the pioneers of sociology, the State is the ultimate power in our secular world because of its monopoly on violence. The State can legitimize force however, whenever, or wherever it deems necessary. We see this in the practice of our government maintaining illiberal terrorist watchlists/no fly lists (instead of arrest warrants) with mostly Muslim-American citizens across all races. To Hell and high-water with any legit argument against the constitutionality preventing a citizen’s movement without evidence for an arrest warrant. They’re the State. They can do whatever they want.
Another example of the legitimacy of force how the law has waged the inane and ridiculous War on Drugs. The War overwhelmingly targets communities of color, particularly Black and Brown areas, through police force and mass incarceration. Even though the rate of drug usage is similar across all demographics, police are more than comfortable enforcing the law within our communities. This exacerbates tensions within our spaces that only leads greater incidences of the law violating folks civil rights and liberties. This pattern repeats itself throughout our major cities with slight variations. But the results pretty much lead to the same conclusion: the whims of the State trumps the agency of entire communities.
We can talk all day about “good cops vs. bad cops,” but that conversation is reductive and irrelevant because it confuses the leaves for the tree. Police, as well as politicians, military, and all public servants, are an extension of the will of the State. Their violations of civil liberties, particularly when they’re codified in law (regardless Constitutionality), ultimately reflect back on their master(s). Hell, plenty of “good” cops will defend their “bad” brethren’s abuses even against the face of overwhelming evidence. Plenty of “good” cops in the NYPD were more than willing to enforce the Stop-and-Frisk tactic primarily against Black and Brown communities. That wasn’t “a few bad apples,” but a departmental decision authorized and encouraged by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The State apparatus is guilty of violating civil liberties, such as searches and seizures and due process of law; not some mustache twirling villain or a few loudmouth racists who openly call black people niggers.
The murders of Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile are the logical extremes of what happens in this unfair and unequal relationship. But let’s not forget the steps that lead to these tragedies. The flawed broken window’s theory of policing that has effectively makes everyone within a certain area a criminal. The critical mass that signed off on their local, state, and federal governments to over-police and outright violate the liberties of Black working class communities. The politicians who failed to address the cries of their citizens and instead initiated a disastrous War on Drugs that has ravaged communities while placing Black bodies behind bars.
I don’t delude myself into believing that electing a President can change this for the better. I don’t allow myself the narrative of prayer or whatever deity to fix this problem. I don’t accept notions of respectability politics erasing state sanctioned violence.
Democratic Republican government or not, it’s time folks realized that the State’s monopoly on force is ultimately why all lives don’t matter and why particular lives are affected. Given the presence of institutional racism throughout all levels of government, the Black community will bear the brunt of this force as we have been for hundreds of years. The sooner we understand that all lives could never matter under a system that believes in violence to establish order, the more we can progress towards a positive direction.
Otherwise, expect more of the same. I know I am.