Changing relations of police, minorities

The killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner represent the tip of a dangerous iceberg of resentment and anger toward police conduct. Those tragedies have galvanized young people across the nation into sustained action and long-term strategies to reimagine policing. It’s a development all those who care about our common future should welcome – and join.

Starting this week — to coincide with the Jan. 15 birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — young people, youth groups and other organizations will gather in 10 cities across the South and the U.S. to launch South Organizing Against Racism (SOAR). They will address the root causes of the killings, profiling, illegal stops, arrests and incarceration that primarily target black and brown youth.

A recent ProPublica study found young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men. Gallup released a poll showing one in four young black men recalled unfair treatment by police within the last 30 days.

Radley Balko’s recent investigative piece in the Washington Post, “How Municipalities Profit on Poverty in St. Louis County, Mo.,” documents how traffic stops that target the poor lead to fines, administrative court fees and warrants. Nationally, the excessive use of traffic stops to line the coffers of cities and counties has long been an irritant to black and brown communities, one that has been allowed due to the lack of a cohesive challenge to these policies.

Recently, after 20 years of uninterrupted practice, New York City’s stop and frisk program was ruled unconstitutional. For the past several years, more than 500,000 stops per year took place against mostly black and brown men, with less than 10 percent leading to arrest.

It took community action, along with a legal and media strategy, to challenge these policies, which came to light after a young African immigrant was gunned down because police claimed they mistook his wallet for a gun. As an attorney who worked on one of the class-action lawsuits, I heard firsthand these men’s feelings of violation and harassment. Believing they had nowhere to turn, people built up hostility. The situation was not helped by the general attitude of police, which was to “take control” of the situation by issuing threats if the person stopped did not comply.

The disproportionate number of men of color imprisoned, taken away from their families, and stripped of voting rights and their humanity is another issue young people are taking on through SOAR. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports African-American males are six times more likely than white males to be incarcerated, and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.

It is this disparate treatment that has led to the reactions produced by the unwarranted killings of young black men.

If police and governing institutions don’t pull back from treating fellow citizens as “war combatants” to test out the latest federally issued military weaponry, the “beloved community” Dr. King dreamed about will not be realized.