A few days ago, an old friend from London came to New York for a visit. Cora’s trip was brief, but we managed to sneak in a dinner and catch up since our last lunch date 4 years ago. After chatting about the usual things–school, family, love–I asked her to fill me in on her experiences with the London Riots that swept the country for 4 days last August. She had much to say, but one thing stood out:
It was a really beautiful thing. This guy was shot by the police, and I mean, I know here in the US that type of thing happens all the time, it’s common. But in London, it started something.
I sat there quietly listening to the rest of her description of the riots, but I couldn’t move past her statement that state-sanctioned violence toward a person of color “is common” in the United States. Unfortunately she was right, and the past year has done nothing to suggest that this is changing.
By this point, we all know the stories of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell; we have been enraged, protested, yelled and cried at the injustice. This past year, though, seemed to be particularly hard for me to understand. After Troy Davis‘ untimely death, a switch went off. I remember an Anthropology professor proclaiming she had been struck with “disaster fatigue” after a deadly earthquake hit Chile months after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Disaster fatigue had hit me. I couldn’t deal with hearing about any more abuse. After all the protests, calls, letters and op-eds, the State of Georgia had gone ahead and executed a seemingly innocent man. So, I turned off the news and tuned out.
Cora’s statement woke me up. In 2011, the NYPD “frisked” people over 684,330 times. This marks a 14% increase since 2010 and breaks their previous record for the most interrogations of this type in a single year. To make matters worse, 87% of those who were stopped were black or Latino. As if these figures don’t speak for themselves, on December 17th, 2011 the New York Times ran a chilling op-ed. Nicholas Peart described his experiences being young and black in Harlem with a police force that seems like it’s out to get you:
For young people in my neighborhood, getting stopped and frisked is a rite of passage. We expect the police to jump us at any moment. We know the rules: don’t run and don’t try to explain, because speaking up for yourself might get you arrested or worse. And we all feel the same way — degraded, harassed, violated and criminalized because we’re black or Latino. Have I been stopped more than the average young black person? I don’t know, but I look like a zillion other people on the street. And we’re all just trying to live our lives.
Sadly, our community has been struck by another tragedy. Ramarley Graham, an 18 year-old, unarmed, black youth was shot by the NYPD in his own bathroom on February 2. Clearly, the institutional structures that are supposedly built to protect us, aren’t getting it. William Kunstler, a lawyer who defended many Black Panthers, said:
How many more deaths will we have to face before concrete changes are made to protect ourselves?
Today marks what would have been Huey P. Newton’s 70th birthday, and I encourage our community to take time to reflect on our past and consider a future without the state-sanctioned violence we’ve sadly become accustomed to coping with. We must continue the activism of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Assata Shakur and Angela Davis. Their paths of resistance can help guide us. Organizations like The Brotherhood-Sister Sol, Critical Resistance, The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow continue this legacy of education and activism. Now is the time for us to get involved and for police to stop shootin’.