Why Urban Policing Cannot Be Reformed Pt. II: Making the Myth of Black Failure
A Real News investigation into intractable corruption in Baltimore explores the cultural and social imperatives that inform police driven narratives of African-Americans from zero tolerance to the ongoing war on drugs
STEPHEN JANIS: It is the latest in a series of controversial body cam videos from the Baltimore police …
VIDEO: Turn on your stomach! Turn on your stomach!
Listen, my arm is scraped up man.
Okay, all right.
STEPHEN JANIS: … showing cops arresting a man with $5 cash. The footage prompted prosecutors to drop drug charges because officers appeared to be staging the discovery of evidence. It is similar to other body cam video that has come to light recently revealing questionable practices to effectuate drug arrests.
SPEAKER: You know, I know what the police position is, which is basically, “Oh, you know, it was a legit find.” But I can only say what I see in the video which is it doesn’t look good.
STEPHEN JANIS: But all of it raises questions that go beyond evidence. Even if you agree with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis that the officers did nothing wrong …
KEVIN DAVIS: I firmly disagree with this decision. I will not be a bystander when my police officers are doing what I and their commanders expect them to do in this crime fight. And it is a serious crime fight.
STEPHEN JANIS: A larger question looms. Why do police chase and arrest a man with a small amount of drugs? And in a city that has most murders in the country, where thousands of crimes go unsolved, why are cops rummaging through alleys, searching cars and even tapping prison phone lines to recover a few gelcaps?
STEPHEN JANIS: How can this expensive and seemingly fruitless use of time be justified? And most important, why is no one asking these questions? Part of the answer, of course, is a war on drugs itself.
SPEAKER: And just like anywhere else in this country, in addition to the economic benefits of doing this type of work, it’s just easier to wreak havoc in poor, black communities.
STEPHEN JANIS: Perhaps it can only be truly answered by focusing on the ulterior purpose of policing in Baltimore that is rarely discussed, which delves deeper, much deeper, into the realm of psychology and how our nation’s monolithic perspective on race is formed. To understand how this works we need to look at history, not of policing but racism. This is Andrew Curran, he’s a professor at Wesleyan University and he’s explored a topic that has received little attention, how this process of tying race to a generalized view of intrinsic behavior began. Curran has done groundbreaking research on one part of the origins of this idea in his book “The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment”. He traces it back to French explorers in Africa who initially perceived little difference among the races but, as slavery turned into an international business, began to write extensively to link behavioral characteristics to skin color.
ANDREW CURRAN: So there’s a guy named Meckel in Berlin whose dissecting black cadavers. He says that black brains, or brains that belong to Africans or African brains, have a bluish or blackish tint to them. And then this is followed up by a number of anatomists who start seeing things that don’t exist actually in reality and they read about this. And this becomes accepted scientific fact during the 18th century. And when blackness exists on the inside, that allows for the categories of race to come into existence that didn’t exist before.
STEPHEN JANIS: Curran has delved deep into the texts. Over time the narratives have evolved. And from there the process of race and a monotheistic perception of what it means only grew.
ANDREW CURRAN: The relationship between science and slavery, and they’ve always kind of been next to each other for a long time during the 18th century, but particularly when people start pushing against the slave trade. At that point, what happens is the people who are pro-slavery start taking advantage of science in order to justify slavery. But when people start attacking the slave trade, that’s when the whole idea of the interior of blackness as a justification for the slave trade the body becomes very important.
STEPHEN JANIS: But how does this idea relate to this, the futility of urban policing? Perhaps there is a similar process at work. The criminal record and arrest are a travel log of condemnation in many ways much more brutal. And also ingrained in the American psyche, a justice system that’s become a powerful instrument of exclusion and constructor of racial identity, one that Sean Yoes, editor of the AFRO-American, is familiar with.
SEAN YOES: Misconduct is not an abnormality. This is a narrative. This is foundational it seems like. Well, I think it’s perceived that the most disenfranchised, the most vulnerable populations continue to pay the price when it comes down to implementation of law enforcement policy. I think it’s as simple as that. They feel like they can do anything they want to do to the poorest communities in our city and they have some right to feel that way because we’ve allowed that to happen.
STEPHEN JANIS: But it goes even deeper than a narrative, into liturgy, and act of faith that can best be understood through a story. As a reporter covering Baltimore’s mass arrest policy known as Zero Tolerance, I wrote a piece about a child, Gerard Mungo. He had just turned seven and was sitting on his mini bike in front of his East Baltimore row home when a police officer confiscated it. When his mother complained they arrested him.
LAKISHA DINKINS: All I can say that I was more so angry as a mom, upset, basically confused because I didn’t really understand why was he arrested. It was just a bit too much. LAKISHA DINKINS
STEPHEN JANIS: His wrists were too small to fit into handcuffs. At a juvenile booking he was too short to be photographed for a mugshot. But it wasn’t the arrest that proved solely how policing writes a narrative of black failure, it’s the response to the story that was even more revealing. The outpouring of hatred in the form of emails and comments that the child was a drug dealer in the making and a young thug and pushback by police that the arrest was justified, that society could conceive of criminalizing the intent of a child reveals how deep this idea of failure and race goes. Later, during the lawsuit, intercepted communications between police revealed the arrest was retaliation for the complaint, a fact that still haunts Gerard.
GERARD MUNGO: I have anger. I still have anger.
STEPHEN JANIS: And what specifically are you angry about?
GERARD MUNGO: That they arrest a seven year old. And that I got slammed off my bike.
STEPHEN JANIS: And many of the thousands of African Americans who are arrested illegally during the Zero Tolerance era. In 2009 I wrote a short book to try to understand it, “This Dream Called Death”. It depicts a fictitious city called Balaise where African-Americans are indefinitely detained solely based upon the content of their dreams. The metaphor was intended to explore the true implications of mass arrests, the limitations they impose on the sense of self and potential and the story of failure they narrate, an interpretation that perhaps explains in part why police inexplicably rummage through yards and cars and chase African-American men with a few pieces of plastic in their possession. That’s because policing tells a story of despair, one that defines us and consigns us to a world of lasting and immutable divisions. This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore.