First and foremost, allow me to apologize to my followers for not having posted any relevant commentary in a long while. I took some time off from blogging to work on my first fiction novel (which is coming along fine, thank you). However, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t completely gone off the grid—I have been regularly micro-blogging almost daily on my Facebook , Tumblr, and Twitter pages, as well as publishing updates to my previously published books). But given recent events in the news, I thought it was time I came out of hiding and chronicle my thoughts on a couple of issues in the news on my various blogs.
As per my usual modus operandi, this posting is going to offend many who read it, which—as far as I am concerned—means my goal to provoke critical thinking beyond the reader’s passions is on the right track. In regard to this particular posting, I was moved—as an African-American male—to chronicle an objective analysis of an on-going issue of personal relevance.
The issue at point is the rash of questionable injuries and/or deaths of unarmed black men by police officers that have circulated among the various news cycles. In quite a few cases, video played a central part in swaying public opinion one way or the other in determining (or maybe pre-determining) guilt and/or innocence of either party involved. To be honest, in many of these instances those black men who died (or were seriously injured) were alleged to have been engaged in unlawful actions; running from the police or engaging in a physical tussle with officers. Both Michael Garner and Walter Scott had been accused of engaging in physical struggles with police officers before being shot. Both were not armed at the moments of their deaths.
In other cases, whether those killed and/or hurt by the police were in fact, offering resistance to the officers is up for debate; in those cases, it depends on whom you ask. Twenty-year-old University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was seen as having been belligerent during his bloody videotaped arrest outside a bar for, among other things, underage drinking.
Eric Garner’s videotaped takedown, arrest, and subsequent death choking at the hands of New York City police officers continues to be debated. Garner, a physically-imposing man, had been accused by the police of illegally selling bootleg cigarettes. Many watching the video of Garner’s arrest agree that he wasn’t offering any resistance to the police, who were trying to restrain him using an unauthorized restraining technique. Other said that Garner was struggling trying to breathe, while infamously yelling “I can’t breathe” to arresting officers.
Still in other cases, the actions of police officers can only be seen as questionable and/unprofessional by most reasonable standards. Akai Gurley was fatally shot by a rookie New York City police officer in the darkened stairwell of a public housing project. By all accounts, Gurley was not engaged in any illegal activity, and wasn’t wanted by the authorities. In fact, the officer involved alleged that his weapon somehow discharged by accident while he was holding it on patrol—an explanation which lends itself to many questions. The videotaped shooting of Levar Jones in a Columbia, South Carolina gas station had none of the debate of most of the other shootings. Jones was complying with a state trooper’s order to show his ID when he was taped being shot because of the trooper’s suspicion that Jones was “reaching for his ID” in a manner that made the officer think Jones was actually reaching for a weapon. Fortunately, Jones survived his ordeal with police.
In every case, those shot and/or hurt were not armed, and apparently posed no lethal threat to the officers and/or the public at-large (which I suppose could be debated in the minds of the police officers involved in these incidents). In all but the cases where the officers’ actions were simply beyond reasonable fear of imminent personal threat, most of those involved were not charged with a crime or any major dereliction of duty.
In all of the sensationalism and headlines behind these instances, one salient point being missed by observers is the interplay of so many psycho-social dynamics at work. Police officers have an extremely daunting job, one that I know that I myself couldn’t do—and I’ve been a school teacher! For the most part, our society couldn’t function anywhere near as well as others around the globe where social norms and traditional values police citizens’ actions more than the laws. The professional officers give us a sense of comfort knowing that our calls for helps will be answered and responded to in a decent manner.
Then, there are those who are unprofessional and personally unbalanced to the point where it affects their performance. These include those whose psychological makeup require their egos to be pet and stroked by successful intimidation of those he (or she) feels should respect their authority. Maybe they were picked on growing up. Maybe they just need to feel like big men (and women)…who knows? Others within the unprofessional ranks—understandably so—are victims of their own fears. They see and/or experience things on a daily basis that would make many of us cringe. Many of them see the worst of human behavior, of man’s inhumanity to man. They are lied to daily as they try to ascertain the facts behind criminal activity and maintaining the peace. And for the most part, their attempts to police many of our communities are greeted and treated with contempt and stonewalling of every sort; “don’t snitch” come to mind immediately. And unfortunately for those like myself, many of these bad behaviors and activities occur in our minority communities (and before those of you reading this go into “defense mode,” many bad things occur in non-minority communities too). Let’s be real and honest…FBI and police statistics bear this out. So too does the evening news. So too do our very own observations. How many times have we heard or read about children (and adults) in the ‘hood being killed by stray bullets, of carjackings, the effects of the drug culture in our urban areas, or instances of teens committing once adult-only crimes?
These observations and experiences can create a sense of justified fear in the minds and hearts of police officers. It’s enough to make them shoot first and ask questions later in many encounters. No, it’s not right. No, not every black male is a criminal. Sure, old bad life decisions, limited opportunities, higher unemployment, and/or institutional bias may make us do some things that marginally break the law in the name of survival (e.g., driving without insurance and/or a drivers license, failure to pay child support), but these are hardly capital offenses. But our penchant for merging all criminal activity into one solid lump of perception tends to make many black males perceptually “hardened criminals” in the minds of the limited thinkers and bigoted. Its why the perennially-used explanations of police officers who shoot first and ask questions later—that “I was scared” and “I feared for my life”—resonates so well among suburbanites and middle-class whites who tend to support them. These shared fears of an encroaching criminal underclass moving into safer and gated worlds motivates their thinking. This ethos also explains why so few police officers tend to avoid conviction when they engage in questionably legal actions in the course of their duties; they were just doing their jobs.
I think I have decent solution to the deaths of black men at the hands of the police and allay the fears of the police at the same time. Let’s bring back the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (or the BBP).
For those of you law-and-order types who only know of the Black Panther Party through their “anti-white,” anti-police speeches, calls for “black power,” Marxist-Leninist political beliefs, and/or often violent confrontations with law enforcement, the group originally formed in 1966 with the initial purpose of arming organized citizen patrols in urban black communities in an effort to both monitor and curtail routine practices of police brutality. The following year, founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton expanded the activities of the BPP to include Party-sponsored community social programs such as the Free Breakfast for Children Programs, and community health clinics. Sporting their signature leather jackets, black berets, afros, and shotguns whenever they were out on patrol or otherwise engaged in some group-sponsored social endeavor, the Party maintained a relatively high-profile in the communities they served. In most cases, the organization’s twin missions of community betterment and watchmen of police abuses gave many inner-city blacks a sense of pride, self-respect, and empowerment. Because of this, the BBP garnered a mass following of respect in the black communities where they operated; even the street hustlers and gang members respected the Panthers during their most politically-active period, the mid 1960s into the early 1970s.
I know this is a radical proposal, especially in light of the rise to semi-prominence of an even more radical, racist group of activists also calling themselves “The New Black Panthers”—who are in no way affiliated by the former members of the 60s/70s BBP (in fact, members of the original BBP have publicly denounced any affiliation with the new group). But a resurgence of the original Black Panther Party for Self-Defense group could have a long reach of benefits for the black community as well as for police officers charged with maintaining order in those communities. Here me out.
A newly-organized, politically-engaging, and socially-active Black Panther Party for Self-Defense could work to instill—or rather re-instill—in the black community the sense of self-reliance we once had…instead of relying others. This would be best exemplified by a new BPP recreating some—or all—of the many community programs (known by the Panthers as “survival programs”) the group started and operated throughout their most active period. Take the Panther’s Free Breakfast for Children Program. It’s no secret that for a lot of black and poor children in the inner-city, the food they receive as they attend public school is often the most assured meal that they might receive on a daily basis.
Likewise, a new Panther Party recreating some (or all) of their many other community service programs from back in the day (e.g., free community health programs, GED programs, free busing for relatives of those incarcerated to visit them in prison, etc.) might go a long ways to illustrating what a sense of community looks like in a generation of black youth who are totally unfamiliar with the concept. Who’s to say that such a wholesale new (read: “returning”) practice of respect for others—especially those attempting to assist others in the community—might not help, say, get rid of that ridiculous practice in many black communities of “not snitching?” Maybe such an outlook might evolve into the same level of neighborhood concern I experienced growing up—where families could go out of town on vacations, and know that their next door neighbor would look after their homes, instead of turning a blind eye to burglary under the aforementioned counter-productive ethos of “don’t snitch.” Additionally, young black youth may come to be appreciative toward those others in their communities working to their benefit. This could translate into people in the ‘hood actually giving a damn about someone other than themselves, going against the grain in our self-obsessed social media world.
A legally-armed, vocal, responsible, and socially-productive cadre of black males comprising a new Black Panther Party would provide a counter to the prevailing negative imagery of the urban “thug.” More importantly, a new BBP that is mission-driven to both protect and serve the black community would be as willing to confront the negative element of the “thug” (as well as other criminal elements) as they would overzealous and abusive police officers. Drug dealers, gang bangers, and others who all but act with impunity as they routinely disrupt the lives of people just trying to live their lives would be confronted by an organized group of productive and civil-minded black men. These civil-minded black males would be willing to confront these negative and destructive community influences with diplomacy—if possible, and force—if necessary to curtail their negative influences on the black community. Best case scenario…the image and social symbolism of a respected, strong, productive, well-dressed, and assertive black male might replace the negative and distorted view of what constitutes a “man” in the eyes of those sporting dreadlocks (as a fashion statement rather than their traditional cultural significance), sagging pants, and “mean-mugging” those simply minding their own business.
More to the point, the respect a renewed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would generate in the black community would fuel their resolve to confront abusive and overzealous police officers. They would accomplish this by video recording the actions of the police in black communities—without directly interfering with their duties, being able to recite (to) and instruct both citizens and police officers of their respective responsibilities regarding traffic stops and/or other law enforcement actions, and directly confronting and challenging police officers whose actions do not conform to law, regulations, of a universally understood sense of human dignity. The presence of BBP activists at the scene of police actions might help provide an additional sense of security to officers otherwise involved in the course of their duties, helping to change the police officers’ preconceived negative perceptions (and expectations) of black males in general, and during confrontations in particular.
And because I’m well aware that some Americans are very skittish and paranoid of such a suggestion as arming black males for self-defense, it’s understood that the police are a necessary agent for maintaining order throughout America. And for that reason, the difference in time periods and general social moods between when the original Black Panther Party were active and now would preclude all calls and attitudes to “kill all the pigs.” However, the police would be put on alert that abusive attitudes and actions won’t be tolerated, and that excessive force might be met with the same should simple situations escalate out of hand.
What do you think?