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Friday, July 24, 2009

Bootstrapping Out of the Police State

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Margaret Mitchell. Devin Brown. Michael Byoune. Kevin Wickes. Woodrow Player. These are only a few of the names of African Americans murdered by Los Angeles law enforcement over the past decade, specifically the LAPD, Inglewood PD and the L.A. County Sheriff. These are only a few of the names that resonate so powerfully in light of the lifting of the federal consent decree against the LAPD last week.

While the mainstream media have rushed to commend the LAPD for its progress on reform, the rescinding of the consent decree is a criminal sham. According to a 2008 report commissioned by the ACLU on LAPD policing, African Americans are still more likely to be stopped driving while black, ordered out of their cars, frisked, searched and of course arrested than are whites. The report further confirms what community watchdogs and even the Department of Justice concluded about police stops: namely, that stops of blacks and Latinos don’t produce any more weapons, drugs or other contraband that would even justify these measures from a pure enforcement standpoint. Police and sheriffs’ departments essentially waste millions imposing military control on black and Latino motorists. So where are the white fiscal conservatives and live free or die libertarians who bemoan these excesses of big government? Enjoying the entitlements of driving while white.

The consent decree was imposed after the 2000 Rampart scandal, an era in which the wages of whiteness expanded dramatically under Bush’s anti-civil liberties rampage. Even the black elite, who dutifully applauded President Obama’s self-determination pep talk at the NAACP’s annual convention, continue to be reminded of the occupational hazards, or black tax, of working, traveling, driving and even trying to enter one’s house while black. Last week, esteemed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates became reacquainted with the black tax after being arrested by Cambridge police for having the audacity to break into his own home. Despite producing his Harvard i.d., drivers’ license and possibly his dental records to the white police officer, Gates was handcuffed and jailed. It is impossible to imagine eminent white academics like Howard Bloom or Stanley Fish “perp walking” away in handcuffs from their own residences. Gates’ arrest is yet another example of the fallacy of claiming class oppression trumps racial oppression in our post-racial Obama universe.

Being free of the threat of criminalization enhances the mental health and wellbeing of whites of any class. Not being defined and treated as a racial other is an inarguable class advantage. Not knowing the trauma of being programmed to seize up in fear and anxiety at the mere sight of a police car is a form of entitlement. Not growing up with a notion of home and community as occupied territory is, as W.E.B. DuBois framed it, cashing in on the public and psychological wage of whiteness.

Shaking off the cobwebs after decades of being MIA, the NAACP has pledged to make over-incarceration the centerpiece of its new agenda. It is possible that it may find a willing partner in Attorney General Eric Holder, who has articulated some degree of commitment to redressing racially disparate sentencing policies. Possible but not probable, for his boss has become so adept at dismissing the brutal specificity of black disenfranchisement that it has become part of his resume. And as preached by Obama, Bill Cosby and other neo-Booker T. Washington acolytes, all the self-determination bromides in the world won’t empower African Americans to bootstrap their way out of a police state that has claimed so many lives.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for Some Of Us Are Brave: A Black Women’s Radio Show on KPFK 90.7 FM.

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