Typing can be a very satisfying expression of anger. Frustration makes the fingers pound each key, the clacking sound drumming out a constant barrage of unspoken criticisms and suppressed opinions. In the quiet office, my displeasure could be felt as the fury burning in my body transferred into the ferocious words on my computer screen.
It was my second day as an intern at the West Town Community Law Office, a small Chicago firm located in the heart of a Puerto Rican community that specialized in civil and human rights law. Both these specialties appealed to me as a way of helping those abused and silenced by the system to find their voices again.
The neighbourhood in which the law office was located bore witness to a long history of police brutality and racism that extends into present day, tarnishing the idea that the United States is a country of equality and tolerance, liberty and justice for all. As an intern, I was tasked with listening to depositions, typing up witness testimonies and transcribing video recordings of court trials. As the words of each case filtered through my eyes and ears, I experienced the pain of people who were stopped, stripped, abused and persecuted simply because of their skin colour.
I read a man’s recollection of watching officers break down his door, tear apart his house and his car and threaten to place blatantly false charges on him if he didn’t give them what they wanted: a gun. His protests fell on deaf ears and he spent a year’s time and thousands of dollars on bail just waiting to prove his innocence in front of a judge. His case was immediately thrown out due to lack of evidence, but the malicious actions of the officers still cost him a year’s freedom.
Their contemptuous disregard for the law shocked me. I wanted to be a detective when I was a kid so I could protect people and bring them a sense of security. To abuse authoritative power with the intent to harm and humiliate was disgusting enough, but the added racism and bigotry infuriated me. I’ve been picked on and teased for my slanted eyes and my ancestor’s traditions, but I have never been afraid to be Chinese. To create an atmosphere in which innocent people have to live in fear of those who are meant to protect them is an act of systematic violence and oppression.
West Town is not alone in suffering such acts of injustice. A complete history of systematic violence and racism in the U.S. could fill libraries with case studies, and I am by no means qualified to attest to all of them. So I’ll limit the scope of my discussion to the events of the past few years.
Trayvon Martin: February 2012
On 26 February 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a white male who was the head of the neighbourhood watch, in Sanford, Florida. Martin was unarmed and talking on the phone with his girlfriend when Zimmerman shot him. Zimmerman plead self-defense, and in July 2013 he was acquitted of all charges.
In response to the acquittal and in the way of similar tragedies in the following months, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged; soon the group was at the centre of national attention.
Michael Brown: August 2014
On 9 August 2014, Michael Brown, another African American teenager, was fatally shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri. Following the killing, candlelight vigils were held for Brown. In response to these peaceful demonstrations, police officers arrived on the scene with canine units and riot gear.
All around the world, people joined in with slogans such as “Hands up, don’t shoot,” which verbalized the gesture of surrender that Brown had allegedly displayed before being shot 12 times.
As protests in Ferguson grew in size, some small businesses were burned down, Molotov cocktails were thrown and looting broke out across the city. The police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Violence broke out as the activists grew angry at the heavy-handed response to a conflict centred on the very fear of police prejudice and brutality.
To make matters worse, a blurry photograph of Brown flashing what vaguely resembled a gang sign was often used in articles in the media as it covered his death. Many believed the promotion of this photo displayed a biased tendency to stereotype African-Americans as thugs or gangsters, in essence justifying Brown’s death.
On Twitter the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown began trending as people posted side-by-side photos of themselves in order to expose how the media misrepresents people based on skin colour. In one such tweet, an African American teenager posted a photo from his high graduation in which he’s wearing his cap and gown besides one in which he’s wearing a baseball cap and has his fists in front of his face. Had he been killed by a policeman like Michael Brown, the tweet asked, which photo would the media have used in their coverage?
Outraged poured out across the nation on 24 November 2014 when a grand jury acquitted Wilson of all charges. Frustration, grief and cries for justice echoed through streets all across America and amplified the call for change.
Eric Garner: July 2014
But the year only got worse. On 17 July 2014, Eric Garner died in Staten Island, New York after being put in an illegal choke-hold by police officer Daniel Pantaleo during an attempted arrest. Bystanders filmed the entire incident, and Garner can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” while being aggressively forced to the ground, his head being smashed into a window in the process.
Despite indisputable video evidence of the entire abusive affair, another grand jury acquitted Pantaleo on 3 December 2014. More protests erupted around the country, and everyone from newscasters to NBA players wore t-shirts reading, ‘I can’t breathe’ in a show of solidarity.
Tamir Rice: November 2014
Meanwhile, on 22 November 2014, a young African American boy named Tamir Rice was fatally shot by Timothy Loehman, a white police officer, while holding a fake gun. Neither Loehman nor his partner administered first aid to Rice after the shooting; one officer is recorded telling dispatch that there is a “‘male down, black male, maybe 20.” The boy was 12. These are only a few examples of the instances of white officers killing African Americans; John Crawford III, Renisha McBride, Kimani Gray and Kendric McDade are just a few of the others who tragically belong on the same list as Martin, Brown, Garner and Rice.
It is abundantly clear that the U.S. has many issues that need addressing. Firstly, there is the problem of police brutality and partiality. I know that there are many honest and good officers out there working very difficult jobs so the rest of us can feel safe. However, recent events, statistics and psychology studies all point to a widespread police prejudice against African Americans, especially when in cases of split-second judgments.
The psychology department at New York University created an implicit association test that revealed that people have unconscious biases that affect their daily decisions. Though often unaware of this fact, people are more likely to associate black people with negative phrases and violence. This means that in moments of danger or in the midst of an adrenaline rush, black people can appear threatening.
Programmes like Fair and Impartial Policing conduct training programs for officers meant to expose their implicit associations so they can then guard against them. Some police departments are taking measures to ensure that officers are required to seek out a second opinion or take a moment to evaluate whether an action is justified. While programs such as this one may not safeguard against those people who are truly racist and reactionary, they do provide officers with a chance to recognize this problem and work to correct it. In high-stress situations, it’s hard to overcome our biases, but given enough training and self-awareness, we might start to stand a chance.
In order to mandate accountability, police cameras have been proposed as a possible solution in the wake of all of these killings. President Obama recently proposed $263 million in funding for body cameras that police officers would wear while on duty. Such new training procedures would surely be a good step towards rebuilding any lost trust between citizens and their authorities.
Chicago: Winter break 2015
Through my internship, I’ve seen firsthand that the American Justice System is unfair. In Oakland, California, the NAACP reported that out of 45 officer-involved shootings in the city between 2004 and 2008, 37 of those shot were black and one third of those shot were killed. There were no white fatalities. No officers were charged.
The American justice system is meant to be a space in which anyone can be heard and everyone is given his due. Instead, it has become a system that incarcerates a disproportionately large amount of minorities, especially African Americans. The US Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes. This statistic reveals not only the inherent bias of the system but also the structural inequalities that create this bias.
In the book The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide, Meizhu Lui and Barbara Robles demonstrate that, across the US, African Americans and other minorities are often excluded, systematically, from opportunities that help generate individual wealth such as business loans, employment opportunities, mortgages and G.I. (military) benefits. Too often those who are privileged cannot see how unfair society has become and are too busy reaping the benefits to tackle the admittedly difficult task of how to fix the inequalities that are costly to everyone.
I don’t have all the answers, though I wish I did. This issue is not a simple one, and its solution surely won’t be either. Under the law, we deserve the same treatment and the same protection. Change is not an easy process, and it will require a long, strenuous battle against entrenched ideas, practices, beliefs and hierarchies. But the integrity of the American system depends on it, and it’s up to everyone in the U.S. to demand that things begin to change.