The Enemy Inside

     To protesters in the streets, the enemy is the white cop, sworn to defend us from people from whom we presumably need protection. But that’s just the tip of an ancient iceberg that still eludes most of us.
     There is no doubt that police officers overreact. They use chokeholds, deploy Tasers, and shoot people every day, more often black and brown than white. As a legal news journalist, I’ve read hundreds of rulings from federal and state courts that testify to this.
     During a 2011 hip-hop festival, 12 police officers unloaded more than 100 rounds into a black man’s car on a busy street in Miami Beach, killing him and injuring bystanders.
     In another tale from Florida, Orange County deputies went to trial for firing 137 bullets at an unarmed black suspect in a car theft after cornering him in a parking lot.
     In perhaps the most ridiculous case I’ve come across, a Texas school district cop shot a 14-year-old Hispanic boy to death for getting into a fight with another student at a school bus stop.
     Some of these police officers are trigger-happy or mentally unstable.
     Others have little training on how to defuse a situation.
     Many others are simply trying to survive on the job in a country armed to the teeth. But no matter how much training improves and how many cameras police officers may wear, we cannot expect change to come from people reacting on impulse to what they perceive as the face of danger.
     I have learned from court rulings that juries and judges are not color blind.
     Evidence is accepted more easily, gaps are overlooked, and sentences tend to rise toward the upper limit when defendants are young black men. Jurors work at a slower pace of justice, handing down sentences after being given time to deliberate.
     Still, black men fill our prisons in disproportionately high numbers, serving disproportionate sentences.
     Because we are a society obsessed with the rule of law, social and political change in America tend to come from the courts. After the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, courts passed decisions allowing people of different races to marry each other and attend the same schools. Voting districts with a history of discrimination were placed under scrutiny for decades. Then America elected black officials, and eventually our first African-American president.
     While these victories are worth celebrating, they are no more than Band-Aids on bullet wounds. America still cannot face uncomfortable realities lodged deep in our society’s DNA.
     When I drive through Georgia I see a landscape of Confederate flags flying in people’s backyards.
     How did a symbol of oppression become an emblem of pride and heritage?
     Why do white people move away when blacks or Hispanics drive down the “value” of their neighborhoods?
     How much longer will black people be the uninvited guests in a country they built with their sweat and blood?
     The violence of slavery and lynching has given way to a psychological violence rooted in exclusion, separation and self-hatred that laws can do nothing to cure. It’s true that law enforcement needs more training and accountability, and laws must protect all people. It’s true that the system is not working for minorities. But the system – of which jurors’ verdicts and judges’ sentences are telling – reflects the fabric of a society that needs earthquakes to shake it forward.
     Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown out of fear, or rage, or simply because that’s what you do when confronted with the “danger” of a hostile black man. But the nice old lady at the grocery store who fake-smiles at the black cashier while whispering to a neighbor that her grandson’s girlfriend is “of color” is no less dangerous than Wilson’s bullets.
     The United States’ history is one of contradictions, a history of masters and slaves, of conquerors and conquered, of racial, ethnic and social rivals struggling to co-exist.
     As Bruce Springsteen says in “American Skin,” “we are baptized in each other’s blood.” But no change will come until we nurse each other’s wounds. It’s time to rip off those Band-Aids and perform society-deep surgery.
     

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