Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.
(Prefatory Note: It is difficult to be interested in the usual blowback about how “most” cops are “good.” Just stop. Most Black people are not debating that. The point is: There are far too many bad cops who cause far too much physical harm, psychological damage, and economic devastation (as they cruelly and unjustly feed Black lives into the prison industrial complex). In fact, I write on behalf of the “good” cops — many of whom entered law enforcement because they themselves were hassled and harassed by bad and incompetent cops when they were younger. Those experiences made them want to join a police force so their communities could be policed fairly, humanely, and with the objective of serving and protecting the community while enforcing legitimate laws. Moreover, those law enforcement professionals do not “fear” every other Black person they encounter. Indeed, I write on behalf of all the “good” officers who “fear” speaking out against the cops who operate on these streets in ways that are completely antithetical to what it means to “serve and protect.” Some of those good cops did not realize they would be imposed upon to “overlook,” “ignore” or “disregard” certain things in order to keep the jobs they love and provide for their families.)
“In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.” Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
“Hence, the Black body became a flesh and blood text upon which Whites could
project all of their fears, desires, and fantasies without the agony of guilt.”
George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race
Chicago, Illinois. Trayvon Martin was senselessly killed by a wannabe cop named George Zimmerman. After a Florida jury refused to convict Zimmerman of a crime, the most powerful man in the world, President Barack Obama, with obvious knowing pain on his majestic, African-American face, said, “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.”
Well, what if Laquan McDonald was Rahm Emanuel’s son? What if Rahm Emanuel’s son, Laquan, was shot down execution style by one of the far too many audacious, disreputable police officers roaming the streets of Chicago? Would we even be trying to determine whether there was a coverup and, if so, who all participated in trying to conceal the police officer’s wanton, barbaric behavior, thereby protecting the police department and the Emanuel administration? Would Emanuel spew forth the, now essentially meaningless, official script about not wanting to compromise an “on-going investigation,” while patiently listening to a defense lawyer utter the standard dog whistle about how the officer in question “feared for his life?” Or would he feel the unmitigated and continual pain Black people experience when these brutal police involved killings come to light? Do you think he would have a deeper understanding of the genuine fear many Black people have when their sons and daughters encounter the police on the streets of America?
An important construct in psychology and criminal justice, is “empathy.” Studies have shown that little children can exhibit empathy, yet, somehow, many (White) adults seem to forget the concept as they age. One of my favorite instructors, a professor in African American studies, used to say very simply, “Life could be so easy if people would just treat others the way they want to be treated.” Yet, as we watch Black Americans “forgive” White Americans for committing some of the most atrocious behaviors, like the Neanderthal who (allegedly) slaughtered nine people at a Bible study in a church, it seems White people’s “threshold for Black pain,” as Jesse Jackson brilliantly articulated it, seems to get higher and higher. In fact, studies have confirmed that, indeed, many Whites think Black people can endure more physical pain than other human beings.
And this conception is not new. During slavery, White enslavers documented their belief that Blacks could endure immense physical and psychological pain. It is not uncommon to read, in enslavers’ writings, evidence of their belief that, no matter how much a Black person writhes and screams out in agony, her/his pain or grief is not as substantial as Whites and will remit quickly. This conception of “Blackness” comports with other popular and dangerous myths, including the fiction about the supernatural brute strength Blacks are supposed to possess. These dehumanizing notions, consciously or unconsciously held, can jeopardize the well-being of Black people and render them highly susceptible to violence and trauma. Dehumanizing Black people helps to justify cruel behavior toward them.
It is a sad commentary that, in Chicago, many people have known for a long time that a videotape depicting the police slaying of a young Black male was being withheld by city and county authorities. Many demands had been made to get the tape before a judge’s ruling, ultimately, made it available. It is disgraceful that Rahm Emanuel’s administration did not release that videotape much earlier. Surely, Emanuel, a native Chicagoan, knows full well there are people on that force who have no business drawing a public, taxpayer-supported salary because of their crude behaviors with regard to African Americans. This is the same Rahm Emanuel who is supposed to be the mayor of all Chicago. This is the Rahm Emanuel who, after being forced into the first ever Chicago run-off just this year, practically begged Black voters to disregard his arrogance and neglect, so he could be re-elected. (The Black vote was crucial to his victory.) This is a man who is, presumably, intelligent enough to know something about the long-standing, deplorable, often tragic, history of policing in Chicago’s Black communities.
So, where does it end? When does the movement for deep structure systemic reform of the Chicago police department begin; or when can we expect the complete dismantlement of the department so we can start all over again? When does the movement to really professionalize the force begin? When can we expect accountability? When can we expect (some) cops to stop believing that it is them against us (Black citizens)? When can we begin expecting a full, thorough, comprehensive investigation of each and every complaint, as well as investigations into patterns of complaints when officers have a slew of citizen’s complaints against them — like Laquan’s killer?* Moreover, when can we expect discipline, or even discharge, when it is clearly warranted? When can we expect better screening of potential police officers? Applicants to the force need to be assessed on how well they interact with people from different races, cultures and economic classes. Their emotional intelligence, interpersonal skill, problem-solving ability, temperament and personality need to be assessed — thoroughly, in addition to their ability to think rationally and critically. Perhaps most important of all, they need to be exposed to a yearlong African-centered course that teaches them that Black lives matter.
Incredibly, at the press conference just prior to the release of the long awaited video, Rahm Emanuel maintained that he had not seen the video that depicted Laquan’s gruesome annihilation. It strains credulity to believe that the mayor didn’t see the Laquan video before his recent re-election bid and before the city, on the advice of its Corporation Counsel (city lawyers), paid the teen’s family five million dollars. In fact, if Emanuel never took the time to watch the video, that raises another set of pertinent questions that need to be answered. In any event, after watching the videotape of this modern day lynching (whenever he watched it), or after reading about it or having it described to him (if, in fact, he never watched it), there was only one thing for Emanuel to do. He should have called a press conference and made a statement to this effect:
“Something horrific has happened and, as your mayor, I am obligated to bring this information to the attention of the constituency. A young citizen of this great, world-class city was killed in a most brutal manner. In the name of government transparency — as much as it pains me to have to show something this hideous** to you — you will have access to a videotape of it. If you chose to watch it, what you will see is unconscionable; and I will not allow this to happen to any citizen in Chicago, let alone a child, ever again. I will direct that proper policies, procedures, regulations and standards are put in place and enforced; and I will do whatever else I can to prevent the type of abomination you are about to see. I deeply apologize to the citizens of Chicago for the fact that something this savage happened on my watch. The officer involved has been dismissed and that is irrespective of the outcome of any ensuing criminal charges. In the meantime, I will instruct my new superintendent of police to make it his or her business to try to ferret out each and every cop who even thinks that this is the proper way for a police officer to perform his or her job. This type of behavior deeply offends our cultural and societal norms and all notions of human decency and, quite simply, it will not be tolerated.”
Then he should have called the state’s attorney and sought to have that cop prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law; and some of the cop’s superiors in the police department should have been held accountable for that cop’s outrageous behavior.
It is as simple as that. Either Black people are protected by the Constitution — so that cops are not allowed to be “judge, jury and executioner” — or they are not. Either we are going to be a civilized society or we are not. If we are not, then let’s stop pretending and try to figure out where the breakdowns are in society that prevent some Americans from becoming fully enlightened.
Somehow, in America, and much of it has to do with the ways that members of society are (mis)educated, things that are really quite simple become intricate or “complicated” when race is involved. Suddenly, all the rules of fairness simply do not apply in the minds of a large segment of White society. Suddenly, this large segment of White society puts forth all kinds of excuses and justifications for the most bestial behavior when it is directed toward Black people. That is so even when those justifications clearly bear little resemblance to rational thought. Yet, we all know that if Laquan had been White, he would still be alive. He would still be alive if the police had to follow him for two or three hours in order to arrest him.
Black people want to believe, despite strong evidence to the contrary, that they live in a society where they, too, have equal protection under the law and the right to due process. After all African Americans have done to make this country great, they want to believe that they have the rights, privileges and immunities that the Constitution guarantees all citizens. They want to believe that, when they say many police officers are not functioning properly in their communities, people will listen, so that changes based on fairness can be effected.
Now, we have young Laquan’s case to consider. We will never know whether criminal charges would ever have been filed by the state’s attorney had not a judge forced the public release of the video of Laquan’s Black body, which was spun around, riddled with bullets and left to die. However, many of us in Chicagoland think that it never would have happened. Unless the feds stepped in, the feeling is that, most likely, Laquan’s killer would have been sprung from his desk job and eased back into the city streets where he would have been free to commit other thuggish acts against the humanity of Black people.
When parents try to inculcate empathy and compassion into their children they often ask some version of the question, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?’’ Again, even children can exhibit empathy; and life could be so easy if people would just treat others the way they want to be treated.
What if Laquan was Rahm’s son?
Rhonda Sherrod is a lawyer, clinical psychologist, educator and life coach. She is the author of the upcoming book, Surviving, Healing and Evolving: Essays of Love, Compassion, Healing, and Affirmation for Black People. She blogs at hearherspeak.wordpress.com. This is the first in a short series of articles about policing.
* The officer who killed Laquan McDonald, Jason Van Dyke, has had at least 17 citizens complaints lodged against him, including complaints alleging excessive force. One citizen went a step further and filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Chicago. Subsequently, a federal jury found that Van Dyke had used excessive force and awarded the plaintiff $350,000 in damages in 2009, and the judge ordered the city to pay $180,000 in legal fees, according to the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Reportedly, Van Dyke has never been disciplined by the Chicago Police Department — even in the case where damages were awarded.
** “Hideous” is a term Rahm Emanuel used in discussing the videotape he claimed to have never seen.