In 1956, Harrison Finley, a black man, was shot dead in front of his parents’ home in Washington, DC by police officers for purportedly resisting arrest— “a catch-all charge that covers practically everything from loud talking to necking”—according to a leading African-American newspaper at the time.
He was a World War II veteran and father of two young children.
That same year, also in DC, Nelson Marshall, a Safeway truck driver, also black, was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. The officer was indicted for homicide but later found not guilty by an all-white jury.
These accounts are highlighted in Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. The author, James Forman Jr., also notes that throughout this period, “black citizens were consistently subjected to verbal disrespect from the very people whose job it was to serve them.”
While we have come a long way since the days of endemic racial prejudice within police departments, some things seem impervious to change.
I lack the imagination to depict what it was like to have an encounter with the police—as a black male—in 1956. Yet, despite the melanin in my skin, I cannot tell you what this experience is like for a black man in contemporary America either.
As a consequence, my world view is far different than many of those who share my complexion but have been fortunate enough not to have had their existence defined by mass incarceration. Whether this background has made my opinions enlightened or naive probably depends on whether the reader agrees with my commentaries.
With this prelude, I will admit that I am often perplexed by African Americans who came of age in an era when video cameras are utilized by police officers while performing their duties, and when anyone can unleash his or her cellphone to capture encounters between the police and the citizenry.
Through the lens of my television screen, I regularly see young black men and women displaying dismay, frustration and fury when their fellows suffer injustices at the hands of the police. Such encounters and their aftermath are replayed on CNN and MSNBC for the world to see.
A black man is shot to death by a police officer under circumstances that appear suspicious and, sure enough, there on the screen, I will see black folks giving a press conference featuring the requisite man in a bowtie looking like he’s itching for a fight with “Whitey.” There’s the local preacher man in his Sunday best acting as if he’s the voice of the black community; and the family of the deceased (if he happened to be a crook) acting as if he were a college student whose death by violence was unimaginable, and as if he never hurt anybody.
As if such injustices are a new thing.
Frequently, it galvanizes people to march and chant in front of television cameras.
It is a show that I have seen time and again. The faces of those leading the chorus of outrage have changed, from old-school luminaries like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan to a new generation of activists, but as far as I can tell, watching from my prison cell, the message hasn’t changed.
The new activists, like their predecessors, apparently believe that protesting, tougher prosecutions, and mandates compelling police departments to implement new practices and policies will ultimately make black lives matter to the powers that be. While I have a personal interest in seeing a reduction in the probability that an unarmed black man will be shot down by the police (especially since I may be paroled, and the victim could be me), I doubt that such a result will ever be achieved in the 21st Century.
There are three reasons why I am skeptical.
First, black people continue to be seen as dangerous. As the authors of the recently updated The Black Image in the White Mind show, the media has a long history of portraying black men as violent, and white people have been a receptive audience.
Fear-of-the black-man is not “taught” in police academies. The book’s authors, Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki, make clear that such fear is the byproduct of a cultural meme that was implanted in police officers’ subconscious during their formative years—long before they chose a career in law enforcement.
It is as American as apple pie—and lynchings.
This is the grim reality through which efforts to deter officers from using deadly force without justification, ranging from de-escalation training to the threat of prosecution, must be seen. They will make little difference to the black man who gets stopped and frisked, because such efforts won’t change hearts and minds.
To expect otherwise is to believe black men can be made to no longer feel anxiety when confronted by the police.
As a parallel, I have watched the Washington Department of Corrections make futile attempts to change the mindset of correctional officers in order to make imprisonment less dehumanizing to those who have lost their liberty. Administrators wanted them to refer to us as “individuals” but pushback from officers resulted in the quick reimposition of “offender.”
They have been instructed to log positive interactions with prisoners as opposed to only negative encounters. Yet try as they might, they cannot help but focus on the latter.
The ugly truth is that most correctional staff cannot perceive us as anything other than convicts who are unworthy; just as police officers are primed to see that black man as a potentially dangerous criminal.
The second reason that makes me skeptical about black lives mattering is this: police officers are not robots; they are emotional human beings.
When their authority is challenged, some become angry. When a suspect flees like a cheetah down an alley, leaps over several fences, and barrels through sticker bushes and poison ivy, the pursuing officer can become enraged at the very man that he has come to fear subconsciously.
Anger and firearms can be a deadly combination. I know that from personal experience.
While it is true that police officers are trained on the proper use of deadly force, every now and then anger will get the best of one of them. You only need to view one graphic police bodycam video of a 2018 police chase to see the ugly results.
In fact, were you to review video footage inside of prisons, you would see the same phenomenon at play. Prisoners know full well that challenging correctional officers’ authority often leads to arbitrary and sometimes violent reactions. The training that these officers received—to be measured and consistent when dealing with “offenders”—often goes out the window in the face of defiance.
It comes as no surprise, then, when I see people on my television screen experience this backlash during encounters with law enforcement. Prison is just a microcosm of society.
Finally, police officers exist within a subculture that fuels negative perceptions about (primarily young) black males (and black police officers are not immune when it comes to brothas that fit a “profile”).
I too live in a subculture that fuels a heightened level of prejudice. My prison experience has led me to believe that Chicanos feel animus towards black men. More than any other group around me, I feel unsafe when in their midst. Were I in the wrong place at the wrong time, I am convinced that I could be assaulted.
I deal with them cautiously as a consequence.
I rarely seem friendly due to my mindset.
It is noteworthy that I have yet to suffer an attack. But plenty of those who look like me have fallen victim at other facilities. I therefore perceive the threat to be real and conduct myself accordingly. As Al Gore notes, in The Assault on Reason, “When an emotional reaction like fear is especially strong, it can completely overwhelm our reasoning process.”
Fortunately, I have the luxury of avoiding those I believe pose a threat to my safety. Police officers must confront those they perceive as their adversaries.
While he may never have been assaulted in the line of duty, he may know a fellow officer who fell victim during an encounter with a black suspect, as this disturbing video shows. Or, while she may never have been injured while making an arrest, she may have been exposed to a training video like this one, showing a female officer being mercilessly pummeled by a black suspect.
Such incidents rarely fall within the experience of average white Americans. But if you spend your professional life knowing you face such risks, you are likely to be “prejudiced to the extent we feel threatened or fearful,” in the words of social psychologist Michael K. Lovaglia.
That being said, I have yet to meet a black prisoner who is surprised by the fact that police officers are often hostile, abrasive and aggressive. Fear and prejudice apparently make it too difficult for police to serve and protect without bias and to avoid confrontations with African- American citizens.
That such encounters occasionally escalate into violence does not surprise me in the least. That the unarmed man loses in the end is the natural order of things.
Forgive me if I seem to lack empathy. I wish the world was different.
Yet at the end of the day, protests, prosecutions and changes to policies and practices will not make black men seem peaceful and law abiding to those with guns and badges. Likewise, better training is not going to render police officers incapable of overreaction.
The new generation of African-American activists who believe in justice and equality should be cautious. They should therefore never forget the racial prejudice that can erupt with little warning, if they want to be sure their last moments aren’t captured on video for the world to see.
Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers.