As an 80s baby, there’s a slight feeling of nostalgia for so many things that were once mainstays and now cease to exist. It’s not that I miss floppy disks, cassette tapes or being able to “borrow” cable with an old de-scrambler box. It’s more thinking back to the days of being a wide-eyed, innocent kid who was entertained by movies of the week and thought afterschool specials were a personal call to action. You, too, could have been the person who kept your classmate from smoking that cigarette. You’d make sure to tell them that if they didn’t throw it away, you’d tell an adult. Then, presumably, the adult would actually care enough to chastise them in some way. The details of the follow through were always lost on me. Now, as an adult, I realize there was no follow through. These PSAs were all a scare tactic for the already-failed War on Drugs.
During the 80s and early 90s, it felt like the War on Drugs was at our front door. I remember being a kid and seeing the drug-sniffing dogs walking the neighborhood more than anyone’s actual pets. Some would argue that was a good thing to have such a consistent police presence; however, those people rarely find themselves even traveling through, much less living in, these neighborhoods. A lot of families of color in major cities understand what most of America as a whole doesn’t: what it’s like to live, work and play in a semi-war zone.
There already exists a distinct set of decorum that whichever adult(s) raised us clued us in on as we grew up, especially as boys. These rules helped us to protect ourselves from the very tangible consequences that tend to occur when we don’t take into account how other people may perceive us. We’ve transcended a lot, but the messages that say the Boogie Man is likely to be a six-foot-something black man with a slim to athletic build still haunts all of us. Regardless of the details, we have all experienced interactions that have been insulting, degrading and problematic just for even loosely fitting that mold.
All that said, it was surprising and comforting to click through my morning blog roll a few Wednesdays ago and notice the link to a Livestream video from Oakland, Calif. As I noticed the date and time, it became clear that the video had circulated around the Internet within an hour or two of occurring. The 17-minute video was taken by a startled, quick-thinking activist sitting at an outdoor cafe who noticed two young black men being directed to lie on the ground in the middle of the street by two police officers. What was most startling is that neither of the two young men was armed; however, the two officers had guns pointed at them and a third police officer (who would come into view later) had a taser gun drawn. The woman holding the camera began to tearfully narrate what was going on while speaking to a friend (who also had her phone out), and then began to verbally engage the police.
Meanwhile, the two men had been directed to walk backwards with their hands raised above their heads and were then handcuffed before being led into one of two parked police cars. The woman’s tearful tone turned to anger as she interrogated the police officers as to why they were arresting the gentleman and why they had pulled weapons. The video grew intense as she soon attracted a small crowd, and she managed to get one of the arrested men in focus to give his name and asked if he’d like her to call a lawyer for him. Ultimately, as the crowd grew, there was a good deal of cursing from the group of concerned citizens. What most impacted me was how she interrogated the police by quoting police policy and asking, “Are you gonna [sic] do them like Alan Bluford?” referencing yet another instance of racial profiling that turned into a lost life, allegedly at the hands of a police officer.
The wounds of the Trayvon Martin case have yet to heal as the court proceedings continue. Before Trayvon, though, there was Alan Bluford. And before Mr. Bluford, there was Oscar Grant and many others. Creating legislation to prevent these injustices is an arduous process and takes time. In the meantime, Stop and Frisk laws are amplifying an already tense dynamic that associates what a criminal looks like with young black men. Activists aren’t always there to just protest something that’s already gone wrong; sometimes a brave, brazen person can jump into action and thwart discrimination as it happens. There’s no way to know exactly what happened before the young men were stopped, but I find it very telling that towards the end of the video, the gentleman in focus of the camera was released. Similar incidents of filming Stop and Frisk arrests of men of color while in progress have been picking up momentum among activists around the country. In response, the New York Civil Liberties Union unveiled a smart phone app in June to further assist capturing these injustices.
It’s hoped that technology can aid in bringing more attention to this subject so that more lives can be saved. It goes without saying that, due to Stop and Frisk laws, too many young lives have been cut short.