How to Hide Police Brutality: Just Call It a ‘Black Thing’

Police Brutality: An Anthology , edited by Jill Nelson. W.W. Norton, 320 pages, $24.95.

Imagine working on a book about police brutality: The nightsticks rain down faster than you can type.

Outraged by the Amadou Diallo case (hardly ancient history), former Washington Post reporter Jill Nelson set about compiling an anthology bluntly titled Police Brutality . It’s being published this month, and already it’s badly in need of an update. The acquittal of four members of the New York Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit, those who turned Diallo, a man minding his own business, into a shooting target, came too late to meet the book’s deadline; so did a whole fresh batch of incidents involving unarmed black men killed or accosted by white police officers. Patrick Dorismond, for one, was still hailing cabs as some of the anthology’s essayists were putting the final polish on their pieces.

But no matter. As Katheryn K. Russell, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, writes in her essay, “What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue,” police brutality cases all look alike anyway. There are some variations on the dance or “the Roundabout,” as Ms. Russell calls it. But, like the cha-cha, once you know the basic step, she says, you can pretty much predict the routine. Here, the key moves as she describes them.

There is an incident of alleged police violence against a person of color.

Expressions of outrage by members of the minority community are followed by calls for calm by the authorities (e.g. mayor, police chief).

The authorities publicly classify the incident as an “aberration” and note that most officers do a good job and that the public should not rush to judgment.

A grand jury declines to issue a criminal indictment. No trial is held, and none of the officers are held accountable.

Ms. Russell’s essay (the title is borrowed from Fats Waller’s blues classic) comes smack in the middle of Ms. Nelson’s anthology, bookended by ruminations from professors, journalists, lawyers, columnists, a former Black Panther activist turned urban planner, a current black activist and a 29-year veteran of the New York Police Department, now retired. Most of the contributors live and work in New York, including New York University’s Robin D.G. Kelley and Derrick Bell; Columbia University professor and columnist for The Nation Patricia J. Williams; and Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch. Even Jill Nelson is now a New Yorker, teaching journalism at City College.

The litany of police abuses against black people in Police Brutality makes for numbing reading, and, unfortunately, those who would benefit the most from hearing about those abuses-privileged white people whose experiences with police are mostly positive-are the least likely to read this anthology. Too bad: It could give them a real insight into why so many blacks-even middle-class blacks-are so mistrustful of the police. Even the term “police brutality” will likely strike most whites as too harsh for most of the cases presented here. Whites usually reserve those words for extraordinary acts performed by what they think of as rogue cops. But as this anthology demonstrates, most blacks use the term to cover the whole gamut of negative experiences with police. If you’re black, whether it’s an everyday event, like being stopped while driving simply because of the color of your skin, or a seminal event, like the beating of Rodney King, it’s all part of a pattern that singles you out.

Early on in the anthology there’s a depressing chapter of depositions by black after black testifying about the failure of the police to protect them from a mob of rioting whites. It could easily be mistaken for today’s news; in fact, the affidavits were taken in 1900.

The most moving stories are more recent. Robin Kelley recounts the time he was running to catch a bus in Long Beach, Calif., when suddenly he was blinded by a light and deafened by the sound of a whirling helicopter above him. He was grabbed by a police officer who beat him to the ground with a nightstick and dumped the contents of his oversize legal briefcase into a pothole of muddy water. When Mr. Kelly asked what he’d done and why he was stopped, the uniformed man replied, “You ran, nigger! Criminals run.”

Patricia Williams tells of her friend Deborah, who, while sitting in her car at a gas station in Chicago, watched as two policewomen across the street searched a car and patted down two girls and two boys who appeared to be Latino; one of the officers came over and ordered her to leave. When Deborah refused (a civil rights activist, she considered watching arrests her duty), more police arrived. She was taken from her car, handcuffed, driven to the police station, chained for hours to a bench and charged with, among other things, failing to wear a seat belt.

When police at California’s John Wayne Airport identified themselves as “members of the Airport Narcotics Security or something or other” and demanded to see his ticket, Ishmael Reed, a senior lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, complied, even though he knew he had the right to refuse. He was afraid he would be arrested and the police would plant narcotics in his briefcase so that they could make a charge. Mr. Reed explains: “Many whites believe that blacks are crazy when they accuse the police of planting evidence, yet they’re the ones who are crazy, bewitched by the media, which too often serve as a kind of public relations annex for the police, creating and reinforcing the belief that American crime is black or brown, even though over 70 percent of arrests in both cities and rural areas are of whites. In fact, according to recent F.B.I. statistics, it is white adult crime that’s on the increase.”

Stanley Crouch takes a stab at a solution to the problem of police brutality. He insists that a “strong alliance between the civilians and the police” is the only way to provide real justice to those who live in high-crime neighborhoods. “The antipathy between the community and the police works to the advantage of criminals with and without badges,” he writes. Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, agrees: “Police officers,” he writes, “must be educated and trained to see themselves as a vital part of the community, not outsiders under orders to ‘occupy’ and ‘pacify’ the community.”

Katheryn Russell puts her finger on the reason the problem of police brutality isn’t a top attention-getter in this country: It’s seen as a “black thing,” she argues. Although more whites are arrested than blacks, there is no “white poster child of police brutality,” no “white Rodney King.” Most likely, she argues, that’s not because there are no white victims of police assault, but rather because whites are less likely to think of an assault as a manifestation of brutality. As a result, for both blacks and whites, police brutality is considered a black problem. Even the shooting of the hammer-wielding Gidone Busch by four New York City police officers in August 1999 did not arouse much public outrage nationwide. News reports, after all, cast him as another outsider, centering on his mental illness and his religion, Orthodox Judaism, and not on his “whiteness.”

Minorities who complain about police abuse are treated like next-door neighbors who are having a fight, Ms. Russell believes: The rest of us don’t want to get involved, and so we tell ourselves that we don’t know the facts and that it’s none of our business anyway. Ms. Russell argues, “These types of rationales allow us to diminish the collective harm of police brutality.”

Meanwhile, as Ms. Williams points out, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris-”after professing their love for Hitler, declaring their hatred for blacks, Asians and Latinos (on a public Web site no less), downloading instructions for making bombs, accumulating ingredients, assembling them under the protectively indifferent gaze (or perhaps with the assistance) of parents and neighbors, stockpiling guns and ammunition, procuring hand grenades and flak jackets, threatening the lives of classmates, killing 13 and themselves [and] wounding numerous others”-prompt a national conversation about “What went wrong?”

Black males carry the stigma of “suspect,” but the police are not the only ones to blame. The brutality in the term “police brutality” begins with a society willing to suspect the members of an entire race, to brand them criminals with a single look. Whereas white males are given the benefit of the doubt-victims, as Patricia Williams puts it, of “innocent profiling.”