It’s something I wish more Americans could see close up.
To most of us, police officers are people in uniform who we rarely meet in person. We’re glad to see them ready to protect us if something untoward happens.
But to kids in the ‘hood, the police are the enemy. Not just to the thugs, but to all of the kids, for the most part. It is part of the culture, the warp and woof, of the neighborhood that the police are a problem.
I revisited this the other night at a community forum in the Bronx fostering dialogue between the local police and the local kids. And I mean kids. Not only 22 year olds, but kids of 16, even 14 — that is, people with only dim memories of any president but the current one.
Even at that age, especially the boys are already imprinted with the idea of the police as the scourge of their neighborhood. And not for nothing: the police regularly trawl through the projects looking for drug dealers, and quite often place under suspicion the kids who are just minding their business — that is, the vast majority.
This is why if, as I noted last week, the best column on race of the year was Jason Whitlock’s at FOXSports.com and the best race book was Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint’s “Come On, People,” then the most important race-related event was not the events in Jena, La.
Rather, the Supreme Court’s ruling that federal district judges are no longer strictly bound to enforce the sharp sentencing disparity between possession of crack versus powdered cocaine is the one that will be significant in the history books.
This is because the decision is part of a process which, one might hope, will lead to the vast rethinking of the notion that our police forces must be engaged in an endless quest to snap up as many loads of hard drugs as they can.
Never mind how history is going to judge a policy on crack in particular that put legions of people away for 15 years or more, helping leave whole neighborhoods virtually fatherless, for harboring small amounts of a substance that happens to be dangerous to human health.
Consider also that the assumption that this is fair and useful is why officers are required to snoop around the projects invading people’s space, telling them to move along, and sometimes, of course, killing people. Your local paper surely documents a case or two a year in which police officers looking for drugs or dealers accidentally offered it to some innocent person. Perhaps you have to really see the results of this in real life to get what a crisis these policies are. He’s 15 years old, clearly a nice kid. “Why are you with us tonight, Andre?” “I don’t like how the police always be botherin’ us when we ain’t doin’ nothin’.” “Why are you with us tonight, Wallace?” “I’m tired of the police.” Not even old enough to drive yet, and already, they see themselves as victims. They can’t help it. And many of them are going to carry that sense of themselves as a thing apart from mainstream society for the rest of their lives. Remember, tense encounters with the police are, for a lot of these kids, the only substantial interaction they have with white people. Say it’s time to get over racism and point to Condoleezza Rice, and the first thing out of many people’s mouths, and a lot of them are white, is the police. The police become the main reason many of these kids are going to grow up to be the kinds of adults who have a hard time even looking white people in the eye. And as the result of that, they probably won’t get far in life. And to such a large extent because of an ongoing quest to rid America of hard drugs, which has never shown any sign of making a serious effect. Imagine police officers frisking kids and banging on doors in a noble effort to break up a gang who is selling bourbon. Of course, you can’t. Yes, cocaine and heroin are more addictive. And precisely what, for that reason, makes the way the War on Drugs is being conducted make sense? Of course we need to lock up violent criminals. But there is apparently a bedrock assumption that it is a necessary policy in America to wage a large-scale “war” dedicated to getting hard drugs out of people’s hands. It is also apparently assumed that this war’s effectiveness has no relationship to the assessment as to whether it should continue. These assumptions are the result of a failure of collective imagination, and history will judge them with perplexity and derision. “Why are you with us tonight, Darius?” “Darius?” Darius mumbles something. “Speak up, Darius.” “I’m here ’cause I hate the cops.” Darius has never done a thing wrong in his life.
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