The police are those who are charged with protecting citizens from crime. They can arrest those suspected of breaking the law and put them in jail. They carry out court decisions. They are allowed to use violence, even deadly force, to keep the peace and preserve public safety. They maintain law and order.
That is one view. From living in New York I have come to have another view: They serve and protect the rich from the poor and whites from blacks and Latinos. They care little for black lives, even middle-class ones. They are a law unto themselves, cover up for each other and even get away with murder. Judges believe their lies, newspapers tend to take their side and the powers that be turn a blind eye.
Nearly 90% of the people that New York policemen shoot at are black or Latino. It has little to do with blacks and Latinos somehow being more dangerous: 77% of the time the police are the only ones doing any shooting!
Blacks in New York are ten times more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. It has little to do with crime: only 10% of the stops lead to an arrest or summons. Nearly half of blacks are searched for weapons when stopped while fewer than a third of whites are – even though white suspects are 70% more likely to have a weapon.
I used to live in a part of New York with a high crime rate: hundreds were shot dead every year, black and Latino. You could hear the gunfire. Then one night I saw something I will never forget: policemen along the north side of the street that served as the colour line, one every few blocks. They were guarding the quiet white and Asian neighbourhoods behind them. If blacks kill each other, who cares, so long as white people are safe.
So when white people tell me of all the crime that black people do compared to whites, which they always say like it proves something profound, I just want to roll my eyes. If their neighbourhoods were as ill-served and ill-protected by the police as black neighbourhoods are then over time they would have terrible crime rates too.
Most black men have been stopped by the police for no good reason. Obama too. And even those who have never been stopped (yet) have heard enough stories to know how racist the police can be.
The reason things like O.J. Simpson and Henry Louis Gates, Jr become such heated issues in America is because whites and blacks view the police so differently. Because their experience of them is so different.
Most whites seem to have a childlike trust in the police that is naive and unfunny. It is hard for most blacks to feel the same way. So when a Sean Bell or Oscar Grant, unarmed black men, are killed by the police it is not seen as a “mistake” but something far worse.