Hannibal B. Johnson is a Harvard Law School graduate who teaches at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma. His several books include Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, Black Wall Street, Up from the Ashes, and Acres of Aspiration. A version of this article originally appeared in the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce newsletter.
The shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson and the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York City Police Department officers added urgency to already-simmering frustrations over the perceived devaluation of black lives. The subsequent grand jury failures to indict the officers connected to these high-profile killings of unarmed black men by white police officers sparked a firestorm of protests. Some of these mostly-peaceful protests included ugly and unfortunate anarchic elements bent on violence and intent on stoking anti-police sentiment.
These events ratcheted-up the debate about the entirety of the criminal justice system as it relates to African American men. The Brown and Garner cases, different both geographically and factually, highlight the distance we must go to close the wide gap in perception about the role of race in the criminal justice system. Many white Americans view the existing system as fair and even-handed, while many black and brown Americans see it as haphazard at best, and often tilted against them.
People for whom the existing system works can resort to that system for validation and vindication. The options for people for whom the current system does not work include: (1) working to change the system so that it becomes, incrementally, more just (a long-term strategy); and/or (2) taking steps to make others aware of the oppression they feel at the hands of the system (e.g., protests and other acts of civil disobedience and civil unrest).
Virtually every credible study and report shows that black men are overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system. Black men constitute grossly disproportionate numbers of arrestees, probationers, inmates, and parolees, disparities not explicable with reference to any traits inherent in the nature of being black and male. To some extent, race appears to be at the root of the matter. The problem is systemic, not anecdotal.
The evidence suggests that executive and prosecutorial discretion too often cuts against black males. For example, while studies show that black and white men use marijuana at roughly the same level, black men are far more likely to pay criminal consequences for their indulgence—arrest, incarceration, and all of the accompanying social and economic baggage. That variation in treatment within the context of the criminal justice system is not inevitable. It is, rather, a choice—a choice made by people in positions of power and authority. These choices, to the extent they unfairly burden people based on race, risk expanding the gulf of distrust that already exists.
Black males often feel over-scrutinized, as though they are viewed generally and collectively as menaces to society without regard to their individual identities. The over-selection of black males in the context of the criminal justice system sometimes takes a deadly turn.
Encounters with law enforcement over relatively minor infractions (e.g., jaywalking or selling illicit cigarettes) can escalate into much more serious, and sometimes deadly, confrontations. The Brown and Garner deaths bear witness to this truth. To what extent might such encounters be avoided? If and when they occur, how might they be de-escalated?
We do ourselves a disservice by not openly and honestly addressing the subtext of race that runs through the Brown and Garner narratives and through our lives in general.”
We do not know the answers to these questions. We will likely never know the answer to these questions. Still, they must be posed. Only if we ask these hard questions going forward will we be able to do the work on the front-end that might lead to fewer such disastrous encounters. Only if we probe more deeply will we be able to build a reservoir of trust so often lacking between those called to protect and serve and those of us who are the intended beneficiaries of that calling.
We start by acknowledging and embracing the reality of our shared interests. The police need the people, and the people need the police. Community members have to develop an enhanced sense of what the police do and why. It is a dangerous, stressful, and sometimes lonely job. The police have to understand the communities they police. These are communities that sometimes feel under siege, both from within and from without; that too often feel disrespected and devalued.
The Tulsa Police Department is working to build the kind of trust we need to move forward together. The Department’s award-winning recruiting efforts and its commitment to the Mayor’s Police and Community Coalition are but two examples of this positive momentum.
The watchword is reciprocity. Reciprocity—obligations and responsibilities on both sides—constitutes the foundation for the trust upon which both effective law enforcement and unified communities depend.
The Brown and Garner deaths must lead us somewhere—to some better place. Now is the time to reflect on the meaning of those lost lives and take the necessary actions to ensure, as best we can, that fewer such flashpoints occur.
Black lives matter. ALL lives matter. That is why we must move from anger and angst to action. The overarching goal of creating safer, more secure, simply better communities requires collaborative work between and among police departments and citizens from all sectors of the communities they police. We must keep our eyes on the ultimate prize.