Rampant Police Murder & Impunity Is Not New
What's new are the cameras, the Internet and Social Media Justice...
Ta-Nehisi Coates was inspired to write Between The World and Me by the shooting death of a former fellow-student of his, Prince Carmen Jones, of Howard University. Prince Jones was shot and killed by a police officer in Virginia more than 15 years ago.
The parallels of Prince’s murder to the murder of Corey Jones are … sad. Prince Jones was a good person, a student, a fiancé, a father of a 10-month old child, a law-abiding and devout Christian. “Polite, charming, and ever the gracious Southern gentleman, Jones had a future: officer’s school in the Navy, and then perhaps medical school, where he might become a radiologist like his mother. There would be marriage, too, and more children.”
As he drove home, Prince Jones was followed by his killer through multiple neighborhoods and cities. The police officer was looking for a drug suspect who did not meet Prince’s physical description. Prince was followed to the driveway of his fiancé and child’s home. The officer was undercover. Plain-clothed and driving an unmarked vehicle. The officer had a past that should have prohibited his involvement in the type of duty he was engaged in. He was previously disciplined for lying about another shooting that he was involved in. The officer placed Prince in fear, and in danger. The officer shot at Prince sixteen times. He murdered Prince and claimed self-defense. Prince Jones was unarmed. (More on the shooting here and here.)
National outrage, investigations, and lawsuits followed the murder. The federal investigation cleared the officer of any wrongdoing. The officer was not prosecuted, ever. He was not disciplined by the police force which at the time was the country’s most violent.
“Prince Jones had become the perfect martyr.” “If he had known who was following him,” his mother says, “he would have cooperated.” Cpl. Jones, she adds, “didn’t know who he was shooting.”
Coates described Jones as “an exceptional, exceptional student” who “could’ve gone to Harvard, could’ve gone to Princeton, could’ve gone to Yale.”
“I’ve never met an individual that was just so filled with love and compassion,” Coates added.
When accepting the 2015 National Book Award for Between the World and Me, Coates attributed Jones’ death to America’s “notion that we are okay with the presumption that Black people somehow have an angle, somehow have a predisposition towards criminality.”
Coates added, “I’m a black man in America. I can’t punish that officer. ‘Between The World and Me’ comes out of the place. I can’t secure the safety of my son. I can’t go home and tell him at night that, you know, its going to be ok, you definitely will not end up like Prince Jones. I just don’t have the right. I just don’t have that power. But what I do have the power to do is to say that you won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me part of it.”
What lie is that? It is the lie that the cure to police brutality is secured solely through police reform. The lie that the officer involved in the unjustified death of a citizens is “different” from the rest. The lie that this current reality was not created by us all and our choices.
“I heard several people ask for forgiveness for the officer who shot Prince Jones down. I only vaguely recall my impressions of all this, but I know that I have always felt great distance from the grieving rituals of my people and I must have felt it powerfully then. The need to forgive the officer would not have moved me because even then, in some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer, so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.
At this moment the phrase police reform has come into vogue and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention, presidential and pedestrian. You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task that allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes, and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies; the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects, are the product of democratic will, and so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people, who think they are white, to flee the cities and into the dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs, but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
What does this mean?
This our reality. Created through contentedness and comfort. Through our passiveness. Lack of awareness. Silence. Fear. Laziness. Through ignorance, and separateness, and classism—thinking that the problems faced by “the least” are not “our” problems.
We cannot be deaf to the increasing volume of the problems of “the least”. What whispers we hear online, what faint shout we don’t strain to understand, will one day be a screaming banshee in our neighborhoods and at our front doors. Wisconsin was the first state (an one of the only) in the country to pass a law requiring independent investigations into officer involved deaths after a white teenager, the son of a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, was executed, shot in the head in front of his mother and sister, outside of his own home, while hand-cuffed, deemed justifiably murdered by the force that employed the officer, and only after the child’s father campaigned for years for some “justice” to come from his son’s senseless murder.
It means that sometimes, its downright scary to be a black person in America. Maybe all the time. Your brothers and sisters, your neighbors, your co-workers. Your brother-in-laws. Your friends. They are scared. They are doing nothing different than you. They are trying to raise families, raise castles, raise legacies, and they are scared.
It means that the road to change is long. It requires constant vigilance. There is no one battle to win. There is no one piece of legislation. Not one villain. The villain is fear, and ignorance, and greed. These are consciences. Positions, feelings, and thoughts which manifest into actions and policy that cannot be combated on any single day, but must be constantly pushed against, constantly struggled with, constantly reminded that there is a check to such power that will not stand idly by while said power spreads like a weed, intruding into our lives and depriving us of life sustaining freedoms, like the freedom to be secure in one’s own body from the deadly clutches of a force appointed to protect and serve that body.
It means that we cannot forget that grand jury’s almost always result in indictments against those who stand accused before them, except in limited situations, that is when when the accused is a police officer. So we must remember that taking to the street, or the city commissioners meeting, or rally or protest, may very well be necessary in order for there to even be a slight possibility that the officer involved in killing a civilian faces some semblance of justice.
It means, let no one tell you that it’s not appropriate to discuss politics or policy. This is an ill-conceived taboo that steeps us in a brew of ignorance, and shields our minds from the valid opinions of others that might differ from and improve upon our own. It perpetuates power systems whose very existence relies upon our continued ignorance to the manner in which they operate and affect our lives.
It means wake up. The violence is not new, it’s the cameras that are new.
There is merit in the struggle. Even when you don’t win. Even when the victory is partial. Even when the only victory is the spread of knowledge and ideas, it is still a victory, no matter how slight. Each win is essential to the next. Be inspired, encouraged, enlightened, and uplifted. We need you!
Matthew Benzion is a lawyer, poet and contributor for PeopleOverPolitics.org