Time to Stand Up to Police Mistreatment

The Trayvon Martin case reminds minorities that submitting to second-class status has not worked.

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Mario Tama/Getty Images

We can be sure about one thing as we try to understand the Trayvon Martin case: There will be other Trayvon Martins. Maybe tomorrow or next week or next month, other young black men will die under ambiguous circumstances at the hands of law enforcement -- or, in Martin's case, law enforcement's surrogate: an overzealous neighborhood-watch volunteer. Unless we want this tragic history to keep repeating itself, we have to change the fundamental relationship of people of color to the police.

What's really unusual about the Trayvon Martin shooting is not that it happened but the degree of public attention that it has received, with national news coverage, a Million Hoodie March in New York and the entire Miami Heat basketball team posing in hoodies to show solidarity with the victim and his family. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating. President Obama, normally cautious on matters of race, said that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon." And CNN's Soledad O'Brien hosted an hourlong town hall discussion on CNN about the case and its implications on March 30.

Most incidents involving the death of young black men at the hands of the police, even if well covered, don't get the widespread sympathy that the Trayvon case has triggered. Just this past February, a NYPD officer shot and killed Ramarley Graham in his bathroom; the 20-year-old had run home, apparently to dump his stash of marijuana. In October 2010 there was the case of Danroy Henry Jr., a 20-year-old Pace University football player shot by a policeman while trying to drive away from a disturbance.

On March 23 one New York City police officer was fired and three others resigned in the wake of the shooting death of Sean Bell, killed the day before his wedding day in 2006 in a hail of 50 bullets. Of course we remember Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant shot 41 times on his doorstep in 1999 because NYPD officers mistook his wallet for a gun. (See The Root photo gallery Beyond Trayvon: Black and Unarmed.)

But we'll stop seeing more Trayvons only when we stop pretending that such confrontations are just about crime. Instead they reflect the lingering role that the police have played since the founding of this nation: enforcing the racial status quo. This began with slavery -- capturing and returning runaway slaves -- and continued through Jim Crow and on to our time.

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We saw its most brutal form in the civil rights protests of the 1960s, but that important role is hardly ever discussed explicitly anymore. And because we don't talk about it, it's harder to change. Police behavior has failed to evolve fast enough to accommodate the changing role of African Americans in our society. So police still stop and question interracial couples, black professionals driving nice new cars, black teens in a "good neighborhood" or a guy wearing the wrong clothes.

We see racial control at its most extreme in stop-and-frisk policies that put entire communities under suspicion, as has happened in New York City, where police stopped and searched 684,330 people last year, 87 percent of them black or Latino. Imagine the uproar if nearly every young white male living on Park Avenue in Manhattan or Grosse Point in Michigan or Buckhead in Atlanta routinely found himself spread-eagled over a parked Bentley, Lexus or Mercedes in full public view of other upscale residents.

Police officials argue that such policies have helped reduce crime and that the racial skew has to do with the neighborhood where they focus their efforts, but there is little evidence (pdf) that massive harassment ends up in less crime. What these policies do is enter vast numbers of young men into the criminal-justice system.

They also increase the likelihood of confrontation: In one three-year period, 23 percent of the stops made by the NYPD involved the use of physical force. Of the nearly 700,000 stops in New York City last year, police recovered 800 handguns, a rate of 0.1 percent. Searching those Bentley, Lexus and Mercedes luxury vehicles might well result in a higher yield in illegal weapons.