December 18, 2006

Like you, I was supposed to be shopping. (I'm a man; you don't really think I finished my holiday shopping, do you?) So shopping could not help but creep into my brain as I moved up 5th Avenue in Manhattan this past Saturday towards 59th Street.

I could not also help but notice that 99.99% of the people to be found on 5th Avenue were white. Yes, there were plenty of tourists, but 5th Avenue -- home of so many high-priced stores -- was seemingly patronized by and only catering to white people. New York is definitely a segregated city in so many ways.

Which brings me to my point. Where were the white people at the "Shopping for Justice" march this past Saturday? The march was dedicated to the memory of police shooting victim Sean Bell and the desire to ensure that there is justice in the case and better work by the New York City Police Department going forward. Where were the white people? Where was the great progressive coalition?

Maybe the white people were at the back of the line engaging in a symbolic act? I don't think so. I watched a very long line of folks march into Herald Square -- many times more than the 10,000 people expected to participate. To be fair, there were white people marching -- particularly elected officials, union members and people who genuinely care about the issues of police brutality and related injustices. And I'm not picking on the folks organizing for upcoming anti-war demonstrations elsewhere -- though they should have made time, too. In the end, however, there were no large contingents of whites -- not even as many as were arrested protesting the murder of Amadou Diallou in 1999. There was something missing from the rainbow. In fact, the percentage of people participating in this march who were African American paralleled the percentage of people shopping along 5th Avenue who happened to be white. Not good.

Back in 1999, I remember feeling such disbelief, disgust and anger as I crowded into One Police Plaza with hundreds of other people counting the 41 shots fired at Amadou Diallou. How could such an outrage take place? During the protest and subsequent post-arrest detention at Harlem's 28th Precinct, there was a solidarity amongst Black, brown and white faces. Yet here we were again a few years later -- now counting off 50 shots that killed a man and critically wounded two others -- all young, unarmed and Black! (The Bell family and Rev. Sharpton had requested that marchers proceed silently without signs, but those wishes were honored on an inconsistent basis.)

And yet this shooting was not motivating our white brothers and sisters in the same way it was motivating us. Do they believe that Mayor Bloomberg is doing a great job on this issue? Do they believe that he can solve this problem without pressure? Do they think that activism is not needed if Giuliani is not Gracie Mansion's occupant?

Many white people, led by a media in denial, want to treat racially sensitive issues as if the sensitivity itself is an illness or even evidence of irresponsible behavior. This is evident in the responses of New York City's -- and America's -- powerful classes to the challenges presented by gun violence, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the American AIDS epidemic, the affordable housing crisis, the lack of quality health care and education for all, the manner in which law enforcement handles its work, the recruitment of young people by representatives of our armed forces, and the people who receive financial and editorial support for political offices. (So, is someone willing to start by questioning why guns are the reaction of first resort for officers and detectives?) To take on injustices, however, you have to conquer many fears. And you have to embrace that which true justice requires in America today.

In the 2005 book, Inequality and American Democracy, there is a chapter entitled "Inequality and Public Policy." The academic writers state that "Economic and racial segregation exacerbate eachother in predominantly black neighborhoods, perpetuating numerous and intertwined forms of disadvantage ... Neighborhood effects also appear to harm individuals' life opportunities..." The authors specify a long list of disadvantages and harmful effects, but since they don't identify the psychological effects of economic and racial segregation on police officers -- and other folks involved with service delivery -- let's just say it right here. You have to respect a community before you police it, and it is hard to learn respect when you're taught to fear a community. This applies to everyone -- the police and those who support and rely on the police as well.

Read my lips. If you want people to believe that you care, then show you care! There is a perception within the Black community that, overall, white people don't care about them -- they can afford not to. If this perception is going to change, then the reality of white people not taking actions to address the oppressive realities faced by Black people must also change. The group with the power must act -- in the legislative halls, in the Board rooms and in the streets. Blacks and others are not the groups with power at this time. White people must take on public policy challenges from the Iraq War resource drainage to media consolidation that excludes Black voices -- to police officers so embedded within the oppression of communites that the officers of the law have lost their own humanity.

I'm a pretty reasonable Negro most of the time. Rev. Sharpton and City Councilmember Charles Barron would not consider me in their rhetoric league. There are many like me. We are "reasonable" because we don't talk as loud as the young man who exploded with profanity ("F--k the PO-lice!") during the march. He claimed to be in the club when his friend Sean Bell was murdered that morning and he had had enough. We are "reasonable" because we are willing to invest energy in policy development and we have some faith in the slow, incremental progress of our social and political systems.

Don't get too comfortable, however. I saw a major Wall Street player quietly marching -- a Black Wall Street player. He had had enough. And there were many others. There is a deep river of anger wrapped in frustration amongst the "reasonable" people. This Sean Bell killing has hit a very tender nerve -- as it should for everyone. One woman with a video camera recalled her participation in the Diallou protests. She then expressed her concern that if there is a "next time," New York City will be rocked by serious social explosion. She could not see how the situation would not result in violence. Let's not get there.

Mayor Bloomberg has announced many grand plans for the future of New York City. We have yet to see, however, the master plan for reducing the grand inequality that truly characterizes this grand City. In fact, what we have seen are steps that will exacerbate the inequities. Where is the white outrage? Where is the white understanding of the long-term sacrifices needed to make positive changes?

As long as we see poor neighborhoods -- neighborhoods populated primarily by Blacks and Latinos -- as "inferior" and "dangerous" rather than as communities, the police shootings will continue. This is another ugly intersection of race and class. As long as we are consumed by the need to reduce our own taxation and not the need to increase everyone's well-being, the police shootings will continue. And the anger wrapped in frustration and garnished with civility will grow.


Jesse E. Hamilton, III said...

Great to have you on board in the blogosphere. Regards.

Jesse E. Hamilton, III said...

Great post. Good to have you in the blogosphere. Best wishes and regards.