Title: I Risk My Life Each Time I Leave the House...and so Does Every Other Black Person in America.
Subtitle/Headline: A passionate analysis of the relationships between Black Americans and the police.
This post was written by Tiwa Oni ‘20, UMBC Alumnus and former Student Diversity and Inclusion Peer.
Let's start with a personal anecdote:
Yesterday, my friend asked me to help him move, so I put on my clothes: a t-shirt, a du-rag, and a pair of grey joggers (kinda dirty, a bit worn out and torn, very ugly...you get the picture). After dressing up, I thought to myself “dang I hope these aren't the pants I die in today”. The end.
Now let me explain the significance of that:
For thousands of Black Americans, deciding to go out for a walk, drive, or shopping has now become synonymous to risking one’s life, on the off chance that they will be stopped and accosted by the police. In short, every time I leave the house I am potentially picking what could be my last outfit...and looking good while doing it. Every time I tell my friends and family I am leaving the house I may be telling them my last words. Isn’t it heartbreaking to do this kind of mental gymnastics everytime and assess the risk/benefit ratio (the risk being my life) for something as simple as getting groceries? Or wearing a hoodie? Or laughing too loud? Bryan Stevenson (2019) states “New language has emerged for the noncrimes that have replaced the Black Codes: driving while black, sleeping while black, sitting in a coffee shop while black… All reflect incidents in which African-Americans were mistreated, assaulted or arrested for conduct that would be ignored if they were white”. In recent weeks “drive safely” has taken on a completely new meaning; from drive competently and avoid bad drivers to “I hope the police do not stop you for any reason today” or “I hope the police officer that encounters you isn't racist or can be merciful”. We live in an age where a violent arrest by the police is a cause for Black people to be grateful, because the alternative is us losing our lives. Comments like “at least you got out alive” have become all too common and desensitize us to the fact that being physically harassed by the police are not, and should not be, normalized.
- Okay, let’s pause. -
Do you wanna hear a joke? It's 2 a.m. and a toddler calls their mum in the room screaming “there’s a monster under my bed!”. The mum goes “oh no baby, I checked and there’s no monster...but if you want I can call the police to check for you.” and reaches for her phone to make a fake call. The kid’s face goes blank and they say “nevermind mum, I’ll take my chances with the monster.” Not funny? I’m glad you think so too.
Let me explain why:
As a society, which is to say as a group of people inhabiting the same space with similar values (e.g. freedom, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and right to own property), and as citizens of our respective states, we all pay a significant amount in taxes that, supposedly, go toward infrastructure that is meant to enrich our lives and protect society’s values. Infrastructure like roads, electric lines, and water pipes are generally enjoyed by all. Yet, the policing of our societies is not distributed equally at all. Now, I realise that the previous statement is polarising and may seem like a hyperbolized reality, but let me throw a few facts your way real quick. In this state, Maryland, “Black people comprised 29% of the Maryland population [in 2019]” but were “69% of people killed [by] police” and were “killed at five times the rates of White people” (Joycelyn Lee & Michael Robinson, 2019). According to Mapping Police Violence (2018), a research collaborative working to systematically document incidents of police killings in the United States, “Black people were more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be unarmed, and less likely to be threatening someone when killed” than all other unarmed persons killed by police; yet, police officers are rarely prosecuted for these deaths.
Now, given these facts, it is jarring how unfair the same people who invest their money into our society’s pockets to receive the same privileges are not only being refused them, but are also being attacked by them regularly. When young Black kids yell out “Fuck 12” and I hear people say “Oh you don't mean it” I cringe. Of course they do! Every week Black America has to watch their screen turn into a casket as Black people, regardless of their socioeconomic class, gender, or political stance, are being murdered by the people they pay and expect to protect them. Every evening at 7pm the news turns into a funeral procession, people see strangers that look like them humiliated and killed on camera for the world to see, knowing fully well they could be next. For Black America, the fear and hatred of police “is situated in a long history of racial violence perpetrated and permitted by law enforcement”. Black America’s experience with this long history “may heighten a sense of powerlessness to protect themselves from the threat of police violence and shape their coping responses to the traumatic stressors of witnessing or experiencing police violence and killings” (Joycelyn Lee & Michael Robinson, 2019).
So yes, many Black people would rather deal with the uncertainties of life without involving the police in their affairs, in fact by avoiding the police all together Black people are increasing their life expectancies (Santhanam, 2019).
I’ll be honest: I don’t know exactly why I wrote this blog post. I was scared and angry when I began writing this, now I am angry and scared while finishing this. There is no catharsis at the end of this blog post. No happy ending or ray of hope or prophecy of a greater future (yet), just reality summarised in a few paragraphs.
I will say this: For all my fellow Black people out there, you do not need to explain your fear or anger at the system. You do not need to validate your need for protest or your desire to want to change the system. Your experience is valid. Your experience is real. You are precious and you definitely matter!! If you are looking for words or facts to back up your debates, then feel free to refer to this piece, but lived experience can be a much better reference point.
And to the non-Black POC and White people reading this, please educate yourselves. Black people have been forced to learn through gruesome and traumatizing first-hand experiences...the least you could do is click on the links and learn. I promise you that what you find will shock you, it might even appall you enough to shed a tear, but that just shows that you are human and empathetic to the cause, and you can help make the country a better place. The first step to making this country livable for all people is to always be in a learning mindset, which is to say you are never “woke” enough on a topic and there is no such thing as the perfect ally. I implore you all to continuously check yourselves, and research ideas and philosophies that challenge your reality (after all information is always an informed google away!).