BODY COUNT by Kelefa Sanneh
Engulfed by crime, many blacks once agitated for more police and harsher penalties.
One day last fall, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, appeared on "Meet the Press" to talk about the tense relationship between many African-American communities and the police departments charged with protecting them. In Ferguson, Missouri, the governor had declared a state of emergency as a grand jury considered whether to indict Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American. (In the end, Wilson was not indicted.) Chuck Todd, the host, asked about white officers patrolling African American neighborhoods, but Giuliani wanted to talk about crime, not punishment. "I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that ninety-three per cent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks," he said, adding, "It is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community." The next day, on Fox News, Giuliani said that protesters who chanted "Black lives matter!" should be supporting police officers, not demonizing them. He suggested that the people who really valued black lives were people like him, who worked to reduce the African American murder rate. "When I came into office, thousands of blacks were being killed every year," he said. "By the time I left office, it was down to about two hundred."
These comments inspired a backlash, but they were not, in themselves, surprising. Giuliani has never evinced much sympathy for critics of the police; in 2007, when he launched his Presidential campaign, his law-and-order approach helped make him, for a time, the most popular candidate in either party. But the national mood has grown less punitive, and when Giuliani made his remarks last year few allies emerged to support him. Many Republicans, including John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, now say that they support criminal-justice reform; Jeb Bush has signed a reform pledge affirming that prison sentences are "not the solution for every type of offender." And, among Democrats, fears of being labelled soft on crime seem to have subsided since the nineteen-nineties. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton called for "tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders" while campaigning for her husband's 1994 crime bill; the law instituted "three strikes and you're out" sentences, and the federal-prison population almost doubled over the next ten years. But in Clinton's current Presidential campaign she calls for reforming the police and ending "mass incarceration." In response to pressure from protesters, she has used the phrase that has come to signify outrage at police brutality: "Black lives matter."
This summer, the Black Lives Matter movement got a literary manifesto, in the form of Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Between the World and Me" (Spiegel & Grau), a slender but deeply resonant book that made its debut atop the Times best-seller list. Coates, a writer for The Atlantic, has been chronicling recent police killings, and he has responded with a polemic, in the tradition of Jam es Baldwin, that takes the form of a lyrical letter to his fourteen-year-old son. Coates lists Michael Brown alongside other recent victims: Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Marlene Pinnock. He writes, "You know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body." And he reminds his son that this destruction is so often unpunished as to be tacitly sanctioned:
The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.
He means to confirm what his son suspects: that the shocking stories in the news are not anomalous; that police abuse is just another manifestation of the violence that has afflicted black people in America ever since slavery; that officers who kill are not rogues but, rather, enforcers of a brutal social order. One of the most severe lines in the book is also one of the most frequently quoted: "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body-it is heritage."
Four decades ago, a number of black leaders were talking in similarly urgent terms about the threats to the black body. The threats were, in the words of one activist, "cruel, inhuman, and ungodly": black people faced the prospect not just of physical assault and murder but of "genocide" - the horror of slavery, reborn in a new guise. The activist who said this was Oberia D. Dempsey, a Baptist pastor in Harlem, who carried a loaded revolver, the better to defend himself and his community. Dempsey's main foe was not the police and the prisons; it was drugs, and the criminal havoc wreaked by dealers and addicts.
Dempsey is the most vivid character in "Black Silent Majority" (Harvard), a provocative new history by Michael Javen Fortner, a professor of urban studies who wants to complicate our understanding of crime and punishment in black America. He points out that while African-Americans have long been disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for committing crime, they have also, for just as long, been disproportionately victimized by it. His focus is New York in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, when crime rates shot up, creating a demand in African-American communities for more police officers, more arrests, more convictions, and longer prison sentences. The book begins near the end, on a January day in 1973, when Dempsey joined Governor Nelson Rockefeller at a press conference in support of what became known as the Rockefeller drug laws-a passel of antidrug statutes that helped make New York a mass-incarceration pioneer, increasing the number of "friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations" that Coates writes about.
Like many scholars and activists, Fortner is profoundly disturbed by our modern system of criminal justice, calling mass incarceration "a glaring and dreadful stain on the fabric of American history." But he thinks this history is incomplete if it ignores what he calls "black agency": he wants us to see African-Americans not merely as victims of politics but as active participants in it, too. At a moment of growing concern about how our criminal-justice system harms African-American, Fortner seeks to show that African American leaders, urged on by members of the community, helped create that system in the first place.
Last year, Coates used his blog to host an online book club devoted to Michelle Alexander's unsparing "The New Jim Crow," which came out in 2010 and is still finding new readers. Alexander is a law professor at Ohio State who was radicalized by her time at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she battled racial profiling. She eventually concluded that bias was inherent in the criminal-justice system, and that the system relegated African Americans to second-class citizenship. The book's focus was the war on drugs, which helped produce this country's enormous prison population. She noted that President Reagan made fighting drugs a priority even before anyone was talking about the crack-cocaine epidemic of the nineteen-eighties, and she showed that penalties were disproportionately applied to African-Americans, even though blacks and whites used and sold drugs at roughly equal rates. She argued, convincingly, that our punitive solution to the trade in illegal drugs was an overreaction, and one that would never have been tolerated if more of its victims had been white. She urged activists to fight back in explicitly racial terms, demanding that prison rolls be slashed and police departments remade, not merely in the name of pragmatic reform but in the name of black liberation. In many ways, the Black Lives Matter movement is an answer to her call.
Coates shares Alexander's skepticism about law-and-order rhetoric, and he is especially critical of what he has called the "Gospel of Giuliani," which parries complaints about police and prisons with scary statistics about black people killing black people. In Coates's view, the term "black-on-black crime" ignores the fact that most violent crime is interracial, and also obscures the government policies that gave rise to segregated African-American neighborhoods and their high crime rates. "To yell 'black-on-black crime' is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding," he writes. The formulation, he believes, encourages us to imagine that something is wrong with black people, instead of seeing that something is wrong with America.
Coates writes with a preacher's sensitivity to the rhythms and patterns of language, and of history, too, which means that he slips almost imperceptibly between piercing outrage and something close to fatalism. In his previous book, "The Beautiful Struggle," Coates described how his boyhood was shaped by his father, Paul Coates, an independent scholar and publisher whose booklist is a bibliography of black liberation. Theirs was not a religious household, and Coates has kept faith with faithlessness, which helps explain his profound distaste for the notion that African-American stories must be redemption stories-what, exactly, makes us think that we shall overcome, some day? "Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be," Coates tells his son in the new book, by way of explaining the importance of fighting a system that can scarcely be fought, let alone beaten.
Alexander has been accused, credibly, of underplaying the importance and the cost of crime. (Her book begins with the example of Jarvious Cotton, one of more than two million African Americans who are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction. She does not mention that Cotton was convicted of murder for the killing of a seventeen year-old during a mugging.) Coates, though, writes eloquently about common crime, especially in "The Beautiful Struggle." Readers who come to his first book by way of his second may be taken aback not only by its seriocomic tone and hip-hop-inflected language but also by its vivid evocation of Coates's boyhood on the grueling streets of Baltimore. In one memorable passage, he paid dark tribute to the guys from a West Baltimore housing project called Murphy Homes, summoning the fear he felt and the reverence, too:
Murphy Homes beat niggers with gas nozzles. Murphy Homes split backs and poured in salt. Murphy Homes moved with one eye, flew out on bat wings, performed dark rites atop Druid Hill.
"The Beautiful Struggle" was, no less than its successor, a book about black bodies in peril, although the threats tended to come from within the community. In this world, the police were a menacing presence-after Coates got in trouble in school, his father gave him a beating, asking his mother, "Who would you rather do this: me or the police?" - but Coates seems to have been more concerned about the Murphy Homes boys and the others like them. At one point, he noted that in 1986 there were two hundred and fifty murder victims in Baltimore. "That year," he wrote, "my man Craig was butchered on his way home from work." It was a piercing moment, but readers expecting an elegy got, instead, a few terse biographical sentences, as if Coates were underscoring the ghastly banality of this loss.
In "Between the World and Me," Coates shifts his focus from the neighborhood to the nation. The book is given shape and weight by the story of another friend who was killed: Prince Jones, a college acquaintance, shot by an African-American police officer while sitting, unarmed, in his jeep, which apparently matched the description of one driven by a suspect in the theft of a police gun. Coates emphasizes the violence done to the black body to help us see the physical abuse that undergirds broad structures of oppression. Of course, Craig had a body, too, and it was destroyed in a manner far more commonplace. In "Between the World and Me," the "black body" refers, as well, to the black body politic. When a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed African-American especially when the officer isn't charged with a crime, as Michael Brown's killer was not, and Prince Jones's killer was not-he is, Coates wants us to understand, proving the continued existence of a system in which African-Americans are victimized by state power and are powerless to demand accountability. A black college student is a body, but he is also a citizen, and this explains why, even in violent neighborhoods, some kinds of violence seem, to Coates, particularly salient: because they threaten not just the body of the victim but his citizenship, too.
Michael Javen Fortner grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and his boyhood sounds even more chaotic than Coates's. "I was only a couple of years old when one of my brothers was stabbed to death," he writes. "I do not remember him, but the pain and sorrow of that day stayed in my home like accumulated dust." He thinks that analysts like Alexander, in their eagerness to indict systemic injustice, sometimes downplay the "black agony" that characterizes many neighborhoods where brutal crime is ubiquitous. Black political activists present history in ways that emphasize racial solidarity, but Fortner says that the Brownsville he remembers was "a community at war with itself":
I recall hearing "That's what he gets" every time one of "our youngsters" was arrested. I recall hearing about fathers calling the cops on sons and mothers throwing daughters our onto the street. I remember far from the pews of my Pentecostal church sanctified working - and middle-class African Americans distinguished between saints and sinners.
It was Richard Nixon who popularized the phrase "silent majority," as a way of insisting that the countercultural masses protesting the Vietnam War constituted nothing more than an outspoken minority. In positing the existence of a "black silent majority," Fortner draws on the work of Charles V. Hamilton, an African-American political scientist and the author, with Stokely Carmichael, of "Black Power." In 1970, Hamilton published an article in the Times Magazine about the mass of black Americans who were concerned about crime. "They want police protection, not police persecution," he wrote, "and because they believe that the incidence of the latter is greater than the former, they believe the present law-enforcement systems must be viewed suspiciously, rather than optimistically." In an essay about Harlem, James Baldwin wrote, "The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive." He portrayed the officers as an occupying force: "Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children."
Plenty of citizens and politicians made a different calculation, concluding that the risks of persecution were outweighed by the urgent need for protection. In nineteen-sixties Harlem, heroin addiction was increasing steeply, and street crime had become so common that some churches cancelled evening services, to protect parishioners from being set upon as they returned home. Drug crime strained the relationship between black leaders and white liberal allies, who wanted to combat the drug trade with medical treatment, not criminal penalties. In 1962, Oberia Dempsey led a coalition of civic leaders who asked President Kennedy to "mobilize all law-enforcement agencies to unleash their collective fangs on dope pushers and smugglers." A group convened by the civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph urged that "a life time sentence without parole be made the punishment to meet the crime of pushing narcotics." Testifying at a state hearing in 1969, Hulan Jack-a black state assemblyman representing Harlem, and the former Manhattan borough president-called for life imprisonment for the crime of mugging, and argued that the system of incarceration was not nearly mass enough. (The prison population had been declining despite a sharp increase in arrests.) A 1973 Times poll found that "about three-quarters of New York's blacks and Puerto Ricans" thought that life without parole was the proper sentence for convicted drug dealers.
Rockefeller's drug laws sharply increased the penalties for various drug crimes; possession of four ounces of heroin, for instance, would result in a minimum sentence of fifteen years to life. (In the two decades that followed, the prison rolls in New York quintupled; other states followed, creating a nationwide prison boom.) But Reverend Dempsey, the militant Baptist standing behind Rockefeller on that January day, was not representing the black political establishment. Many of the leaders and groups in Fortner's book were careful to pair calls for more police with calls for police reform, mindful of the possibility that the "fangs" of law enforcement might sink into the wrong necks. The Rockefeller drug laws passed with hardly any help from black legislators, all but one of whom voted against them. When it counted most, black political support melted away. Fortner hastens to explain that many Democratic legislators had partisan concerns (the bill's passage was viewed as a Republican victory) and distinct cultural identities-black political elites, he writes, tended to be more optimistic about Harlem than their working- and middle-class constituents were. He points out that a number of community leaders stood with Dempsey to support the bill. And he establishes that black politicians and clergymen helped raise the alarm about drug crime in the first place. Even so, the vote makes it hard to conclude that black political support was decisive in the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws.
Fortner's narrative mainly reveals the bleakness of the choices facing black voters and their representatives in those tempestuous years. Statewide rehabilitation efforts had failed, owing in part to lack of funding, and so many civic leaders viewed a new punitive regime as an improvement: it wouldn't help reform the addicts or dealers, but it might help protect everyone else. A decade later, during the crack years, African-Americans in Congress faced a similarly difficult choice in considering the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law established a minimum sentence of five years for trafficking five hundred grams of cocaine or five grams of crack cocaine. Years later, activists criticized this hundred-to-one disparity as unfair to African-Americans, who were more likely to be convicted of selling crack cocaine. But the bill passed with support from two-thirds of the African-Americans then in Congress, including Charles Rangel, from Harlem, whom President Reagan singled out for praise during the signing ceremony.
None of this directly refutes Alexander's argument that the modern carceral state is a new version of Jim Crow. Indeed, Fortner thinks that black leaders, though right to be concerned about crime, were wrong to think that exorbitant mandatory sentences rather than better-funded rehabilitation programs and structural antipoverty efforts-were the answer. (Rangel later worked to end the crack -versus- cocaine disparity.) When Alexander calls our criminal-justice system "the new Jim Crow," she is drawing an imperfect parallel that tells us more about what this system does than about why it exists. It is possible, as Fortner shows, to be skeptical of the drug war while also noting that no small number of its supporters believed, as fervently as any activist today, that black lives matter.
On April 12th, in Coates's native Baltimore, police officers on bicycles noticed an African-American man named Freddie Gray, who saw them watching him and fled. They caught him, found a small knife, arrested him, and put him in a police van to take him to the station. By the time the van arrived there, Gray was unconscious, with his spine nearly severed, and after a week he died from his injuries. The legal reaction came quickly: on May 1st, prosecutors brought charges against six officers, one of whom was charged with second-degree murder. But the first protest began even before Gray died. The uproar seemed to inspire police officers to work more cautiously and, perhaps, to disengage; arrests dropped, and the number of homicides rose. There were forty-two murders in Baltimore in May, compared with twenty-three the previous May; in June, there were twenty-nine, compared with eighteen the year before; in July, forty-five, compared with twenty-two; in August, thirty-three, compared with twenty-six. In four months, sixty more lives were lost than in the previous year, most of them black. · It is not hard to understand Coates's frustration with analysts who use grim facts like these in order to downplay police killings. But if what happened to Freddie Gray is symptomatic of a brutal and unjust social order, isn't everyday violence-the kind that returns again and again to some neighborhoods, while leaving others mostly unscarred-symptomatic of the same thing? The horror of Gray's death shouldn't blind us to the horror of the murders that have afflicted the city since then. One need not be a Giuliani supporter to acknowledge that reducing the homicide rate is one of the most valuable things a city government can do.
Near the beginning of "Between the World and Me, "Coates recalls the night the grand jury announced that it would not return an indictment against Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. His son retreated to his room to cry, and Coates tried to figure out what to tell him. This book is his response, but it is not until the end that Coates allows, "Michael Brown did not die as so many of his defenders supposed." A Justice Department report looked at the Ferguson Police Department and found a wide range of abusive practices, as well as "intentional discrimination on the basis of race." But another Justice Department inquiry debunked the widely reported story that Brown was cooperating, with his hands up-saying, "Don't shoot!" -when he was killed. And forensic details corroborate the claim that Brown was initially shot while trying to grab the officer's gun.
The ubiquity of video footage has increased the scrutiny of police killings, making it easier for citizens to contest official explanations that would otherwise go unchallenged. Until recently, however, no one kept a complete count of who was being shot by police officers, and why. The Washington Post examined reports of police shootings in 2015 and found that this year blacks were about three times as likely as whites to be killed by police. (Because of the difference in population sizes, non-Hispanic whites still form a plurality- about fifty per cent-of all people killed by police.) A Web site called killedbypolice.net has been tracking media reports of police killings since 2013; it finds that over the past three years blacks were about three and a half times as likely as whites to be killed by police.
These findings should disturb us, but so, too, should the fact that the racial disparity is actually wider for civilian violence. Overall, blacks are about eight times as likely as whites to be murdered. As far as we can tell, someone killed by police is less likely to be black than someone killed by a civilian. In "Ghettoside" (Spiegel & Grau), an absorbing new book about murder in an African-American community in Los Angeles, the reporter Jill Leovy writes about what she calls "the black homicide problem." She doesn't use this term to defend police departments; on the contrary, she uses it to indict them, writing about all the cruelty and misery that flourishes in a place where there is no "state monopoly on violence." If anything, the outrage over relatively rare police killings should remind us just how much everyday violence-and just how much everyday inequality we have learned to ignore.
Coates's two books show how twinned fears of crime and punishment can be mutually reinforcing: how the historic failure of the police to keep African-Americans safe from violence can make police excesses all the more appalling. The police killing of Prince Jones was, surely, that much more disturbing to a man who remembered that when he was a boy the police had failed to protect his friend Craig. For some reformers, the key is retraining police officers to minimize violence. But Coates and Alexander warn against this kind of meliorist thinking. "A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all," Coates has written. To many Black Lives Matter activists, the phrase "state monopoly on violence" probably sounds more like a threat than like a reassurance.
Crime statistics in Baltimore are complicated: in the decades since Coates was a boy, murders declined, but so did the city's population. In general, though, American crime rates have fallen since the early nineteen nineties, and the nation's imprisoned population-while extraordinarily high, by global standards-seems to have stopped increasing. As for police killings, each one is tragic, and each unjustified one is outrageous; police departments in Europe, for instance, are vastly less likely to kill. But there is no evidence that we are living through a modern epidemic. Although there is little reliable national data, the New York Police Department keeps records. In 1973, the year Rockefeller signed his drug laws, the department shot and killed fifty-eight people; in 2013, the most recent year in the department database, the number was eight. The Black Lives Matter protests draw their urgency from the damage that violence has done to African-American communities. But they resonate so widely because, after decades of chaos, that violence seems to have subsided.
Experts disagree about how much of this change can be attributed to policing or to mass incarceration; in many ways, crime rates are mysterious. But the decades-long decrease in crime has made it much easier for politicians to heed the activists demanding that we reform our criminal-justice system. There is some indication that this year many cities besides Baltimore are suffering from an uptick in homicides; if this trend were to continue, talk of ending mass incarceration might become politically toxic, even for African-American politicians. As Fortner's book makes clear, no political movement can afford to ignore the kind of cruel disorder that we euphemistically call common crime. A police force that kills black citizens is adding to America's history of racial violence; so is a police force that fails to keep them safe. Alexander may be right that our criminal-justice regime is a new incarnation of the monstrous old Jim Crow system. But this should tell us something about the desperation of the many African-Americans who supported it anyway-convinced, not wholly unreasonably, that the alternative was even worse.
The New Yorker magazine, Sept 14, 2015
The New Yorker magazine, Sept 14, 2015