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“Overpoliced & Underprotected”: In Michael Brown Killing, Neglect of Black Communities Laid Bare

StoryAugust 19, 2014
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As we continue to discuss the developments since the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, we turn to john a. powell, professor of law, African American studies and ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. “The black community tends be overpoliced and underprotected,” powell says. “That’s a very serious problem.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to john a. powell in Detroit. john a. powell is professor of law and African American studies and ethnic studies at University of California, Berkeley, also director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

Professor powell, welcome to Democracy Now! You’ve been listening to the whole broadcast from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. First, your thoughts?

john a. powell: Well, first of all, I guess, my first thought is just my condolences and deep pain for the family and the community. And I know it’s a difficult situation, but it’s also a situation that comes up too frequently, and we generally have not learned how to deal with this situation. As you mentioned the Kerner Commission 50 years ago, we’re still dealing with the same issues, in part because we avoid the hard issue. We avoid the structure. We avoid the system. We avoid the sort of continued neglect of poor people of color all across this country. And then, obviously, the police don’t live in the community with the people. The police don’t know the people. The Kerner Commission noticed this in 1968, that part of the problem was the police did not have a real relationship with the community, a trusting relationship with the community. The black community tends to be overpoliced and unprotected. And so, now the concern from a number of sources is: How do we protect the people there with guns, with tanks, instead of the people that live there? That’s a problem. That’s a very serious problem.

AMY GOODMAN: You have gone to many communities after police shootings. You’ve been looking at issues like these for decades. Talk about what you have found.

john a. powell: Well, you know, one of the most important things to learn is the relationship between the police or, in this case, the militaries—because we’re talking about the National Guard, as well—and the community. Is there a sense of trust? Think about Katrina. This was a tragedy of a different sort. And still, the tragedy was heavily racialized, but it wasn’t a police shooting. When the levees broke in New Orleans, they sent the military in. They went in with guns and tanks pointed at people who were suffering from shock, most of them black. And it wasn’t until General Honoré, who’s also African-American, went in and basically said, “Put your guns down. These are American citizens.” He recognized the humanity of the people there. And oftentimes that’s not recognized, that the people there are in pain and their humanity is not being recognized. And so, that’s the recurring theme that happens over and over again. The police are sent in. They’re afraid—we get that. Although they have guns and tanks, they’re still afraid.

There’s a whole thing called “implicit bias.” In this country, there’s—you mentioned, Amy, about the difference between how important race is. Fortunately, we have a way of now testing, to some extent, how Americans feel about race. And the test is empirical, so we don’t have to ask people what they think and just record their self-response; we can test it. And America is a very racialized country, and many police are afraid of blacks, and many blacks are afraid of police. But police have guns and tanks and the law behind them. And so, yes, I’ve seen this happen many times. I was in Detroit years ago when the big riot happened here in Detroit, and I watched tanks go down the streets. And since then, I’ve had a chance to study that as an academic. And even though things have changed, the foundation for the tension between police and the community has not changed.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting you mentioned General Honoré, who I was just watching speaking from Baton Rouge, from Louisiana, actually criticizing how Ferguson has been handled after the death of Michael Brown, saying that the police went in as if they were going in for an assault, as opposed to—well, he talked about riot control. Of course, he supported the National Guard being called in, talked about the military police college is in Missouri itself. But you’ve also looked at Florida. You’ve looked at what happened after Trayvon Martin and what we can learn from this. Would the media, Professor powell, be even paying attention right now to Ferguson, well over a week after Michael Brown was killed, if there weren’t these protests in the streets right now?

john a. powell: Probably not. We’ve seen many cases where young black men, young Latino men have been killed or abused, and it’s only once there’s a flare-up that the country becomes focused on it. And it only becomes focused on it really on the flare-up for that period of time. Then the tension goes elsewhere. We watched in New York, where black women were killed, and raped and killed, that didn’t make the news. When the famous Central Park rape of a white woman occurred, it got a lot of news. When, at almost the same time period, a black woman was raped and killed, it didn’t make the news. So, no, the black life in the United States is not valued in the same way white life is. And it’s not—

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, in that case that you’re using, the Central Park jogger case, the young men, the teenagers, young teenagers, who were arrested, who spent years in jail, ultimately have been vindicated and just got something like a multimillion-dollar settlement from the City of New York, but they served their full time in jail, until it was discovered—they got $40 million just in the last months.

john a. powell: Well, that’s right. And one of the things that this shows is that when—in all life, we need to respect all life. I’m not trying to put black life over white life. I’m trying to say that all life, whether you’re talking about blacks, white, whether you’re talking about Palestinians or Jews, that all life should be respected. But we have, in the country, a history of not just the police, but the state, the law enforcement agencies, disrespecting black life. And it’s disrespected in hundreds of ways. And then the police are just one expression of that. And again, we can measure that now. It’s not simply a question of asking. And it’s not the same as saying, “Is the country racist?” or even, “Are the police racist?” We live in a system in which black life is devalued. And it’s reflected in our schools, reflected in our taxing policies.

So when a white life is threatened—and this has been a big study, it’s called the Baldus study, in terms of what happens when a white person is killed by a black person. The system responds very differently when a black person is killed by a white person. And this is a study that went to the Supreme Court, famous study—it came out of Georgia, out of the death penalty—showing that if a black person kills a white person, the system—the system, not individuals—respond extremely differently, and so, responds much faster, is more likely to give a conviction. In some cases, it overconvicts. So, yeah, the country is fundamentally different.

Now, you mentioned earlier about white attitudes and black attitudes about what’s happening. The reality is, we live in a segregated society. So if something happens in the black community, the reality is the white community doesn’t know. They don’t live there. They only see what they read on newspaper. They’re not there. They’re not physically present in the black community. And it’s also interesting, if we were living in a country where race was less important, why would we have these large divisions in terms of racial attitudes? That in itself says something is going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor powell, you teach a whole course on Dred Scott. He is buried just down the road on Florissant. The whole country knows about Florissant, because they’re hearing about the protests there. The cemetery, Calvary, where he is buried, is just down the road from these protests. He went to court in St. Louis. Can you talk about the significance of what’s become known as the most infamous case in Supreme Court history, where these nine judges, a number of [whose] families owned slaves, ruled that African Americans cannot be citizens of the United States?

john a. powell: That was a very important case, and some people believed it sped up the Civil War. It gave us, in many ways, the Civil War amendments, the 13th Amendment, which purported to end slavery. It actually did not, because if you look at the 13th Amendment, it says, “Slavery and involuntary servitude shall not exist in the United States in its territory except,” and then what it says after “exception” is when someone’s arrested and tried. And so, in a sense, our penal system is one where we—even the 13th Amendment says slavery is still allowed.

But Dred Scott had been a slave and had traveled outside of Missouri and was claiming his freedom. And the question was: Is he a citizen, so that he could even bring a case in federal court? You have to have something called “diversity jurisdiction,” jurisdiction between citizens of two different states, to be in federal court. And the court, first of all, found that he was not a citizen, and that no black—no black, free or otherwise—and this is important—even if he was free, the court was saying, you still cannot be a citizen, that no black in the United States—again, this is the Supreme Court justice saying this. Now, he actually was wrong, in the sense that there had been states that had extended citizenship since the beginning of its founding. But he made extreme—he went to extreme lengths to basically say that blacks could never be part of the political community. They weren’t perceived as people. One of the things that was made reference to is that “we the people,” could that include blacks? And Judge Taney said people were synonymous with citizens, and blacks could never be considered people under the U.S. Constitution.

Now, that case actually inflamed the country, in many ways. And it actually, interestingly enough, inflamed the Northern Republicans. But the structure of the case actually remains, in the sense that we still have not, to use President Obama’s language, created a more perfect union. We still have not come to full recognition of blacks and other people as full citizens, as full people. And one way we can demonstrate that is that when we see another human being, our brain is actually wired so that part of the brain lights up, just from recognition of another human being. And there are many situations where we can show Americans a black person, especially a person who’s been the victim of a crime; that part of the brain does not light up. We literally do not see a number of young black men as human beings. So we still live with the ghost of Dred Scott.

AMY GOODMAN: We have just 30 seconds. And what are your recommendations, as you look from outside Ferguson in to what is happening now?

john a. powell: So, I think a couple of things. So I do think things need to be de-escalated. I think we actually should have a real systematic look at policing in the United States. We should make police accountable to their community. We should actually bring some of the stuff we’re learning about implicit bias into the discourse, so we move beyond “Is it racism? Is it not?” And we should actually have a real conversation about race and what it means in the 21st century, even though we have an African-American president.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, john a. powell, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of law and professor of African American studies and ethnic studies at University of California, Berkeley, also director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, speaking to us today from Detroit, Michigan.

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In Trip to Selma, Michael Brown’s Mother Calls for Elimination of Ferguson Police Dept.

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