A Privilege Check, Understanding and Support: An Outsider’s Perspective on Police Brutality and Related Matters in the United States of America

I was born in 1981.  I watched the police beat Rodney King to a pulp on television, like everyone else.  I was 9 years old.  I remember as a young child hearing about the Central Park 5.  I noted the outcome of both of those cases.  I recall being a little older and hearing about Bernhard Goetz, the “subway vigilante”, an incident which happened when I was a toddler, in 1984.  I watched with my family the live verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and cried silently when George Zimmerman was allowed to walk free.  I cried again this week watching George Floyd die on camera as a police officer snuffed his life out with a knee to the neck.  What is sad is that even though I was outraged by each of these events and others, I would still ask, with my hat of Caribbean privilege on, “Why are black Americans so angry all the time?”  Can’t they just work through these incidents and forge their own paths?

The truth is, black Americans have excelled in too many ways to mention and in popular culture, everything African American is a major influence on almost every aspect of society in the US and beyond.  So why are they still angry?  This is why.  Latasha Harlins, Rodney King, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant III, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray Jr., Botham Jean, Philando Castile, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey, James Ramseur.  These are the names of just a few of the victims, dating from 1984 to present day, of the many, many cases of police and civilian mishandling, brutality and killings which made their way to international news.  These are all black and brown people from the United States of America who either never lived to tell their story, were severely injured or maimed or lost years of their lives due to incarceration for crimes they did not commit.

Before anyone who reads this article decides to let such questions, words or phrases such as “what about black on black crime?”, “all lives matter” or “let us move on”, fall from their mouths or be formed on their keyboard, understand this:  Based on crime statistics from 2016, the numbers of crimes within black and white communities against persons of the same racial grouping are very similar.  Much of this can be attributed to proximity and opportunity (i.e. persons of the same racial grouping live nearer to each other and therefore are more likely to commit crimes against each other).  While blacks killing other blacks, particularly in states like Chicago is extremely problematic, what we are speaking about is the fact that in situations where black and brown people are killed or severely injured by the police or civilians who are white, the perpetrators are disproportionately punished for their actions.

We also see that when these persons are killed, the alleged crime does not fit the outcome.  Additionally, in high profile cases where a white offender is central to the case we have seen that the person who is arrested for the crime is usually treated in a more humane manner than a person of colour.  We have by now all seen the comparison of the arrest of Dylan Roof following the murder, at his hands, of nine black members of a congregation at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina or even the arrest of James Holmes for the shooting murders of twelve persons and injuries of many more in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado in 2012.  Something is wrong.

Let me state categorically that I endorse and support the idea of persons of colour supporting each other’s businesses, establishing and managing our own creative platforms, educating ourselves and our children and doing everything we can to not only have that seat but creating our own proverbial table.  However, at this point where within the last few weeks alone, the world collectively watched footage of the horrific murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and the devious and disgusting behaviour of Amy Cooper and Patricia Ripley it is clear that these actions are inextricably linked to the outright racism that sits like an ugly, thick smog over the United States of America.  I say that it is all well and good to chart the path for moving forward but Progress Cannot Be Made Without At Least An Attempt To Solve The Problem.

As a Caribbean person, I have stated and continue to state that I cannot claim to fully understand the emotional experience of the black American.  I do not know what it is like to feel deathly afraid of calling the police when assistance is needed.  I do not know what it is like to be asked for my “credentials” when entering certain spaces or going about my daily business in a place where I have every right to be.  While racism, colourism and class prejudice absolutely exist in the Caribbean, our experience cannot be compared to what our American brothers and sisters face on a daily basis.

Over time I learned to check my privilege, I read, talked to friends and family members who live in the US and tried to educate myself about what the day to day life, not my visiting-for-two-weeks-and-shop-til-I-drop-life, really entailed.  I learned that it varies from day to day, state to state.  I learned that US citizens or residents of Caribbean descent had been taught that they had to work twice as hard as born and bred Americans because as an immigrant or child of immigrants, one had much to prove but were no less immune to the problems that their native counterparts faced.  I realised that years of racist policies had shaped the creation of the “projects” and contributed to the explosion of mass incarceration.  Watch 13th and you will learn about private prisons and the system that feeds its ugly snapping jaws.  I researched the issues plaguing education and early work done to halt wealth creation in the form of homeownership.  I was shocked to discover the much discussed connection between the infiltration of drugs in South Central LA and the CIA, the truth of which remains in the wind.  As a result, in the final days of May 2020, while we call for Justice for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I no longer ask why the anger, I am angry too.

In all of this I think about Amy Cooper.  She knew that by stating to 911 that an “African American man [was] threatening her life”: (1) that as a white woman, she would receive a swift response from the police, (2) what kind of force the police were likely to use in the situation she painted and (3) that there was a possibility that Christian Cooper could have been maimed or even killed if the police responded with force.  She did not say that “a man” was threatening her life, she specifically referred to him in terms of his skin colour.  She is the epitome of white privilege.  She is the embodiment of evil for her actions which, in the current climate, could have had a very different ending.

So what do we do now?  We are way beyond hashtagism and saying someone’s name.  We are beyond sitting in our black and brown groupings and trying to fix a problem that we did not create.  Everyone, most of all persons who (1) normally sit and either ignore the problem because it does not personally affect them,  (2) wish it would just go away, (3) “don’t see colour” and (4) want us to “all get along”, need to join the fight.  I’ve been stalking social media pages of the non-black and brown celebrities and businesses that I follow and have so far been heartened by the responses I am seeing.  However, it cannot be a one-week-wonder.  We have to be in this for the long-haul.  In the US, citizens need to lobby en masse to effect significant change in their civil rights laws, laws which relate to the training of police officers and the criminal justice system.  Such changes to not occur overnight but require large numbers of persons for mobilisation.  There must also be a massive change in thinking among white people where the notion that a black person must “answer” to them or “explain” why they are carrying out an every day task no longer exists.

I believe that those who wear some hat of privilege, especially those who live in the US must first admit that there is a problem.  It cannot be business as usual or five, ten, fifteen years from now we will be right back here again.  If you are white and do not understand what is being discussed, read, talk to your black friends or family and be willing to listen.  Be open-minded.  Take the time to have uncomfortable conversation.  Discussions about race which make us lose eye contact and squirm in our seats are necessary for us to even dream about moving forward.  For those of us who are black and brown, speak openly and honestly and be willing to have the conversation. I say this about similar issues we face as Caribbean people who are descendants of slaves and slave owners and indentured servants.  There is a lot of emotional baggage and generational trauma that we carry in our hearts and on our backs every day in our beautiful islands.

Let us support our families and friends who live in the US.  Let us support the families we only know from news stories.  Why?  Because empathy, because love.  Many of us in the present-day Caribbean proudly say that we have made lives which afford us a standard of living that the thought of going to the US to “make a better life” is a thing of the past.  We loudly state that the US is only good for visiting family, shopping and partying.  However, whose shoulders did we have to climb to reach where we are?  The same African American or Afro-Caribbean American persons who fought for civil rights and liberties, who allowed us to visit, go to school in and live in the US if we so chose.  Let us not be snobs.

From so far away, I cannot exercise the option to call a Congressman or Senator.  However, I donated to change.org and signed their petition as well as the petition on http://www.justiceforbigfloyd.com which encourages the relevant legal officers to prepare cases against the three remaining police officers in the George Floyd matter.  We can also continue to raise as much awareness as we can but in doing so, please let us ensure that we are informed about whatever topic we choose to speak about.

Finally, to those still shouting that “All Lives Matter” and that “when we bleed, we all bleed red”, these things are not denied, they are definitely true.  However, based on the evidence presented of years and years of unequal treatment meted out to black and brown people, the fact that “Black Lives Matter” must be stated unequivocally.  I hope and pray that the prosecuting teams in the Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd cases (as they are the ones in which arrests have been made) do a thorough job and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.  I also hope and pray that the activism, teaching and learning continue for a long time to come.  That way, the space for the historically oppressed can grow and flourish in a way that is beneficial to everyone involved.



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