In Volume 1 of The War in America, I discussed some of my many confrontations with racist and abusive law enforcers. Though some of these encounters were violent I, thankfully, survived them without getting shot or maimed. My experiences were not unique. They did not occur in a vacuum. They were in fact micro battles on a battlefield literally as vast as the entire country.
Seeking to transmute my travails into something useful, in Volume 1, I described my encounters with bad cops and made more than 40 recommendations for ending unnecessary conflicts between law enforcers and unarmed black men.
I also introduced a new framework for discussing the conflicts between black men and the police.
I recall the instant when I discovered this new way of seeing their fractious relationship.
I was on sabbatical from working as a technical writer for a global IT corporation, where I wrote online Help systems and software user manuals. I spent most of my time secluded in my condo near downtown Washington, D.C., researching material and writing content for this multi-volume book.
At that time, 2007, racialized law enforcement was an issue in America, as it had been for decades, but it was certainly not the burning hot topic it is now. The conflicts between the police and black men only occasionally captured the attention of the nation, mostly only when the most egregiously embarrassing (such as Harvard Professor Henry Gates’ nasty encounter with the smug Hartford cop) or fatal interactions occurred.
Back then, my manuscript was entitled, Stop the Madness. The purpose of the book was to raise awareness about the consistent regularity of police abuse towards unarmed black men. I had had multiple confrontations with police officers. However, I was more concerned with the fact that my research indicated that I was just one out of countless black men with similar experiences. Law enforcement madness spanned the entire country, irrepressibly, insidiously, like a life-threatening virus invisible to the average person. Incidents of racist and abusive policing were scattered across America, from D.C. to L.A., yet hardly anyone outside of the black community understood the vastness of the problem.
Each day, I would be in my living room office, seated at my long, black lacquered desk, painstakingly but rhapsodically writing, rewriting and editing. Sometimes CNN’s non-stop coverage of The War in Iraq was broadcasted in the background, on the TV screen near my desk. There were stories after stories about US soldiers randomly harassing, stopping, frisking and imprisoning average-looking Iraqi men in an attempt to catch insurgents and Islamic terrorists. The vast majority of the time, I ignored the television chatter.
One summer afternoon, after making thousands of strokes on my PC keyboard, I was overcome by fatigue and hunger. I had been writing since early that morning. My stomach was growling, my head was aching and I needed a break. Pulling myself up from my desk, I walked into the kitchen and reached into my fridge and grabbed a large, pretty, shiny red apple. I plucked a white napkin from the breakfast bar and sauntered back into the living room. Opposite the TV was a large wooden coffee table with a glass top surface. Behind it was an ubersoft, super smooth, maroon leather loveseat. I sank my stiff bones into the cushions and sighed. Ahhh. I bit the apple. Mmmm, so sweet. I pressed my back deeper into the loveseat and then turned my attention to the chatty Iraqi war coverage.
I saw about a dozen U.S. soldiers dressed in camouflage and carrying assault weapons stopping, frisking and shoving small groups of robed, unarmed Iraqi civilians into military paddy wagons. In one ancient-looking Iraqi town there was a residential, box-shaped compound with the bodies of a half-dozen dead Iraqi men faced down, lying on the ground, bleeding. Two bodies near the entrance. A few others were strewn across the courtyard. I saw no weapons near any of the bodies. The dead seemed to have all been killed while bearing no weapons or bombs. How could this happen? Blitzer did not say. The men must have looked suspicious. The brave United States soldiers must have felt threatened, right? Or was this just standard operating procedure in a war zone?
One could not tell. At the moment, the soldiers seemed so nonchalant and at ease.
The words “The War in Iraq,” emblazoned at the bottom of the TV screen, remained there throughout the odd but intriguing news coverage.
I was confused. This bloody compound was in a residential area not a battlefield. Blitzer did not report that there was a gunfight there. From what I could see, the soldiers, for all intents and purposes, were functioning as police officers. Without looking down, I placed my apple on the coffee table atop the napkin. I leaned towards the TV and gawked. With my elbows resting on my knees, I lifted my hands, folded them beneath my chin, and froze like a mannequin.
If this is war, I thought, where are the exploding bombs, the loud tank fire and the rat-a-tat-tat of high powered weaponry?
I kept watching to figure out what I was seeing. The screen was split into sections. In one section there were images from Iraq, and in another was Blitzer and a map of the region and at the bottom were words: The War in Iraq.
I stared at those words and mouthed them several times as I watched American soldiers marching a dozen Iraqi men down a rundown road with their hands raised high above their heads.
I spoke aloud in a hushed tone. “The … War in Iraq … The WAR in Iraq.”
My thoughts returned to my manuscript. The longest chapter in the book included news reports that described hundreds of acts of police brutality that had occurred all across the United States during the previous few years.
I had included color pictures of beaten and bloodied black men. One man’s face had been so walloped that his large eyes were swollen, nearly closed, and blood covered his huge face.
I stood up, folded my arms and squinted my eyes at those words on the screen for a full two minutes. I scratched my head and folded my arms again. I paced slowly across the floor. I looked at the TV screen again. Wolf was still on the screen narrating war stories.
I thought, Damn! What I was watching on TV was so similar to what I was writing about: The ugly scenarios of harassment by government agents were similar. The stop and frisk was similar. The intimidation of unarmed, non-Anglo-Saxon men was similar. The dead bodies lying on the ground uncovered were similar.
In America too often the men being treated like enemies were black. They were accosted while walking down the street, ordered to put their hands in the air, then handcuffed, pushed into paddy wagons and tossed into holding cells. Sometimes they were shot dead in the street. Their stiff bodies lying there for all to see while cops nonchalantly stood by.
The holding cells were merely way stations for black men before they were shipped to prisons, many of them overcrowded. Each man entering the system was a drop of blackened water trickling into a huge overflowing penal system pool.
In America, as in Iraq, there was death on both sides of the conflict. Cops and civilians were falling mortally wounded in Washington, DC, Maryland, Chicago, Atlanta, Texas, California, New York and other cities across the nation.
The scenes from Iraq and the scenes from America began stitching themselves together in my mind, like patches of a grotesque quilt.
The War in Iraq.
The madness in America.
Then it happened.
An epiphany so great I could not contain it.
Like a searing miniature nuclear mushroom cloud, it erupted inside my brain. This mind-altering moment would permanently change my perception of black men and police officers. I would see them as soldiers, wary of each other and too frequently hating each other and fighting, fighting, fighting.
I began to shout, as if speaking to the entire world: It’s not just madness. It’s WAR! It’s a goddamn war right here in America!
I fell silent, sat back down and thought: Yes, that’s it! If that’s a real war over there in Iraq, then this is actually a war right here—unconventional and undeclared, but a war all the same … Damn!
As I noted earlier, on that particular day there was no footage of tanks firing, no improvised explosive devices (IEDs) being launched and no roadside bombs going off. It was a low impact war that day, by normal standards.
Still, war is war.
The war in my homeland was sometimes quiet and insidious and sometimes explosive, destructive and fatal … and caught on camera. Most of the time it was low impact, individualized and hidden.
Having lived through it for decades myself and observing other black men doing the same, these elements of war were never hidden from me. I just had never called it an actual war. Apparently, no one else had either—at least not in mainstream media. The term “war” was more of a rhetorical metaphor or cavalier soundbite used by high-profile intellectuals and everyday peeps to put a colorful tag on law enforcement’s consistent harassment and deadly attacks against black men.
Thousands of black men have been shot by the police over the past decade, mostly suffering non-fatal injuries. However, fatal injuries occur at an unacceptable and disproportionate rate—30 percent higher than the rate of whites killed by cops. The deaths often occur under suspicious circumstances.
Unlike crimes that occur in beleaguered black communities, which are easily avoidable if you have the finances or social connections to exit “high crime” areas, this war is unavoidable and inescapable.
Money, education, social connections, politeness mean nothing, if a black man crosses the path of a racially judgmental cop. As columnist Charles M. Blow wrote in the New York Times, this ubiquitous, giant octopus-like law enforcement “produces a particular kind of terror, a feeling of nakedness and vulnerability.”
Nationwide, police officers’ unchecked attacks against black men are commonly described as “excessive,” “racist,” “abusive,” “and “unfair.” None dare call them real acts of war.
Americans use “war” to describe just above every other difficult societal problem. Consider this brief list of examples: “war on poverty,” “war on hunger,” “war on cancer,” “war on Christmas,” and “war on obesity.” Here’s a gem: “GOP majority in Senate hangs in balance as McConnell allies declare open warfare on Bannon.”
No one really knew what to call the violent relationship between police and black men. As a nation, the closest we came was “The War on Drugs.” That term was used in a symbolic sense as well, a catchy slogan that described local and federal government policies intended to herd drug offenders into prison. Policies such as Three Strikes You’re Out, which was championed and signed into law by the slick President William Jefferson Clinton. The devilish law forced judges to give convicted drug offenders specific prison terms rather than allowing them to examine the individual, the facts and circumstances and use their discretion to determine a proper punishment. Some non-violent offenders were given life sentences as a result of Clinton’s “law and order” presidency.
Another tactic that became part and parcel with the War on Drugs was the discredited “stop and frisk” policing that was based in large part on the Broken Windows theory, which was promulgated by well-regarded social scientists and psychologists—some who were staunch conservatives. Stop and Frisk goes by another name, the “field interview,” when American soldiers occupy a foreign land during an officially-declared war.
QUOTE MILITARY SOURCE: FIELD INTERVIEW
In the unofficial war in the homeland, police across the country used the war tactic to harass black men. In New York, cops “went wild” with it, virtually transforming places like the predominantly black Bronx burrough into an armed occupation. They subjected black men to field interviews apparently at a higher rate than U.S. soldiers stopped and frisked Iraqi men. New York Street cops, following orders from their superiors, conducted more than a million field interviews from 20xx to 20xx, mostly hitting black men. In one year alone, 2011, they stopped and frisked more than 600,000 people. That’s more than 1,500 “field interviews” each day for an entire year. Talk about government interference in the lives of citizens. These facts support the argument that law enforcement tyranny indeed does exist in America.
In a landmark anti-racial profiling case against the city of New York that was based on the police department’s stop and frisk program, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin condemned the department’s tyrannical mistreatment of tens of thousands of blacks as if they were all dangerous predators. Only xx percent of the 1.4 million field interviews resulted in legitimate arrests.
Criminal justice experts and politicians typically say that racial profiling results from an “unconscious bias” that police have towards blacks. The judge determined that NY cops had “intentional” bias. She ruled that they were fully conscious that the strategies they were using specifically targeted black men for harassment. Judge Scheindlin, quoting New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, wrote that intentionally using the race and sex of a black man as a basis to hold him in suspicion “is what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies … regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It’s like burning down a house to rid it of mice.”
During the trial, a police official was exposed for stating that a goal of the stop and frisk program was to make black men fear the police at all times. Police grabbed them, shoved them, cursed at them, threw them to the ground, pointed guns in their faces, and threatened to arrest them for no reason at all, except to intimidate. In New York city, cops knew that they could use war tactics against black men anytime they so pleased. Their warlord type of physical and psychological suppression was unconstitutional and so “widespread” that it “had the force of law,” Judge Scheindlin stated.
More to the point, actually the intense suppression had the force of war.
(Hispanic men were also racially profiled by NY cops, the judge ruled.)
My new way of thinking, my epiphany, enabled me to see that the disparate, random yet predictable incidents of racial profiling and overall law enforcement madness, which were rotting the core of the Big Apple and smaller cities across America, fit perfectly within a unifying framework. This framework had just never been given a title.
I have a suggestion. Call it what it is: war.
The War in America.