Talking Privilege: Waking White People Up to Police Brutality

Tonight I’m going to a vigil, a type of vigil that doesn’t really happen in White communities.  It doesn’t need to.

This is Alonzo Ashley.  Well, this was Alonzo Ashley.

Alonzo was killed one year ago by the Denver Police.  He was at the Denver Zoo, and he was struggling with heat exhaustion, so he put his head in a water fountain to cool off.  He was acting weird (as anyone with heat exhaustion will), and when the police told him to take his head out of the fountain, he did not.  They raised their voices, so he, understandably, got frustrated and raised his voice right back.  The Denver Police used tazers on Alonzo to “subdue” him.  While he laid on the ground, he began convulsing and stopped breathing.  He died in police handcuffs.  He died because he was trying to cool himself down on a hot day at the zoo.

The sad part about this story is that in Black and Brown communities, this story is not unique.  In the first 6 months of 2012 alone, 110 Black people were killed by police in the United States.  That’s one extra-judicial killing of a Black person by police officers every 40 hours for the first 6 months of this year, and unlawful murders of Latinos by police are on the rise.

Alonzo Ashley, Ervin Jefferson, Steven Rodriguez, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Danny RodriguezPatrick Dorismond . . . There are faces behind these numbers.

This is nothing new, but more and more, Black and Brown people are standing up against unchecked police brutality and abuse of power.

Amazing young leaders like Jasiri X are using art to educate young People of Color about how to interact with the police to avoid this state-sanctioned violence, and organizations like the Colorado Progressive Coalition are holding “Know Your Rights” trainings that empower young people of Color to know their rights in interactions with the police.

What’s amazing (though in no way surprising) is that in the face of this incredible violence at the hands of those that are supposed to be protecting the people and in the face of the incredible activism and street protests against this violence, White people, by in large, have no idea.

In the words of Tim Wise,

What Black parents…understood but which Whites had the luxury of ignoring was the deep and abiding fear that pumps like blood through the veins of Black mothers in this country, especially when they are the mothers of black men: the fear that persons in positions of authority – most immediately police – may well end the life of their man-child if they misinterpret a move, a look, a glance, a comment, or a smirk.  It is a fear with which they learn to live early and always: the fear that the next time your child walks out the door, unless you or someone else has broken them first of whatever exuberance is otherwise second-nature for youth, they may be coming back to you only in a box, and even then, only so that you may dress them one final time (White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, p. 22).

White Privilege manifests itself in many forms.  One very simple way to see privilege, though, is to look at the ways that White parents are privileged to teach their children to interact with police versus how parents of Color must teach their children to interact with police.  The former is “with respect” because “the police are your friend.”  This is how I was taught to think of the police.  The latter is “with respect” because “at best, they will harass you or arrest you for no good reason; at worse, they will kill you.”  And the police involved will suffer little-to-no consequences.

White Privilege means seeing the police as the “good guys” rather than as those to fear.  White Privilege means defending the actions of police no matter how questionable, violent, or unlawful.  White Privilege means turning a blind eye or searching for reasons to blame the victims of police brutality.

When it’s clear that those who hold the social, political, and economic power will do nothing to curb this state-sanctioned, extra-judicial violence, the question for those effected by the violence becomes, “Do We Need to Start a Riot?”

Meanwhile, White people stand by idly.

Something needs to change.  The question to White people, then: What are you willing to do about it?

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20 thoughts on “Talking Privilege: Waking White People Up to Police Brutality

  1. Do you have any more statistical evidence of black-targeted police brutality that you could link to? I’ve Googled around, and I can’t find any. That The Root article has several cases where obviously police racism was a key factor. However, the Every 40 Hours report is filled with cases where I don’t believe the police are to blame. My favorite one:

    “Police fatally shot Eugene when he ignored commands to stop eating the face of a homeless man. Eugene was naked and growling.”

    I mean, why even put that in there? If the report’s goal was to simply be a compilation of all 2012 black executions, fine. But as a piece of evidence of police brutality, I’m not sure it succeeds in proving anything.

    The reason why white people “turn a blind eye” is because we don’t see racial profiling in our day-to-day lives. All that we have to go on is anecdotal evidence, which isn’t worth much. What we need is an all-encompassing report on police brutality in general- across all races. How many white people have been killed by police in 2012? Asians? Native Americans? And how many of those killings were unjustified? Until we answer these questions, we can’t draw any conclusions.

    It’s easy to see a correlation where there isn’t one. It’s only human nature: http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/09/11/the-texas-sharpshooter-fallacy/

    • Trent,

      I think it’s notable that the evidence is there, but White people refuse to look at it.

      First, a note on anecdotal evidence. The very fact that anecdotal evidence that comes from just about every community of Color in the United States “isn’t worth much” is the root of the problem. The violence committed by police against Black and Brown people in the United States is rendered invisible by the White unwillingness to listen to the actual people that are being affected by this violence. We want studies instead of stories of those who are actually being hurt. If we listen, there are cries from just about every community of Color (but particularly low-income communities of Color) in the United States.

      Beyond that, though, the evidence is there: http://www.jonesreport.com/articles/210907_police_brutality.html
      http://baltimorechronicle.com/2010/071310Lendman.shtml
      http://www.aclu.org/human-rights_racial-justice/persistence-racial-and-ethnic-profiling-united-states
      http://sf.oxfordjournals.org/content/83/3/1009.short
      https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/abstractdb/AbstractDBDetails.aspx?id=77343

      From the last one: Of the 523 civilians shot by police, 20 percent were white, 70 percent were black, and 10 percent were Hispanic.

      The fact that we don’t see racial profiling in our day-to-day lives is the exact problem. We live in privilege, a privilege virtually no community of color can boast.

      • The other thing to consider is whether we can believe the police justifications for their violence. Is it not in their best interest to lie about events in order to cover themselves from criticism and repercussions? For instance, a few years back, one of my students was shot in the back and killed by a police officer in Chicago. They said he had a gun and pointed it at a police officer, yet he was shot in the back. Many in his family and community disputed the idea that this young man had a gun and would point it at the police. What’s to be believed when it’s the word of the police against the word of a young dead Black man?

      • Thanks for those links.

        “We want studies instead of stories of those who are actually being hurt.”

        That’s because stories are only little pieces of the puzzle. I’m not saying that police racism doesn’t exist; undoubtedly, it does, and it’s certainly a contributing factor to police brutality. That doesn’t make it the core issue. Sure, the stories of innocent black people being shot would seem to confirm that the issue is racism. But that JonesReport link you gave included cases of police brutality against white people too. What if police brutality stems from some other problem that no one is even aware of? Until we have the whole picture, we can’t know for sure.

        The NCJRS stats are only conclusive if we ignore that black people make up 30% of Chicago’s poor, whereas whites are 10%. (http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-Chicago-Illinois.html) I’m no expert on how class and social upbringing affect crime, but they contribute somehow, right?

  2. A few points, Trent.

    First, you are making my point perfectly when you say that anecdotal evidence “isn’t worth much.” All you need to do is ask any Black mother (or Latino mother or Navajo mother or Hmong mother) in the U.S. about whether or not they fear that their son will be killed by a police officer. Every one will say yes. That is a fear for a reason, and it is notably not something that White mothers teach their children. Why is that?

    But let’s look at the data. Let’s start with the quote from my last comment and your data that you present from City-Data.com. By your logic, since those who are poor are more likely, statistically, to commit crimes, and because 30% of Chicago’s poor ar Black, shouldn’t 30% of the people who are involved in fatal police shootings in Chicago be Black? Yet 70% of the victims of fatal police violence in Chicago are Black.

    Now let’s consider the work of Michelle Alexander. You wanted studies, so I highly recommend you pick up a copy of “The New Jim Crow” by Alexander as quickly as possible. Alexander highlights a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology where police were the participants (and similar results were found with non-police):

    “[The study] involved a video game that placed photographs of White and Black individuals holding either a gun or other object (such as a wallet, soda can, or cell phone) into various photographic backgrounds. Participants were told to decide as quickly as possible whether to shoot the target. Consistent with earlier studies, participants were more likely to mistake a black target as armed when he was not, and mistake a white target as unarmed, when in fact he was armed. This pattern of discrimination reflected automatic, unconscious thought processes, not careful deliberations” (Alexander, p. 104).

    The point is that we live in a society built upon and reinforced by White Supremacy. That reality means that we are taught from an early age that certain people are dangerous and certain people are safe. I don’t know about you, but my socialization clearly said, “Black people are dangerous. So are Latinos.” I would wager money that yours said the same. The police officers that we entrust with our safety had the same socialization.

    Now give those officers a gun and consider the study I highlight above.

    This is a problem of systems of oppression. In the same book, Alexander highlights multiple studies that find that while every race consumes drugs at the same rate and while White people are actually more likely to deal drugs than any other race, a Black man is 600 times as likely to be stopped by police on suspicion of carrying drugs and, as a result, is 60 times as likely to see the inside of a prison as a White person.

    Are we seeing the pattern here? In a society where every person is socialized to believe that certain people are flowers and certain people are weeds, we give the police the power to pull the weeds by their roots. Do the math. If you are 600 times as likely to be treated like a criminal (searched for drugs) by the police, you are 600 times as likely to experience police violence.

    What I want to say to close is this: All we have to do is listen to the hundreds of thousands of voices of people of color who are brutalized by the police. I don’t need a study. Tonight alone I heard the stories of 5 people at the vigil for Alonzo Ashley, all people of Color, who described being brutalized by police (many with film evidence proving they did nothing to provoke violence). Just about every man of Color I know has a story of being stopped by the police and harassed, and some have stories of violence committed against them. The White people in my life do not have those stories. This is not an experience in White communities, as you even admit: “we don’t see racial profiling in our day-to-day lives.”

    • Then I suppose my problem is that I’ve never been aware of those thousands of voices. Growing up in rural South Dakota, I don’t even have any black friends that I could talk to about stuff like racial profiling. Is it partly my own fault for not being more open to hearing about injustices like these and trying to help right them? Maybe. Either way, thank you for spreading awareness about this.

      And that goes for ALL of your posts. Even when I disagree with you, you always manage to get me thinking about topics that never would have crossed my mind. I appreciate it.

      • In the words of one of my mentors, “Never feel guilty for what you’ve been handed, even if it’s unjust. If what you’ve been handed is unjust and you choose to do nothing about it, though, then you have plenty to feel guilty about.”

  3. […] As a quick follow up to my piece on racial profiling and police brutality… […]

  4. […] us over people of Color in life or death things like employment and wealth, education, health care, police brutality, and presumption of guilt is built upon the very White Supremacy that Page sang about in his […]

  5. Just for your information. I am a white person living in a expensive house on the beach. The police here are nasty rude have come on my property numerous times have come into my house without a warrant harassed my children and there friends. Arrested me on bogus charges arrested my twelve year old and threatened him. Lined up kids and taken there picture for sitting on a bench etc. Its everywhere guy not just the minority community. I lived in LA during the Rodney King era the cops here are much worse.

    • I definitely think there are issues with police abusing power in wealthier or White communities, but in your own language, you describe them as being “nasty rude” and the worst that you describe is that a 12 year old was arrested though not charged or convicted. Those are terrible things, but they are in no way comparable to what communities of Color experience at the hands of the police. Wealthy, White folks, on the whole, don’t have to fear that if they say the wrong thing to a police officer, they will be gunned down in the street, only to have a weapon planted on them so that the cops get off scott free. It’s important to understand the matter of scale.

  6. […] 9. Unfortunately, my former home of Denver, CO has a serious problem with police brutality.  In July, I attended a rally against police brutality that commemorated the death of Alonzo Ashley, a young Black man who was killed by police at the Denver Zoo.  The piece that came afterward encouraged White people to begin to consider the ways that our relationships with police (on the whole) are vastly different from the relationships of communities of Color.  Coming in at number 9 is Talking Privilege: Waking White People Up to Police Brutality. […]

  7. […] Franklin was murdered by police and clearly covered up the event to avoid prosecution.  In Denver, Alonzo Ashley was murdered by police for the crime of suffering from heat stroke while spending time with his girlfriend at the zoo. […]

  8. […] Franklin was murdered by police and clearly covered up the event to avoid prosecution.  In Denver, Alonzo Ashley was murdered by police for the crime of suffering from heat stroke while spending time with his girlfriend at the zoo. […]

  9. […] Franklin was murdered by police and clearly covered up the event to avoid prosecution.  In Denver, Alonzo Ashley was murdered by police for the crime of suffering from heat stroke while spending time with his girlfriend at the zoo. […]

  10. Kelly Thomas was a white man. He was known by the cops to suffer from mental illness. He was a local homeless man in Fullerton, CA. There are a few full length security camera video’s, with sound, that shows that for approx. 35 minutes they bullied, harassed and threatened this man. They kept demanding his name, but they knew his name already. They demanded him to tell them what he was doing in the area, They knew he roamed the area all the time. The whole time he was quiet and respectful like his white parents taught him to be. They then beat him, for no reason what-so-ever for approximately 12 minutes. They beat him beyond any recognition, just like they kept telling him they were going to. They tased him repeatedly while he begged for his daddy to come help him. The entire thing from start to finish was recorded. 6 more officers showed up. You can hear them trying to immediately begin the pr repair. All we acquitted. One is even fighting to get his job back. I think both original murdering cops are even suing for wrongful termination! This case is by no means isolated. Anyone who is disenfranchised is susceptible to these goons.These psycho’s with badges. All across the country, throughout it’s history, people of ALL races have been enslaved, abused and discarded like trash. People of all races have harmed people of their own race. People of all races have harmed people from other races, either for the color of their skin, their beliefs in a higher power, tribal differences, pride,or because of class differences,etc.For instance, did you all know that hundreds of thousands of whites were brought to this country as indentured servants and slaves to “help create” this nation? Did you all know that the very first actual slave owner recorded is a black man named Anthony Johnson? Did you know that the court battle that ensued set the president, actually forced the laws to be made, that would enable all other’s that followed to own another human being? Did you know that what would be called “gangster rap” was an invention of the elite (which are comprised of people from all races-music exec’s and bankers etc) in order to increase the population in privately owned prison’s? Did you know this was their answer for getting cheap labor after sending all of the well paying production jobs overseas to be done by slave labor there? Did you know that the world’s entire population of white’s is 17%? Is only 17% of the world’s population to carry all of the blames of the other 87% too? To be fair, are white people making black people kill each other at the rate of nearly 450 a year just in Chicago alone? Is it the republicans? Democrats have had control of it. Detroit too. Well, pretty much all inner cities are controlled by democrats aren’t they? They are also the one’s who fought to keep slavery. They are also the one”s who started the KKK. They are also the one’s behind Jim Crow. So who is to blame? Please do not get what I am saying all twisted up; I know, I understand, I am completely appalled and heart broken every single time I see the truths about what man, white men in particular, have done to other humans. Being a white woman who was born to love all I have fought against prejudiced, bigotry, ethnocentrism, fear based and media driven ignorance and hatred my whole life. On the flip side though us whites also have to deal with racism as well. If I date a black man, black women hate me. When a black man and I were talking about marriage his parents said it couldn’t be, not mine. I have met a few racists; both whites and blacks, as I have traveled extensively across this country and I have met thousands of people, people of all races. I have been treated well by all races and I have been treated poorly by all races. When I go up to say hi to a black stranger I feel no different then when I go up to a white, Asian, American Indian, or East Indian or anyone. However, if I am walking up to someone who “looks dangerous” I am going to be wary. I do not care what color or sex they are. If they give off bad vibes I am going to be wary. Call it prejudice if you like but I think you would be a hypocrite to do so. If you see a tiny little bent over old lady (of any color) walking towards you are you going to be less afraid or leery of her than you would be say of… some big bald guy with a tattoo on his head of a Pentagram or something? I am thinking the answer would be yes…. ..? The point is if you really look at things, most people could care less about the color of anyone’s skin, just the content of their character. This, at first glance alone, is assessed partly by dress (appearance) and mostly by demeanor. This too should be fought against inside our own hearts. The true content of a person’s character obviously takes more intimacy. I guess what i am trying to say is we all have to take responsibility for what we have all allowed. I can’t carry this guilt alone. You can’t carry your burdens alone. We are one species. It is and always has been the elite driving and creating these differences. If you hear someone say whites do not care about blacks understand they have something to gain for saying it because it isn’t true. AT least 98% of the people I have met just want everyone to get along and just be happy and live in peace. People from all sides. I pray one day we all come together and just rid ourselves of these invisible rulers once and for all. Much love to all.

    • There is so much going on in this post that it is hard to know where to begin.

      Let’s start with Kelly Thomas and your point about White folks who get attacked by police as well. You are right that his case is textbook example of police brutalizing those they’re supposed to protect, and I think it’s important that you note that “Anyone who is disenfranchised is susceptible to these goons.” Kelly was homeless and struggling with mental illness, which is why he was attacked rather than given resources and the benefit of the doubt. But who in our society is most vulnerable and disenfranchised? Statistically, it’s not White folks nearly as often as it’s people of Color, and White people are only victims of police brutality a small minority of the time (see my links up above in the comments) compared to people of Color. So yes, the problem is disenfranchisement and vulnerability, but that cannot be separated from race and racism.

      Then you just throw out so many little pieces of misinformation that it’s hard to know how to respond to all of them. Sure, “People of all races have harmed people from other races,” but we cannot pretend that in the context of the United States and wider European colonization that there are not entire systems throughout the world that are based on the White supremacist, capitalist, heterosexist patriarchy (to borrow a phrase from bell hooks). So let’s talk about your examples one by one:

      “did you all know that hundreds of thousands of whites were brought to this country as indentured servants and slaves to “help create” this nation?” What I always want to say to this question is, “And then what happened?” Because yes, this happened, but because of the construction of Whiteness as a tool of capitalist control, European “White” people who were legitimately disenfranchised and in some cases even oppressed were able to buy into a system of privilege that elevated them above all others. Thus, by the very nature of the Color of their skin, the light-skinned people from Europe were given advantage (even the tiniest of advantages) over people of Color that builds and snowballs into the inequality we see today.

      “Did you all know that the very first actual slave owner recorded is a black man named Anthony Johnson?” Again, then what happened? Did he create the most comprehensive and brutal system of racist oppression and slavery in the history of the world that enslaved White people for the economic gain of Black, landowning men?

      “Did you know that what would be called “gangster rap” was an invention of the elite (which are comprised of people from all races-music exec’s and bankers etc) in order to increase the population in privately owned prison’s?” Most definitely there are connections between the for-profit prison industry and entertainment industries like music, but in what world do you live in where this was a multi-racial rainbow coalition of oppression? What few people of Color have been allowed access to that kind of power in the United States have only been allowed within VERY strict bounds that serve White supremacist, capitalist, heterosexist patriarchy.

      “Did you know this was their answer for getting cheap labor after sending all of the well paying production jobs overseas to be done by slave labor there? Did you know that the world’s entire population of white’s is 17%? Is only 17% of the world’s population to carry all of the blames of the other 87% too?” I’m not wholly sure of what point you’re trying to make here. The companies that are sending those jobs to be done by slave labor are, by in large, owned by White people and are all owned by people who advance the White capitalist agenda. Of the world’s 20 richest people, only 1 is not of light-skinned, European origin. Additionally, every bit of wealth amassed by the White minority who own the majority of the world’s wealth was built upon the exploitative capitalism created by and championed by, you guessed it, European capitalists. It’s not that White people are the only ones doing terrible things. It’s that those who created “Whiteness” as a social construction did a pretty good job of perfecting systems of terribleness that continue to this day.

      “To be fair, are white people making black people kill each other at the rate of nearly 450 a year just in Chicago alone? Is it the republicans? Democrats have had control of it. Detroit too. Well, pretty much all inner cities are controlled by democrats aren’t they?” Directly? No. But capitalism, as controlled by White people, is sure as hell killing them. And the poverty that leads to the alternative economy in which people of Color are dying is surely the construction of White people. And the lack of resources to actually transform those economies as a public policy priority is surely controlled by White people. But go on ahead and keep blaming individuals for the problems of systems of oppression. And yes, that includes the democratic party, which is largely controlled by White interests. White supremacy is the problem, not democrats or republicans who operate in that system.

      “[Democrats] are also the one’s who fought to keep slavery. They are also the one”s who started the KKK. They are also the one’s behind Jim Crow. So who is to blame?” Oh this argument again. Whenever people make this argument, it shows just how ignorant of history they are. Either you are willfully obfuscating the details of history, or you are ignorant of them. Go on ahead and google the Democrat-Republican switch in ideology and strategy after the New Deal (hint: the Democrats were the right wing party before then, and the Republicans were on the left much like today the Democrats are on the left and Republicans are on the right). Go on ahead and google the Republican’s overtly racist Southern Strategy used to consolidate White votes in the South in the aftermath of that switch.

      I can’t do this all day, so I will just address one more:
      “On the flip side though us whites also have to deal with racism as well. If I date a black man, black women hate me. When a black man and I were talking about marriage his parents said it couldn’t be, not mine.”

      You’re not describing racism. You’re describing bigotry. Racism = Prejudice + Power to act on that prejudice to disenfranchise those targeted by your prejudice: http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/08/racist-against-white-people/

  11. […] suspiciously the way they do with black people. Cops don’t arrest white people as often. And they don’t assault white people as often. White people are less likely to go to prison. White people are not profiled by border patrol and […]

  12. […] When I lived in Denver, activists were organizing to hold police accountable for the murder of Alonzo Ashley. […]

  13. […] ways: Whiteness has given us access to better educations, better paying jobs, safer neighborhoods, safety from police, unearned trust and respect, and countless other […]

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