The Personal Is Political in the Context of Police Brutality

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James Lane & Hawk Newsome.

On April 27, I attended a Criminal Justice Reform Panel sponsored by the Gramercy Stuyvesant Independent Democrats. The panel was titled “Criminal Justice Reform: What Should NYC Municipal Candidates Be Talking About in 2017?”

The speakers included Hawk Newsome, from Black Lives Matter of Greater New York; Bob Gangi, from the Police Reform Organizing Project and Democratic candidate for Mayor; James Lane, Black Lives Matter and Gentrification activist and Green Party Candidate for Public Advocate; Josmar Trujillo, from the Coalition to End Broken Windows and an activist and writer focusing on education and policing who has published in Newsday, Truthout, and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, among others; Carlene Pinto of the New York Immigration Coalition; and Brooklyn College professor of sociology Alex Vitale, who has been active around homelessness and civil rights. 

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James Lane & Bob Gangi with a member of the audience.

I had been looking forward to this panel for months, and I was especially anticipating James's contribution. Along with adoptee rights and gentrification, police brutality has been at the center of James's activism since George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin. And this makes sense. James is a black man, one who has been harassed by and witnessed his friends' being harassed by the NYPD. And he has a son quickly approaching the ages at which Tamir Rice, 12, and Tyre King, 13, were murdered by police. For James, this is as much personal as it is political.  

Not surprisingly, James began with a discussion of the trauma surrounding the police's targeting and harassment of and violence against young people of color, both from experiencing and witnessing this brutality. Young people of color feel hunted. Because they are. One might be tempted at this point to offer sympathy for their plight, shaking a head and muttering about the deterioration of our institutions, except that, as James angrily declared, the system WORKS just as it was designed. That is, the police have always been tasked with containing, controlling, and exploiting the poor and people of color. In many cases, they don't so much combat crime as create it through false arrests. 

The system has established a vicious cycle that seems impossible to break without a serious shift in perspective. Openly racist police target people of color, arresting them with or without evidence, for the smallest offense, which leads to statistics indicating that people of color are the main perpetrators of crime. Police captains then expect beat cops to have arrest numbers that reflect these statistics. If those cops do not, they are chastised, told that their numbers do not reflect “reality.” So these cops look for people of color to arrest. And on and on. Round and round.  

The trauma James mentioned is perhaps most poignantly seen in the case of 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who was held without evidence and without trial for three years because his mother couldn't afford bail and because he refused to plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit. The guards abused him. The adult prisoners abused him. And he spent two years in solitary. He suffered trauma that didn't simply disappear upon his release, trauma that ultimately led to his committing suicide two years later. 

For Hawk Newsome, too, the personal is political. He shared his experiences as a paralegal and as a liaison to the police, where he heard cop after cop say that running was not simply an indicator of guilt (which I, among many others, would dispute) but an act giving the cops a license to dole out an “ass beating.” Hawk did not last long in this position. He reflected that people with whom he worked, people who respected and liked him during the day at the office, feared and hated him outside of work due to a simple change of scenery (the South Bronx) and clothing (a hoodie). That inspired much of his activism, including his launching of the Black Lives Caucus, which mobilizes behind candidates that actually work for people of color. 

Both James and Hawk expressed anger at the criminal INjustice system, as James calls it, but James also expressed grief. He fears for his son, and he has a huge heart. No one who has ever heard him speak on this topic could doubt it. It brings tears to his eyes every time. 

James also expressed exasperation at our current elected officials. He reminded the audience that Mayor De Blasio campaigned on ending Stop and Frisk, but then brought back Bill Bratton, the architect of Broken Windows Policing, immediately after he won the election. This is particularly perplexing, as De Blasio, too, has a black son. We don't need more De Blasios in office, more smoke and mirrors and lies. We need someone brave enough to tell the truth and empathetic enough to shed tears in the face of oppression and brutality, in particular as our Public Advocate. Not someone who prays for police, but someone who prays for mothers and fathers whose children have been murdered by cops, cops who will never serve a day in prison.

But James offers more than empathy and a strong moral compass. He understands that institutionalized racism doesn't begin and end with policing. As he exhorted, “if we're talking about police brutality and we're not talking about housing, jobs, healthcare, and education, then we're not talking about anything.”

You can read more about James Lane (and sign up to volunteer or donate) at www.votejameslane.org

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James Lane & Bonnie (@libbyliberal) Keyes.


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