COLUMN-Less than human: Do some police take a step beyond simple prejudice?

by Reuters
Friday, 15 August 2014 23:23 GMT

(David Dante Troutt is a law professor at Rutgers Law School-Newark, where he is director of the Center on Law in Metropolitan Equity. He is the author of "The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality." The opinions expressed are his own.)

By David Dante Troutt

Aug 15 (Reuters) - When I tried to engage a friend in a conversation about the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, my friend wearily waved his hand for me to stop.

"Can't do it," he said politely. "It happens so often I'm inured to the pain. If I think too long about it I might just " His voice trailed off.

My friend is a black man. He is raising a black man. His response is one of three that tended to follow Saturday's tragic news. You can either protect yourself by neutralizing your rage, as he did. You can defend your community and your principles by protesting. Or you can look away entirely, inured to the sense that Brown's death is a sad but inevitable casualty of policing in poor black neighborhoods.

Because most Americans take that last approach - treating police brutality like a sad reminder of the ungovernable "Other" - many police departments have not yet done the work required to overcome these lethal routines.

But explosions like these reveal a persistent yet overlooked dehumanization of black (and often brown) young people, robbed of their innocence by the power of stereotype. As the escalating tension in Ferguson showed, we mustn't look away.

Some criminologists argue that there is a deep antagonism between cops and black and brown men that leads both to perceive the other as a constant threat, feeding a complicated intergroup conflict. For police, it may be fueled by a sense that they represent the last line of defense for the rest of us.

But the death accounts of unarmed black men often demonstrate something more basic at work in brutality cases: The victim was somehow perceived as less than fully human.

Both accounts of the Brown shooting suggest this. In the first, the St. Louis County police chief stated that Brown was shot after assaulting a police officer. Brown struggled for the officer's gun inside the car, and was shot.

This version presumes a lack of sense on Brown's part that only squares if you buy into a stereotype of wildly aggressive black men, one minute walking calmly down the middle of the street with a friend, the next risking life to take on an armed cop. In it, he willingly trades his innocence and acts like the criminal the officer suspects him of being.

Perhaps it happened as the chief said. We still don't know. But it would be a pretty incredible decision to make for a young man walking to his grandmother's house and bound for college in two days.

By several accounts, Brown was shot multiple times. The police referred to bullets when they released some information about his autopsy. His bloody corpse lay across the street's yellow lines for some time. Police prevented even his father from touching him.

More credible than the official version is the one presented by Brown's friend, Dorian Johnson. Johnson was the picture of the young black male stereotype, wearing a white tank top over sagging pants, two-tone dreadlocks and tattoos across his neck. The officer's "exact words were get the f-k on the sidewalk," Johnson told reporters soon after the event.

Police brutality can be a spectrum of behaviors from verbal to physical. Johnson's introduction to the incident shows how events can escalate, beginning with a police officer's casual obscenities - verbal arrows of contempt that set the tone for the encounter.

Accounts from many of the black and brown New Yorkers detained under stop-and-frisk policies routinely describe being insulted and manhandled before being let go. From epithets, to grabbing, to excessive force, to lethal force, for some cops the black suspect is a ready candidate because he is not presumed innocent. Add in policies that make encounters more likely - including broken-windows policing for minor infractions such as jaywalking or cigarette peddling - and you have a tinder box.

Johnson, articulate and using the language of seasoned prosecutors, continued his account. The officer's "weapon was drawn, and he said, 'I'll shoot you'In the same moment, the first shot went off." Interrupting his forensic diction, Johnson said he watched in horror as "Big Mike" stopped moving, vomited in his own mouth and ran for his life.

We often equate the disproportionate incidence of police use of excessive force on black and Hispanic men with prejudice. While prejudice may play a role, what if the bigger problem is dehumanization?

According to a recent study by a team of social psychologists from some of the nation's top universities, dehumanization of black children occurs in two primary ways. First, they are perceived as older than white children. Researchers who studied the reactions of college students and active police officers found that white children's ages were usually guessed correctly, but black children's were wrong by almost five years. Thirteen-year-old black kids were routinely mistaken for 18-year-olds.

Second, black children were perceived as more culpable for crimes - that is, less innocent and therefore vulnerable to adult-like treatment. When we don't view children as childlike, we more readily punish them like adults.

The final wrinkle of this study, however, is the most troubling. The researchers showed that many of us harbor unconscious stereotypes of blacks as animal-like, with particular associations to apes. Black soccer players are commonly taunted by European fans as being monkey-like. Several racist cartoons of President Barack Obama also chose monkeys -- a common theme since Jim Crow days. People who still carry this association around are also more likely to dehumanize black children. Police officer subjects who maintained this association had demonstrated histories of using excessive force against black suspects more frequently, according to the study.

It must always be acknowledged that whatever one's unconscious views, most cops work hard and do not engage in unprofessional conduct, let alone crimes. But dehumanization of blacks was on full display by at least one Ferguson police officer in a CNN report that recorded him shouting at protesters, "Bring it! All you f*cking animals! Bring it! I don't give a f*ck."

If police brutality occurs along a spectrum of contempt for black life, so does dehumanization. Johnson and the other witness accounts that say the officer fired multiple shots into a surrendering teenager may represent only the graphic flashpoint of a trajectory long sustained in metropolitan St. Louis.

The city's history of dehumanization through systematic segregation and the devaluation of black communities over seven or eight decades is told by historian Colin Gordon. He maps in meticulous detail the variety of land-use techniques that segregated blacks into just a few red-lined neighborhoods in St. Louis, while ensuring disinvestment where they lived.

Racial, exclusionary zoning and discrimination by realtors coded the very presence of blacks as less-than-acceptable people, and institutionalized the dehumanization of black neighbors. Heavily restricted housing markets not only brought material disadvantage to generations of area African-Americans, but also a landscape of racial hierarchy. This essentially sent a message, familiar to white residents of many similar metropolitan areas, that theirs were communities that mattered - and blacks' were not.

Most explicitly discriminatory restrictions are gone now. But the ensuing decades have not yet brought blacks equal material opportunity or desegregated residential areas.

Ferguson today is an example of rapid racial change. Its population of 21,000 is about two-thirds black, one-third white, with whites fleeing steadily since 1980 when the census recorded their numbers at 85 percent. It is an "inner-ring" suburb, the not-so-new frontier for place-based inequality. Lower-middle and working-class blacks moved from the inner city to populate older suburbs once denied them, as whites and the tax base continue to disappear.

Government, however, hasn't kept up with these shifting demographics. Despite the black majority, whites still hold overwhelming control of city government, the school board and police department - where all but three of 53 officers are white. Government studies of racial profiling have recently shown that black youths in metro St. Louis are disproportionately singled out by cops.

As the chaotic aftermath of Brown's shooting shows, the natural response to a sense of being dehumanized is to stand up and assert one's full worth. Though the brief looting was problematic, the protests had begun as largely peaceful - and persistent. So close to the loss, the members of that community cannot adopt my friend's resignation. They keep insisting that they matter. If they do not, they risk the despair Brown's mother expressed.

"You took my son away from me," Lesley McSpadden told reporters. "Do you know how hard it was to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don't got nothing to live for anyway. 'They're going to try to take me out, anyway.' "

Unfortunately, the Ferguson police reaction to the community's reaction is revealing even more about the effects of dehumanization. The police brought overwhelming force to bear. Armored up in tanks and riot gear, firing tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets, the police of this small town have somehow found the military-grade weapons of a full-scale war and are pointing them at protesters and journalists, who by press accounts, are mostly peaceful.

By Wednesday night, no elected official had stepped forward to set rules, to explain the process, to lead the situation out of mayhem. The political silence together with the police overkill creates an old danger on new turf: the fading of Jim Crow justice, even as the muscle is still there. Yes, the police are in control. Yet they don't seem to know what to do here.

One danger is that police may sense that the anger is not just about what happened to Brown. They may be concerned that many local citizens - multiple "Mike Browns" - are reacting to a pent-up feeling and stepping out in defiance, while the police are ramping up in anticipation and could act a lot like the one did to Brown. It's a combustible chaos.

Brown's death reflects so much still undone in our effort to build a more perfect union. In fact, police brutality is not quite what it was in 1991 when Rodney King was savagely beaten by several Los Angeles police officers. Cops now often face real consequences, including prosecution by local district attorneys - which was once unheard of. The Justice Department, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently made clear, stands as more than a hollow threat for bringing civil rights charges.

Still, change is too slow. Deaths like Brown's should not feel like a ritual but a rarity.

As another large, unarmed black man said four weeks ago to several New York City police officers who surrounded him on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes, "This stops today."

Minutes later, Eric Garner died from a police chokehold. (David Dante Troutt)

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