Monday, June 21, 2010

My Two Cents

Well readers, it is my birthday and what better way to spend the day than discussing the insidious marriage of racism and sexism?

I expect by now all of you have heard about the incident in Seattle in which a young woman was punched in the face by a police officer and some bystander caught the whole sordid event on videotape. Here is said video:

And here is the first article I read about it from Komo News. Don't read the comments there, seriously. It is not a productive endeavor.

There is not much I can say that hasn't been said about about this already. Melissa at Shakesville wrote a good piece about it and the comments section there is also a must read. They did a great job of weeding out trolls and racists and I think the discussion was really interesting. Today I also read a great piece by Latoya at Racialicious. She noted something that I mentioned in an argument with a friend about this as well.

As a teacher in a Chicago Public School, I often faced students who were angry with me or in general, I often saw students behave in ways that were out of control and there were even times when I feared for my own safety. I once had a student get in my face and scream at me that she hated me. But it never, ever crossed my mind to hit this child. Even though she was as tall as me and probably stronger and even though she looked like she might hit me, I never touched her. Teachers cannot hit their students. It is not permitted. Even when a student might well hurt you or did touch you, you cannot hit a student.

As Latoya said, this is because of the power dynamic that is at play in a school, especially one where all of the students are black and many of the teachers are white. This makes it even more vitally important that teachers never hurt their students. How is a student to learn, to feel safe and supported, in an environment where their physical safety is threatened by the very people put there to protect them? The answer is that they don't and that is why teachers must not use violence in their classrooms.

This same sort of logic is somehow absent when it comes to police protection. The people that I have argued so fiercely with about this incident believe that the officer had some sort of right to protect himself but they fail to recognize that he had all of the power in this situation, he could have done many things to deescalate this situation and he chose not to. He chose not to call for back up when he was surrounded by people who were seemingly hostile. He chose not to just let it go because he wasn't equipped to handle it alone. A friend argued that if he let it go others would think it is okay to jaywalk, to which I say, fine. He was not equipped to do much else and the girls (and yes, they were girls, 19 and 17) did not pose a danger to anyone. They had committed a minor traffic violation and did not possess any weapons.

I understand this girl's immediate apprehension about being stopped by an officer in the first place and her desire to flee, that is what Latoya discussed so well in her piece.
"Police are all over the city, but are reluctant to respond to crime calls in certain precincts…it’s a recipe for mistrust. In order for the police to do the best work in our communities, the relationships cannot be adversarial. Harassing people over non-violent offenses (like the jaywalking charge that led to the punching situation) is a bad use of that discretion, and one that erodes community trust."
We are in bad shape when the people who are hired by the community to protect said community are inflicting harm like this onto certain citizens at their "discretion" in the name of protection. Who was this officer protecting?

Alas, all of this has been said in the links I provided. What I really wanted to talk about here is the sexual undertone of this exchange. I brought it up in the comments section at Shakesville and I wasn't sure if it was just me, maybe I am too sensitive, maybe I look for things, etc. But others noticed it too.

That he punched her in the face is bad enough, it is obviously violent and totally uncalled for. Police have much better ways of restraining people. What bothered me just as much is the way he threw the other girl back onto the cop car and pressed himself on her, she managed to wriggle herself free and he held her arms back and groped her body to the point of actually pulling her shirt up and exposing her bra. And as bad is when he threw her down on the police car with his crotch pressed firmly against her bottom and held her down as she struggled. You could see the fear and terror on her face as this escalated and she could not get him to stop touching her. It did not look to me like she was trying to hurt him, only that she was trying to get out of his grip.

Her pleas to get him to stop touching her fell on deaf ears. The overall effect was eerily similar to sexual assault. I am sure plenty of people will say that was not his intention, I believe he might even say he was not attempting to be sexual with her, but the video does not lie and I know what I saw. I think that video would be incredibly triggering to victims of sexual assault and I can very clearly see why.

Black bodies have a long history of exploitation at the hands of white bodies. I am left to wonder would this police officer have felt it appropriate to touch, manhandle even, the bodies of two white women in broad daylight with camera-wielding witnesses? I know that if he had touched me the way he touched her I would have reacted the exact same way. I cringe at the thought of being touched that way. I am so deeply sad for that girl because I can imagine all too well what that is like.

And as this was happening how many other women and men were standing there, not in any way posing a treat to this officer, idly watching as this woman was, in my estimation, being sexually harassed and physically assaulted at the hands of someone who is supposed to be protecting her. I would like to point out again, because it hasn't been done enough, that this is a child in the eyes of the law. She is 17 years old, she cannot vote, she cannot buy cigarettes, she cannot do a whole lot of things without her parents' permission and yet this officer didn't see fit to adjust his behavior or perhaps try a more age appropriated tactic (not that what he did is appropriate at any age).

I am reminded of a story a co-worker once told me. She was hanging around outside with some friends when she was a teenager. A police officer approached them to tell them to stop loitering. Being teenagers, they were less than acquiescent, so the officer grabbed her, pushed her against the police car and threatened to arrest her. She immediately started sobbing because she was afraid and she had done nothing wrong. The officer felt badly about it and let her go. That story was just one of many I have heard from friends, co-workers and classmates that just remind me constantly that the police represent something very different to black people than they do to white people; this video is just further evidence.

I think that anyone who wants to be a police officer should have to take the Implicit Association Test first.

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