Activists in front of the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, California. All photos by the author
“Maybe you shouldn’t just be obedient,” Reginald Jones-Sawyer, Sr. told the crowd. Instead of just teaching children to be meek and compliant with law enforcement, “maybe we should start teaching our young sons to ask for IDs—ask them to remember names and badge numbers" when they're stopped by police. Maybe we should all be more vigilant, he said.
“When you see our young people stopped, you stop and start recording what you see," he said. Let members of law enforcement know that their every move will be scrutinized. "Obviously," though, "with the flash off"—the police don't need another excuse to shoot.
I didn’t expect Jones-Sawyer, a Democratic member of the California State Assembly, to sound like such a firebrand when I first showed up to the hearing on police violence organized by the California and Hawaii chapters of the NAACP. He’s a politician and his job is to legislate, to diffuse community anger over out-of-control police by channeling it into non-binding resolutions and stern floor speeches. But speaking to me in the lobby of the California African American Museum in Los Angeles—after I assured him I do not work for a porn site—he said that what he really wants to do is “start a grassroots effort to combat [police brutality].”
Perhaps he wanted to reduce the expectation that one can solve the persistent problem of police violence against communities of color through the electoral system. To me, though, it sounded as if he was genuinely disturbed by the recent spate of police killings of unarmed black men, from Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to Ezell Ford and Omar Abrego in LA. It’s time, he said, for communities of color to go on the offensive.
“Right now, we’re acting like victims,” Jones-Sawyer told me. Indeed, he taught his own children to be passive around police to stay alive; to keep their hands at “ten o'clock and two o'clock on the steering wheel, look forward, don’t make any sudden moves.” But one day, he said, his oldest son challenged him: "Why's the responsibility on us to not get beaten and killed by police? Shouldn’t it be on the police to stop brutalizing us?"
His answer was glib, but not wrong: "Because you could die." But it did get him thinking.
“We need to stop that victim mentality and be more aggressive,” he now believes. That means not just teaching kids to be compliant, but to be vigilant; to not be meek in the face of injustice, to not stand by while a member of the community is victimized by members of law enforcement, so that “it becomes very difficult [for police] to behave that way”—so that they “know that the repercussions are going to come immediately, from anybody.”
“I don’t want to see another African-American father coming to a mic almost in tears because he’s had to train his son to be submissive during a traffic stop and he still gets arrested—and he still has a record,” he said.
LAPD Inspector General Alex Bustamante testifies at the hearing.
There were plenty of tears at the September 12 hearing on “Solutions to Police Brutality,” as Jones-Sawyer, members of the NAACP national board, and fellow Assembly member Steven Bradford heard testimony from people of color who said they have experienced firsthand the brutality of local police. A young Latina woman, for instance, spoke of an officer slamming her head against a wall and then jamming his knee in her back, leaving her with five slipped discs over what was a false arrest—one she was later charged with resisting.
Film producer Charles Belk recounted how, after dining at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, police there mistook him for a bank robber and arrested him while he was walking to his car. Despite his innocence, Belk had to spend thousands of dollars on legal fees to get that arrest off his record, which Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer told me has him considering introducing legislation to eliminate the cost of expunging a potentially career-killing false arrest.
“Officers used me as a punching bag,” another man testified. “This happened on the front lawn of my own home. It felt as if my innocence was taken,” he recalled. “How many times is this going to happen to us young black men before we as a community do something about it?”
One mother started sharing a similar story involving her son being brutalized, but wiping tears from her eyes, lost her voice 30 seconds in.
The stories painted a picture of LA police gone wild, but they were all anecdotes, and ultimately, apologists for police brutality could dismiss them as such. Unfortunately, hard data on police violence is hard to come by—and not knowing the full extent of the problem makes it hard to adequately address it, argued Peter Bilbring, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “We know precisely how many shark attacks happen in American water,” he told the panel, “but we do not know how many civilians were shot by a United States law enforcement officer.”
So we can only guess. This much, however, is certain: Police in America are shooting to death a lot more people than police in any other developed nation. According to the FBI, there are about 400 “justifiable” police homicides annually in the US, though an effort to compile media reports on officer-involved killings indicates there are more than 1,100 people shot to death by police each year (that’s a 9/11 death toll every three years). In the last year for which there are records, police in Germany, a nation of 80 million, killed all of eight people. In Britain and Japan, with a combined population of 191 million, zero people were killed by members of law enforcement.
An effort to track homicides here in Los Angeles County, meanwhile, found that no criminal organization kills as many people as the police. Since 2000, members of local law enforcement have killed at least 589 people (the Los Angeles Times says 591)—or about one person every week—according to a new report from the Youth Justice Coalition, a grassroots organization run by and for young people of color who have been affected by state violence. Each year, from three to eight percent of all homicides are committed by members of the Los Angeles Police Department or the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office—and it’s only been getting worse.
“Law enforcement use of force resulting in death is higher now than when LA had twice many murders,” says the report, based on data from local media and the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office. Though the overall number of murders in 2013 was less than half the number in 2002, police killings—“officer-involved shootings,” in the agency-eliminating words of cops and journalists—rose from 36 to 44, or from three percent of homicides to seven percent. Though they make up less than ten percent of the population, nearly a third of those killed were Black.
The Youth Justice Coalition is petitioning California Attorney General Kamala Harris to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate police violence, arguing that local prosecutors depend too much on the cooperation of police for other investigations to properly investigate police wrongdoing.
That could be a good, practical first step, said Keyanna Celina of the Coalition for Community Control Over the Police, but that’s only a band-aid. What we need is more systemic change, she argued: an all-elected civilian board that can exercise complete control when it comes to hiring and firing members of local police departments, from the sheriff on down. “We want power in the hands of the people."
A lot of people applauded that line.
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