Blacks and law enforcement, a complicated relationship

Op-ed: Too often blacks are seen as unrelentingly averse to law enforcement.

It happened like this: Last Friday a man wielding knives in a threatening way in Waverly was shot by two police officers responding to a 911 call. That sparked unrest among those who saw or heard some version of what happened. So folks, including a woman with an infant, protested the next day at the site of the shooting. But in the middle of all that, the child became alarmingly ill. Who comes to her aid? The police — specifically, Major Richard Gibson, who was nearby and performed CPR.

In some quarters this has become an opportunity to wag fingers, saying, "You black folks hate cops, but you still run to them when you are in trouble." Wrong interpretation.

People are not one-dimensional, despite the fact that politicians and advertisers thrive on fitting us neatly into boxes that suit their needs. President Barack Obama has observed that "protest and love of country don't merely co-exist but inform each other." You might substitute "respect for police" for "love of country" here. I will decry injustice at the drop of a hat. I will also just as quickly give credit where credit is due, as did Duane "Shorty" Davis, a well-known thorn in the side of miscreant police. He shook Major Gibson's hand and, as reported in City Paper, said, "I appreciate you."

Too often blacks are seen as unrelentingly averse to law enforcement, though like other Americans we have police and military folks in our families. The story is complicated.

Policing grew out of patrolling to keep enslaved people in line, to thwart their natural desire for freedom. There's a tangled history that stretches from the 13th Amendment, which outlaws slavery and servitude "except as a punishment for crime," and the general criminalization of black bodies. If you don't believe me, check out Ava Duvernay's powerful documentary 13th and see how words like "law and order" and "tough on crime" and "war on drugs" are heard by many blacks as coded messages for the opposite of, say, "black is beautiful."

We see disparity in sentencing for cocaine based on the type of drug preferred by blacks and that by whites. A few years ago, the ACLU reported that in Baltimore blacks were more than five times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, though usage was about the same among them. Recent findings of the Department of Justice about the unconstitutional behavior of the Baltimore Police Department merely affirmed what many of us have long known. As reported in this newspaper: "Police practices in Baltimore 'perpetuate and fuel a multitude of issues rooted in poverty and race, focusing law enforcement actions on low-income, minority communities' and encourage officers to have 'unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members,' the report said."

And yet the desire to protect and serve beats no less in the hearts of black and brown people. We fight to join police — and fire — departments. It took a concerted campaign before the Baltimore Police Department hired its first black officers in 1937. Decades later, it was a matter of race pride in the U.S. when Bishop Robinson became Baltimore's first black police commissioner. The news was right there in Jet magazine on page 37 in the July 9, 1984, issue of the then-weekly publication.

The desire to be safe is also strong — and that means taking steps to rid our neighborhoods of criminals, despite the prevalence of a countervailing "don't snitch" culture. Even ex-cons want to be safe, as one told me at Freddie Gray's wake last year. He said he would not hesitate to call cops for help. On the other hand, many of my students at Morgan State University say they would never call cops for help because they have seen the consequences of trigger-happy officers who view too many black people — irrespective of age, gender or infirmity — as threats. In both instances, the concern is safety.

Given all this history of malevolent and misguided policies, the more police and those they serve get to know each other, the better off we will be. T.J. Smith, the chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, can tick off all sorts of meet-and-greets and fun interactions between police and civilians. Police may also be seen at community forums like one that's scheduled for Wednesday night in West Baltimore at The Open Church of Maryland, a church I attend.

We are ultimately on the same side: We want justice. We want safety. Sometimes protest is a last option to assure either.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email:

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