Op-Alt: Police violence against black people is a systemic problem

Op-Alt: Police violence against black people is a systemic problem
A group of about 50 marched from Martin Luther King Blvd. and Pennsylvania Ave. to downtown and back again on Saturday evening as part of Operation Shut It Down, organized by Gary Johnson and Terry Simms. (Tedd Henn)

I think most black people in America understand that any interaction they have with police could be their last.

It's ingrained in many of us at a young age that cops can end your life as they see fit, and it's not hard to find examples of this being the case. Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice are just a few of the names of the hundreds of African-Americans killed by police in recent years.


We're taught by our parents to be respectful to police, to obey any orders they give, and to never make any sudden movements around them. These lessons often stem from their past experiences, and are usually given to us when we are too young to fully comprehend the larger implications of them. We adjust our behavior, thinking that will give them no reason to stop us. We cling to the hope that if we follow these unwritten rules we'll be fine. It's a coping mechanism, and it gives us a false sense of control. In the back of our minds though, we know there's overwhelming evidence that it won't work.

According to a recent report from The Washington Post, African-Americans are 2.5 times as likely as whites to be fatally shot by police, despite the fact they represent less than 20 percent of this country's population. This violence against black people in America is a systemic problem, and it exists even when it's not being broadcast on national news channels.

I remember growing up hearing countless stories from people close to me about negative interactions they had with police. It was always trivial things—like being in the "wrong" neighborhood, or traveling in too large of a group—that led to harassment by police. I always knew that police harassing black people like this was wrong, but I also knew it didn't take much for an unpleasant encounter with police to change from inconvenient to fatal.

So I always kept these stories in mind whenever I was outside, because I understood that as a black male the burden of avoiding even the appearance of wrongdoing is placed on you. I behaved in ways I believed would not attract negative police attention. I didn't travel in large groups, I didn't hang out in front of stores, and I stayed away from unfamiliar neighborhoods.

It didn't matter.

One day, I decided to go to the carryout near my high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, for an afterschool snack. I was in line waiting to order a slice of pizza when an officer burst into the place and asked me if I had a receipt.

I started to tell him that I was waiting in line, but before I could finish my sentence he yelled, "Get out!" I tried to explain again that I was waiting in line, which only made him angrier. The situation was escalating, and it became obvious to me how powerless I was in that moment. What was I going to do, call a cop? So I left.

That situation showed me firsthand exactly how little it takes for a black male to be profiled and harassed by police. A recent study conducted by Benenson Strategy Group for showed that 46 percent of African-Americans aged 18-34 reported having a negative interaction with the police. These aren't isolated events, and they speak to a pattern of targeted policing that often has fatal results.

Last week Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two African-American men, were shot and killed by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively. The graphic videos of their final moments captured nationwide attention, much like previous videos of African-Americans being killed by police have.

Coverage of police killings of black people in America follows a traumatic formula. First the killing happens, and hashtags of the victim's name circulate online. Then the news outlets report on it (usually showing video footage of the incident), people offer theories about what happened, transgressions from the victim's past are used to justify their murders, pundits use the tragedy to further their own agendas, videos of the victim's grieving family are constantly replayed, press conferences are held, and internal investigations are carried out. These incidents become media spectacles that are repeated too often, each time featuring a new name and a new city.

It's an emotionally devastating cycle that needs to end.