“Why is this happening?” — an Introduction to Police Brutality from 100 Year Hoodie

Police Brutality Isn’t New, Cameras Are

Today we spend the hour with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of an explosive new book about white supremacy and being black in America. Titled “Between the World and Me,” it is written as a letter to his teenage son, Samori. In July, Ta-Nehisi Coates launched the book in his hometown of Baltimore. He spoke at the historic Union Baptist Church. “It seems like there’s a kind of national conversation going on right now about those who are paid to protect us, who sometimes end up inflicting lethal harm upon us,” Coates said. “But for me, this conversation is old, and I’m sure for many of you the conversation is quite old. It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new.”  Watch here.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we spend the hour with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of an explosive new book about white supremacy and being black in America. It’s called Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his teenage son, Samori. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. He received the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations.” His book, Between the World and Me, is called “required reading” by Toni Morrison. She writes, quote, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

Well, in July, Ta-Nehisi Coates launched his book in his hometown of Baltimore. He spoke at the historic Union Baptist Church.

TA-NEHISI COATES: This book proceeded from a notion, and there are a couple of main notions that are really at work here. And one of the dominant ideas in the book, Between the World and Me, which is, you know, effectively an extended essay told in a letter form to my son, is the notion of fear, because I think like when people think about African-American communities, there are a lot of things that come to mind, but one of the things that does not come to mind, I think, enough in the mainstream conversation is simply how afraid we are of our bodies, how afraid we are for our children, how afraid we are for our loved ones, on a daily basis. And, you know, I understood this as a very, very young person, as I talk about it in the book. You know, from my earliest memories, I was talking to Dad about this a little while ago, and I think about my first memories, my first memories of going—my first coherent memories of going with my mother and father to see Marshall “Eddie” Conway in prison, and understanding that there are black men—you know, are in prison. That was like my first memory. He had done something, or somebody accused him of something. Something had happened where he did not have the full freedom and control of his body, and that was something that happened to people who look like me, even though I didn’t quite understand how and why that happened.

And then, as you grow up in the community, and you have to go out into the world and navigate—you know, I’ve said this several times in many places—you know, I have my memories of going to middle school here in Baltimore, and I think about how much of my mental space was possessed with keeping my body safe, how much of it dealt with how I was dressed, who I was walking with, what neighborhood I was walking through, once I got to school how I conducted myself in the school, and not so much in such a way that would be obedient to my teachers, but in a way that would keep me safe from the amount of violence. I mean, I was talking in this interview the other day; I was saying that any sort of policy that you think about in this country that has to do with race ultimately comes back, for black folks, to securing our bodies, the physical safety of our body. And so we have these kind of high and abstract debates about, you know, affirmative action. And in the minds of certain people, we think those conversations are literally just about “Is my kid going to get into Harvard or not?” But behind that, for us, as black people, is a conversation of “Is my kid going to be able to have the means to live in a neighborhood where he or she walks outside the house and they’re not looking over their shoulder, and they’re not watching their back, and they’re not—they don’t have to do the sort of things that I have to do, the threat of violence is always there?”

Now, one of the horrifying things—and this is what, you know, I’m going to read about tonight—even for those of us who escape those neighborhoods, even for those of us who make it somewhere and are able to do something and live in better places, the threat never quite leaves us, because once we’re no longer afraid of the neighborhood, it turns out we actually have to have some fear for the very people we pay taxes to protect us. And that’s what we’ve been hearing about for the past year over this country. We’ve been seeing a lot of that. And it seems like there’s a kind of national conversation going on right now about those who are paid to protect us, who sometimes end up inflicting lethal harm upon us. But for me, this conversation is old, and I’m sure for many of you the conversation is quite old. It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new. We are not in the midst of a new wave of anything. We’re, you know, in a new technological wave, you know? And this is not unprecedented. You know, the sort of violence that folks saw in the 1960s, in Selma, for instance, or on Bloody Sunday, that sort of violence was not, in fact, actually new. That’s what white supremacy, what racism is. It is an act of violence. What was new was the cameras. There was certain technology that was able to take that into the living rooms of America. And we’re going through a similar thing right now, but the violence is not new.

When I think about the first time I really, really became aware of this, beyond theory, it was in the instance of the killing of a good friend of mine—a friend of mine, I should say to clarify our relationship, a friend of mine by the name of Prince Jones, who I went to Howard University with.

As a brief aside, when you write things, they’re forced to become abstract, or when you interview people, they become abstract. And then, whenever you’re forced to talk about them, they immediately become real, and all the emotions that you feel about those people come back. I’m going to try to control myself here.

Prince Jones was a fellow student of mine at Howard University. He was a tall, beautiful young man. He hailed from a prosperous family, a family that had not always been prosperous. His mother, you know, was the child of sharecroppers, had worked her way up through life out of poverty in Louisiana and had risen to become a prominent radiologist.

Prince was in Prince George’s County, Maryland, driving. It was late at night. He had just dropped off his young daughter. He was going to see his fiancée. And he was in a jeep, an SUV. The SUV he was in was being followed, as it turned out, by the police, the Prince George’s County police. And I’m in Baltimore, so you guys know about the reputation of the Prince George’s County police; I don’t need to give any sort of lectures on that. The gentleman who was following him had come to work that night as an undercover police officer and had dressed up as a drug dealer, so he was, you know, literally dressed as a criminal, to appear as a criminal. He was in an unmarked car. He thought Prince Jones was someone else who he was supposed to be doing surveillance on. He tracked Prince Jones from Prince George’s County, Maryland, through Washington, D.C., and into Fairfax, Virginia, where, as far as I’m concerned, he effectively executed him. In the story he tells, because he’s the only witness—and, you know, he’s the only person whose version of events we actually have—the story he tells is that once they got to Fairfax, they got into a dark cul-de-sac, and Prince rammed his car. And he said before Prince rammed his car, he got out of the car, and he pulled a gun on Prince, and he identified himself as a police officer, but he didn’t produce his badge. By his own admission, he didn’t produce his badge. By his testimony, Prince got back in the car, into his truck, and rammed the guy, the police officer’s car, and the police officer shot and killed him.

This happened in 2000. I believe my son was about a month old at that point. You know, you talk about fears for, like, bringing a black child into the world, like it was immediately real. You know, it was just suddenly like so visceral, like right there. And the most terrifying thing for me was when I thought about, like, myself. Like, I couldn’t distance myself from what Prince had done, even in the version of events as given by the officer, whether they’re true or not. Even in, you know, the most sympathetic version of events given by the officer, I could not distance myself from whatever actions Prince Jones had taken in that case. I had to imagine myself followed through three jurisdictions by somebody who did not identify themself as a police officer, who was literally dressed to appear as a criminal. And I had to think about all the fears that I had to have, you know, as I was going through the neighborhood here in Baltimore and all the fears that Prince must have had, going to visit my fiancée and worrying about her, and seeing this dude pull a gun out on me and claim to be a police. Well, I don’t know if you’re a police officer. And once I got into his shoes, it was very, very easy for me to see myself how I could have been killed in much the same way. And this was horrifying. And so, for normal Americans, you know, once they rise up and get out of certain neighborhoods or go certain places, you know, they feel a kind of safety that black people never feel. Fear is one of the dominant emotions of the black experience. Fear. And it does—no amount of money you can earn can ever take you away from that. You can be president of the United States, and you can be afraid for your body. You can be the first lady of the United States, and you can be afraid for your body. You can be afraid for the bodies of your two little girls. It does not go away. There’s no escape from that.

Well, Prince’s story stayed with me for a number of years, and I wrote about it in little places, but I couldn’t get like his mom out of my head. I kept wondering, because I knew this woman had done all this, and I couldn’t get her out of my head, and I wondered, like, how she lived. I wondered how she carried that. And I reached out, and I made contact with her, and I was able to go see her. And so the portion of the book I’m going to read tonight tells the story about our conversation. As I said, Between the World and Me is written as a letter to my son, so all of the yous and all of the sort of, you know, things, it’s me addressing him, who is not here right now. He’s somewhere in the middle of Vermont right now. This story, you know, goes a lot of places. It goes to Howard University, goes to Paris, France. It moves quite a bit. But at this point, we’re at the end, and we’re trying to get some sort of resolution or some sort of conclusion on everything we’ve seen. So I’ll go ahead and read.

“In the years after Prince Jones died, I thought often of those who were left to make their lives in the shadow of his death. I thought of his fiancée and wondered what it meant to see the future upended with no explanation. I wondered what she would tell his daughter, and I wondered how his daughter would imagine her father, when she would miss him, how she would detail the loss. But mostly I wondered about Prince’s mother, and the question I mostly asked myself was always the same: How did she live? I searched for her phone number online. I emailed her. She responded. Then I called and made an appointment to visit. And living she was, just outside of Philadelphia in a small gated community of affluent homes. It was a rainy Tuesday when I arrived. I had taken the train in from New York and then picked up a rental car. I was thinking of Prince a lot in those months before. You, your mother, and I had gone to Homecoming at The Mecca, and so many of my friends were there, and Prince was not.

“Dr. Jones greeted me at the door. She was lovely, polite, brown. She appeared to be somewhere in that range between forty and seventy years, when it is difficult to precisely ascertain a black person’s precise age. She was”—whenever I read that in front of white people, nobody laughs. “She was well composed, given the subject of our conversation, and for most of the visit I struggled to separate how she actually felt from what I felt she must be feeling. What I felt, right then, was that she was smiling through pained eyes, that the reason for my visit spread sadness like a dark quilt over the whole house. I seem to recall music—jazz or gospel—playing in the back, but conflicting with that I also remember a deep quiet overcoming everything. I thought that perhaps she had been crying. I could not tell for sure. She led me into her large living room. There was no one else in the house. It was early January. Her Christmas tree was still standing at the end of the room, and there were stockings bearing the name of her daughter and her lost son, and there was a framed picture of him—Prince Jones—on a display table. She brought me water in a heavy glass. She drank tea. She told me that she was born and raised outside Opelousas, Louisiana, that her ancestors had been enslaved in that very same region, and that as a consequence of that enslavement, a great fear echoed down through the ages. ‘It first became clear when I was four,’ she told me.


My mother and I were going into the city. We got on the Greyhound bus. I was behind my mother. She wasn’t holding my hand at the time and I plopped down in the first seat I found. A few minutes later my mother was looking for me and she took me to the back of the bus and explained why I couldn’t sit there. We were very poor, and most of the black people around us, who I knew were poor also, and the images I had of white America were from going into the city and seeing who was behind the counter in the stores and seeing who my mother worked for. It became clear that there was a distance.


“This chasm makes itself known to us in all kinds of ways. A little girl wanders home, at age seven, after being teased in school and asks her parents, ‘Are we niggers and what does this mean?’ Sometimes it is subtle—the simple observation of who lives where and works what jobs and who does not. Sometimes it is all at once. I have never asked you how you became personally aware of the distance. Was it Michael Brown? I don’t think I want to know. But I know that it has happened to you already, that you have deduced that you are privileged and yet still different from other privileged children, because you are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country. What I want you to know is that it is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility. It is your responsibility because you are surrounded by the Dreamers. It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair. The breach is as intentional as policy, as intentional as the forgetting that follows. The breach allows for the efficient sorting of the plundered from the plunderers, the enslaved from the enslavers, sharecroppers from landholders, cannibals from food.

“Dr. Jones was reserved. She was what people once referred to as ‘a lady,’ and in that sense reminded me of my grandmother, who was a single mother in the projects but always spoke as though she had nice things. And when Dr. Jones described her motive for escaping the dearth that marked the sharecropper life of her father and all the others around her, when she remembered herself saying, ’I’m not going to live like this,’ I saw the iron in her eyes, and I remembered the iron in my grandmother’s eyes. You must barely remember her by now—you were six when she died. I remember her, of course, but by the time I knew her, her exploits—how, for instance, she scrubbed white people’s floors during the day and went to school at night—were legend. But I still could feel the power and the rectitude that propelled her out of the projects and into homeownership.

“It was the same power I felt in the presence of Dr. Jones. When she was in second grade, she and another child made a pact that they would both become doctors, and she held up her end of the bargain. But first she integrated the high school in her town. At the beginning she fought the white children who insulted her. At the end they voted her class president. She ran track. It was ‘a great entrée,’ she told me, but it only brought her so far into their world. At football games the other students would cheer the star black running back, and then when a black player on the other team got the ball, they’d yell, ‘Kill that nigger! Kill that nigger!’ They would yell this sitting right next to her, as though she really were not there. She gave Bible recitations as a child and she told me the story of her recruitment into this business. Her mother took her to audition for the junior choir. Afterward the choir director said, ‘Honey, I think you should talk.’ She was laughing lightly now, not uproariously, still in control of her body. I felt that she was warming up. As she talked of the church, I thought of your grandfather, the one you know, and how his first intellectual adventures were found in the recitation of Bible passages. I thought of your mother, who did the same. And I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.

“She went to college on full scholarship. She went to med school at Louisiana State University. She served in the Navy. She took up radiology. She did not then know any other black radiologists. I assumed that this would have been hard on her, but she was insulted by the assumption. She could not acknowledge any discomfort, and she did not speak of herself as remarkable, because it conceded too much, because it sanctified tribal expectation when the only expectation that mattered should be rooted in an assessment of Mable Jones. And by those lights, there was nothing surprising in her success, because Mable Jones was always pedal to the floor, not over or around, but through, and if she was going to do it, it must be done to death. Her disposition toward life was that of an elite athlete who knows the opponent is dirty and the refs are on the take, but also knows that the championship is one game away.

“She called her son—Prince Jones—’Rocky’ in honor of her grandfather, who went by ‘Rock.’ I asked about his childhood, because the fact is that I had not known Prince all that well. He was among the people I would be happy to see at a party, whom I would describe [to] a friend as ‘a good brother,’ though I could not really account for his comings and goings. So she sketched him for me so that I might better understand. She said that he once hammered a nail into an electrical socket and shorted out the entire house. She said that he once dressed himself in a suit and tie, got down on one knee, and sang ‘Three Times a Lady’ to her. She said that he’d gone to private school his entire life—schools filled with Dreamers—but he made friends wherever he went, in Louisiana and later in Texas. I asked her how his friends’ parents treated her. ‘By then I was the chief of radiology at the local hospital,’ she said. ‘And so they treated me with respect.’ She said this with no love in her eye, coldly, as though she were explaining a mathematical function.

“Like his mother, Prince was smart. In high school he was admitted to a Texas magnet school for math and science, where students acquire college credit. Despite the school drawing from a state with roughly the population of Angola, Australia, or Afghanistan, Prince was the only black child. I asked Dr. Jones if she had wanted him to go to Howard. She smiled and said, ‘No.’ And then she added, ’It’s so nice to be able to talk about this.’ This relaxed me a little, because I could think of myself as something more than an intrusion. I asked where she had wanted him to go for college. She said, ‘Harvard. And if not Harvard, Princeton. And if not Princeton, Yale. And if not Yale, Columbia. And if not Columbia, Stanford. He was that caliber of student.’ But like at least one third of all the students who I knew who came to Howard, Prince was tired of having to represent to other people. These Howard students were not like me. They were the children of the Jackie Robinson elite, whose parents rose up out of the ghettos, and the sharecropping fields, went out into the suburbs, only to find that they carried the mark with them and they could not escape. Even when they succeeded, as so many of them did, they were singled out, made examples of, transfigured into parables of diversity. They were symbols and markers, never children or young adults. And so they come to Howard to be normal—and even more, to see how broad the black normal really is.

“Prince did not apply to Harvard, nor Princeton, nor Yale, nor Columbia, nor Stanford. He only wanted The Mecca. I asked Dr. Jones if she regretted Prince choosing Howard. She gasped. It was as though I had pushed too hard on a bruise. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I regret that he is dead.’

“She said this with great composure and greater pain. She said this with all of the odd poise and direction that the great American injury demands of you. Have you ever taken a hard look at those pictures from the sit-ins in the ’60s, a hard, serious look? Have you ever looked at the faces? The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion. They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything ever known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real. Or perhaps it is not armor at all. Perhaps it is life extension, a kind of loan allowing you to take the assaults heaped upon you now and pay down the debt later. Whatever it is, that same look I see in those pictures, noble and vacuous, that was the look I saw in Mable Jones. It was in her sharp brown eyes, which welled but did not break. She held so much under her control, and I was sure the days since her Rocky was plundered, since her lineage was robbed, had demanded nothing less.

“And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best—it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, it is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaking at the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore on the launch of his new best-seller, Between the World and Me, a book that’s based on a letter to his teenage son. We come back to the speech in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we go back to the speech of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the best-selling author whose new book is called Between the World and Me, based on a letter to his teenage son. He was speaking at the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore.

TA-NEHISI COATES: “Dr. Jones was asleep when the phone rang. It was 5 A.M. and on the phone was a detective telling her she should drive to Washington. Rocky was in the hospital. Rocky had been shot. She drove with her daughter. She was sure he was still alive. She paused several times as she explained this to me. She went directly to the ICU. Rocky was not there. A group of men with authority—doctors, lawyers, detectives, perhaps—took her into a room and told her he was gone. She paused again. She did not cry. Composure was too important now.

“’It was unlike anything I had felt before,’ she told me. ‘It was extremely physically painful. So much so that whenever a thought of him would come to mind, all I could do was pray and ask for mercy. I thought I was going to lose my mind and go crazy. I felt sick. I felt like I was dying.’

“I asked if she expected that the police officer who had shot Prince would be charged. She said, ‘Yes.’ Her voice was a cocktail of emotions. She spoke like an American, with the same expectations of fairness, even fairness belated and begrudged, that she took into medical school all those years ago. And she spoke like a black woman, with all the pain that undercuts those exact feelings.

“I now wondered about her daughter, who’d been recently married. There was a picture on display of this daughter and her new husband. Dr. Jones was not optimistic. She was intensely worried about her daughter bringing a son into America, because she could not save him, she could not secure his body from the ritual violence that claimed her son. She compared America to Rome. She said she thought the glory days of this country had long ago passed, and even those glory days were sullied, because they had been built on the bodies of others. ‘And we can’t get the message,’ she said. ‘We don’t understand that we are embracing our deaths.’

“I asked Dr. Jones if her mother was still alive. She told me her mother passed away in 2002, at the age of eighty-nine. I asked Dr. Jones how her mother had taken Prince’s death, and her voice retreated into an almost-whisper, and Dr. Jones said, ‘I don’t know that she did.’

“She alluded to 12 Years a Slave. ‘There he was,’ she said, speaking of Solomon Northup. ‘He had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It’s all it takes.’ And then she talked again of all that she had, through great industry, through unceasing labor, acquired in the long journey from grinding poverty. She spoke of how her children had been raised in the lap of luxury—annual ski trips, jaunts off to Europe. She said that when her daughter was studying Shakespeare in high school, she took her daughter to England. And when her daughter got her license at sixteen, a Mazda 626 was waiting out front. I sensed some connection to this, some desire to give and the raw poverty of her youth. I sensed that it was all as much for her as it was for her children. She said that Prince had never taken to material things. He loved to read. He loved to travel. But when he turned twenty-three, she bought him a jeep. She had a huge purple bow put on it. She told me that she still could see him there, looking at the jeep and simply saying, Thank you. Without interruption she added, ‘And that was the jeep he was killed in.’

“After I left, I sat in the car for a few minutes. I thought of all that Prince’s mother had invested in him, and all that was lost. I thought of the loneliness that sent him to The Mecca, and how The Mecca, how we, could not save him, how we ultimately cannot save ourselves. I thought back on the sit-ins, the protestors with their stoic faces, the ones I’d once scorned for hurling their bodies at the worst things in life. Perhaps they had known something terrible about the world. Perhaps they so willingly parted with the security and sanctity of the black body because neither security nor sanctity existed in the first place. And all those old photographs from the 1960s, all those films I beheld of black people prostrate before clubs and dogs, were not shameful, indeed were not shameful at all—they were just true. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.

“You, Samori, you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of them coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live—and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home. The warmth of dark energies that drew me to The Mecca, that drew out Prince Jones, the warmth of our particular world, is beautiful, no matter how brief and breakable.

“I think back to our trip to Homecoming. I think back to the warm blasts rolling over us. We were at the football game. We were sitting in the bleachers with old friends and their children, caring for neither fumbles nor first downs. I remember looking toward the goalposts and watching a pack of alumni cheerleaders so enamored with Howard University that they donned their old colors and took out their old uniforms just a little bit so they’d fit. I remember them dancing. They’d shake, freeze, shake again, and when the crowd yelled ‘Do it! Do it! Dooo it!’ a black woman two rows in front of me, in her tightest jeans, stood and shook as though she was not somebody’s momma and the past twenty years had barely been a week. I remember walking down to the tailgate party without you. I could not bring you, but I have no problem telling you what I saw—the entire diaspora around me—hustlers, lawyers, Kappas, busters, doctors, barbers, Deltas, drunkards, geeks, and nerds. The DJ hollered into the mic. The young folks pushed toward him. A young man pulled out a bottle of cognac and twisted the cap. A girl with him smiled, tilted her head back, imbibed, laughed. And I felt myself disappearing into all of their bodies. The birthmark of damnation faded, and I could feel the weight of my arms and I could feel the heave in my breath and I was not talking then, because there was no point.

“That was a moment, a joyous moment, beyond their Dream—a moment imbued by a power more gorgeous than any voting rights bill. This power, this black power, originates in a view of the American galaxy taken from a dark and essential planet. Black power is the dungeon-side view of Monticello—which is to say, the view taken in struggle. And black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers—lost in their great reverie—feel it, for it is Billie that they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley is what they hum in love, and Dre is what they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying. We have made something down here. We have taken the one-drop rule of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. But we made ourselves into a people. Here at The Mecca, under the pain of selection, we have made a home. As do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, vials, and hopscotch squares. As do black people dancing it out at rent parties, as do black people at their family reunions where we are regarded like the survivors of catastrophe. As do black people toasting their cognac and German beers, passing their blunts and debating MCs. As do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon these shores.

“That was the love power that drew Prince Jones. The power is not just divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything—even the Dream, especially the Dream—really is. Sitting in that car I thought of Dr. Jones’s predictions of national doom. I had heard such predictions all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. When I left The Mecca, I knew that that was all too pat, and knowing that the Dreamers should reap what they had sown, we would reap it right along with them. Plunder has matured into habit, and habit into addiction; and the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, and then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy, it is a belief in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.

“Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion, a plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the body of black humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all of our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into their subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.

“I drove away from the house of Mable Jones thinking of all of this. I drove away, as always, thinking of you. I do not believe we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, struggle for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos. I saw these ghettos driving from Dr. Jones’s home. They were the same ghettos I had seen in Chicago all those years ago, the same ghettos where my mother was raised, where my father was raised. Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos—the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.”

Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, based on a letter to his teenage son. He was speaking on the launch of the book at the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore. If you’d like to get a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. When we come back, a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

The Militarization of Police Departments

Join PBS for a town hall conversation examining the militarization of police and the nation’s gun violence epidemic.

Armed in America: Police & Guns, a one-hour special event moderated by award-winning journalist Michel Martin, weekend host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” explores whether U.S. police forces are becoming increasingly militarized. Among those that participated in this conversation are William “Dub” Lawrence, former Sheriff of Davis County, Utah; Betty Taylor, former Winfield, Mo. Police Chief and SWAT Team Member; Alecia Phonesavanh, the mother of baby who was injured when a flash bang landed in his crib during a “no-knock” SWAT raid; Haiku, hip hop artist and activist; Anthony Batts, former Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department; Richard Beary, University of Central Florida Police Chief; Michael Foreman, former Orange County Police Chief and President of the Florida SWAT Association; and Susan Rahr, former King County Sheriff and current Director of the WA State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Watch Armed in America: Police & Guns, then share your thoughts below.

The Bond Between Police and Persecutors

To win his election campaign and oust the top state prosecutor in Omaha, Nebraska, Don Kleine first needed to secure the support of an influential group of voters.

Promising a return to “tough on crime” priorities, and attacking the incumbent county attorney’s new rehabilitative programs, Kleine clinched the endorsements of the region’s major police unions – and their thousands of dollars in election campaign contributions.

Ever since his 2006 victory, Kleine has relied on the officers of those unions to help him convict everyday criminals. Omaha officer Alvin Lugod, for instance, was called to appear as a prosecution witness a dozen times, according to records released by Kleine’s office.

Yet when Officer Lugod was facing possible criminal charges himself in February for fatally shooting an unarmed man in the back, Kleine saw no reason to step aside. Instead, the prosecutor oversaw a secret grand jury process that declined to indict his colleague.

The case was one of 217 this year where a police officer who killed someone was cleared of wrongdoing in a process led by a prosecutor who typically works alongside the officer’s department. The total represented 85% of all killings by police that were ruled justified in 2015, according to a Guardian analysis. This week, the police officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice last year in Cleveland, Ohio, was cleared in the same way.

Criminologists, civil liberties activists and lawmakers said the arrangements created serious conflicts of interest at the heart of the criminal justice system’s response to killings by police.

“Prosecutors work with police day in, day out, and typically they’re reluctant to criticise them or investigate them,” said Prof Samuel Walker of the University of Nebraska. Describing Lugod’s case as a cause for concern, Walker said: “A major change in our standard legal practice, and the structure of our criminal justice system, is required.”

In about one in three cases that were ruled justified, including Lugod’s, the criminal inquiry work was done by the officer’s own police department, meaning the evidence used to decide if an officer should be prosecuted was prepared by the officer’s co-workers. Only 12.5% of killings by police that were ruled justified in 2015 were handled completely independently.

Calls for reform have been intensified by unrest across the US following a series of controversial deaths over the past 16 months. Barack Obama’s White House policing taskforce recommended in May that regional authorities should allow independent or special prosecutors to handle killings by their police officers if they want “mutual trust between community and law enforcement”.

Kleine, the prosecutor in Omaha, oversaw the clearing of officers involved in four deaths in 2015 – more than any other district attorney in the US. Their cases only made it to Kleine’s desk because he successfully campaigned to scrap a decade-old state law that had barred him from taking charge when an officer in his own county killed someone, to avoid bias.

Legislators in more than a dozen states are now attempting to wrest responsibility for investigating deadly police incidents from local DAs and hand it to state-level or other special prosecutors. They argue that urgent action is needed to bring impartiality to the judicial system when officers of the state end someone’s life.

‘You’re gonna get shot!’

Danny Elrod brought the confrontation with Lugod on himself. One frosty evening in late February, Elrod approached the checkout at a Family Dollar store clutching some Slim Jim meat snacks. Then, the 39-year-old forcefully pushed aside the clerk and stole a handful of cash from the register.

Two minutes later, Elrod met Lugod and another officer one block away. Police said he falsely claimed to have a gun, and urged them to shoot. Elrod’s wife said he told them he was unarmed. “Don’t make me do this, don’t make me do this,” Lugod said, according to police, “you’re gonna get shot!” About 30 months earlier, Lugod had killed a day-release prisoner who allegedly reached for a handgun he had dropped.

In a frame from police dashcam video footage of February’s incident, Elrod is seen standing on the hood of a vehicle as an officer points his gun. Police said Elrod reached into his waistband and was then shot while making a “mid-air leap” to a nearby fence. He was struck twice in the back and once in a shoulder.

Don Kleine
 Don Kleine, county attorney in Douglas County, Nebraska. Photograph: @CADonKleine/twitter

A 1984 US supreme court ruling holds that a police officer may shoot a so-called “fleeing felon” if he has “probable cause to believe” the suspect “poses a significant threat” of serious injury to others. Despite this, and a pending grand jury hearing, Omaha’s police chief, Todd Schmaderer, promptly gave his own public verdict. “It does not appear to be criminal,” he told a press conference.

Standing at the chief’s side was Kleine, the county prosecutor. All that mattered was whether Lugod reasonably believed at the time that he needed to shoot, said Kleine – “the fact that he may have been wrong in estimating the danger does not matter.” The grand jury decided Lugod had needed to.

Kleine did not respond to questions about his handling of the case. Omaha police declined to release inquiry files or dashcam footage that could confirm their account. Following an internal inquiry by Omaha police, Lugod felt the need to resign. But the department refuses to publish what it found, or disclose why their officer quit.

Before 2010, any killing by a police officer in Nebraska prompted the appointment of a special prosecutor, who could recruit three homicide detectives from outside the county to help investigate. This “removes the county attorney from the process”, according to an annotation to the law, ensuring deaths were reviewed for potential wrongdoing by outsiders rather than the officers’ own colleagues.

But five years ago the measure was scrapped by the state legislature following a lobbying campaign spearheaded by Kleine, who complained that special prosecutors were costing his county $20,000 a year, and his staff “would probably do a better job”.

Kleine has further reduced the opportunity for scrutiny by bunching cases together for consideration by grand jurors in swift succession. One day this month, they simultaneously cleared officers involved in six different deaths. When Lugod was cleared over Elrod’s death, so too were officers who accidentally shot dead a crew member for the television program Cops. While being filmed for the reality show, the officers accidentally struck him while confronting a man with a toy gun.

According to many of those who oppose local prosecutors handling these cases involving their own police colleagues, a centuries-old legal principle is being denied. Perhaps most famously articulated by US supreme court justice Felix Frankfurter in 1954, it holds that justice alone is not sufficient: “Justice must satisfy the appearance of justice.”

Under federal law, judges must recuse themselves from cases when their impartiality “might reasonably be questioned”. In a paper on the prosecution of police to be published in the Iowa Law Review next year, Kate Levine, an assistant professor of law at New York University, argues that prosecutors should be held to the same standard.

“If a defendant has any reason to believe the DA is going to go extra hard on them, or a judge is going to be particularly harsh on them, they can request a recusal,” Levine said in an interview. “But a police officer as a defendant is not going to complain about likely pro-police bias from a prosecutor.”

The DA’s client, the public, suffers because DAs have a “structural and unwaivable conflict of interest” when faced with investigating and prosecuting officers in their own jurisdiction, according to Levine, who proposes that they be automatically removed from all such cases.

Connections frequently run deeper than cooperation in securing convictions. Kleine’s biography states that the Omaha police department has called on him to teach “virtually every academy class since 1991” about criminal investigations. According to campaign filings, he has participated in charity golf tournaments that contributed thousands of dollars to police union coffers.

Campaign contributions

Among the 95% of district attorneys who are elected, many like Kleine receive valuable donations and public endorsements from police unions for their campaigns. The alternative, a “soft on crime” denunciation, can be electorally toxic. These unions frequently go on to provide legal representation for officers in fatal shootings handled by the same prosecutor.

Tony Rackauckas, the veteran district attorney in Orange County, California, has accepted more than $23,500 in donations from individual police officers, police political action committees (Pacs) or unions in his county. His cash haul from law enforcement officials was one of the larger amounts identified by a Guardian analysis of thousands of pages of campaign finance records from more than 100 DAs obtained under public records laws.

In an interview, Rackauckas was defiant. “You’re assuming that campaign contributions would require me to act differently because of conflict,” he said. “I can tell you, for one thing, it just doesn’t.” His chief of staff and former campaign manager, Susan Schroeder, intervened to say the notion that donations could create a conflict of interest was “offensive”.

All but one police department in Orange County have their officer-involved deaths automatically investigated and ruled on by the DA’s office. No officer-involved shooting in the past decade has resulted in criminal charges, Rackauckas said.

This year, Rackauckas’s office ruled two deaths justified. In one, 43-year-old Monique Deckard was shot 12 times by a group of Anaheim officers as she emerged from her apartment holding two knives during a paranoid-schizophrenic episode.

Deckard, a slight African American woman, had stabbed a woman at a nearby laundromat. The woman survived with superficial wounds. By the time Deckard emerged, her apartment was surrounded by six officers. Three officers opened fire, they said, because Deckard “strode quickly” towards them.

The shooting was the first fatal incident in Anaheim to be captured on police body camera, yet the footage has not been released to the public. Rackauckas declined to explain, other than to say it was “part of the investigation”.

It was the second fatal shooting of an African American in which officer Kevin Flanagan, who fired eight times at Deckard, had been involved. In 2008, Flanagan killed Julian Alexander, a 20-year-old newlywed, after mistaking him for a suspect in a police chase. Rackauckas’s office also ruled that shooting justified, saying that Flanagan believed Alexander threatened him. A civil lawsuit, however, was settled by the city for $1.55m.

The consequences of falling out of favour with the police lobby can be dire. In Texas, Dallas County DA Craig Watkins was unseated by challenger Susan Hawk this year after police unions ploughed tens of thousands of dollars into Hawk’s campaign, and officers took to the streets to knock on doors for her. Their intervention followed the indictment of four police officers by grand juries under Watkins’ oversight in 2014.

Frederick Frazier, the chairman of the Dallas police association’s Pac, explained in an interview that Hawk was “a better fit for law enforcement”. He accused Watkins of trying to ride a wave of public dissent against police from August 2014.

Frederick Frazier
 Frederick Frazier. Photograph: @Frazier7324/twitter

“We’re very open about it,” Frazier, an investigator on a US marshals service fugitive taskforce, said of his union’s effort to oust Watkins. “After Ferguson, after Baltimore, Craig took the easier path, because it was popular. Going against the police was easier, because we became unpopular with the country.” Watkins did not respond to emails and messages.

Two officers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, charged with murder by district attorney Kari Brandenburg over last year’s fatal shooting of James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man with schizophrenia, were the department’s first to be prosecuted for a shooting. Their colleagues were furious.

Brandenburg said the department initiated a “hit job” on her after an October 2014 meeting with a police union attorney, where she said she intended to bring charges. They reopened a criminal investigation into past allegations against her including bribery, which she had denied and which the New Mexico attorney general later found had insufficient evidence.

Despite this, Brandenburg was disqualified from the Boyd case and forced to hand it to a special prosecutor. “In essence it was an attempt to get me to resign,” she said in an interview. “I think it was an attempt to take over the district attorney’s office so they could control decisions.”

The grand jury: ‘We don’t know what’s going on in those rooms’

Eric Garner grand jury
 Protesters outside the courthouse in Staten Island before a hearing in a state lawsuit seeking the release of grand jury proceedings concerning the death of Eric Garner. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The conflict of interest problem is compounded, according to critics, by grand juries. These secret panels, which vote on whether suspects should be indicted for crimes, are a medieval relic long since scrapped by all other developed countries and most others as well. Yet they have been used to decide the outcomes of dozens of killings by police this year – about a quarter of all those ruled justified.

In 23 states, indictments by grand jury are required for criminal charges in all serious felony cases such as murder. In 25 others, they are optional and prosecutors may proceed with charges themselves. Nebraska, one of the “optional” states, has a special law requiring that grand juries consider police-involved deaths. Only in Connecticut and Pennsylvania are grand juries a thing of the past.

It is more than 40 years since William Campbell, a senior judge in Illinois, called for the elimination of grand juries, declaring them to be “the total captive of the prosecutor who, if he is candid, will concede that he can indict anybody, at any time, for almost anything, before any grand jury”.

The power of the prosecutor is so great, however, that the reverse is also true, according to Professor Peter Joy of Washington University in Missouri jurors can easily be guided not to indict. Joy said the indefinite secrecy applied to grand jury proceedings means that claims by prosecutors that a killing by police has been thoroughly scrutinised cannot be verified.

“We don’t know what’s going on in those rooms,” said Joy. “We don’t know if the prosecution presented neutrally or put their thumb on the scale – either by failing to vigorously question witnesses who favour the police version of events, or by being very hard on witnesses who would favour the person killed.”

Following three of the most controversial deaths involving police in recent times – Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Missouri, and Tamir Rice in Ohio – county prosecutors have held grand juries described by Garner’s family as being more like “secret trials”. In these prolonged versions of the typically brief process, jurors are presented with vast amounts of evidence, along with testimony from officers who do not face cross-examination.

Joy said the process provides “political cover” for elected prosecutors, who can claim to have allowed citizen oversight while knowing an indictment is unlikely. “If you don’t trust a grand jury, you don’t trust your neighbour,” the Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty said this week, while announcing the officers involved in Tamir’s death would not be charged. In the rare event that an indictment is returned, a prosecutor under pressure from police allies may blame the jurors.

Notably, in two-thirds of the 18 deadly police incidents so far in 2015 that led to criminal prosecutions, initial charges against officers were filed by prosecutors themselves rather than grand juries. In some, such as the officers accused of causing the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore in April, a grand jury was later used to affirm charges that prosecutors were pursuing.

The extraordinary process in Missouri after Brown’s death in Ferguson in August last year provided a rare exception to the secrecy rule. And when transcripts were released, they showed “Wilson was not rigorously cross-examined, while other witnesses were subject to extensive and aggressive cross-examination” after testifying against the officer, according to professors Jeffrey Fagan and Bernard Harcourt of Columbia Law School.

No statistics are available for state courts, but federal grand juries vote to indict in more than 99% of cases, according to the Department of Justice. Joy estimated that at state level they declined to prosecute between 1% and 10% of the time with civilian defendants but more than 50% in cases involving a police officer. In Houston, Texas, grand juries have cleared police in shooting cases 288 times consecutively, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Faith in the system has been eroded, with those among ethnic minorities the most distrustful. Fewer than one in five African Americans told a YouGov poll last year that they trusted the justice system to “properly investigate” police-involved deaths. Less than half of white people said they had trust in the system.

At the federal level, Democratic congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia this year proposed legislation that would deny funding from Washington to regional law enforcement agencies unless authorities stopped using grand juries to consider killings by police. Johnson’s plan called for the selection at random of another DA in the state to oversee a criminal inquiry carried out by state police officers. “Any time there is secrecy, you have lack of accountability, and that eats away at people’s respect and confidence in the criminal process,” said Johnson.

Time for radical overhaul

Michael Brown mother
 The mother of Michael Brown, Lesley McSpadden, centre, and the wife of Eric Garner, in 2014. Grand juries did not indict the officers involved in either man’s death. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Of the 18 deadly incidents involving police in 2015 that led to criminal charges, four were handled by state-level prosecutors such as the attorney general, and 13 were investigated by an external police department.

Only Maine and Connecticut currently require an independent prosecutor to handle officer-involved deaths by law. South Dakota and New Hampshire also leave the decision whether or not to charge an officer with the state attorney general as a matter of protocol.

Kevin Kane, Connecticut’s chief state’s attorney, said that while there were downsides to the new system, “the community’s perception has probably grown as a result of Ferguson to the point where it outweighs the other side of the coin.”

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order in July to make the state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, a special prosecutor for police-involved deaths of unarmed civilians or if “there is a significant question as to whether the civilian was armed and dangerous at the time of his or her death”.

But the move was criticised both by Garner’s family and district attorneys throughout the state. For Garner’s family, the order did not go far enough. Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said Cuomo had assured her privately it would cover all officer-involved deaths.

New York’s DAs complained of a power grab. Ken Thompson of Brooklyn said he and his counterparts would be “robbed” of their right to enforce the law locally. Two months later, Thompson charged an NYPD officer with second-degree manslaughter over the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, in the stairwell of a residential tower.

Other attempted reforms across the country are meeting resistance from prosecutors wary of ceding their territory or accepting that they could be skewed in favour of police.

Rackauckas, the DA in Orange County, California, insisted that special prosecutors would not silence claims of bias. “I don’t think there’s any investigative body that’s not subject to that same kind of criticism,” he said in an interview. “People could say, ‘Well that investigator is in the pocket of the police’.”

Several efforts are also under way to prevent local police officers from carrying out the inquiries into shootings by their colleagues. In Wisconsin, a law passed last year requires outside investigators to examine all officer-involved deaths before handing their findings to the local DA. These investigators typically come from the state’s department of justice. If no charges are brought by the DA, the full investigation file must be made available to the public.

Maine law also gives “exclusive responsibility” for investigating police killings to officers in the state attorney general’s office. States such as Connecticut, Florida, Georgia New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont, also typically refer cases to independent or state-level investigators as a matter of practice. While legislators in 14 states have this year proposed laws demanding outside investigators, just two, in Utah and Colorado, have passed so far.

Indeed, while dozens of state legislatures have discussed reforms of the system since the unrest in Ferguson, the debate has not translated into many new laws. According to a Guardian review of state legislation proposed in 2015, representatives in 15 state legislatures introduced bills that would see special prosecutors handle officer involved killings in some, if not all, cases. But none has passed into law, with most remaining at the committee stage.

But the use of outside authorities has not silenced claims of bias and inaction over killings by police. For instance no case involving Wisconsin’s special investigators has so far resulted in a prosecution, and Wisconsin has seen no charges brought in any of the 12 officer-involved deaths in 2015.

In the state’s most controversial killing this year, the case of 19-year-old Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin, the Guardian disclosed that one of the lead DCI investigators was a former Madison officer. This drew criticism from the family of Robinson, who was unarmed and African American. They requested a federal investigation into the shooting. Following the April 2014 fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton by Milwaukee police, it similarly emerged that half the DCI investigators were former Milwaukee officers.

Some critics have called for a more radical overhaul. Levine, of New York University, favours an “outsider-prosecution” system. A special oversight board within each jurisdiction, manned by retired prosecutors, civil rights attorneys, and other expert figures, would investigate officer-involved deaths. They would have subpoena power and the authority to bring charges. If charges were brought, a judge would appoint a private attorney. “I don’t see any legitimate reason why this couldn’t be done,” said Levine.

Joy, of Washington University, said a simpler device could push prosecutors to step aside from cases involving police in their own jurisdictions: the American Bar Association’s (ABA) rules on ethics for attorneys, which state that a conflict of interest exists when attorneys face a “significant risk” that their work will be affected by other responsibilities or loyalties.

Prosecutors, as attorneys themselves, are subject to this rule like any other, according to Joy. Yet DAs appear untroubled by it and the ABA’s 55-page standards manual on criminal prosecutions does not deal with potential conflicts of interest when investigating law enforcement officers.

An expanded rule, according to Joy, would result in some prosecutors voluntarily complying and in state ethics boards issuing similar guidance. “It’s not binding, no,” said Joy, “but it does create a presumption that this is the proper way to proceed.” A spokesman for the ABA said no one could comment on the record.

In 2010, when he testified to the Nebraska legislature’s judiciary committee in favour of abolishing the law that stopped him handling the cases of local police officers who had killed someone, county prosecutor Don Kleine was pressed by a state senator on how he would be sure to avoid bias.

“If there was a definite conflict of interest, then I’d have to declare that I had a conflict of interest, and we could get a special prosecutor,” Kleine said.

“His argument was: ‘You can trust us because we’re the government’,” according to Amy Miller, the legal director of the ACLU in Nebraska, which fought the abolition of the law. “That selling point works very well only if you’re confident that human beings never give way to favouritism or prejudice,” said Miller. “It is very worrisome.”

America is at a crossroads …

… and its direction in the coming months will define the country for a generation. These are perilous times. Over the last three years, much of what the Guardian holds dear has been threatened – democracy, civility, truth.


The country is at a crossroads. Science is in a battle with conjecture and instinct to determine policy in the middle of a pandemic. At the same time, the US is reckoning with centuries of racial injustice – as the White House stokes division along racial lines. At a time like this, an independent news organisation that fights for truth and holds power to account is not just optional. It is essential.


Like many news organizations, the Guardian has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. We rely to an ever greater extent on our readers, both for the moral force to continue doing journalism at a time like this and for the financial strength to facilitate that reporting.


We believe every one of us deserves equal access to fact-based news and analysis. We’ve decided to keep Guardian journalism free for all readers, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay. This is made possible thanks to the support we receive from readers across America in all 50 states.


As our business model comes under even greater pressure, we’d love your help so that we can carry on our essential work. If you can, support the Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.

The Blue Wall of Silence

Blue wall of silence

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to navigationJump to search

The blue wall of silence,[1] also blue code[2] and blue shield,[3] are terms used in the United States to denote the alleged informal code of silence among police officers not to report on a colleague‘s errors, misconducts, or crimes, including police brutality.[4] If questioned about an incident of alleged misconduct involving another officer (e.g., during the course of an official inquiry), while following the code, the officer being questioned would perjure themselves by feigning ignorance of another officer’s wrongdoing.

Implicit Bias

What it is:

Thoughts and feelings are “implicit” if we are unaware of them or mistaken about their nature. We have a bias when, rather than being neutral, we have a preference for (or aversion to) a person or group of people. Thus, we use the term “implicit bias” to describe when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge. A fairly commonplace example of this is seen in studies that show that white people will frequently associate criminality with black people without even realizing they’re doing it.

Why it matters:

The mind sciences have found that most of our actions occur without our conscious thoughts, allowing us to function in our extraordinarily complex world. This means, however, that our implicit biases often predict how we’ll behave more accurately than our conscious values. Multiple studies have also found that those with higher implicit bias levels against black people are more likely to categorize non-weapons as weapons (such as a phone for a gun, or a comb for a knife), and in computer simulations are more likely to shoot an unarmed person. Similarly, white physicians who implicitly associated black patients with being “less cooperative” were less likely to refer black patients with acute coronary symptoms for thrombolysis for specific medical care.

What can be done about it:

Social scientists are in the early stages of determining how to “debias.” It is clear that media and culture makers have a role to play by ceasing to perpetuate stereotypes in news and popular culture. In the meantime, institutions and individuals can identify risk areas where our implicit biases may affect our behaviors and judgments. Instituting specific procedures of decision making and encouraging people to be mindful of the risks of implicit bias can help us avoid acting according to biases that are contrary to our conscious values and beliefs.

Implicit bias is a universal phenomenon, not limited by race, gender, or even country of origin. Take this test to see how it works for you: Implicit Bias Test

Learn more:

Implicit Bias sits at the core of our previously published reports. Most recently, Transforming Perception documents how implicit bias shapes the lives of black men and boys, and Telling Our Own Story: The Role of Narrative in Racial Healing integrates implicit bias insights with a discussion of how narrative can work to undo the harms of discrimination.

The Weapons Effect

Weapons effect

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to navigationJump to search

The weapons effect is a controversial theory described and debated in the scientific field of social psychology. It refers to the mere presence of a weapon or a picture of a weapon leading to more aggressive behavior in humans, particularly if these humans are already aroused.[1] This should not be confused with the weapon focus, another social psychology finding. This effect was first described by Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage in 1967 in their paper “Weapons as Aggressions-Eliciting Stimuli” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper outlines an experiment conducted by the authors at the University of Wisconsin. The researchers tested their hypothesis that stimuli commonly associated with aggression (like weapons) can elicit more aggressive responses from people “ready to act” aggressively.[2]

It is important to note that several psychology researchers have also criticized the weapons effect, questioning the original research study’s findings. This is because subsequent studies have been less successful at replicating the weapons effect, and alternative explanations have been proposed. For example, more recent research has proposed that there are more factors that influence aggression in a situation containing a weapon, such as an individual’s familiarity with the weapons present.[3]

As work with the weapons effect progressed, researchers also demonstrated the weapons priming effect. This variation refers to even weapon-related words leading to more aggressive behavior in humans.

History of Policing and Slave Patrols

The History of Policing in the United States, Part 1

Written by Dr. Gary Potter

The development of policing in the United States closely followed the development of policing in England. In the early colonies policing took two forms. It was both informal and communal, which is referred to as the “Watch,” or private-for-profit policing, which is called “The Big Stick” (Spitzer, 1979).

The watch system was composed of community volunteers whose primary duty was to warn of impending danger. Boston created a night watch in 1636, New York in 1658 and Philadelphia in 1700. The night watch was not a particularly effective crime control device. Watchmen often slept or drank on duty. While the watch was theoretically voluntary, many “volunteers” were simply attempting to evade military service, were conscript forced into service by their town, or were performing watch duties as a form of punishment. Philadelphia created the first day watch in 1833 and New York instituted a day watch in 1844 as a supplement to its new municipal police force (Gaines, Kappeler, and Vaughn 1999).

Augmenting the watch system was a system of constables, official law enforcement officers, usually paid by the fee system for warrants they served. Constables had a variety of non-law enforcement functions to perform as well, including serving as land surveyors and verifying the accuracy of weights and measures. In many cities constables were given the responsibility of supervising the activities of the night watch.

These informal modalities of policing continued well after the American Revolution. It was not until the 1830s that the idea of a centralized municipal police department first emerged in the United States. In 1838, the city of Boston established the first American police force, followed by New York City in 1845, Albany, NY and Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1853, Philadelphia in 1855, and Newark, NJ and Baltimore in 1857 (Harring 1983, Lundman 1980; Lynch 1984). By the 1880s all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place.

These “modern police” organizations shared similar characteristics: (1) they were publicly supported and bureaucratic in form; (2) police officers were full-time employees, not community volunteers or case-by-case fee retainers; (3) departments had permanent and fixed rules and procedures, and employment as a police officers was continuous; (4) police departments were accountable to a central governmental authority (Lundman 1980).

In the Southern states the development of American policing followed a different path. The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the “Slave Patrol” (Platt 1982). The first formal slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704 (Reichel 1992). Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules. Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system.

The key question, of course, is what was it about the United States in the 1830s that necessitated the development of local, centralized, bureaucratic police forces? One answer is that cities were growing. The United States was no longer a collection of small cities and rural hamlets. Urbanization was occurring at an ever-quickening pace and old informal watch and constable system was no longer adequate to control disorder. Anecdotal accounts suggest increasing crime and vice in urban centers. Mob violence, particularly violence directed at immigrants and African Americans by white youths, occurred with some frequency. Public disorder, mostly public drunkenness and sometimes prostitution, was more visible and less easily controlled in growing urban centers than it had been rural villages (Walker 1996). But evidence of an actual crime wave is lacking. So, if the modern American police force was not a direct response to crime, then what was it a response to?

More than crime, modern police forces in the United States emerged as a response to “disorder.” What constitutes social and public order depends largely on who is defining those terms, and in the cities of 19th century America they were defined by the mercantile interests, who through taxes and political influence supported the development of bureaucratic policing institutions. These economic interests had a greater interest in social control than crime control. Private and for profit policing was too disorganized and too crime-specific in form to fulfill these needs. The emerging commercial elites needed a mechanism to insure a stable and orderly work force, a stable and orderly environment for the conduct of business, and the maintenance of what they referred to as the “collective good” (Spitzer and Scull 1977). These mercantile interests also wanted to divest themselves of the cost of protecting their own enterprises, transferring those costs from the private sector to the state.

Read Part 2
Read Part 3
Read Part 4
Read Part 5
Read Part 6

Dr. Gary Potter is a professor of online and on-campus courses for the EKU School of Justice Studies. His current research areas include transnational organized crime, human trafficking and the sex industry, and drug trafficking by teenagers in rural Kentucky.


Gaines, Larry. Victor Kappeler, and Joseph Vaughn, Policing in America (3rd ed.), Cincinnati, Ohio: Anderson Publishing Company, 1999.

Harring, Sidney, Policing in a Class Society: The Experience of American Cities, 1865-1915, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

Lundman, Robert J., Police and Policing: an Introduction, New York, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980.

Lynch, Michael, Class Based Justice: A History of the Origins of Policing in Albany, Albany, New York: Michael J. Hindelang Criminal Research Justice Center, 1984.

Platt, Tony, “Crime and Punishment in the United States: Immediate and Long-Term Reforms from a Marxist Perspective, Crime and Social Justice 18 (1982).

Reichel, Philip L., “The Misplaced Emphasis on Urbanization in Police Development,” Policing and Society 3 no. 1 (1992).

Spitzer, Stephen, “The Rationalization of Crime Control in Capitalist Society,” Contemporary Crises 3, no. 1 (1979).

Spitzer, Stephen and Andrew Scull, “Privatization and Capitalist Development: The Case of the Private Police,” Social Problems 25, no. 1 (1977).

Walker, Samuel, The Police in America: An Introduction, New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Published on June 25, 2013