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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Black and Blue

There's been a lot of ink spilt, both very recently, and in the short history of this country about the relationship between African-Americans and law enforcement. Two very recent incidents stick out like sore thumbs as concerns the ever-flowing controversy that surrounds the black and the blue: the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own home in Cambridge, Mass, and the whirlwind that has erupted here in Philadelphia surrounding the unofficial online meeting place for Philadelphia police officers,

For those of you who are unfamiliar with both or neither, here's a quick sum:

1.) A few days ago, Cambridge Police were summoned to a home by a passerby who observed two African-American males trying to force entry into said home. When the police arrived, there was a verbal altercation between officers and one of the males who was identified eventually as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor and the person who lived at that home (he was having difficulty opening his front door, and so he had forced his way into his own home). According to the arresting officer, Gates became "agitated" and disruptive, and he was placed under arrest for disorderly conduct. The charges were dropped after a maelstrom of protest from the Cambridge community, Gates' lawyer, and Al Sharpton. Last night, during his press conference about healthcare, President Barack Obama addressed the incident, stating that the did "not have all the facts" but that the "Cambridge Police acted stupidly."

2.) Also a few days ago, the Guardian Civic League, Philadelphia's local chapter of the National Black Police Association, filed an injunction to attempt to ban on-duty officers from logging in and posting articles or commentaries on the website Domelights was created and is maintained by a Philadelphia Police Department sergeant and is, according to its own text, a "forum for interaction, information exchange and friendly debate among police officers and law enforcement agents, as well as their friends and supporters." The Guardian Civic League claimed that hostile and/or racist comments are frequently posted on the site about black police officers, creating a hostile and racially charged work environment. The League wants the site shut down, but the courts have requested that all parties involved preserve all relevant comments on the site and settle the matter out of court.

I have no idea what to say about the first incident. Is breaking into your own house a crime? No. Did the police initially know the man they approached was breaking into his own house? No. Was Professor Gates being verbally abusive? I don't know. Did the arresting officer "follow the letter of the law" in arresting Gates? I don't know. What exactly happened inside that house, blow-by-blow? I don't know. So I really don't feel it's fair to comment on the case, and I really don't think it was fair for President Obama to do so, either. People are talking about how this was a case of "racial profiling." That may be true, but the police aren't to blame-- blame the white passerby who summoned the police to the scene. She's the one who observed the two black men trying to gain entry to an upscale home in suburban Mass, after all. All the police did was respond.

There is a problem with profiling in this country, that's for sure. African-American males are assumed to be miscreants and felons, and that's a tragedy-- just ask the family of New York City patrolman Omar Edwards. He was off-duty and out of uniform, just leaving his precinct house after a tour-of-duty when he saw a man breaking into his car. Edwards drew his gun and chased the thief, only to be gunned down by several officers who mistook him for a criminal. Edwards was black. This tragic incident is just one of many like it, and it proves that we have a long way to go in this country before race relations are normalized. So many stereotypes still exist about African-Americans, and in spite of successful recruiting programs to hire more and more black officers in metropolitan and suburban police departments across the country, that divide is most keenly felt when black and blue come together on the streets of America.

The debacle is living proof of that.

The Philadelphia Police Department hired its first black police officer in 1881, and, today, the Commissioner of the department is African-American, as are many of its officers, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Philadelphia's police department, or any other police department for that matter, is a cross-racial utopia, with black and white police officers singing "Kumbaya" while holding hands at roll call. I've been a posting member of since January of 2008, when I found an editorial that I had written for the Philadelphia Daily News reposted on domelights without my knowledge. I tried my best to post comments that fit within domelights specified message: to foster interaction and friendly debate. I quickly realized that my way of doing things was not appreciated, understood or welcomed at domelights. When I complained to a friend of mine in the EMS industry about the hostility I encountered on the site, he laughed and said, "What do you expect at dumblights? Those guys are all assholes."

Go see for yourself-- the blatantly offensive and racist material that gets posted on this site, by men and women who still patrol the streets of Philadelphia, will make you cringe at best. I have no doubt that, if I were African-American and a police officer and I went on domelights and spent even just one hour on there, pointing and clicking, I would be afraid to return to the station house the next morning. Furthermore, if I were a black citizen of Philadelphia and I went on that site, I would be outraged and appalled that people who are openly expressing these views and using that kind of language are charged with protecting me and my family. It's disgusting and disgraceful. The behavior exhibited on that website is not just an affront to African-American police officers, it is a violent slap in the face to the citizens of Philadelphia, who deserve better knights errant.

Yes, I know that there will always be racist police officers, just as there are racist lawyers and doctors and teachers. I know that policing is better off than it was in the 1950s, when officers could openly and proudly serve as both police officers and members of the Klu Klux Klan and fear no repercussions. I know that black police officers can find meaningful, important employment in police departments across the nation, and that's great, but we're still really, really, really far away from where we need to be as a society.

Police officers, like anybody else, should be able to express themselves openly and candidly, however, the need to remember that they are public servants first and foremost, and that their conduct must be above reproach twenty-four/seven, for they are representatives of law and order, integrity, equality under the law, and fairness.

The motto of the Philadelphia Police Department is Honor, Integrity, Service. You can't hide behind a screenname and call African-Americans "monkeys" while claiming to uphold those ideals.


  1. It's a tough situation to comment on. Not just Henry Louis Gates Jr -- but institutional racism as a whole.

    In England, institutional racism in the police is something that has reared its ugly head several times in recent years. The handling of the case of Stephen Lawrence's murder is particularly damning.

    But it's all very well for me to sit here and try to dimsiss these things as too many ignorant and stupid people having access to the internet -- and I also include the blatant racism and hateful language you refer to on Domelights. Because it's not just that, as you point out -- these same people are meant to be protecting the public.

    I wish I knew how to move on from here, I wish I had some solution.

  2. I totally agree.
    I used to think it was funny because my boyfriend, a fireman, could get fired for, say, getting into a bar fight or keeping a derogatory bumper sticker on his car.

    But when you look at the situation, it's absolutely critical to know that the ones who are protecting and serving you are not going to deviate from their job based on the nature of the person in need.

    It's a sticky subject. I look forward to a day when it becomes a nonissue.

  3. I went on dumblights.. to quote your EMS friend and its shut down until further notice. Guess they are going to have to make domelight group on facebook now.


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