Race and Politics: Profiling and DWB

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Malik Miah

IT’S HAPPENED TO most Blacks at least once in our lifetime.  Driving towards home or heading from work on the freeway a cop decides to pull you over for no reason.  You wait in your car (you never get out first), hoping it’s nothing.  As you wait, the tension increases throughout your body. You keep your hands visible and crack no smile.  Is it just a ticket?  Or worse?  (You wonder why African Americans have high blood pressure.)

It’s happened to me. In Detroit-my hometown-in 1970, for example, I was coming home in the late evening after attending Wayne State University.

I turned down my street on the northwest side of the city, and a cop car stopped me for no reason.  I immediately became worried since back then Detroit cops were known for their extreme racism.  Fortunately, they did nothing but check the car-and me-out.  I was questioned like a common criminal, but I said nothing to provoke them. I knew better.

What I remember most about the incident was how relieved I felt after they left. Did I report it?  Of course not. One thing you learn being a person of color, and a young male, is to “take” the everyday racism.  You must pick your fights.

As American As Apple Pie

In fact, racial profiling is as American as apple pie. Before the civil rights movement ended legal segregation, governments, employers and cops knew they could humiliate and brutalize Blacks with impunity.  Employers could deny African Americans jobs and training without any fear of government or court action.  Cops, who were mainly white and lived in the suburbs, could terrorize Blacks, especially young males, on the streets, in the parks, anytime they felt like it.

It is why most African Americans see cops as a not-so-friendly force in our communities.  (And that includes the African-American cops too.)  The gap between white and Black perceptions of cops is based on real hard evidence-of being treated as second-class citizens, or worse.

Driving While Black (DWB) exposes the true underbelly of how the system still works.  Middle-class Blacks and Latinos found out they are not exempt.  They are also targets.  It’s not just for the poor guy driving a Ford pickup.  Just as happened during the civil rights movement, middle-class Blacks are angry.  They’re not only filing lawsuits but they’re joining protests against cop racism.  And these protests-not the fact that the issue is “new”-is why the news media and the Clinton administration, as well as state and city governments, are taking up the issue.

According to the ACLU, more than a dozen states have legislation pending to begin collecting data on racial profiling.  On June 9 Clinton issued an executive order requiring the federal law enforcement agencies to collect demographic data on how they do their job.

Lobbying and lawsuits to gain legislation and to stop racial profiling has gotten little positive result until recently.  What changed is the impact of mass protests demanding police accountability.  The most significant protests have occurred in New York City over the last year.

Demonstrating Against Police Brutality

Demonstrations demanding justice after the murder of an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, sparked national interest.  Diallo was shot at forty-one times by four New York City cops who claimed he posed a threat even though he had no weapon.  Protests by civil rights and civil liberties groups at police headquarters took place daily to force action against the cops.

The public outrage over the Diallo case was fueled in part by the anger generated last year in a police brutality case involving the beating and torture of Abner Louima, a Black Haitian immigrant, in a Brooklyn police station.  Louima survived the beating and was able to tell his story.  The spotlight finally led a federal jury in New York to convict one cop involved in the beating after another pleaded guilty.

What these two cases exposed was something that every African-American (and Brown) person-particularly men-know quite well: The cops use racial profiling to victimize, not to protect, our communities.  Civil rights and civil liberties groups demand the data to show how the statistics prove racism.  In California, for example, the first decision made by the former Republican Governor Wilson (and still followed by the new Democratic Governor Davis) after affirmative action programs were ended in the state was to stop all collection of data by race-the only way to prove de facto segregation of minorities and bias for whites in all state jobs, contracts and educational opportunities.

Is it a surprise that more Black men are in prison than college?  Is it a surprise that the average white sees Blacks as prone to crime?  The practice of the police and governments enforce the idea that people of color are really prone to crime and are not trustworthy.

Diallo’s crime?  He came out of his apartment to see why the cops were barging into his building.  To the four cops, he was simply a Black male, and therefore a probable criminal; so shoot first to kill.

Louima was brutalized for no other reason than he is a Black man and an immigrant.  The cops even joked about it as they terrorized him. How many other times did this happen but the victim died?

Institutionalized Racism

It’s not just the New York City cops, or the FBI or state troopers who brutalize.  Custom Service agents routinely single out people of color for questioning and humiliation.  Have a Muslim name or look Arabic, expect close examination.  They even admit they profile people, focusing on certain types who just “happen to be,” in their majority, people of color.  Who else could be drug runners and terrorists?

The New Jersey Turnpike state cops regularly stop Blacks and Latinos for no reason other than the color of their skin. Amazingly, they admitted using racial profiling to make these illegal stops.  I guess they thought Blacks in Jersey would see them as more progressive than their New York neighbors who still deny using racial profiling for their busts.

In an excellent cover story in the June issue of the Black monthly magazine, Emerge, on DWB, the reporter Marcia Davis documents how extensive and pervasive racial profiling is across the country.  Relying on personal horror stories and information provided by the ACLU, which has led the drive to end this form of racism, Davis notes: “Being stopped by the police for no apparent reason is something that African-American and Hispanic motorists have lived with for decades.  Now it seems, at least, that in some quarters of the country, those complaints are being taken seriously.  The challenge will be to find real solutions, not only for the problem of DWBs, but other chronic biases in policing and the entire criminal justice system.”

Racism As A Tool of Control

This, of course, touches the root of the problem: the criminal justice system.  The system is not primarily here to protect us or rehabilitate those who commit social crimes.  Its purpose is to strike fear into the population in order to maintain control.  Racism is an essential weapon in the control process.  Racist justice (the use of the death penalty and disproportionate sentencing for Blacks for various drug violations) is to convince whites of all social strata that Blacks and other minorities are inclined to do crime.  Thus we must be treated unfairly for the good of the majority.  When most whites hear the words racial profiling and DWB, they believe it may be overdone but there is a valid reason for it.

The criminal justice system (an important tool for the capitalist system itself) is, of course, class based too. This is to convince the middle class to support limits on democratic rights to keep the poor in their place.  Most middle-class Blacks accept this role of police agencies.  They fear working-class and poor Blacks as much as their middle-class white neighbors.

Racism, however, doesn’t recognize class divisions in the African-American population.  Racist cops see skin color, not income, when they stop an African American in a Mercedes.  Even cops who are Black or Brown, but out of uniform, encounter this racism.

“Ninety percent of the people that they stop and infringe upon their rights get stopped and get humiliated,” says police Major Aaron Campbell Jr., a cop in Dade County, Florida, for nearly thirty years.  While driving to a house he was building in North Florida, he was pulled over early one evening in 1997:

“The incident, caught on videotape and now part of Campbell’s own efforts to expose what he calls a `racist game of smoke and mirrors,’ ended in a scuffle with Orange County deputies.  Campbell was peppered sprayed and arrested.” [Source: ACLU.]

In North Carolina in 1998, Nelson Walker, a young Liberian attending college in North Carolina, was driving along I-95 in Maryland when he was pulled over by state police who said he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The officers detained him and his two passengers for two hours as they searched the car for illegal drugs, weapons, or other contraband.

Finding nothing, they proceeded to dismantle the car, removing part of a door panel, a seat panel and part of the sunroof.  Finding nothing, the officers handed Walker a screwdriver, saying, “`You’re going to need this’ as they left the scene.” (June 11, 1998, The News & Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina.  Source ACLU.)

Johnny Gammage wasn’t so “lucky.” While driving his cousin’s Jaguar in Brentwood-a suburb of Pittsburgh-on October 12, 1995, he was pulled over. Five cops said Gammage had run three red lights.  One ordered Gammage out of the car and said he reached “a weapon.”

It turned out to be a cell phone.  The cops knocked it out of his hand, then proceeded to beat him with a flashlight, a collapsible baton and a blackjack.  Gammage, who was unarmed, died handcuffed and ankle bound.  (January 15, 1996, People’s magazine.  Source ACLU.)

[Although a corner’s jury recommended that all five face first-degree murder charges, one was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter by an all-white jury and a mistrial was declared against two others.  (see ATC 66, “Police Brutality and A Hot Autumn.”)-ed.]

Laura Murphy, director of the Washington office of the ACLU said after Clinton issued the executive order, “This is just a mandate to gather statistics, not a mandate to solve the problem.  But I don’t want to be too negative.  This is an important first step.”

What will be decisive in the long run is using mass action to force whoever is president, governor or mayor to act. The daily protests in New York City kept the heat on the mayor and police chief to take some modest actions to rein in their cops.

Before the victory of the civil rights movements in the 1960s, many people thought old Jim Crow segregation could never be overturned without the overthrow of capitalism.  Mass actions did end the old segregation and open the door to real changes in how people of color are treated.  The rise of a Black middle class and better paid and skilled Black workforce is a direct result of those changes.

While causing radical change of the system is not yet possible, winning positive reform can be achieved.  The use of discriminatory racial profiling can be pushed back by direct public pressure-as the New York City example shows.

Malik Miah is an ATC advisory editor

ATC 81, July-August 1999