Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fear of a Black Planet: From Stop and Frisk to Grant and Martin

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This summer I’ve been engaged in a Facebook debate with an old friend.  He lives in Brooklyn and he’s been posting pictures of innocent victims of gun violence in NYC.  His point?  Not that we need real gun control but that he would gladly accept being stopped and frisked by the NYPD in order to save future victims.

I’ve been challenging him on the logical flaw in the cause and effect argument he is making and I’ve pointed out that there is no evidence that Stop and Frisk makes anyone safer. 

This NYCLU document (http://www.nyclu.org/files/Mythbusters_08.30.12.pdf) provides compelling evidence of the falsity of the Stop and Frisk = Safety equation.

Beyond this, however, there is another problem I have with my friend’s position.  I’ve objected to the way he seems to want to let fear dictate social policy.  What type of society is created by fear, I ask.  His response:  Easy for me to say from the bucolic perspective of my suburban home.

But I can’t stop asking these questions:  What happens when fear takes over?  Especially the focused racial fear embodied by Stop and Frisk?  This is the fear that the rap group Public Enemy dubbed “Fear of a Black Planet.”

What happens when fear of a black planet takes over? What type of society do we get?  The film Fruitvale Station offers one answer to that question. I dragged my girlfriend and daughter to this movie recently. It’s not a fun night out.  But I had to see it as I have been talking about the police slaying of Oscar Grant in my classes for the past few years.

After the film ended all three of us sat in silence for several long minutes, tears rolling down.  No surprise endings here—we already knew how this one would turn out—but that didn’t diminish the power of the film for us.

It’s not a perfect film, just as Oscar Grant was not a perfect man. Some critics have complained that it goes too far in trying to sanctify him. I actually thought the filmmakers tried to avoid doing this for most of the film.  A couple of scenes did seem to try too hard to make him sympathetic but they also showed the other side: his temper, his previous arrests, his drug dealing, his infidelity.  I thought the point came through:  Whatever his vices he didn’t deserve a bullet to the back.

Trayvon Martin was also imperfect.  Trayvon Martin also did not deserve a death sentence.  You don’t have to be a paragon of virtue to be allowed to live your life. Martin, Grant, and the many, many, many other young black men that we never hear about, are all victims of the Stop and Frisk mentality. Innocent until proven Black.  Victims of fear of a black planet.

The officer who shot Grant claims he thought he was using his Taser not his gun. Who knows?  I think this is actually possible. I think it’s possible that he was so driven by fear that he was in full panic mode.  Perceiving himself surrounded by angry young blacks (albeit angry at being detained and harassed by the police) even an unarmed young man, lying face down, may have seemed like an existential threat to this white cop. George Zimmerman said the unarmed Trayvon Martin attacked him and he was only acting in self defense.  His jury accepted that this was indeed plausible.

Men with guns so afraid of men without guns.

And what do we know for sure about these two cases? Grant was murdered. Martin was murdered. Grant’s killer served 11 months. Martin’s killer was never convicted of any crime. After the trial a juror said she felt sorry for Zimmerman. After all, he too must have been so very, very, afraid.

This is where the stop and frisk mentality leads. This is what fear of a black planet creates. This is the society we get.