Officially sanctioned despotism
EDITOR’S NOTE: Black families customarily give advice to their sons on how to behave when confronted by police.
Nothing was more frightening in Nazi Germany than the thunder of jackboots in the hallway as the Gestapo came to make an arrest. Equally terrifying was the raucous arrival of the Tonton Macoutes coming to silence an opponent of former President François “Papa Doc” Duvalier of Haiti. Despots understand the importance of fear as a psychological weapon necessary to maintain power.
Tyrants also understand that in a developed country there must be a claque of supporters to legitimize their authority. Hitler had the Brown Shirts who were willing to cede their human rights for a strong leader to rebuild the economy and provide order. Francisco Franco had the loyal Falangists. The enemy was always those who rejected the views of the despot’s supporters.
The police officials or their paramilitary replacements are always the ones to bring the grief to the rebelling citizenry in a totalitarian system. Even in a democratic society there is reason to be apprehensive about police enforcement of petty rules and regulations. However, there are racial differences as to how citizens perceive the police.
For decades African Americans have been objecting to their treatment by police all across the country. Most whites have taken little notice of those complaints. Then 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is gunned down in a Florida gated community by a volunteer in a neighborhood watch patrol and the whole nation seems to be concerned about the incident.
Such murders are not uncommon. Less than a month after the Trayvon Martin incident, Kendrec McDade, a 19-year-old unarmed black man was gunned down by the police in Pasadena, Calif. McDade was suspected of being involved in a robbery in which the robbers were said to be armed. It was later learned that McDade was innocent of the crime and the victim had lied about the robbers having guns.
It is customary for parents of black boys to instruct their children on how to be obsequious when stopped by the police. For black men, being stopped and frisked is an anticipated occurrence. According to Lazar Treschan, director of Youth Policy at the New York Community Service Society, there were 132,000 stops of black men 16 to 24 by the police in 2009. Since the Census Bureau data showed that only 120,000 black men of that age group lived in New York in 2009, then statistically every black man could be expected to be stopped and frisked at least once each year.
Blacks reasonably expect that uninvited contacts with the police can go bad, as they did for Kendrec McDade in California and Albert Florence in New Jersey. Mr. Florence was riding in his BMW with his wife at the wheel in 2005 when a state trooper pulled her over for speeding. A computerized data search found that he had an outstanding warrant for failing to pay a parking ticket.
Florence was arrested and held in jail in New Jersey for a week, and he was strip-searched every time he was moved to a different jail. It was later found that he had actually paid the fine. His lawsuit against Burlington County reached the U.S. Supreme Court last week.
In a 5-to-4 decision the court ruled that jail supervisors have the unfettered right to determine strip search policy. As far as the court is concerned, a person can be strip searched if he or she is arrested for jaywalking. There are few African Americans who believe that a white man riding in a BMW would even be arrested for failing to pay a parking fine.
The Bill of Rights still provides some protection for African Americans as a restraint against police excesses. However, many whites like Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Franco’s Falangists, support a level of police abuse that should be unacceptable in a democratic society.