Prosecutors as the Most Powerful Actor in the Criminal Justice System φ Race, Racism and the Law


The racial disparities in our criminal justice system are extraordinary and well-documented. In 1995, nearly one in three African American men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine were under the supervision of the criminal justice system–either in jail, prison, on probation, or on parole. Today, one in every ten black Angela J Davismales in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day. Over 60% of all prisoners in 2010 were Black or Latino. The disparities exist at every step of the criminal process, from arrest through sentencing.

Much has been written about why the American criminal justice system is so fraught with racial disparity. Some point to discriminatory *823 decision-making by criminal justice officials at each step of the process while others suggest that disproportionate offending is the cause. In fact, there are many complex reasons for this unfortunate phenomenon. Criminal justice officials–including police officers, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials–make discretionary decisions that often have a racial impact. In addition, the socioeconomic causes of crime disproportionately affect people of color. The impact of the War on Drugs cannot be overstated, and there are undoubtedly many other factors that have contributed to the startling statistics and overwhelming evidence of racial disparity. Not surprisingly, as the causes of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system stem from many sources, so must the solutions.
* * *

Prosecutors are the most powerful officials in the criminal justice system. They make the decisions that control the system, and they exercise almost boundless discretion in making those decisions.  Many argue that police officers are the most important officials in their role as the gatekeepers who bring individuals into the system. There is no doubt that police officers exercise broad discretion in deciding whether to stop and/or arrest individuals for criminal behavior. However, police officers only have the power to bring individuals to the courthouse door. It is the prosecutors whose decisions keep them there and firmly entrench them in the system–decisions that have life-changing consequences.

The most important prosecutorial decisions are the charging and plea bargaining decisions. Prosecutors control and almost predetermine the outcome of criminal cases through these two critical decisions. They decide whether to charge an individual with a crime and what the charge or charges should be, and they enjoy vast discretion in making this decision. Even if a prosecutor believes she can prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, she is not required to charge that individual. If she does decide to charge, she often has discretion to charge either a misdemeanor or felony. For example, if an individual is arrested with a large quantity of cocaine, the police officer might recommend that the person be charged with Possession with Intent to Distribute Cocaine–a felony that carries a mandatory minimum sentence. The prosecutor has a number of choices. She may decide to charge the person with the felony, but she also has the discretion to charge him with simple possession–a misdemeanor that may result in a probationary sentence with fewer collateral consequences. The prosecutor may also choose not to charge the person at *833 all. The charging decision is totally within the discretion of the prosecutor.

Prosecutors enjoy the same discretion in the plea-bargaining process. They are not required to offer the defendant a plea to a lesser offense, but if they do, they decide what that offer will be. Certainly a defendant may agree to plead guilty to a lesser offense if the prosecutor dismisses all other offenses, but the decision is up to the prosecutor. And with the existence of so many offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences, the plea bargaining power has become even more important. Since going to trial always carries the risk of conviction, the only way a defendant can be assured that he will not be convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum sentence is to plead guilty to a lesser offense. Ninety-five percent of all criminal cases are resolved by way of a plea. Prosecutors’ control of the charging and plea-bargaining decisions almost permits them to predetermine the outcome of most criminal cases.

Charging and plea-bargaining decisions have a tremendous impact on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. If a prosecutor charges an African American with a crime but chooses not to charge his similarly situated white counterpart, or chooses to charge the white counterpart with a less serious offense, she will create an unwarranted disparity. But the problem is a complex one. A prosecutor is rarely presented with two cases–one white defendant, one black–with exactly the same circumstances (same prior record, same facts, etc.) where she consciously chooses to treat the black defendant more harshly. She may unconsciously empathize with a white defendant and give him preferable treatment, or she may offer a white defendant better treatment for legitimate reasons that produce a racial impact.

Consider the case of a white defendant who is arrested for selling cocaine in his dorm room. The arresting officer recommends that he *834 be charged with distribution of cocaine–a felony offense with a five year mandatory minimum sentence. The defendant’s parents hire an attorney who tells the prosecutor that the defendant is suffering from a debilitating drug addiction and was selling drugs only to support his own addiction. The attorney indicates that the defendant has been accepted to a six-month program at a residential drug treatment facility. He also informs the prosecutor that the defendant is an honor student who planned to apply to law school, that he has never been arrested in his life, and that a felony conviction would ruin his career and his life. A prosecutor might legitimately offer such a defendant a plea to a misdemeanor offense, or even dismiss the case all together. One could see how a prosecutor might empathize with such a defendant, subconsciously seeing himself and perhaps remembering his own “youthful indiscretions.”

That same prosecutor might handle the case of a similarly situated black defendant quite differently. Consider the black defendant arrested for selling cocaine on the street corner in his neighborhood. The arresting office recommends the same charge–distribution of cocaine. This defendant is poor and represented by an overworked public defender. The public defender discovers that his client is addicted to cocaine and was selling the drug only to support his habit. The family cannot afford to pay for residential treatment and there are no free programs available. The defendant does not have a prior criminal record but is a high school dropout with no employment prospects. The public defender asks the prosecutor to consider dismissing the case, and the prosecutor declines.

The prosecutor’s decisions in these cases would produce a racial disparity, but were her decisions unfair or unjustified? Shouldn’t a prosecutor pursue an outcome that results in an alternative to incarceration, thereby saving scarce government resources, especially if she does not believe that the defendant poses a danger to the community? Is it the prosecutor’s fault that the black defendant could not afford to pay for a drug program and was neither employed nor in school? Yet the black defendant did not appear to be any more deserving of a prison term than the white defendant. The prosecutor may have had an unconscious bias towards the white defendant and against the black defendant, but how could that be proven? And even if it were true, would it matter, considering all the other factors?

If prosecutors charge African American and Latino defendants with crimes while neglecting to charge their similarly situated white counterparts, they may be engaging in race-based selective prosecution. *835 Race-based selective prosecution violates the Constitution, but proving it is difficult. As with racial profiling, the victim of selective prosecution must prove that the prosecutor intended to discriminate against him because of his race. The Court practically closed the door on all claims of race-based selective prosecution when it decided United States v. Armstrong. In Armstrong, the Court held that in order to get discovery to prove selective prosecution, the defendant must show that similarly situated whites could have been charged, but were not –an impossible showing for almost anyone.

The Supreme Court has consistently required proof of intentional discrimination in criminal cases, and the amount and type of proof necessary have made successful challenges extremely difficult, if not impossible. In McCleskey v. Kemp, Mr. McCleskey presented a sophisticated study of how the death penalty was implemented in the state of Georgia. The study, conducted by Professors David Baldus, Charles Pulaski, and George Woodworth (known as “the Baldus Study”) produced startling racial disparities in the implementation of the death penalty and concluded that black defendants who kill whites were more likely to receive a death sentence. The Court accepted the validity of the study and its findings, but nonetheless declined to reverse Mr. McCleskey’s death sentence. Because the study did not prove that the prosecutors in Mr. McCleskey’s case intended to discriminate against him because of his race, the Court rejected his claim.

The difficulty of proving intentional discrimination does not pose the most difficult challenge, since intentional discrimination is rarely the cause of racial disparity in today’s criminal justice system. Most racial disparities are caused and/or exacerbated by prosecutors’ race-neutral decisions which may be influenced by unconscious racism. *836 These race neutral decisions, even though unintentional, may have a racial impact.

Whether or not prosecutors intentionally or unconsciously discriminate against defendants of color in the charging and plea-bargaining processes, their decisions–even the race-neutral ones–may cause or exacerbate racial disparities. Their tremendous power and discretion is often exercised in ways that produce unintended and undesirable consequences. However, that same power and discretion can be used to remedy the problem. The next section will examine one possible solution.

* * *

Racial disparity in the criminal justice system is a complex problem with many disparate causes. Its elimination will require change within and outside of the criminal justice system. The socio-economic causes of crime may never be totally eliminated. However, individuals in the criminal justice system can have an impact on the problem. Prosecutors are particularly suited to help eliminate racial disparities because of their power and discretion.

Prosecutors must not only be willing to replicate the Prosecution and Racial Justice Program, they must be willing to change their practices and policies in ways that will have a real impact. Sometimes these changes will involve abandoning traditional methods of decision-making to achieve fairness. For example, even though considering *851 a defendant’s prior record as a factor in the decision to charge is appropriate, if the existence of prior records is the main reason why otherwise similarly situated black defendants are being charged while whites are not, prosecutors should consider abandoning that factor. Public safety must remain the priority, but there are many defendants arrested for nonviolent offenses with criminal records of nonviolent offenses. Even if prosecutors focused on nonviolent offenses alone and abandoned or reduced reliance on traditional charging considerations in those cases, they could make a difference.

The Prosecution and Racial Justice Program is not a panacea, but it is one remedy that can make a difference. However, it can only work with the participation of chief prosecutors who are willing to make racial justice a priority. The prosecutors who have worked with PRJ have demonstrated that commitment. They took a chance that produced positive results in their offices and serve as examples for other prosecutors who seek to fulfill their duty to assure a fair and effective criminal justice system.

Angela J. Davis is a Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and the former director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

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The Fear of Black Men: A Pathology, A Culture

Black Millennials

By Brother Victorious

America has always controlled and led its people by perpetuating ignorance and fear. Whether the WWII propaganda of the Japanese, the hyper-sensualized Arab terror threat, or stripping enslaved African people of their culture upon their arrival, ignorance and fear has always been the most efficient tool. In the present day, popular media limits the true history of entire ethnic and cultural groups to ensure that citizens remain docile and lack self-empowerment, while feeding them ten second sound bites of celebrity opinions, who are highly unqualified to speak on the complex racial issues. This idea of American ignorance is becoming harder to prove because many believe they are experts, simply based on their own human experience. Though living does give one some sense of practical understanding, I disagree that it gives one the ability to assert facts.

Due to fear and ignorance that America has birthed, an age-old…

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Black Lives Matter Profiles: Remembering the Joyful Spirit of Malcolm Ferguson φ The Atlanta Star

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Black Lives Matter Profiles: Remembering the Joyful Spirit of Malcolm Ferguson, Killed After Filing a Lawsuit Against the NYPD

This profile is part of an ongoing series of narratives focused on men and women who have been killed by the police. It is an attempt to counteract media bias, which often vilifies these men, women, boys and girls. These stories have been captured through the voices of the victims’ family members. I have been fortunate to meet the families through my activism in the Black Lives Matter movement and through work in various organizations.

Even before Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, the name Ferguson was analogous to police violence and murder. On March 1, 2000, the unarmed Malcolm Ferguson was gunned down blocks from his home in the Bronx.

“Malcolm was my biggest baby,” laughs Malcolm’s mother, Juanita Young, who is a parent to four other children.

Malcolm was born on Oct. 31, 1976, in the Bronx. “He was a loving, happy-go-lucky little boy,” Young explains. He trusted his loved ones, and Young giggles as she tells of a time Malcolm was convinced by his brother that he was Superman. He then attempted to fly out the window. Young recalls when Malcolm discovered Santa Claus was his mother, and instead of crying, he laughed and was happy all the same. He loved his mother.

“He was always worried about me because I’m legally blind. He was very close to his sisters and brothers because his father died when they were young,” Young says.

Malcolm was Young’s second to oldest son—her oldest, James, was 11 months older than Malcolm. Malcolm and his brother developed a strong relationship, but it was Malcolm who took on the leading role of big brother and acted like a father to his three younger siblings when their own father was not around. He went to great lengths to take care of his mother as well.

Like many boys, Malcolm loved to play basketball and liked to ride his bike, exploring different areas of the Bronx, all while protecting his family.

“We would tease him because he didn’t go with lots of girls. He would say that if anyone would do anything to his sister, he would be so defensive. So, he didn’t want to just go with any girl,” says Young.

Artist Kate Deciccio Painting of Malcolm's mother Juanita Young.

With a kind-hearted and devoted character, Malcolm grew up with lots of friends and felt pressure from his peers to have more name-brand things. Like many of his peers, he decided to sell drugs for some extra money. He ended up being arrested and serving eight months in prison for drug-related offenses when he was 17 years old. It was in prison where Malcolm finished his high school degree.

Malcolm was so negatively affected by his time incarcerated that he vowed never to return to prison. “He would lay at the corner of my bed and tell me the different horror stories and said, ‘I don’t [ever], ever want to go through that again,’” Young recalls.

Malcolm, then only a teenager, and Young spoke every day while he was incarcerated. Young had a miscarriage while Malcolm was locked up, and she remembers how guilty Malcolm felt. He felt, as the protector, that had he been home, perhaps the baby would have been born. Malcolm did everything in his power to ensure the safety, security and well-being of his beloved family—of his cherished mother.

“There is so much now that I do that I wouldn’t have to do if he were alive. If I would go to the laundry, he would go. He would ask me, ‘Ma, wait until I come back.’ Because of my blindness, he really protected me. There were so many times I had been beat up or whatever, and Malcolm felt the need to protect me,” Young explains.

One time, Young was standing outside of her building when someone asked her for directions, and as Young began to search through her purse, Malcolm was at the window, banging, urging the passerby to ask someone else, out of a fear that she could be robbed. He would leave no opportunity for anyone to take advantage of his mother.

It was not just Young and her other children Malcolm sought to protect. “Malcolm wanted to be a paralegal to help people after what he witnessed in prison. He felt he wanted to help people who were incarcerated,” Young says.

Upon leaving prison, Malcolm took an honest job at a car wash, so that he could make money as he pursued a career as a paralegal. His mother was content and knew that his brief stint in illegal pursuits was done.

“It was better than him asking me for quarters,” Young jokes, “I used to go to Atlantic City with my friends. He always would say, ‘Mom, do you have quarters around here?’ ”

Like many formerly convicted people, Malcolm was constantly harassed and profiled by the police after his time in prison. The young, 6-foot-1 Black man was continually harassed by the NYPD in the Bronx despite no involvement with crime or any illegal activity.

“Every time the cops arrested him, the judge would let him go because he wasn’t doing anything. The judge wouldn’t even buy it,” Young says.

One time, the police arrested Malcolm and instead of properly placing the handcuffs around his wrists, the police aggressively placed them over his thumb. His thumb was so injured that Malcolm had to be taken to emergency services. In response to the violent act, Malcolm decided to take legal action against the NYPD for his injuries in police care. He was still involved in the lawsuit when he was killed. After the lawsuit began, the police harassment increased.

“He still kept coming home and telling me the cops were bothering him. He couldn’t go nowhere without the cops stopping him,” Young explains.

When 23-year-old Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by the NYPD in the Bronx in February 1999 (also unarmed), Malcolm was angered and disturbed, like many in New York. He joined in the massive rallies in 2000 when Diallo’s killers were acquitted.

“He saw how the cops treated him and his friends. He knew what happened to Amadou was not right,” explains Young.

That day, Young was alerted by a friend to turn on the TV and was subsequently told that Malcolm would not be coming home.

“I saw [the police] dragging [Malcolm] on the ground arresting him [for peacefully protesting],” Young says.

Then the police started to come after Young. They began pressing seemingly ridiculous charges against her (one such charge was walking a dog without a leash). Young insists that the police would do anything to get her away from her apartment.

On March 1, 2000, about a year after Diallo’s death, just several days after the acquittal, Young was approached in her home by a police officer who told her that Malcolm, her loving son, her protector, was found dead in the hallway of her building. (Young would later find out that Malcolm had been killed, shot in the head, in the streets.) The shock sent Young into respiratory arrest, and she ended up having to go to the emergency room that same night.
Young claims that the police had been threatening Malcolm because of the legal action he was taking against the NYPD for their brutal arrests. Malcolm was unarmed and was not involved in any illegal activity. He did not attack a police officer, nor did he try and resist arrest, as he was doing nothing wrong to warrant arrest. Malcolm, presumably on his way home from work, was approached by Officer Louis Rivera, a plainclothes officer, and then shot in the street. Witnesses attest to this story, although the police claim Malcolm was shot in an apartment building while selling drugs, and then was shot in a struggle between himself and Officer Rivera. There were no drugs found on Malcolm.

Malcolm is remembered as a brother to James, Saran, Buddy and D’Nai. He was an adoring son to his mother, who has worked nonstop since 2000 on his behalf to fight for greater police accountability and to end violence rooted in racism at the hands of the police. Malcolm himself had hoped to work with the legal system to advocate for those most brutalized by the system. Instead, his life was cut tragically short.

The police officer who murdered Malcolm still is a police officer. Young continues to fight on Malcolm’s behalf.

“I think about what he would be like today. What joy he would have brought me,” Young says.

Tess Raser, originally from Chicago, is a teacher in Brooklyn and an active member of the growing Black Lives Matter movement. She works with various groups, including We the People and the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.

The Threat to the Fair Housing Act l James Perry, National Housing Advocacy Leader

“The Gutting of the Fair Housing Act”
Discussion with James Perry,National Fair and Affordable Housing National Leader and Advocate 
Saturday, January 24, 2015 LIVE 10 pm ET

Listen and Call in Line: 347-838-9852
Join us Here for our LIVE Chat :

The Supreme Court has heard the arguments in the case which threatens the ability of housing discrimination complainants to get a share of fairness in law. Will the Court discount the strength of the Fair Housing Act to protect those for which it is intended ? Will predatory lending have free reign ? Will Black people just simply have to take the rejections and subjective measure of landlords and banks, and will their teen sons be the arbiter by some racist landlord to "just say no’? James Perry was there to hear the arguments and we will talk with him as his weighs in on whether the this Act will go the way of other civil rights protections under this Court. Join us.

"The Gutting of the Fair Housing Act"
Discussion with James Perry,National Fair and Affordable Housing National Leader and Advocate 
Saturday, January 24, 2015 LIVE 10 pm ET

Listen and Call in Line: 347-838-9852
Join us Here for our LIVE Chat :

See on Scoop.itOUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham ☥ Coming Up

The ALFO Show l Refried Mojo and the #SOTU

The ALFO Show

 Friday, January 23, 2015

  LIVE           10 pm ET

The President Finds HIS MoJO – AGAIN and FINALLY !!!

Top of the show tonight The State of the Union

We hope that you will join us LIVE .
It’s "JUST DAMN’" Talk Radio 

January 17, 2014 LIVE 10 pm ET
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"Serving HOT Grits with his Politics"

” The Nexus of Politics, Truth and Common Sense”

 The ALFO Show broadcasta on Fridays, 10 pm ET from the TruthWorks Network Studios. All programs are archived for post-broadcast listening.

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Follow ALFO on Twitter: @alfo8 #JustDamn

See on Scoop.itTruthWorks Network News – The Black Voice Collaborative

The Supreme Court Is Poised To Cripple The Federal Ban On Housing Discrimination

Racial discrimination has become more and more subtle. And this Supreme Court case will test a crucial housing discrimination standard that seeks to root out this discrimination.


A five-justice majority on the Roberts Court is not expected to look as kindly on “disparate impact,” given its eagerness to review an issue on which all lower courts have agreed, and its hostility to the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, and other means for rooting out racial discrimination.

See on Scoop.itOCG Info & News Board •● ☥●• The Third Eye Parenthesis

UPENDING WHITE SUPREMACY in the Spirit of Sankofa l Our Common Ground Opens 2015 Broadcast Seaso

In the Spirit of Sankofa: Upending White Supremacy” 
Saturday, January 17, 2014 10 pm ET LIVE

Guest:  Ruby N. Sales, Liberation Leader and Activist

Live Streaming Here:
Listen or Call IN Line : (347) 838-9852

UPENDING WHITE SUPREMACY in the Spirit of Sankofa. We open our 2015 Broadcast Season reviewing the notion of how we make real#BlackLivesMatters. Our Guest, Liberation Expositor and Leader Rev. Dr. Ruby N. Sales to discuss upending white supremacy as a movement. " 
Saturday, January 17, 2014 10 pm ET LIVE

Live Streaming Here:
Listen or Call IN Line : (347) 838-9852



We hope you join us on Saturday night. Please share our program notice. OUR COMMON GROUND where activists come to meet with comrades. You are invited to join us in our 2015 Broadcast Opening, "In the Spirit of Sankofa: Upending White Supremacy"

See on Scoop.itOUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham ☥ Coming Up

‘Police are Heroes’: The Cultural Mythologies that Enable Police Brutality Against Black and Brown Americans φ Chauncey Devega

‘Police are Heroes’: The Cultural Mythologies that Enable Police Brutality Against Black and Brown Americans φ

The deaths of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, gunned down by a mentally unstable man who later committed suicide, have been accompanied by public rituals of mourning. Unfortunately, many public figures are also villifying those who demand accountabilty for police brutality.
In a sign of how debased American cultural values have become (especially on the Right), a plea for human dignity, civil rights and an end to police brutality against people of color can be twisted and warped into some type of provocation to violence against the police. The millions of Americans who want police to act in a professional and responsible manner by not abusing those they are ostensibly “sworn to protect” are not endorsing premeditated violence against police. Rather, those Americans of conscience who are standing up against police brutality believe that the dignity and safety of all people are paramount virtues.
While it may be a challenging truth for some, as I wrote here, the lives of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu are no more valuable or sacred than the lives of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, John Crawford, or any other human being. Human rights are universal. The lives of police are no more valuable or special than those of any other citizen. Failing to embrace this fact leads to a type of creeping fascism or authoritarianism by legitimizing police thuggery and abuse of the public.
While the public rituals that accompany the loss of a police officer are by definition designed to hide and obfuscate complex realities through the use of powerful symbols and rhetoric, the basic truth remains that police as a social institution and group are not victims. Rather, in the United States the police are a protected class of people. They are the day-to-day face of the State—and its power to visit violence upon the American people. Police are enforcers of the law; in many ways they are positioned above and outside it.
The examples of this Orwellian abuse of power are many.

The Supreme Court recently ruled in Hein v. North Carolina that even when a police officer stops a person without proper cause such an act is not a violation of the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
And in those rare instances when police are faced with indictments by the courts for their illegal, hostile and heinous acts against the American people they are rarely, if ever, indicted.
Police departments also do not report the actual numbers of people they kill in the United States each year. Victims of police violence are “disappeared” by a bureaucratic trick where “justified” killings by police officers are thrown down the memory hole.
The criminal justice system monitors itself. There can be no true accountability. This is not an accident or aberration of the system. No, it is the carceral and punishing State working exactly as designed and intended by American elites.
The United States was founded as a white (and male) supremacist society. Centuries later, the country remains organized around the maintenance and protection of white privilege. These hierarchies of race deem that the ability and power of the police to violate the basic human and Constitutional rights of a given person of color in the United States are outsized and exaggerated.
Here, police abuse against non-whites (and the poor, more generally) within the context of a racist criminal justice system (what Michelle Alexander has called the New Jim Crow) is the norm, a quotidian reality that hides behind cold statistics that detail how black teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white peers, or how a black person’s life is taken at least once every 28 hours by a law enforcement officer.
The panoply of ways black and brown people have been killed by the police, and the explanations offered for their deaths, could form the basis of an absurdist or dark satire. Black people have been killed by cops for sleeping in cars, because wallets, key chains and cell phones look like guns when held by African Americans; for holding toys, committing the Jim Crow-era crime of “bumptious walking,” playing in the park, dressing up like a favorite anime character, or selling loose cigarettes outside a corner bodega.
Except for pathological white racists, and those other white folks who share such sentiments and feelings even while they mask their bigotry with the claim that they don’t “see” race, there is no humor to be found in this necropolis of black people, many of them unarmed, who have been killed by the police in this bloody 2014 or in the decades and centuries that preceded it.
Because the police are a protected class, an artifice of myths has been erected around them, myths that take the form of unstated assumptions that are circulated throughout American culture and are rarely questioned or critically interrogated. This cultural and rhetorical shield takes many forms; it is a narrative and type of conventional wisdom that Americans learn in childhood, is recited by politicians and religious leaders, and endlessly reinforced by the mass media.
Police violence is justified and explained away by the following tropes.
Police work is a dangerous job. While being a police officer may involve some level of risk, it is largely mitigated by training and equipment. On the macro level, in the United Statespolice work is not included in the top 10 most dangerous professions. Sanitation workers, truck drivers, forestry workers, and professional fisherman are far more likely to be killed or injured on the job than police.
While the mass media and police unions are invested in projecting an image of police work as highly dangerous, thrilling, and adrenaline-filled, the number-one cause of death for police officers are vehicular accidents.
Police have a difficult job that involves making split-second decisions. As research on implicit bias, racism and police use of force has demonstrated, cops are much more likely to make “split-second decisions” to kill black men. Yet, somehow the perils and fears that loom over police and their decision-making processes are suspended and lessened when they interact with white people.
Cliven Bundy and his armed group of marauders did not face a “split-second” decision by the police to shoot them. White men walking around neighborhoods with guns displayed in plain sight are not preemptively killed by the police. White men who have actually shot at firefighters and police are somehow miraculously taken into custody unharmed and alive. White teenagers who bring arsenals of guns and knives to their high schools are arrested and given bail.
Police selectively make split-second decisions about who to shoot and kill in America. Blackness is a trigger for violence; whiteness and white skin privilege are signals to deescalate.
Police are heroes. Heroism involves a selfless act by a person who is not trained for such duty, or who cannot be reasonably expected to act in such a manner. Police have chosen their profession. They are trained and equipped for the task. Police officers are also well compensated both on the job and in retirement. They also benefit and receive support from a huge and powerful social apparatus that is designed to protect them from the consequences of their actions.
A given police officer may have a moment of bravery or courage. By themselves, neither of those deeds rises to the level of heroism.
The police who killed Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and who participate in a system that harasses and targets people of color for unjust punishment and harassment are most certainly not heroes in the best and most authentic sense of the word.
Instead of holding police (and others who are empowered by the state to kill) to a higher standard, America’s civil religion deifies police and simultaneously lowers their bar of accountability to one far below that of the average person—in all, what is a perverse paradox.
The blind worship of the police exists in the same flat and empty right-wing political imagination as litmus tests for patriotism that consist of questioning if a given politician wears an American flag pen on his lapel.
Such rituals socialize the American people into the twin habits of banal and unreflective thinking which legitimizes a narrowing of the public discourse. Basic questions about justice are made verboten; they are not to be mentioned or discussed in polite company.
Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu are dead. Eric Garner, and many other unarmed black and brown people are also dead—killed by the police under highly questionable circumstances. Demands that police treat all Americans with respect, and in accordance with their human rights, is not a zero sum game.
Police lives matter because they are human beings. The lives of the victims of police brutality and violence matter because they too are human beings. This simple calculus makes for a safer and more just society for all people.


I am the editor and founder of We Are Respectable Negroes, as well as the host of the podcast known as “The Chauncey DeVega Show”.

I am also a race man in progress, Black pragmatist, ghetto nerd, cultural critic and essayist. I have been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Make it Plain, Joshua Holland’s Alternet Radio Hour, the Thom Hartmann radio show, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground.  My writing has been featured by Salon, Alternet, The New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos.  My work has also been referenced by MSNBC, as well as online magazines and publications such as The Atlantic, Slate, The Week, The New Republic, Buzzfeed, The Daily Beast, The Washington Times, The Nation, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Judge me by my enemies. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Juan Williams, Herman Cain, Alex Jones, World Net Daily, Twitchy, the Free Republic, NewsBusters, the Media Research Council, Project 21, and Weasel Zippers have made it known that they do not like me very much

‘Is There a Problem?’ That Scary Brown Man And White Privilege φ GYASI ROSS

‘Is There a Problem?’ That Scary Brown Man And White Privilege

By GYASI ROSS • JAN 9, 2015
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Gyasi Ross, writer and lawyer.

Last year, I had a big business meeting in New York and a reading for my new book, “How to Say I Love You in Indian,” at the American Indian Community House in Midtown Manhattan.

For some inexplicable reason, some television folks were interested in me doing television work. Look, I’m from the rez – we’re hunter-gatherers. If someone is willing to give me free food and an opportunity to provide for my family and me, I’m definitely going to be there. The lunch meeting was at noon. I usually fly red-eyes so I can tuck my son into bed and spend as much time with him before I leave. This time, however, I wanted to be well-prepared and rested, so I flew the night before.

First half of the flight was cool. I wore my comfortable flying clothes – camouflage sweats, camouflage sweatshirt, braids and a skullcap.

It was on Southwest, which I’ve flown a million times, simply because they sometimes have cheaper flights and, most importantly, I didn’t have to pay separately for bags. I know that I still pay for them, but it’s just not a separate charge. I appreciate that.

First leg of the flight was from Seattle to Chicago. No problem – I got off the plane for my four-hour layover (seriously) and got an all-beef dog at Chicago O’Hare.

Then the second leg of my flight. Ugh.

I had a backpack and a small duffel bag. I was in the “C” boarding group, so I knew that I was getting a middle seat. Guaranteed.

When I got on, there was a seat in the very first row – it was a middle seat. I knew I was going to get screwed on the seating, so I figured why not sit in the front of the plane? At least I’d be first to get off the plane.

In the front row was a middle-aged white couple (Sarah Jessica Parker-type middle aged, where they tried to dress like they weren’t quickly approaching AARP-status). The woman sat in the window seat and the man was in the aisle seat, holding a baby. They were being slick (like I do as well) and had a pile of stuff in the middle seat pretending it was occupied and hoping nobody would sit there.

I know the game – I’m not mad.

I asked, “Excuse me, is somebody sitting there?”

The lady responded, “Yes, I’m waiting for a friend. She’s supposed to be boarding.”

I was pretty sure she was lying. Under normal circumstances, I would have just taken the seat – this is Southwest Airlines, for God’s sake – there’s no saving seats. Southwest Airlines is PURE social Darwinism. Every person for themselves! But since I wasn’t getting a good seat anyway, and I was at the very end of the boarding group, I decided to wait.

“OK, cool,” I said. “I’ll wait here to see if your friend gets on.”

The last person boarding – another middle-aged white woman – got on. The window seat lady literally grabbed her and asked her to sit there. I’ll call that lady “The Recruit.”

I smirked and told her, “You don’t know that lady at all – ha! You lied. You realize how rude that is right?”

She responded, “That’s not rude.”

I said, “OK, well I suppose that’s just you then.” And smile at her.

The Recruit got up QUICKLY and strolled toward the back – evidently she had zero interest in this discussion and saw more fertile ground in the back of the plane.

I put my bags up above and went to sit down. The man scooted over to the middle seat, chivalrously. No problem – until there was a problem.

The wife pointed at me and said to her husband, loudly, “I don’t want him sitting there.”

I looked at her to make sure I heard her correctly. “Don’t look at me,” she said.

White privilege is the inherent suspicion that people of color – and predominately men of color – are doing something wrong. Big black men and big brown men are presumed guilty. All the time.
Damn, I couldn’t believe that. Adrenaline rushed through me. I said, “Look, you have no input into where I sit or where I look.”

I sat down and got my MP3 player ready to play some Marty Robbins. I knew the drill – I’ve been trained since I was a kid: “You’re a big brown guy – don’t be too scary. Don’t be too big. Don’t be too brown.”

We’re taught these things for our own safety and to get along.

And I was cool – but before I pressed play on my Sony MP3 player, the husband – all 5-foot-5 and probably 125 pounds told me, “You need to shut your mouth!”


For a woman to tell me something rude, that’s one thing. I’m not going to clobber a woman for a rude remark. But this guy – let’s be clear, he would never talk to me like that under any other circumstances. Ever. But he was feeling bold or threatened or insecure or something and turned what were simply words into possibly a really bad situation.

I got really close to him and said, “Look, you know this plane ride is going end at some point, right? You have to get off this plane.”

He shut up. But his wife didn’t. “You can’t sit there,” she said.

By this time, I was really mad. Not at the lady, necessarily, but that this grown man would talk to another grown man like this and expect no response. “I’m not moving anyplace so if you don’t want to sit by me, I suggest you move.”

Just then the captain came out. I was elated. Yes! I don’t like feeling like I have to run and tell anybody anything, but I also don’t want to get thrown in jail for stomping this dude into the luggage area below the plane. So I was happy to see an objective person. But unfortunately, that’s not how it went down.

The captain looked at only me. “Is there a problem?”

I said, “Well, this lady right here told me that she doesn’t want me sitting here for whatever reason and her husband tells me to shut my mo– ”

The captain interrupted me. “Well, I only hear you.”

I said, “I understand – I have a loud voice, that’s why I’m telling you what happened. Ask any of the folks sitting here –” I pointed to the people staring at us. He didn’t ask anybody anything. Instead, his focus was squarely on me.

Captain: “You need to lower your voice. Do you want to take the next flight?”

(Admittedly, I DO have a loud voice, and I WAS agitated by this time. I think that was understandable.)

Me: “No, I don’t want to – I’m telling you what happened.”

Captain: “Well I only hear you out here hollering.”

Me: “Well, I suggest that you have selective hearing.”

Captain (staring me down): “Oh, now you want to get in MY face?”

I was a bit confused because that implied that I had gotten in someone else’s face. Maybe he meant he thought I had gotten in the husband’s face?

He didn’t wait for my response. “I suggest you quiet down before you take the next flight,” he said.

I was stewing. But I knew I couldn’t take the next flight – that would not have been until the next morning, and I would have missed my important meeting. I don’t have a lot of very important meetings – I’m not a very important guy – so I didn’t want to miss one of the only ones that I’ve had.

When I got to baggage claim, a couple of younger white guys sitting behind me came up to me (one of them was from Hicksville on Long Island in New York. I laughed when he told me that – I thought he was joking): “That was bullshit. I told the captain afterward that everything happened exactly like you said.”

Made the meeting. Thankfully. Made a complaint on the Southwest Airlines website. They responded with an incredibly condescending email that said that they were sorry for my “less than pleasant” experience on the plane (it wasn’t “less than pleasant” – it was humiliating).

I couldn’t do anything or I would have been thrown off the plane or provoked into physical conflict – in the same way cops provoke men of color by staring us down and asking if we have a problem and other rhetorical questions intended only to provoke.
The email also stated, as a matter of fact, “As you know, our Pilot did not hear any other Passengers, which is why he only addressed his question to you.” (No, I have absolutely no reason to know that – I do know that he only addressed me). Also, the captain flat-out lied and said that he asked me to lower my voice twice before asking if I wanted to take another flight – not true. Finally, the email said, in ABC after-school special speak:

“We realize that sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it, and we apologize that you feel as if our Pilot could have used a more patient and professional tone when intervening in the exchange between you and the Customers in question.”

This is just insulting: As if my problem was with the captain’s TONE. No, it was that he didn’t ask anybody else a single question before singling me out and asking me if I wanted to take another flight, and then stood staring at me as if I were supposed to stand down from his authority (which I did, by the way, because I had to make the flight. I would have loved to have three minutes alone with that captain in a small room).



The window seat lady clearly did not like something about the way I looked – she made up her mind before we exchanged any words. I smelled good (or as good as I could) – I showered that morning and wasn’t in any way offensive with my clothing (I wasn’t wearing a T-shirt with swear words or anything like that). Perhaps it was the camouflage – looked terrorist-ish? Maybe it was the braids or long “Native” earrings? Maybe it was the huge Native guy in braids and camouflage?

Either way, after being overwhelmingly gracious and waiting for her to find her “friend,” the lady’s first words about me (to her husband) were, “I don’t want him sitting there.” For the life of me, I cannot think what would have caused her to say something like that about me other than an inherent dislike.

Moreover, the man felt completely comfortable telling me, “You need to shut your mouth.”

I don’t think it’s possible to see a stranger as a human being and talk to them like that. They didn’t see me as a human. I was something less. I’m not overly sensitive – sometimes people are just rude. No racism, no sexism, no anything other than everyday mundane rude behavior.

This was different.

White privilege

White privilege is different than racism. I don’t THINK the Captain was racist. But he had a very bad case of white privilege. Southwest Airlines emboldened that privilege by white-washing (see what I did there?) his behavior.

White privilege is the inherent suspicion that people of color – and predominately men of color – are doing something wrong. Big black men and big brown men are presumed guilty. All the time.

At my first jury trial, the young white prosecutor came into the courtroom where I was in my suit and practicing my cross-examination. She asked, very politely, “Excuse me sir, are you waiting for your attorney?”

It’s similar to when the pundits and armchair analysts during the George Zimmerman trial assumed that Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager he killed, HAD to be doing something wrong when he walked to the store. There are countless other examples.

The captain may have heard just me – that may be true. Nonetheless, it seems that in the pursuit of finding a resolution, he should have asked a question or two instead of simply cutting me off and threatening to throw me off the plane.

He had me by the balls: I couldn’t do anything or I would have been thrown off the plane or provoked into physical conflict – in the same way cops provoke men of color by staring us down and asking if we have a problem and other rhetorical questions intended only to provoke.

A huge Native guy in camouflage was arguing with a clean-cut white couple (and a white captain). Three guesses who started that one.

That’s privilege.

The white couple didn’t have to think about any of that. They didn’t have to think about appearing TOO big or TOO brown or TOO Native or anything other than simply enjoying their flight.

Look, I’m not special. This shit happens every day. Most of us are bullied into not saying anything, like I was by the captain.

“Is there a problem?” he wanted to know. But answer the question honestly, and you won’t make your flight or you might be detained. That’s privilege.

Unfortunately, my example is an EXTREMELY mild version of that privilege; I’m quite lucky that all I had to do was swallow my pride. It doesn’t even compare to other times where brown men and women are “presumed guilty,” which leads to brothers and sisters and mothers and aunts beat down, pepper sprayed and thrown in jail for choosing to answer that question honestly instead of swallowing their tongue.

I know of stories where cops literally got into men’s face – cheek to cheek, daring them to fight – trying to con them into responding.

We know EXACTLY what would happen if that big man of color gave the response that he wanted.

I couldn’t tell the captain the truth when he asked me what tens of thousands of police officers, Bureau of Indian Affairs agents, slave overseers and teachers have asked helpless and muted people of color, “Is there a problem?”

Hell, yes, there’s a problem.

This story was originally published at Indian Country Media Network on Jan. 27, 2014.

Gyasi Ross (@bigindiangyasi) is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and the Suquamish Nation. He lives on the Port Madison Indian Reservation, home of the Suquamish Nation near Seattle. Both are his Homelands and he loves being in his Homelands. He is a father to an amazing and rotten little boy, an author who writes for online and print publications and also who writes books and sometimes bad comedy. He is also a lawyer and a filmmaker. Most of all, he is a storyteller and comes from a long line of storytellers. His website:

The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story – or note one you’ve seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at or 206-616-2035.

Teen Girls’ Slam Poetry φ Bustle Video

Teen Girls’ Slam Poetry On ‘The Queen Latifah Show’ Is The Powerful Thing You Need To Hear Today — VIDEO

Belissa Escobedo, Rhiannon McGavin, an


Belissa Escobedo, Rhiannon McGavin, and Zariya Allen recited a jaw-dropping poem called “Somewhere in America” on the since-canceled The Queen Latifah Show. The young women, part of the LA-based nonprofit Get Lit, called to attention the information passed along unintentionally in this country’s classrooms. Spoiler alert: it gets pretty real.

The trio of teenage girls start the poem ominously: “The greatest lessons you will ever teach us, you won’t even remember.” From there, they jump into fairly controversial, dark topics like rape, race, gun control, socioeconomics, and censorship. Emotions rage so hard in the three-and-a-half-minute piece, occasionally you can spot a small vocal crack in the performance, but that just lends more validation to the truth they kept spouting. ”Somewhere in America,” ushers in the hard-to-hear stuff,  ”Women are killed for rejecting dates, but God forbid I bring my girlfriend to prom.” Another: “The preppy kids go thrifting because they think it sounds fun. But we go ‘cause that’s all we’ve got money for.”

The episode, also guest featuring feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, was meant to highlight female empowerment. However, the young voices seemed to lend strength and raise serious questions across the board, regardless of gender identity. Get Lit says they hope to “change the world, one word at a time.” We believe, given this performance, that’s entirely possible.

Escobedo, McGavin, and Allen have performed their poem in front of thousands of people, including a coveted opening slot for a sold-out John Legend concert at the Hollywood Bowl last fall. They cite real-life, personal experiences and Jay Z’s social commentary as inspiration for the piece. “I think poetry is the best way to express emotions…” McGavin says, “It’s an amazing way to help people, especially teens.” Hear hear.

Image: The Queen Latifah Show

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