We were disappointed to read “Black Lives Matter – including the 99.7% of killings that aren’t by cops,” an opinion piece written by Austen Ward that The Lens published last week. It was misguided, dangerous, and dated, grounded in thinking that has already been addressed directly by the Black Lives Matter movement and in mainstream media, including pieces in USA Today and the Atlantic.
Ward makes the case that black people are more likely to be criminals and insinuates that the Black Lives Matter movement may be fostering criminality. The fact is that our country has a long history of criminalizing the behaviors of black people because they are black. This systemic racism is enforced by an increasingly militarized system of law enforcement and a justice system that doesn’t value black lives, and it is perpetuated by the kind of fear Ward invokes.
We live in a country where — as some of our grandparents still remember — black people were lynched for simple actions that were criminalized: knocking on a white woman’s door, calling a police officer by his first name, or even refusing to step off the sidewalk when a white person walked past.
The report released last week by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division investigating the Baltimore Police Department following the murder of Freddie Gray at the hands of police is deeply troubling. It found that the Baltimore Police Department was three times more likely to stop an African-American pedestrian than a white pedestrian. Even though searches were twice as likely to find contraband on white individuals, police officers were far more likely to search black people once stopped.
The report says that Baltimore Police Department officers “arrest individuals standing lawfully on public sidewalks for ‘loitering,’ ‘trespassing,’ or other misdemeanor offenses.” It finds significant racial disparities in causes for arrest that are eerily reminiscent of the justification for past lynching: “failure to obey,” “trespassing,” and “disorderly conduct.”
This phenomenon is not unique to Baltimore. Similar findings of racial bias in policing have been revealed in reputable studies from New Jersey to Oakland.
This history of the criminalization of black people in our country has been uninterrupted since the time of slavery. Today, it results in black people being shut out of employment, educational opportunities and voting due to a history of arrest or incarceration for accusations and non-violent offenses that white people with means simply have not had to encounter.
And it continues in the response of law enforcement to the Black Lives Matter movement. Just last month in Baton Rouge, a multiracial group of protesters concerned about the police killing of Alton Sterling were arrested for standing on private property.
The culture of silence that Ward describes is not because black residents don’t care about crime in their community. It is because they are justified in not trusting law enforcement, given the history of the way black people have been terrorized by state-sanctioned violence across our country since its founding days. In Chicago, the same activists protesting police violence in the black community are involved with violence interrupters, who disrupts violent altercations before they escalate. The youth at Rethink in New Orleans have come to join Black Lives Matter efforts after years of working to teach their peers restorative approaches to conflict. They have also connected these efforts to a platform for ending state-sanctioned violence.
But this culture of silence is not unique to the black community. Earlier this year, the effort to remove many of the city’s Confederate statues that honor the horrible legacy of slavery was interrupted by intimidation tactics sufficient to scare off potential bidders. To date, these intimidation tactics, including death threats and the torching of a contractor’s car, have not yet been addressed by our local law enforcement. Nobody has publicly come forward with information about the perpetrators. We don’t see Ward criticizing white people for not speaking out against those crimes.
We are not condoning violence. We know that this is an issue that disproportionately impacts black lives in New Orleans and is not just perpetrated by police. But, police officers are armed agents of the state sworn to maintain integrity and public trust. And private patrols hired by tax dollars in neighborhood security districts are also expected to uphold the public trust. Brutality — both the violent kind captured on cell phone videos and the daily harassment of black people going about their lives — committed by public servants is not just unacceptable, it is a contributing factor to the lack of safety and opportunity in our neighborhoods.
We are asking for a deeper look at the ways in which our country has used law enforcement and the criminal justice system to terrorize black communities. The Black Lives Matter movement is simply an articulation of the frustration in the black community with these injustices perpetuated by a nation that professes to value all lives.
We agree with Ward that it is all of our responsibility to address the loss of black lives due to violence, whether police-inflicted or otherwise. Doing that effectively requires a thoughtful understanding of the institutional racism that underlies this violence, which implicates all of us in the white community, especially those of us who consider ourselves engaged citizens. We suggest that Ward look in the mirror and consider how the simple existence of the South 7th Ward Security District he created may be contributing to this criminalization of his black neighbors.
Michelle Regan Wedberg is a wife and mother. She lives in Bywater. Hamilton Simons-Jones is a husband and father. He lives in Gentilly. They serve together on the Board of Directors of Rethink, an organization that supports youth organizing for social justice.