On Friday afternoon I got off the bus at the crossing of Mount Pleasant and Irving Streets in NW DC. I had every intention of walking into the local market to get tomato sauce for dinner, but immediately after I stepped off the bus, I heard a large commotion and saw a handful of police cars. Directly across from me was a group of about 20 teenagers, from my judgement ranging from fourteen to sixteen, a mix of Latino and African American boys, yelling in a group at the police who had them surrounded. I couldn’t tell in the moment what was happening, but I was concerned.
My thoughts turned to the recent news from the border, with immigrant detainees and family separations. They turned toward the knowledge of an increase in ICE raids, in my community in DC, my home in Charlotte, and elsewhere. They turned to the knowledge of systemized racism and police brutality that are indisputable facts. I had an immediate choice, as I stepped off that bus, a white 25-year-old female: I could ignore the situation, or I could be a witness. I chose to stay, video the interaction, and leave when I felt that the boys were safe or had been treated according to their crimes.
I’ve received comments since posting the video on Facebook and a brief picture on Instagram Stories. Most have been either encouraging or constructive in their criticism. I welcome the dialogue. But one was posted last night that bothered me: “A video that you don’t know what happened for many many minutes, “I don’t know what’s going on,” but gee whiz this must be unjust. Oh, everyone was released once the situation was defused and law enforcement accessed the situation.”
I think it’s important to unpack specifically what informed my decision and what it means to be a white ally in a world of systemized oppression for those of color. The short answer to that comment is that the police won’t shoot my white skin but we all know that statistically they would shoot a Latino or Black. That’s not to impress those characters onto the individual police responders that day – but it is to accurately characterize the state of law enforcement in this country. It is to say that the probability of those teenagers being treated differently than I would be – physically or otherwise – is high. This knowledge was all I needed to use my white skin as a witness to a moment that could go either way.
What happened immediately afterwards is straightforward. I knew the owner of the shop that the group was congregated in front of. I walked through the crowd to ask her if she was ok, and to find out if she knew what had sparked the incident. She didn’t know, and said she was ok – which indicated to me first, that she was fine, and second, that she also didn’t know the origins of the situation. She seemed as surprised as I did, and also upset that they were disrupting her business at peak dinner time.
At that point I stood to the side and watched, as a crowd of onlookers stopped and watched with me, mostly white but not all. The man beside me was part of an ICE response network and activated his rapid response team just in case. Another girl was videoing with me. Others just watched. As this happened, more patrol cars came. At its height, there were at least 15 cop cars, meaning that there were approximately 30 officers (based on my rudimentary assumption that enforcement usually travels two to a car). The officers roped off the boys from the crowd with yellow warning tape, effectively corralling them inside a perimeter. There was no evident reason. There was no evident activity. The boys ranged from scared to emphatic to petulant to defiant to abrasive. Adult Latino and Black men yelled at the boys from outside the perimeter that, because they weren’t 18, they didn’t have to tell the officers anything. After about 25 minutes, the police untied the tape and released the boys. The onlookers talked, one woman coming over from the other side and telling us that it appeared that the officers had begun to separate the Black kids from the Latino ones.
In the end, no police officer unduly escalated the situation once I got there. The police force was remarkably diverse, with Black, White, female, male, and Latino officers. The boys all walked free. I never did figure out what happened – in the moment some said that a handful of the boys had tried to rob someone up the street earlier, someone said they’d tried to hump someone, others said there hadn’t been an apparent spark, one onlooker said something about them belonging to the local gangs, and the boys categorically denied any activity. My initial inclination was that the response was disproportionate to the problem I was observing. I will say that people who are in law enforcement have reached out and said that if there was a group of 20 kids for a suspected robbery, the response wasn’t disproportionate.
So, to directly respond to the comment: Yes, the video was live and so those viewing it are as confused as I was in the moment. None of us know what happened for many minutes. In fact, if you can tell me what happened after a few minutes, please share- because I was there and I certainly could not discern either the motive or the organization of the aftermath. Yes, everyone was released. I wouldn’t say the situation was defused – the choice to tear the paper down and release was not concomitant with a decrease in tension. Not being a police officer myself, I would say that yes, law enforcement assessed the situation, to the extent that ultimately they did decide to release the kids.
But the claim that this action was “gee whiz this must be unjust”, as if that assumption is a poor assessment and a negative characteristic, is problematic. First of all, there should always be neutral witnesses to law enforcement. If the law enforcement is doing their job, the video will show that, and there should not be an issue. The witness, the enforcement team, and the accused leave believing that the process was affected the way it was intended. So, in this instance, things worked out- awesome. I’m not sure what’s negative about that. I’m also not sure what’s negative about wanting to ensure that that is the result for every police encounter. The tone of the comment worries me because in what world is it desirable for police actions to occur without witnesses in blind trust of authority? I disagree with blind trust of authority in any instance everywhere. I think it’s dangerous, naïve, and lazy.
Which brings me to the next point. We know that we do not live in an ideal world. We know we live in a world where police brutality against minorities is an issue. We live in a world where white daycare workers who hang children are given probation while Black men selling cigarettes on the street are strangled. We live in a world where a child in a hoodie is murdered while his murderer walks free and later attempts to auction the gun he used to kill Trayvon. We live in a world where immigrant families are separated at the border for merely seeking asylum, the children abused during their time apart. A world where in Charlotte, ICE entered the uptown courthouse and arrested a woman with her son in a hearing for a domestic abuse case where her American husband had beat her. In all, we live in a world that is not ideal. That discriminates against certain classes and races. That dehumanizes daily. That systematically enforces racism and oppression.
Police killed 1,147 people in 2017. 25 percent of those killed were Black, though they make up only 13 percent of the population. Black people are 3 times more likely to be killed by the police than White people. 30 percent of Black victims in 2015 were unarmed, compared to 21 percent of White victims. 13 of the 100 largest US city police departments kill black men at higher rates than the US murder rate.
Furthermore, it isn’t about crime. Fewer than 1 in 3 Black victims killed by police in America in 2014 were suspected of a violent crime or allegedly armed. In 2015, minorities made up 37.4 percent of the general population in the US, but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by the police. Source Here.
If you think to yourself, “Oh, well, if crime in the US rises, it’s more likely for police to kill people,” that is also wrong. Levels of crime in US urban areas do not make it more or less likely for the police to kill people. Ultimately, there is also little to no accountability. 99 percent of cases in 2015 have not resulted in any officers involved being convicted of a crime.
In 2018, police have killed 646 people, according to Mapping Police Violence. According to the Washington Post, updated last on July 9, 563 people had been shot and killed by police. Both methodologies are available at the linked websites.
ICE, the US Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement group, has been increasing their number of arrests. According to Pew Research, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations made a total of 143,470 arrests in the fiscal year 2017, a 30 percent rise from 2016. The policy changed with the President – from the January 20 inauguration of President Trump to September 30th (the end of the fiscal year), ICE made 110,568 arrests, 42 percent more than in the same period in 2016. One of the policy changes’ main differences was crime. Under President Obama, ICE focused enforcement narrowly, prioritizing arrests of those convicted of serious crimes. Under President Trump’s new directive, ICE efforts were expanded to include most immigrants in the US without authorization, regardless of criminal record. This is in addition to the stories of ICE detention centers, which are rife with abuse, sexual assault, poor health standards, and poor living conditions.
So yes. My assumption on coming across the scene was that these boys were at a higher risk for unjust treatment, Black and Latino in their own ways. That is not a bad assessment, a negative assessment, an unpatriotic assessment, or an incorrect assessment. It was a practical one.
The point is to demonstrate, both qualitatively and quantitatively in this brief post, the reality behind a disproportionate (in my opinion) police force roping off a group of minority minors and allegedly separating them based on ethnicity. I’m glad everything was ok and everyone walked away. But statistically, it could have ended up in a very different place.
This brings us to what it means to be a white ally.
To be a White Ally, you must first recognize your privilege. “Privilege” does not mean, here, that because you are white you have a privileged life in the economic sense. There are millions and millions of white families that have had hard lives, tragedy, hardship, and difficulty, who bust their butts to make ends meet and provide dinner on the table every night, who have experienced trauma that I will not wax on about here.
What privilege means here is that you didn’t experience those things because of who you fundamentally are. For example, there can be both a poor white and a poor black. But the former is just poor. The latter is poor and black, meaning that the systems and society that surround him or her are structurally built to make it more difficult to attain stability. The most privileged person in the world is a white, straight, male figure. Everyone else – female, minority, disabled, LGBTQIA+, old, etc., has experienced oppression and discrimination in some way in society.
Intersectionality is “an analytic framework which attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society. Intersectionality considers that the various forms of what it sees as social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, disability, and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are complexly interwoven.” So with intersectionality, you can look at a white female (me) and recognize how my whiteness privileges me but my woman-ness endangers me, and compare that to a black male (some of the kids) and recognize how their blackness endangers them but perhaps their male-ness offers them a different sort of privilege. That is a very, very simple example, but when looking at any instance, it is important to examine the intersectionality of privilege and oppression in that moment. That assessment helps to inform your understanding of both the moment and its context within your societal structure as a whole.
I believe that, once your place of privilege is recognized, it is your responsibility to use it as at tool to break down barriers that impede those that are not privileged as you are. Taking that intersectional recognition of privilege I mentioned above, I can recognize in individual moments that I as a woman am discriminated, oppressed, and harassed. But I also recognize that my white skin affords me a safety that isn’t available to others in the community. Understanding this and using it as a tool of influence is now possible to me, and ultimately a responsibility I can choose to exercise.
This is what happened the other day. I saw an event that evinced all the potential hallmarks of what a bad situation could be – law enforcement corralling children of color into an area without any clear indication of intent. I used my white privilege as a witness to be there. I’m glad everyone did their jobs. I’m glad everyone was ok. But it was also a potential outcome that that would not have happened. I’m not upset that I made that choice. I’m proud that there were so many other people who also made that choice with me. It is sad that people question that choice. But rather than engage in angry retorts, I think it’s important in today’s world to discuss, to open dialogue. And this is an attempt to do so.
How can you be a better ally?
- Learn about the racialized history of America. Learn about the sexist history of America, the homophobic history, the histories that are not white and male. Look at the historic underbelly of the place you call home and familiarize yourself with it as you already have the most beautiful parts.
- Examine your narrative. Are you looking at a situation assuming a narrative of criminality, or are you being as unbiased as possible? Reject the normalized assumption that people of color have a tendency to violence or criminal behavior or whatever it may be for whatever minority you’re assessing.
- Familiarize yourself with modern forms of oppression and slavery and how they interact with systems of power (law enforcement being just one example). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is a fantastic starting point. Evicted by Matthew Desmond is also great.
- Be vocal. Speak up when you see or hear racism (or classism or homophobia or ageism or sexism or whatever the case may be).
- Be present. If there’s a moment that could go awry (read: the situation above), stop and be a witness. A roadside enforcement stop witnessed by you could either go the way it was always meant to go and everyone leaves safely, but you could also prevent another senseless death.
- Read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Dr. Peggy McIntosh
- Create space for the oppressed to express themselves. Give them the mic! Your voice is less constructive here than theirs is. Using your privilege to enable their voice to be heard and their contribution to be made is invaluable.
- Resource Linked
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I’ve written about race problems before, whether it was regarding the Charleston church massacre or the media’s impossible treatment of Cam Newton. I just finished reading a book (The Leavers by Lisa Ko) that explored a child whose mother was detained by ICE and his life was forever changed.
Power is a funny word. Merriam Webster defines it as:
It’s interesting because in Russian, “power” is hard to translate. Sometimes it’s translated as capacity rather than power – which I think is important. Everyone has the capacity to affect change, as much as the have the capacity to be complicit or neutral or enforce power in a dangerous way.
Ultimately, it is everyone’s responsibility in a community and a country to recognize that they have power or they do not. It is their responsibility to use their power to help those that do not. It is our responsibility to recognize that legal enforcement mechanisms are imbued with power that is not always exercised equally. Then, it is our power to recognize the ways in which we can positively affect change to make sure that power is exercised more equally than it might have been if our white bodies were not there as witness.