I’m black—and I’m not afraid of the police

I'm more afraid of America.

Internet Culture

Published Aug 13, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 6:54 pm CDT


By this point, maybe you’ve heard about the shooting in an Ohio Wal-Mart. A twenty-two-year-old guy named John Crawford III was playing with a toy pellet gun, someone called 911, and the police showed up and shot him in the chest. He died.

Yes, the officers were white, and the victim was black.

People are starting to argue that the incident had nothing to do with the race of the victim. But it’s a little hard to argue that position if you consider that, for white people, apparently taking actual guns to Wal-Mart and just hanging out is a thing.

Example: a while ago, some white women were flashing their guns in Wal-Mart. The police showed up, and according to a gun rights blog, harassed them. Not shot, “harassed.”

Seriously, walking around stores like you’re waiting for a Call of Duty: Suburban Warfare scenario to happen in real life is a regular midwest pastime now. Apparently, it’s such a popular thing that even the NRA has asked some people in Texas to cool it because it’s bad for their image.

Again, white folks are waltzing up and down store aisles with actual assault weapons, and everyone seems okay with that. But, some young black dude plays with a toy he found in the store, and gets killed. I wonder what the NRA is going to say about this one.

Where it starts to get really scary

Let’s take a look at news reports of the incident. You can watch the local coverage here, but if you don’t feel like it, here’s a breakdown of their angle:

1) The toy gun looked real

2) It might have had toy pellets inside

3) Also the guy was a dangerous criminal, so he had it coming anyway.

First off, I feel like it’s probably significant that they picked an old black man to say that the toy looked real. Everyone else they interviewed was white.

This might be a coincidence, but it seems a little suspicious. They seem to be using him to give a visual hint that “hey, even black people think this dude was in the wrong. So trust us, we’re not racist.”

I mean, everyone else they talked to worked in a gun store, or was in some kind of official capacity to be able to comment on the story. This guy was just filling up at a gas station. His byline is “lives in Miami township.” Were they just walking around looking for black people to give them a sound bite? I wonder how many black people they had to hit up before they got this one.

ABC 22 knows that it looks bad and they’re trying to cover their tracks, but their angle is so transparent it’s not even funny.

But hey, Crawford was a criminal anyway.

Also, the description they give of Crawford is horrible. It serves no purpose other than to demonize him.

I mean, they’re really trying to drive it home that Crawford was dangerous. At the beginning of the report, they say that it’s “unclear . . . whether or not [the toy] was loaded.” Loaded with what? Pellets? A toy loaded with smaller toys? That can’t be relevant, unless you’re trying to make Crawford seem scary.

Then, they go into his background. For example, they tell us that he was charged with (not convicted of) receiving stolen property. And charged with domestic violence and possession of drugs (which probably just means weed). But all these charges were dismissed. So why are they even bringing this up?

The officer’s background is a different story.

They give a lot of positive information about him.

They spend most of their time talking about his stellar record as an officer. But then they mention that there were a couple instances in which he didn’t follow orders, or lost his temper while he was dealing with suspects.

So, at first, this might seem like they’re giving a fair amount of data on both people, but that’s not how it works. The officer is a public servant, and that sort of data is relevant to understanding how he interacts with people.

But to do that sort of digging on Crawford just seems irresponsible. He’s a civilian. If you find out that he brought a real gun into the store, and that he actually threatened people, then fine?—?tell me about his criminal record. But it’s confirmed that the gun was a toy. In the absolute best case scenario, this was a horrible mistake.

But they’re still encouraging everyone to assume that he was dangerous, and that his death was justified. And people are buying it.

And that’s really what I’m worried about. Obviously, I’m personally worried about me or my loved ones getting shot. But here, at least, I’m willing to suspend disbelief and assume that the police are doing their job. Because we don’t know yet.

It’s our reaction to this stuff, as a nation, that worries me.

Immediately, we’re jumping to conclusions in assuming that the black dude was at fault, and he deserved to die.

Also, we’re all being led into a very dangerous trap.

That is, the news coverage is trying to build up this simple binary opposition: police versus black people. It’s not that simple. If it’s anything, it’s America versus black people. America versus its own.

Police are just one part of that larger America. They’re just the most noticeable, so they’re targets. And police are used to being criticized. They can take it. It’s part of their job, and it makes for an easy news report.

I mean, I read these stories, and then I see white kids up in the comments section on Facebook typing “FUCK THE POLICE” in all caps. And if you ask them why they hate the police, you get responses like, “Oh man, one time I got a ticket for parking my dad’s Benz in a handicap zone. Man, fuck those pigs.” And it’s like, breh. Breh. Seriously.


But I want to leave that topic for another day. 

Because for right now, it’s the media’s hand in this that’s bothering me here. Even ABC 22, which has delivered by far the most ignorant and racist treatment of this subject that I’ve seen thus far, is hedging their bets in case this whole thing turns out to be an unjust killing. Essentially, they’re saying: “Well, that’s just the police being police. They’re acting up again, oh well.” 

But the police is you and me, the police is us. They come from us. They’re not some weird space aliens. We create them and pay their salary.

So yeah, I’m afraid of police. Police are afraid of police.

But I’m more afraid of regular old Americans.

For example, if you check out the Amazon page for the toy Crawford was was playing with, there’re already two new reviews making fun of his death. It’s only been a couple days, and we’re so terrified of thinking about race in America that we have to make cruel jokes suggesting that Crawford had it coming.

Photo via Maa

So really, if we’re going to attack anyone, I want us to start attacking the education system first. How did we screw up so badly as a society that people’s first reaction is to head to Amazon and rejoice in someone’s death in the product review section?

But wait, hold up a second.

Photo via Amazon

Let’s take a look at this Jason R. Raines person.

I want to meet whoever taught Jason R. Raines Social Studies. I want to meet his high school History teacher. I want to know how he managed to graduate from Auburn University with such a sad, cruel mindset. I want to know how we can stop people like him from becoming city council members.

I want to know how it is that Sunnyside, Washington elected a council member that makes jokes about killing Mexicans and Arabs on his blog.

That is to say: nothing happens in a vacuum.

The people in comments sections spouting off racist nonsense aren’t just lonely internet trolls. They’re real people. And sometimes, they’re people that have the power to make decisions that will affect millions of lives.

I mean, realistically, think about it. A police officer has, at best, the opportunity to really mess with maybe one person a day. And if he goes too far?—?god forbid, if he kills someone, and it’s not justified?—?he’ll get reprimanded, or fired. And that’s it. His policing days are done.

But I can think of plenty of teachers that have been wreaking havoc for years, completely unchecked. I remember my second grade teacher forbidding Alexandria, who (I had a crush on and) was the best student in the class, from running for class president because “only boys can be president.”

I was mad (mainly because of the aforementioned crush), but I accepted it as fact, because the teacher, who was also a woman, said so.

I can remember teachers telling my parents I had trouble learning and had social problems. I can remember spending hours in the principal’s office. For years, I genuinely thought I was a bad kid. It wasn’t until I hit my teens that I began to realize that I didn’t have learning or social problems: I was just black.

So by the time I was having interactions with police on the street as a teenager, the public and private school systems of Southern California had already worked their magic on me.

Most of those people are still teaching.

That’s why I’m less worried about police

Or at least, I’m less worried about them than I am about other aspects of the Education Industrial Complex. I’m worried about the machine that sends black and brown kids to prison instead of college and teaches white kids to be afraid of their colored friends.

Again, a bigot police officer can mess with maybe a few people a month. But a bigot teacher can ruin hundreds of lives in a single semester. And those kids will go and grow up like Jason R. Raines. Then, a bigot politician, like Raines apparently is, can make a city a living hell for the 9,000+ people of Latino descent that live there. And a bigot politician, if he’s playing in the big leagues, can send thousands of people to die in a desert somewhere for no reason.

But I don’t see anyone bothering them. I can’t remember the last time someone really took a school or college to task for creating a curriculum that doesn’t take race and gender education seriously (hell, they tried to ban Mexican Studies in Arizona).

Raines is still in office. And last time I heard, the Bush administration is still not in jail.

Seriously, what is yelling about police on the Internet going to do? I honestly don’t have a whole lot of faith in that bringing results. I have a lot more faith in educating the entire nation about race and gender. I have more faith in making everyone face our past and our present. That’s what’s going to bring change.

And please don’t misunderstand me as being an advocate for “gradual” change. No, I want change right now. I want change yesterday. But it’s got to be total change, not just minor alterations in how Officer Bob responds to me personally. You want to put pressure on the police? Fine, but don’t forget to put pressure on the schools and your racist neighbors.

Put pressure on yourself.

Yelling “fuck the police” might feel good

But it’s ultimately useless.

And really, I think a lot of the reason it feels good is because it lets us pretend that we don’t have to do anything else. We’re taking the photogenic parts of the Black Panther legacy and forgetting about all the hard work. That’s probably the most dangerous part. A friend of mine wrote about that recently.

I’m all for monitoring the police, and everyone has the right to protest things that police do. I’ve done it before and will probably do it again. If I was down there in Ferguson, I’d probably be in the streets, too.

But as soon as we figured out whatever the hell was going through that Missouri officer’s mind when he shot that boy in the back and left him in the street for hours, I’d head down to the school district to see what we could do about making sure that we actually learned from this. I’d be in there telling them that, for starters: #MichaelBrown better not just be a trending hashtag, he better be in next year’s Social Studies book.

And I’d be making sure that those brilliant, tireless teachers, like those that I was blessed with later in my teens, didn’t have their hands tied and were able to help those who need it most.

And please believe that I’d be in some city council meetings making sure we didn’t have any Jason R. Raines in there.

That’s because we’re dealing with a huge, nationwide problem here, and it’s not going to be solved by putting one or two small-town cops behind bars. It’s going to involve us, as individuals, deciding that we’re going to hold everybody accountable for the America we live in. Not just the cops.

So, you want a revolution, kids? You want a war? Well, welcome to the battlefield: you.

Dexter Thomas Jr is a scholar of hip-hop and contemporary culture at Cornell University. California-born and Tokyo-based, Thomas is finishing his book on Japanese hip-hop this year. He tweets at @dexdigi. This article was originally featured on Medium and reposted with permission.

Photo via PS-OV-ART/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

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*First Published: Aug 13, 2014, 12:30 pm CDT