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How Police Brutality Can Function as Terrorism

Photo: @megoconnor13/twitter

Video was made public over the weekend showing Phoenix police officers threatening to shoot members of a black family, which included a child and a toddler. The incident occurred on May 27, when the 4-year-old daughter of Dravon Ames and Iesha Harper allegedly stole a doll from a Family Dollar store. (NPR reports that the child’s parents were unaware of the alleged theft.) Officers followed the family — Ames and Harper, who was pregnant, and their two daughters, ages 4 and 1 — to an apartment complex where the family’s babysitter lived. Officers are seen on cell-phone video shouting at the four to exit their vehicle. One is heard yelling, “Get your fucking hands up” and “I’m gonna put a fucking cap in you,” while another voice — perhaps of the same officer — is heard threatening, “You’re gonna get fucking shot.”

The profane tirades turn physical when one officer handcuffs Ames and another tries to yank the toddler from Harper’s arms. The officer with Ames shoves the 22-year-old father against a police vehicle, kicks his legs until Ames falls to one knee, and thrusts his elbow into Ames’s back. The officer with Harper is seen shouting and pointing in her face and pulling on the arm in which she is carrying her 1-year-old baby. He eventually permits the pregnant woman to hand her children to a bystander before arresting her. None of the family members is armed.

speaking loudly in the presence of white women” — had been transformed into crimes in the South. Police were used to corral new black residents into ghettos depressed by poverty and molded by desperation and limited avenues for mobility. Yet remarkably, the structural ills that were imposed on the black sections of these municipalities were cast as products of their residents’ own pathologies. To this day, many Americans remain convinced that the harsh policing that dogs black communities is a necessary response to something inherently wrong with black people. For those on the receiving end, the result is a state of terror. Terrorism works by convincing its targets that they are always being hunted — no matter where they are or what they are doing, their lives are out of their hands. Its aim is victory through fear. And what better way to ensure that people live in fear than to demonstrate that even the most minor transgressions — a 4-year-old’s supposed theft of a doll from a Family Dollar store — can result in their public execution? And, perhaps as troubling, that nobody will be held accountable for said execution because it is an expression of the public will?

The psychological fallout is demonstrated in the data: According to a 2014 study conducted by public-health researchers at Harvard and Boston University, incidents of lethal police violence precipitate a spike in what black adult respondents consider to be “poor mental health days” not just among people close to those victimized but their communities more broadly, judging by metrics established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The impact is racially asymmetrical: “Mental health impacts were not observed among white respondents and resulted only from police killings of unarmed black Americans,” the study reads. For black children, such negative interactions can be formative. A 2018 survey of research on the subject compiled in The Future of Children, a journal of the policy-research partnership between Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Brookings Institution, found that many black youth in Chicago view police as “a constant, inescapable, and unwelcome presence” in their lives. Interactions are marked frequently by officers exerting their dominance in the form of offensive questions and degrading directives, causing black children to feel powerless. As a result, by the time they turn 18, many of these youth have a bleak but well-earned outlook on policing: According to a 2014 survey by the Black Youth Project and the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, more than half of black people between ages 18 and 34 have experienced police violence or harassment or know someone who has. (Thirty-three percent of white respondents and 25 percent of Latino respondents had.) Fewer than half of black respondents said they trust the police, compared to 60 percent of Latinos and 72 percent of whites.

rupturing said families using the criminal-justice system. Police violence is dismissed as subordinate to intraracial violence, or “black-on-black” crime — a phenomenon endemic, to varying degrees, within every racial group — as if the two were separate and distinct phenomena rather than twin products of racist policy. If these pundits are correct, then the May 27 incident in Phoenix might be cast as reasonable treatment for a 4-year-old alleged shoplifter, her pregnant mother, father, and 1-year-old sister. But if — as history and the evidence suggest — black families can more accurately be described as victims of violence than its root cause, then the Phoenix police were culpable in not just an overreaction but an act of terror.

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