Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Racism in the criminal justice system

 (Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

On October 3, I saw a body-camera video of a white police officer in Greensboro, North Carolina using excessive force when arresting a Black man. This 16-minute video began with two officers responding to a call about a potential break-in in a wealthy neighborhood and ended with Dejuan Yourse being thrown to the ground and repeatedly punched in the face by the male officer. Yourse had committed no crime and was simply sitting on the porch of his mother’s house, a fact that he repeatedly attempted to prove after continued surveillance and questioning.

This was certainly not the first or last video that I have seen of its kind, nor was it the most brutal, and what I found to be the most shocking thing about it was not the inherent bias that was demonstrated by the officers or the violence that ensued, but instead my own reaction.

My first thought after recovering from the initial disgust that I felt while watching this video was, “I am so glad that police officer did not pull out his gun.”

How have we as a nation become so quick to criminalize Black men, and how have I as an individual become so numb to the ramifications of criminalization and dehumanization?

Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th”, which was released on Netflix on October 7, aims to answer these questions through a comprehensive look at Black history. This documentary begins with the passage of the 13th Amendment which, while it prohibits slavery or indentured servitude, includes the important exception that slavery is permissible as punishment for a crime.

This distinction led to the shift from a Southern economy that was dependent on slavery to one that was dependent on a convict-lease system, but more importantly, it marks the moment in history when Black people began to be painted in the media as criminals, and therefore as dangerous people to be feared. This fear became the justification for continued oppression and dehumanization in the form of Jim Crow laws and later, mass incarceration.

In the 1970s and 80s, a sudden cry for “law and order” that was sparked by Richard Nixon began the war against public enemy number one – drugs. This war cry was brought into actuality by Ronald Reagan who, by focusing on longer sentences for cheaper drugs, such as crack in comparison to cocaine, created a policing mindset that disproportionately targeted Black people instead of whites.

George H.W. Bush took advantage of this national fervor for law and order in the 1988 election, creating a campaign ad that painted his opponent, Michael Dukakis (then governor of Massachusetts), as being weak against criminals. This ad specifically focused on Dukakis’ leniency toward Willie Horton, a Black man convicted of murder. While it cannot be said that this ad won Bush the election, Dukakis did lose what was at one time a 17-point lead, and many view this ad and Dukakis’ overall refusal to be tough on crime as the deciding factors.

Bill Clinton, who was at this point entering a political environment where a campaign that was deemed “soft on crime” was a campaign that lost, won the 1992 election on a platform involving tough crime laws including the 1994 crime bill, a move that put 100,000 more police officers on the streets and included clauses such as the controversial “three strikes, you’re out” mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders. Clinton now admits that this law played a role in the over-incarceration problem that we have in this country.

But simply calling this an over-incarceration problem ignores the inherent bias that is central to the very issue. We live in a country where over 2.3 million people are incarcerated, and where Black people represent 35 percent of the total jail population and only 14.3 percent of the total American population. We live in a country where television shows and movies perpetuate the image of Black people, specifically Black men, as characteristically dangerous and violent. We live in a country where fear of Black men, a fear that was fabricated by white men in order to put former slaves in prisons, has permeated our social consciousness to the point where a neighbor called the police on Dejuan Yourse for sitting on his front porch, or where Trayvon Martin was followed, shot and killed for wearing a hoodie.

Newt Gingrich made the point surprisingly well in the DuVernay documentary when he stated, “The objective reality is that virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being Black in America.” That inherent misunderstanding is plain to see when looking at how people have reacted and continue to react to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Standing with Black Lives Matter does not mean that you are against the police or against “law and order,” a phrase that has made a strong comeback during this election season. Likewise, to say that Black lives matter is not to say that other lives don’t.

Black Lives Matter is a movement that is attempting to reclaim the humanity that has been systematically stripped from Black individuals since they were forcibly brought to this country. It is an effort to overcome the dehumanization of the Black community that has been perpetuated for centuries in this country, from slavery, to convict-leasing, to Jim Crow, and now to mass incarceration. If we continue to ignore that history and continue to allow false fears to dictate how we vote or what legislation we support, we will never be a united nation.

Tess Halpern is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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    David Hunt 1990Oct 17, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    Well, given that black men commit almost half the homicides in this country, there might be a reason for the disparity.