“I’m scared of the Boogeyman, ahem, I mean, I have to protect myself from any threat no matter how Big and Black”

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Since the events unfolded in Ferguson, MO, I’ve struggled to find the appropriate words to say – the appropriate academic words rather (trust me…I’ve said plenty!). I tend to shy away from speaking out publicly as events are unfolding no matter how serious they are or aren’t. For instance, I didn’t speak about the Cheerios interracial couple commercial until months after social media calmed down. But this is different. I’ve lost sleep over this incident (among other recent controversial police shootings like the young man that got shot in WalMart for purchasing a gun and waving it). I’ve argued on Facebook over this (something I rarely do). I’ve found myself tuning in to the news more frequently. This is different for me? Why? I’ll tell you why.

Because I realize that Mike Brown is my husband. Mike Brown is my son. Mike Brown is my brother. Mike Brown is my student. Black men in my life have tons of police stories (almost all negative). But none of them have yet ended in violence (mostly arrests). But that does not mean it can’t or won’t. And that terrifies me.

So what do I say? What do I talk about? What do I add to a conversation that already has the top voices chiming in?

Well, I’ve finally found my inspiration after reading several Facebook posts by former police officers. They essentially state that in the same situation, they would have reacted as Officer Darren Wilson – shooting as many times necessary to eliminate the threat. A summary of those posts below:

As a retired police officer, I would have shot him also…The police are not out there to see who can wipe who, but to keep the peace. With a person the size of Mr. Brown, there is no doubt I would have taken the same action. Police officers have an old saying; “I would rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.”

After reading this, I was curious – do current police officers think the same way? I just happen to have new police recruits currently training in my midst. Kentucky’s future boys/girls in blue train next door to my office building. So having a friend that works with them, I told that person to ask as many as possible (N=8) – I know, small sample. It was short notice! But still very telling: would you have responded as Officer Wilson did? They all said yes! And only one racialized his answer: “I don’t care if the son of a bitch is in the trailer park or the projects, I would have shot his ass.”

I was floored. I was shocked. Let me tell you why.

The immediate response to shoot and kill is a response of desperation, and not one that is rooted in training and/or protocol. There are less-lethal options for an unarmed person and to me, that did not seem to occur with Officer Wilson. He reverted back to his fears of the Black other and responded in that manner. The fear of Black masculinity took over. He was scared of the Boogeyman.

Yes White people get shot too. Yes women get shot too. But Black masculinity has always been punished most harshly through criminal sanctions and legal outcomes. Many black men have responded by resisting the eternal state of inhumanity and have fought back (if you have seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, recall Malcolm X’s father yelling “I am a Man” to the KKK terrorizing his family – this is resistant masculinity).

Black men have continually resisted oppression and attempt to assert their masculinity in a society that strips away their sense of manhood…. There is a correlation between white southern manhood and slavery where white men established their masculinity by using slavery to make black men inferior to them (Gray 2014, p. 51).

The trend continues today.

The mere presence of Blackness incites other males to lash out aggressively towards this form of masculinity under the veil of self-protection or protection of some valuable other (historically, the White female, currently, it’s under the guise of protecting communities). The same narrative is present in police officer’s narratives of how they would have responded to Mike Brown or others like him. That fear of the Boogeyman takes over – the stories you’ve been told, the images you’ve see on your TV screen, the tall tales you share among your peers… you make that real in your head when faced with it.

Now another reason I hesitated chiming in to this conversation was because I didn’t have anything meaningful to offer. There have been numerous blogs posted highlighting class issues, race in America, the intersection of race and class, history of policing racial minorities, history of tense race relations in Ferguson, and more. All great and very much needed. There was even an awesome recent statement issued by Sociologists. Please read it here.

But I want to solve the larger problem not analyze and theorize about it. Yes Ferguson needs healing. But I want to make sure this doesn’t happen anywhere else.

Will marching help? No. We’ve seen the militarized response that arises from marching. Will calling celebrities to silent protests help? No and, it’s not their responsibility. Will informing citizens of their rights during police encounters help? No (it could help some, but the Black body would still be present hence a clear and present danger). What will help? The only entity capable of making meaningful change is the institution of policing. This entity has not changed much over time. It’s become more militarized. It’s become more punitive. It’s become harsher. Let’s try something different this time.

So how do we do this?

  1. Diversity Training for Police
    a. Existing diversity training for police officers is awful. For those policing marginalized communities, they know nothing of the communities they serve. Don’t just put this important task into the hands of the person who took a sociology course in race relations. Hire an actual professional and make sure the training is on-going. One time in the academy? The lesson won’t stick.
    b. And I don’t mean the type of diversity where you don’t mind killing anybody like this guy here.
  2. Educational Programs Need Adequate Curricula
    a. Universities with Criminal Justice/Police Studies Programs need to critically examine their curriculum to ensure students who want to become Criminal Justice practitioners have adequate education regarding the history of policing minorities, controversial police practices, diversity and multiculturalism, etc.
  3. Diversify Police Forces
    a. A concerted effort needs to be made to diversify police forces. Communities like seeing women and people of color. And it helps in times like this. And from the small research I’ve done into police shootings, they disproportionately involve White Male officers. Maybe, just maybe, the response would be different with less testosterone or more melanin (just saying).
  4. Take Community Oriented Policing Seriously
    a. Let’s try community policing again. Cops get out of your cars. Citizens are not enemy combatants. They are people who want to talk to you. We stare at you driving by for a reason. Yes we’re probably pissed, but get out and talk to us.
  5. Train Police Officers with Whom They Fear
    a. Cops are scared of big black men? Why not have big black men train with them! From witnessing policing training, it’s average bodies training with average bodies. This is probably why White guys get a pass when they’re talking shit to police. It takes cops forever to pull Tasers out with them! Let’s have cops actually train with the individuals who pose the biggest threat for them.
  6. Community Workshops by Cops
    a. Cops need to hold workshops for the community informing them of their rights when they are pulled over. The cops need to do this. Citizens also need a venue to inform the police why they are fearful and distrustful (leading some to not comply, be more aggressive, etc). Citizens also want to know if they can record the police or what the laws are surrounding filming police. They want to know what kinds of questions they can ask. They want to know if they have to allow an officer to search their car or person. They have the right to know and cops should tell them.
  7. Stop Killing Unarmed Citizens
    a. Cops need to articulate that they don’t want to kill citizens (at least I hope they don’t). It needs to be understood that killing is the last resort. I suggest the campaign #NotInOurTown where cops actually protect the community! Wow, what a thought!
  8. Make Police Protocols Public
    a. Although much of this is an individual officers discretion, there are certain training protocols in place when something happens. We need to know what kinds of circumstances warrant being shot.
    b. In the event of a peaceful or violent protest by the public, we should know exactly how our local police will respond. We need to know when non-lethal weapons will be used, when they will arrest, when National Guard will be called in, etc.

I’ve been deeply invested in this given my husband’s experiences with police and security personnel. I realize that his experiences may have been negative because he’s the boogeyman. His 6 foot 3, 350 pound body is what they fear. My son could easily become the boogeyman and I don’t ever want them criminalizing his corpse as they have Mike Brown, Kajieme Powell, Trayvon Martin, Frank Alvarado, Eric Garner, Kendrec McDade, Ervin Jefferson, Yvette Smith, Amadou Diallo, Timothy Stansbury Jr, Sean Bell, Victor Steen, Angel Ruiz, Steven Eugene Washington, Alonzo Ashley, Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Tavares McGill, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, John Crawford III, Osman Hernandez, and many others.

My son’s tribute to Mike Brown was the Langston Hughes poem, “I Too Am America.” I think it’s an appropriate ending.

Kishonna Gray, Ph.D.,
Assistant Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
www.kishonnagray.com

12 Comments

  1. Kishonna, thank you for this thoughtful, critical, concise critique/explanation of this problem. I have been discussing the Ferguson and NYC (Eric Garner) protests the last week with my students and I will share your essay with them. I have received many questions of what should be done to address this problem and you provide some answers.

  2. Thanks for this, it is very powerful. I too have (I want to say had because of the strong emotions this evoked) friends who are currently employed as police officers that posted derogatory and hateful remarks about Michael Brown. They called him an “animal” and a “thug” among other things, which shocked me. These were people I had worked with, socialized with, and opened my home to. Academically, I know this is a systemic problem with police, yet for some reason I was still shocked. So thanks again for this post.

  3. Brilliant Dr. Gray!! Your absolutely right…”The only entity capable of making meaningful change is the institution of policing. This entity has not changed much over time. It’s become more militarized. It’s become more punitive. It’s become harsher. Let’s try something different this time.” Love this! Im going to use some of this in my punitive policy paper I’m working on for the Slovenia conference in a couple of weeks!! If your husband is the so called “boogeyman” (which I strongly disagree) then I guess society calls me one as well as a gay man wanting marriage equality…the labeling rational of placing people of color, different ethnicities, sexual orientations in categorized ideology based on the “white” hegemony needs to stop as well!! We are all one… Regardless of what or how we are made up….brilliant paper Dr. Gray!

  4. wow. thx for that Carl. so him being big and black is a weapon. guess we need to redefine what it means to be armed: holding a gun, wielding a knife, storing weapons of mass destruction, walking while big and black. Think that covers it Fox news! Once again, we thank you for your thoughtfully racists incites!

  5. I believe academics should keep emotional and ideological appeals out of argumentation, but this is a blog not a scholarly paper. However, as for policy recommendations, I believe no one can ever successfully mandate, intimidate, educate, or argue anyone out of his experience, especially when he’s doing a dangerous job. (Every job looks easier than it really is.) Policing is a two-way street so how about teaching black men/teens not to run away, brandish anything that could be used as a weapon, or test their “manhood” against anyone who is better armed or trained than they are no matter what past grievance they believe they’re entitled to be enraged over? I believe that’s called prudence. Or, as we whites like to say, common sense derived from good parenting. I’d shoot anything bigger than me, black or white, green or purple, if it threatened me. White (or black) cops aren’t mind readers, and cannot know the intentions of anyone who is wielding what looks like a weapon or is big enough to kick their ass and/or comes charging at them. Policepeople are neither soldiers nor social workers and have no duty to risk their lives because black men lack self-esteem whether that lack comes from white society or a scum-bag life-style. Nor is it a cop’s job to repair society’s ills. A cop’s job is to keep the peace and enforce the law. We have other roles and institutions to do warm-fuzzy things. Maybe if black people, and people in general, could grasp this they’d have an easier time grasping the cops’ desire to stay alive. As for white hegemony, if Ferguson’s behavior is any indication of what black hegemony might look like, I’ll take white any day. And I”d like to give a shout-out to all those horrible racist white hegemonists taxpayers who are paying your salary.

    • I appreciate your comment Miss McBrearty. Please know that I take all comments serious and will do my best to respond to your concerns. I am unable to do so at this time but will at my earliest convenience. I am more than happy to do so. Again, many thanks! Kishonna

  6. According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund in 2013 there were 51,625 assaults on police officers. According to the American Psychological Association in 2013 there were 127,500 assaults on teachers. Maybe it is time to park all that privileged paranoia and get real.

  7. According to the very conservative Forbes magazine the 10 deadliest jobs in America are (in order):
    Logging Workers
    Fishers And Related Fishing Workers
    Aircraft Pilots And Flight Engineers
    Roofers
    Refuse And Recyclable Material Collectors
    Mining Machine Operators
    Driver/Sales Workers and Truck Drivers
    Farmers, Ranchers, And Other Agricultural Managers
    Electrical Power-Line Installers And Repairers
    Construction Laborers
    I don’t see police on that list. Nor do see upper-middle-income caucasian taxpayers like me.

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