What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore– And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over– like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
– Langston Hughes, 1951
I moved to Baltimore 13 years ago from Nashville and the warning that greeted me most from Baltimoreans was, “You gotta watch out for the police.” During my years here as an American African, I find this warning not only to be true from personal experience, but from empirical data.
Fact: Since 2011, Baltimore City has paid out $5.7 million in settlements to victims of police brutality. These victims have primarily been American African men, women, children and the elderly.
Fact: 31 people have died after encounters with police in Baltimore City between 2010-2014.
Fact: Since 2010, just one Baltimore police officer has been prosecuted for killing a civilian.
Baltimore City’s police department is one of the most violent in the nation and the residents of this city know from painful experience that this is true. Baltimore is a city of 600,000 people with a police force of about 3200 including civilian personnel. That’s about one officer for every 200 residents a fairly low ratio, yet the animosity between Baltimoreans and the police is palpably hostile. Since living here, I rarely encounter a Black citizen who has not had a negative experience with a police officer. In that sense, Baltimore’s Black residents are no different from New York, Ferguson, Chicago or Cleveland—all cities that recently had highly publicized police murders in the American African community.
The recent uprising against police violence in Baltimore, mirrors those of other cities and is a microcosm of police-community relationships in general for Black people in the United States. Freddie Gray’s April 12 death was yet another in the long history of ‘death by police’ common in a nation that continues to recite the mantra that ‘we are better than this.’
Are we really or do these deaths reflect the ugly truth that the killing of Black people by police is woven deeply in the fabric of American history?
Ta Nehisi Coates in a recent article in the Atlantic argues that Black and White Americans differ sharply on the role of police in their communities. White America, in general, sees police as authority figures whereas American Africans see them as power figures. You can respect and differ with authority, but you question, doubt and challenge power, particularly if it is arbitrary, capricious and abusive. Most Black people in Baltimore and nearly all Black people in the United States see police abusing their power in their interactions with their communities. Not so with Whites who see police as helpful authorities doing their jobs and protecting their neighborhoods. This perception gap explains why Whites see Michael Brown’s killer cop as simply ‘doing his job’ and trying to ‘keep the peace’ in Ferguson. The perception gap between Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore is why Whites believe that there is a ‘good explanation’ as to why he died in police custody, while Blacks see it as just another misuse of police power toward Africans.
Is Baltimore another Ferguson? Yes, but so is Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis because all of these cities are divided on how their African, Latino, White and Asian populations view police. Until these perceptions converge on seeing police as trusted authorities in their respective communities, each one remains a powder keg with a box of matches sitting nearby.
, FergusonRaymond A. Winbush is the director of Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University.