Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate but unequal.” No, this is not a recent statement. One year after the 1967 riots, then President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission, which issued a report including these memorable words. It is sad to note that the statement is as accurate today as it was almost half a century ago. The police-related tragedies that happened last month jolted the nation and again brought to the forefront a long-standing problem: The unjust treatment of African Americans.
A Washington Post/ABC poll released on July 16 indicated that 83 percent of respondents said that the next president should place an “especially major” focus on achieving better race relations, and nearly half of them said that it is an “extremely” important issue. Approximately 58 percent of the respondents have confidence that Hillary Clinton can effectively meet the challenge, while 26 percent felt the same about Donald Trump.
On July 5, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was tackled onto the pavement by two white police officers in Baton Rouge, La. While Sterling was pinned, one of the two white police officers fatally shot him point blank six times. Two videos captured this horrendous act and were posted online. The killing of Sterling, when he posed no threat to the police, outraged people leading to days of protests. A witness told the local newspaper, The Advocate, that officers “were really aggressive with him [Sterling] from the start.” The witness also said that before a crowd started gathering, one of the officers had suggested, “Just leave him.”
Police portrayed Sterling as belligerent and aggressive to the extent that the officers had no choice but to shoot him. When one of the videos was posted online, that story changed. “They had already prosecuted him [before the video was posted],” a family member said. The autopsy report concluded that Sterling suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his neck and chest. Sterling was selling CDs in the front parking lot of Triple S Mart with permission of the proprietor Abdullah Muhlafi.
Muhlafi recorded part of the incident on his cell phone. The officer who shot Sterling ordered two responding officers to seize the “entire store security system” and detain Muhlafi. When Muhlafi demanded that they first obtain a search warrant and also that he would like to be in the store when the police confiscated his security system, officers took his cell phone and locked him in the back of a police car for four hours. When Muhlafi needed to use the restroom, the police would not allow him to use his store restroom. Instead he was escorted to the side of his building and told to relieve himself there. He went through the indignity of doing so while within two to three feet of police and in clear view of the public. Muhlafi had to spend four hours in the police car and another two at police headquarters. During this six-hour period, he was not allowed to make a phone call to his family or his attorney.
What was Muhlafi’s offense? None other than recording policemen’s illegal actions.
On July 6, 32-year old black man Philando Castile was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop for a broken taillight in Falcon Heights, Minn. He died later in the hospital. Castile’s fiancé Diamond Reynolds and her daughter were in the back seat. The officer asked them to put their hands in the air and asked Castile for his driver’s license and registration. Castile kept those items in his wallet, which was in his back pocket. While he was reaching for the wallet, the police officer discharged his weapon, striking Castile multiple times. Castile had never been arrested in his life.
Castile’s fiancé Reynolds started recording soon after he was shot. Here is a part of the transcript:
Officer: Get the female passenger out.
Other officer: Ma’am, exit the car right now with your hands up. Let me see your hands. Exit now. Keep ’em up, keep ’em up!
Reynolds: Where’s my daughter? You got my daughter?
Other officer: Face away from me and walk backwards. Walk backwards toward me. Keep walking. Keep walking. Keep walking. Get on your knees. Get on your knees. Ma’am you are just being detained right now until we get all this sorted out OK?
[Daughter crying in the background]
Reynolds: They threw my phone Facebook ... .
Officer: Let me see your purse. You have any weapons or anything?
During the conversation, the officer used the f-word many times.
Now, just imagine that your sister or daughter was treated this way just for being in a car with her fiancé: An officer barking in such a rude tone of voice, ignoring when asked about her daughter’s whereabouts, making her walk backward, putting handcuffs on her, and casually saying that she is just being detained right now, “until we get this sorted out.” What a shameful, inhuman, barbaric, and cruel treatment of an innocent person whose fiancé you have just shot multiple times for no reason (and he will be dying soon). If this does not make your blood boil, I don’t know what will.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton asked, “Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver and the passengers were white?” One does not have to guess because the answer follows.
Castile managed the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School cafeteria. “He just loved the kids, and he always made sure that they had what they needed. He knew their names, he knew what they liked, he knew who had allergies. And they loved him,” said Anna Garnaas, a teacher at the school. She said that she was recently pulled over for a malfunctioning brake light. She told the officer that she had an appointment to get it fixed. The officer let her go without even a warning. “I am certain that part of that is because I have blond hair and blue eyes and white skin. … The officer was super respectful,” Garnaas said.
What followed the above incidents is equally tragic, if not more.
On July 7, five law enforcement officers were killed and nine injured by 25-year-old Micah Johnson, a black military veteran. He told police that he was targeting white officers because of the recent shootings.
The day after the Dallas shootings, police in Missouri, Tennessee, and Georgia were shot, at least two of those were racially motivated.
An African-American former Marine, Gavin Long, killed three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers on July 17 and wounded three officers, one critically. Louisiana authorities said that Long was definitely “seeking out” police. Long posted a video on YouTube on July 10 saying he was fed up with mistreatment of blacks and calling for violence against the police.
Law enforcers and fire fighters deserve nothing less than our utmost respect and gratitude. They risk their own lives to keep us safe. We have many fine examples in our county. Some San Luis Obispo police officers have taken personal interest in improving the lives of homeless people, including rehabilitation from substance abuse. Sheriff Ian Parkinson spends many of his evenings and weekends supporting the causes of many local nonprofit organizations helping the needy in our community.
However, we have a serious problem with law enforcement nationally. An overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are dedicated, ethical professionals whose performance meets the highest standards. However, there is a sizable minority of rogue officers whose actions tarnish the image of the profession. Their unprofessional, and/or illegal actions discredit the whole law enforcement community and erodes public trust. The sooner the profession removes them from its ranks, the better it will be for the taxpayers and the profession itself. We should do our best to prevent tragic incidents like the ones in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas.
Zaf Iqbal contributes a commentary to New Times the first week of every month. He is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. Zaf volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Mentoring Program for At Risk Youth at the Pacific Beach High School. He is Partner for the Future at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to [email protected].