When will you be satisfied? We will never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of unspeakable brutality. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Miami has been called the city of the future. But with respect to the relationship between blacks and the police, Miami is still mired in the past. Since last summer, police have shot seven black men.
The recent shootings of so many black men in Miami resonate loudly because of an ugly record of similar violence stretching back 30 years.
In December 1979, police chased down Arthur McDuffie, a middle-class insurance man, for allegedly disobeying traffic laws. He died. As Tananarive and Patricia Due note in their book Freedom in the Family, police tried to blame McDuffie’s death on a fall from a motorcycle.
But “evidence and subsequent confessions” showed that a savage beating inflicted by police caused his death. An all-white jury declared the officers not guilty after only three hours in the jury room.
Fast forward to January 1989, when Officer William Lozano steps into the street and shoots another unarmed man, Clement Lloyd, whose only crime, again, was speeding on a motorcycle. Lloyd was shot in “the back of the head,” according to the Los Angles Times. Conveniently, Lozano claimed the motorcycle swerved towards him at 70 miles an hour. Lozano’s testimony was powerfully contradicted by at least three witnesses who said that the motorcycle was not speeding and Lloyd did not swerve. Lozano ultimately was acquitted.
In April 2001, Nicholas Singleton was shot in the back of the head and killed in Overtown. The three cops who were involved stated that they had been fired upon. A search of the area revealed 19 spent shells,
all from police-issued weapons. Singleton had no gunpowder residue on his hands.
Most recently, Travis McNeil was killed after being pulled over by police coming from a bar. His shooting death is so far unexplained.
Police are sometimes imprisoned for bribery or using drugs, they are sometimes fired for having sex on the job, but no police officer in Miami during the last 20 years has lost his or her job or been sent to jail for shooting a
Courts and all-white juries see these killings against a racial frame in which the inner city, not the police, is the problem. Underlying this shift of moral responsibility is the image of the inner city as a jungle, a place of drugs, crime and violence. It becomes a story of us versus them. In this story, race is “invisiblized.” Black men in this story are not killed because of racism; their deaths are just a product of the dangerous conditions of the urban ghetto.
However dangerous Overtown may be, how does this explain, for example, why police fired all of the bullets at the scene of the Singletary shooting. If he fired at them, where were the shells? Some patterns are unexplainable on grounds other than race. The larger pattern of police shooting of black men, too many of them unarmed, and doing so without accountability is one of them.
Many people, white and black, turn the page quickly when confronted with these stories as isolated incidents.
But to anyone who has studied the overwhelming pattern of racial disparity, it is as clear as a glass of fresh water that this is a systemic problem which has taken on dimensions of an ongoing violation of human rights.
In 1998, Human Rights Watch, an international organization, issued a scathing report which openly accused local and federal officials of “shielding” the police from accountability. Each time there is the killing of a black man without accountability, it creates another casualty. The trust that people in the inner city should have for the police erodes and disappears.
Business as usual will not do. In 2006, I was retained by the city of Miami to review the city’s regulations on deadly force. I found a number of aspects unconstitutional. To a significant degree, the deaths of many of the unarmed black men might have been prevented had the city created new procedures to prevent the apparently unnecessary deaths that are taking place. But this is only one aspect of the problem.
We have to change the culture. From courts to the media, we must change a culture which too often shields criminals who happen to wear a badge.
Donald Jones is a professor at the University of Miami School of Law where he teaches Constitutional Law. He is the author of Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male (Greenwood Press 2005).