With eyes open: U.S. law enforcement and the undeclared war on people of color
It was impossible for me to read through the transcript of the interaction between Sandra Bland and Texas state trooper Brian Encinia, during the traffic stop that would eventually lead to Bland’s death, without wincing.
I was, for a moment, thrown back to my childhood in Guatemala during the years of the armed internal conflict, and memories of being in the car as we were pulled over by police. On a number of those occasions the person driving the car was a woman and the inevitably male armed officer would make sure to reaffirm the absolute authority he held over her. Sometimes the affirmation was strong-arm demand, sometimes it was petty tyranny.
You cannot wear sunglasses while you drive, an officer once told my mother’s best friend who was at the steering wheel that day. Because your driver’s license doesn’t say you wear glasses. She argued it with the same exasperation Bland argued about having to put out her cigarette.
Then — again like Bland — she acquiesced to the ridiculous demand because she just wanted to get out of there with all of us intact. In those days Guatemala was seeded with the bodies of those tortured and killed on the excuse of their resistance (or their perceived resistance, or the likelihood of resistance) to any officer in authority.
Nearly a lifetime later, I am again in a country where an undeclared war on civilians is being waged by agents of law enforcement, and while the body count is thankfully much lower, the deaths are adding up.
July was a particularly bad month. One hundred and three people were shot and killed by police, among them, Samuel DuBose, whose shooting was recorded by the cop’s body cam. Another civilian death in July was effected when police put Jonathan Sanders in a chokehold for 20 minutes — a terrible reprise of Eric Garner’s death, down to the cries of “I can’t breathe.”
In Guatemala, the police state’s repression was first posited as a response to armed guerillas who challenged the nation’s radical income inequality. But the military and police actions soon targeted hundreds of thousands of civilians and, driven by the country’s deep structural racism, especially singled out traditional indigenous communities. These communities were so deliberately decimated it would eventually be recognized as a genocide by international humanitarian agencies.
While there is no one taking up arms in the United States to challenge our growing income inequality, and no international agency is characterizing what is happening to communities of color (in particular to African American communities) as genocide, there are parallels we cannot afford to ignore.
An undeclared war isn’t marked only by outright killings (as horrific and prolific as those may be). It is also marked by deliberate criminalization and intimidation of activists; incarceration that withholds medical care as a kind of extrajudicial punishment, and that secretly holds and interrogates, tortures and abuses those in detention; as well as a criminal justice system that cynically turns self-defense against police brutalization into a criminal charge.
People of color here are targeted by police as activists, indigenous groups, religious workers, academics and journalists were in Guatemala. This is something white Americans like to dispute, but the official threat perception failures of police departments offer indisputable proof that police officers are more likely to shoot unarmed suspects if they are Black. Statistically, Blacks are killed by police at a higher rate than any other demographic in our nation, followed closely by Native Americans, and then Latinos.
“Since I was 15, I have been stopped, frisked, and questioned more times than I can count while walking, while driving, while about to fly (in the pre-TSA days). Pleasant experiences with the police, for me, are rare. And why wouldn't they be? No matter what I do, how I act, I know I am still a black man and am viewed by the police as a potential suspect, a possible enemy combatant,” writes Bill Campbell in his introduction to APB: Artists Against Police Brutality, a comic book anthology which will be released by Rosarium Press in October.
“Some of us can feel totally justified in feeling that our ‘justice system’ acts more like a war machine — ending over 1,100 American lives a year (far more than Iraq ever did), killing nearly one unarmed Black person a day (far exceeding the rates during the lynch-crazed days of the Jim Crow South), brutalizing countless others, and currently holding 2.3 million POWs (no, I'd never claim these folks are innocent — but almost half of them are nonviolent drug offenders).”
— Bill Campbell, from the introduction to APB: Artists Against Police Brutality
Racial profiling has spelled a type of decimation for communities of color that is similar to some of what was experienced by the indigenous communities of Guatemala. In testimony at a genocide trial last year, Ixil women spoke of villages left without men, because of forced conscriptions and disappearances. Likewise, arrest and sentencing disparities in the United States have led to an extraordinarily high incarceration rate for Black men. Coupled with the high mortality rate, this means that 1.5 million Black men are missing from their communities.
“Some of us can feel totally justified in feeling that our ‘justice system’ acts more like a war machine — ending over 1,100 American lives a year (far more than Iraq ever did), killing nearly one unarmed Black person a day (far exceeding the rates during the lynch-crazed days of the Jim Crow South), brutalizing countless others, and currently holding 2.3 million POWs (no, I'd never claim these folks are innocent — but almost half of them are nonviolent drug offenders),” Campbell writes.
There are moments of acute fear when you live in a country engaged in an undeclared war. Police brutality is more commonplace here than we’d like to admit (Antoinette Dilorio, Thomas Jennings, Walter Moat, Tyree Carroll), and immigrants until quite recently were terrorized with warrantless home raids, usually in middle of the night. Police collaborations with ICE agents often resulted in undocumented members of a family being snatched up and not heard from again until the deportation was already completed — sometimes a week or two after their disappearance.
More frequent than those moments of acute fear, however, are the long stretches when the fear is low-grade, undergirding learned cautionary behaviors. It took a long time after we moved to the United States for me to start feeling comfortable expressing a political opinion where it might be overheard, and even longer for my parents to recount their experiences to any but their closest friends — both things that in Guatemala could have put us, and those who associated with us, in danger.
Chronic, low-grade fear (and the lingering trauma it produces) is experienced by many people of color in the United States — especially those with legal, emotional and economic vulnerabilities. It is the same fear many Black parents feel when their teenaged sons go out, and the same kind that underlies the requisite talk about how to act if stopped by police. It is the same kind of fear the loved ones of undocumented immigrants feel when family members go to work, or the store, or get in a car that might by chance be stopped by police.
Next year it will be 30 years since I was last in Guatemala. It was during a liminal moment for the country — the election of the first civilian president in 15 years — and hope was palpable in the streets and in every conversation. As it was here, when Obama was elected and became our first African-American president.
In retrospect it’s easy to see that no individual president or single election could possibly overturn the structures of repressive policing in either country.
Guatemala has taken some first few steps toward what its citizens hope might be eventual justice: peace accord, truth commission reports, forensic investigations, and district attorneys calling for high-level prosecutions.
Here, the recent Department of Justice reports on the police departments of Ferguson (MO), Newark (NJ) and Philadelphia )PA) may serve as first steps in law enforcement reform.
But there is an important step yet to be taken in both countries, and that is to resolve to end impunity for those who violate human and civil rights.
In Guatemala the resolution may mean stripping away the protections from prosecution written into the peace accord which was finally signed in 1996, and many at high levels of government are dead set against it.
Here, it means regulating police unions and scrapping Police Officer’s Bills of Rights that prevent public scrutiny of police misconduct and effectively keep police from being charged for misconduct. It also means enacting stringent review of the arbitration processes that allow reinstatement of officers (all too often the fraternal order of police advocates for the reinstatement of violent and corrupt officers), and of the judges who hear the “secret” appeals. Imagine the pressure that could be brought to bear if, instead of cities and municipalities paying out millions (and billions) in taxpayer dollars to settle lawsuits related to police brutality and civil rights violations, it fell to the police unions to pay?
The Ixil survivors who testified at the genocide trial in Guatemala last year concluded their testimony by quoting a line from one of Miguel Ángel Asturias’ novels:
Los ojos de los enterrados se cerrarán juntos el día de la justicia, o no se cerrarán. The eyes of the buried will close together on the day of justice, or they will not close at all.
There are many open, buried eyes from the undeclared wars. There. Here. All of them demand a justice too long delayed.