The morning of the funeral for Patrick Dorismond, the man who was shot by an undercover police officer for saying no to drugs, I went swimming at the Harlem YMCA. I swim nearly every morning, as much to dissipate my anger and frustration as to order my thoughts as for exercise. Somehow, the cool water and the repetition of strokes hones and focuses my passions, especially intense at this moment, living in a city where the police have shot and killed four unarmed black men in just over a year.
That Saturday morning, as always, swimming did its magic. Getting dressed I felt calmer, cooled out, ready to deal with another day. I was wearing a “Stop Police Brutality” button, and the sisters in the locker room asked for one. So I handed them round to all, including a silent white woman who was there, too. She looked at the button, looked at me, and asked, “What’s police brutality?”
My first reaction was to slap her upside her head, give her a taste of the brutality that stalks people like me every day. I could not believe that here she was in the center of Harlem–where white people are moving by the thousands–still draped in the white privilege that allows her to not know what police brutality is, even as she stands in a community victimized by it.
Of course, someone who purports not to know what police brutality is probably hasn’t heard the term “white privilege.” But back in the day, white privilege was what young recruits to the civil rights movement tried (and usually failed) to shed: the advantages that accrue simply based on being white; the freedom to go about your business without worrying about your race, whether dealing with shopkeepers, schoolteachers, employers or police officers.
In today’s winner-take-all, post-affirmative action society, apparently privilege of every kind is to be grabbed, not shed, and it seems most whites have lost consciousness of the privilege their skin color represents. That’s always galling to me, but in this period of crisis, it’s dangerous. In the wake of the Amadou Diallo and Dorismond killings I’ve found myself asking desperately: Where are the white voices of outrage?
Since Diallo’s murder and the acquittal of the four officers who fired at him 41 times, the tension in this city is so thick you could grab a handful and put it in your pocket. Of course, this tension has historic roots. Law enforcement historically was not charged with protecting black rights–we didn’t have any–but white property, including black slaves. Today, many people of color still see the police as protectors of the racial and economic status quo. It’s also clear that many whites in New York voted for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and remain silent about his excesses, because of their fear of black and Latino people, particularly the young. And they’ve been willing to let Giuliani curtail these people’s civil rights in exchange for feeling more comfortable and safe.
The woman at the YMCA might have been an aberrant extreme, but she is nevertheless indicative of an insensitivity, or maybe it’s helplessness, that manifests itself among white New Yorkers as silence about police brutality at a time when white understanding and activism is crucial.
So far the only significant and sustained response has been from young white students, several hundred of whom walked out of schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on March 3, a week after the verdict in the Diallo shooting. Wednesday, forty-one days after the verdict, nearly a thousand junior high, high school and college students participated in a walk-out, rally and march to City Hall protesting police violence. Eighteen students were arrested after they blocked rush-hour traffic on the bridge.
To this day, most of New York’s white elected officials, along with religious leaders, heads of community-based nonprofits, and both of New York’s Democratic senators, Charles Schumer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have been silent about the brutality crisis within the NYPD. Surely their voices would be raised if their constituents, average New Yorkers, demanded that they speak out.
It’s crucial that they do. Giuliani and his minions have made it clear that they don’t care what black and Latino people experience, perceive or think about police misconduct. He knows that we did not vote for him for mayor and will not send him to the Senate, and he has long since written us off. What he does care about are white residents, whose votes elected him mayor and whose votes, or silence in the face of the current crisis, will help him reach the Senate as the man who saved New York from crime.
The Southern civil rights movement was in full swing before white citizens, often radicalized by televised images of black people being assaulted by police dogs, members of the Ku Klux Klan, Southern sheriffs and water cannons, raised their voices and put their bodies on the line for African-Americans’ struggle for equal justice and against white privilege.
I’d like to think that these highly publicized police murders, not only in New York but all over the country, might have the same effect and spark a movement against police brutality and for social justice for all Americans.
It is time for white New Yorkers to cross over. If they don’t, the tension will escalate, the killing of unarmed men will continue and this city will be destroyed, all of us burned in the fire next time.
Jill Nelson, a former reporter for the Washington Post and City Limits is the editor of “Police Brutality: An Anthology,” published by W.W. Norton.