Living While Black - Organizing Academics, Churches, Courts, and the Media

By Michael Monasky | May 19, 2017 |  

Civil rights attorney Mark Harris put it bluntly last Saturday at the Women's Civic Improvement Center when he indicted police behavior in Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, Meadowview, Rancho Cordova, and even Elk Grove with charges of harassment of black men for “living while black” and “hanging out while black.” 

Harris was speaking at a community meeting organized by the Sacramento chapter of the NAACP. Along with gather community input, the meeting was also exploring the possibility of filing a class action lawsuit against what the NAACP described as "discriminatory law enforcement practices in the Greater Sacramento region."  

The complaints voiced by Harris were based upon the police arrests and killings of black men in those neighborhoods. A dim, left rear license plate bulb was the probable cause for one such traffic stop. He said that clothing choices can provoke police. While being chauffeured by his son, and pausing in a parking lot, Harris' son was concerned that a police officer was watching them proceed through the lot, as they were “driving while black.”

Anita Chabria, who covers Sacramento City Hall for the Sacramento Bee, told the audience that “police rationale” for pedestrian stops and citations for J-walking was execution of a “public safety program.” Half of all such citations were issued to blacks, but she said that data cannot prove racial discrimination despite discrepancies in enforcement, and that deeper statistical analysis will be required to understand the significance of arrest data. 

Chabria alluded to the negative impacts from traffic stops, especially to children in the back seat, watching their fathers being questioned and tested by mostly white police officers who don't live in their neighborhoods. She also said that a national conversation is needed about hiring military veterans for local police positions, and that gender equity for women on the force is still an issue.

Attorney Harris agreed that police data needs to be “disaggregated” and said that heavy-duty legal firepower is needed to take this civil rights battle to a new level. He said such court cases are part of a long-term solution to this perceived harassment, while there are “national and international implications,” with interest from other law enforcement and civil rights organizations throughout the country, in the UK, and Brazil. 

Harris also mentioned a new community organization he co-founded called Law Enforcement AccountabilityDirective (LEAD), whose mission it is “to advocate for 'transparency and accountability' relative to police practices and procedures in our community, and to prevent further incidents of the use of inappropriate excessive force against Sacramento’s African-American community.” He said that “communication is essential...this isn't an ice cream social” and emphasized the importance of including the black churches, domestic workers, and the university. He said that there must be a respectful collaboration between generations of the youth in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the old school NAACP.

Sacramento is about to select a new police chief; attorney Harris declared that choice shouldn't be made by the city manager, as it was in Elk Grove. What's the economic driver?, he asked. In Missouri, it was the issuance of traffic tickets by white officers in white suburbs to black citizens of Ferguson passing through their jurisdictions. A J-walking ticket can cost over $200; cars are towed, assets are lost, while citations devolve into deepening debt and complicating criminalization. One concerned citizen stated, “the police profile us”; then she asked, “are there profiles on the officers who patrol our neighborhoods?”

Activists in black neighborhoods said they are fed up with police harassment and killings, and, when they complain in protest, unaffected communities hear “crickets,” an allusion to silence. 

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