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White Fear Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

The McKinney pool party incident shows how overpolicing can impact black lives

YouTube/Brandon Brooks

Kalief Browder had been as much symbol as man long before he hung himself last weekend. Accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 when he was 16 years old, he was sent—as so many New York youth are—to Rikers Island. As Jennifer Gonnerman detailed in The New Yorker last fall, Browder steadfastly denied the crime, and was eventually released without a trial. But thanks to a clogged court system, for more than one thousand days, his jailers isolated him and his fellow inmates tortured him in one of the harshest prison environments in our lockup-happy nation. In the process, Browder became a case to cite by an aspiring White House resident and a mayor seeking prison reform. Gonnerman eulogized Browder in a plaintive post the evening after his suicide, a death that shone yet another light on how carelessly this nation continues to discard black youth, disappearing their futures with a criminal record or a bullet.

The night before Browder hanged himself at his home in the Bronx, Brandon Brooks, a white teenager in McKinney, Texas, had the presence of mind to start recording video of McKinney patrol supervisor Cpl. David Eric Casebolt’s reckless abuse of black students who’d been exiled from a local pool party and cookout held by their white classmates.

Watching the video, disillusioned from the horrific flood of violent videos we’ve seen in recent months, I was amazed that no one ended up dead. The image of Casebolt yanking 15-year-old Dajerria Becton by her braids to the ground, putting his knee firmly in her back before pulling his pistol and aiming it at the two black boys who tried to come to her aid, rightfully has been the image on which most have focused. It’s likely the reason that Casebolt was later placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a department investigation. Multiple reports late Tuesday indicated that Casebolt has resigned from the force.

Miles Jai Thomas, a black teenager who’d been at the party, later told The Huffington Post that the confrontation started when a security guard came to remove only black students from the pool party, and then “started making up rules to keep us out.” Adults at the pool began making racist comments, reportedly urging that the black students return to “Section 8 [public] housing.” One older white woman kept spewing racist invective and physically confronted a 19-year-old black woman. Casebolt and his gang of officers arrived not long afterwards, called to investigate a “disturbance involving multiple juveniles at the location, who do not live in the area or have permission to be there, refusing to leave.” It was not an accident.

The taunt about public housing is telling. As a black child growing up the suburbs, I remember being on the lookout for those who felt I didn’t belong in a majority white area, whether it was my own neighborhood or an even more exclusive enclave. Like the place I grew up, McKinney has its poorer, blacker section and its wealthier, whiter part. Thing is, this occurred in a section in the western part of town called Craig Ranch, where most of the black kids at the party reportedly live.

The existence of black kids in a place—particularly a pool—where white residents suspected they didn’t belong, joyfully intermixing with their own white children, has historically driven folks out of their minds. This time was no different. From the abusive woman’s punches to Casebolt’s inexplicable action-movie barrel roll onto a tree lawn, it was clear that the mere presence of these black kids at a pool somehow merited a violent response. The implied threat of blackness is only the reflection of white fear.

That day, as with nearly every other, fear was quickly accompanied by overreaction. It seems that nearly every time the police are called on black people, someone dies. Even though black death at the hands of police in the last year is both more highly publicized and accompanied by louder cries for justice than we’ve seen in a generation, black bodies are in mortal danger each time they come into contact with law enforcement. Exposing this is central to our modern civil rights movement’s insistence that black lives matter.

The scared white people who called the cops on a group of black teenagers at a pool party with their white classmates either didn’t know or didn’t care about that danger, the specter of death. Nor did they think about how the cops could have ensnared every black youth at that party in the legal system, jeopardizing their futures. It was criminal, nearly mortal negligence.

The McKinney incident is a rather stark example of white Americans eager to keep themselves isolated and their communities monochromatic. Cops are loosed upon innocent black kids like so many dogs. Only one adult was taken into custody, but I imagine Becton will have her scars from the experience of being assaulted by Casebolt, as will the two boys at whom the officer pointed his weapon. I wonder if they’d seen the videos of Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, and Walter Scott being shot and had a feeling they were about to become hashtags. The pain of violation doesn’t end with an “I’m sorry” or a “We’re investigating the matter.”

We cannot stop being black, so the change will have to come from the other side. The cavalier deployment of law enforcement on black Americans needs to be addressed with policy that sets forth specific and harsh consequences for officers who behave as Casebolt did. This nation has a fetish for incarcerating black men and women, borne of a culture whose suspicion has codified separate-but-equal policies like “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk” that have white fear at their hearts. Conversely, with whiteness comes the presumption of innocence that we’ve all supposedly been promised. 

On Tuesday morning, The Guardian published an interview with a national champion of those policing tactics, New York police commissioner William Bratton. “We have a significant population gap among African American males because so many of them have spent time in jail and, as such, we can’t hire them,” he told the interviewer. Even he had to admit the “unfortunate consequences” of his own methods, realizing that entering black people into the criminal justice system, often frivolously or erroneously, has limited the number of eligible candidates.

Overpolicing is not simply leaving we black Americans less able to police ourselves. When it’s not killing us, it is terrorizing us. It is ruining our futures. That needs to matter, too.