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À mon chevet: 'Between the World and Me'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Now at night, I held you and a great fear, wide as all our American generations, took me. Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra -- "Either I can beat him or the police." I understood it all -- the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing your killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother's hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of 'race', imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world's physical laws.

This entire episode took me from fear to a rage that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days. I still had my journalism. My response was, in this moment, to write. I was lucky I had even that. Most of us are forced to drink our travesties straight and smile about it. I wrote about the history of the Prince George's County police. Nothing had ever felt so essential to me. Here is what I knew at the outset: The officer who killed Prince Jones was black. The politicians who empowered this officer to kill were black. Many of the black politicians, many of them twice as good, seemed unconcerned. How could this be? [...]

My curiosity, in the case of Prince Jones, opened a world of newspaper clippings, histories, and sociologies. I called politicians and questioned them. I was told that the citizens were more likely to ask for police support than to complain about brutality. I was told that the black citizens of PG County were comfortable and had 'a certain impatience' with crime. [...] According to this theory 'safety' was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value. I understood. What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school! There were no such officers, and whenever I saw the police it meant that something had already gone wrong.

-- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, pp. 82-85
It is now time for a short break from my binge-reading of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine to go through some of the books I received for Christmas. This book has sealed the reputation of journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who won a MacArthur Grant and the National Book Award for Nonfiction this year. Although it is a slender and slightly repetitive book, it was perfectly timed to capture the mood of disgust in the United States about the injustice of how some police officers are allowed to use lethal force with impunity. In Washington we have been reading Coates's work for some time, during and after his years as a student at Howard University. He was set on this subject in some ways by his reporting on the murder of Prince Jones in Prince George's County (for example, in Washington Monthly in 2001).

As he points out again in his new book, Jones was killed by a black police officer, and in that 2001 article he goes farther in making his point about how the problem goes beyond race: "Prince George's shows integration taken to its most extreme, perhaps perverted, end---black people with the inalienable right to drive the same luxury cars, buy the same sprawling houses, and be just as apathetic as America's white elite." Coates describes his meeting with Prince Jones's mother, but he does not mention that in 2006, the Jones family received damages in a civil case against the officer who killed Prince Jones. Juries in civil cases have shown that Americans know that what these police officers are doing is wrong and should not be protected by the legal system. Crime statistics are at an all-time low, so it is time to make sure that children in all neighborhoods feel safe as they walk to school, rather than feeling they are the targets of police brutality. It is a good goal to set for the New Year.

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