The Scars of Being Policed While Black

From unjustified stops of Black teenagers to a device to torment people in custody, racist police brutality runs deep.





The Torture Letters

From unjustified stops of Black teenagers to a device to torment people in custody, racist police brutality runs deep.

An open letter to the boy and girl with matching airbrush book bags on the corner of Lawndale Avenue and Cermak Road. I began to worry about police violence in Chicago back in the summer of 2004. That’s when I saw you on your knees at the corner of South Lawndale Avenue and West Cermak Road. It’s been more than a decade. I know you’re much older now, and yet when I see black and brown teenagers of today’s Chicago, I always return to that scene. Four police cars were parked along the curb. Six officers patted you down. Your bags were both white, each with a different word airbrushed in graffiti letters. Your names, I assumed, though I couldn’t make them out from where I stood. I had moved to Chicago two weeks prior to this incident, and it scared me for two reasons. I was worried that this was something that I too might face. At the same time, I was reliving a scene from my past. When I was around the same age as you were then, I found myself in a similar position. My two older brothers and I had just moved from Baltimore to Columbia, Maryland. We decided to go to the mall. Before long, we realized a plainclothes police officer was following us from store to store. He eventually ordered us to stop. He frisked both of my brothers, who were 15 and 16, against the rail on the second floor. The cop took my eldest brother Wolé through one of those doors that you never notice along the corridors of a mall until all of your senses are heightened, and you notice everything. It would take four long hours for Wolé to be released. When the police released you, I felt a similar kind of relief as I felt then. But I also felt the familiar combination of anger, frustration, and, yes, fear. I cannot change the anger and frustration and fear you must have felt. All I can say is that if I could press rewind and go back to the moment that you too were released, this time I will say a few words to you. It was not your fault that you were stopped by the police. I know they probably suggested it was, but those accusations are just a way of concealing the open secret. The open secret is this: The kind of police harassment you faced has grown into torture, and has even resulted in death, all because police violence is rooted in fear. Another open letter to the boy and girl with matching airbrush book bags on the corner of Lawndale Avenue and Cermak Road. It’s been so long since I saw you detained on that corner in Chicago. Even though I still don’t have all the answers, and I still don’t know how to solve this scourge, I have at least done something. I’ve done as an academic the thing I know how to do best, research, and study and write. So I started a research project about the history of police violence in Chicago. For this project, I’ve interviewed black youth in Chicago and talked about their experiences with the police. Their stories would probably sound familiar to you, given that they are your younger brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, friends, and in a way, your younger selves. During one of our conversations, for instance, Nakia explained to a group of teenagers that when her brother was around 15, the same age she was then, he got arrested. My mom was there, so of course she was trying to calm me down. But she was distracted, because I have older siblings. Nakia’s brothers and sisters were angry and getting more and more agitated, which put pressure on Nakia’s mother to make sure no one else went to jail. I definitely didn’t understand what was happening. There was a lot going on, and I was just like, where’s he going? When Nakia finished sharing her story, Phillip spoke. My first memory of the police is from when I was 13, and there was a shooting on the block. Phillip had been walking in a large group with his brothers and cousins, eight of them in all. An unmarked police car braked right in front of them, and an officer jumped out and told everyone to put their hands above their heads. He started groping us in our private parts to look for guns and stuff. I was 13. What would I be doing with a gun? Like Phillip, what happened to you on Lawndale and Cermak is probably something you’ve worked hard to move beyond. But I vow to make sure that your experience will impact a younger generation of Chicagoans who are searching for a way to process their feelings about the police. I cannot change that day, and I cannot change the pain, and frustration and confusion you must have felt walking home with your heads hung low. I hope that if you could read this letter, you would feel the pain of that day, the burdens of that mistreatment growing into something else, a greater sense of purpose, perhaps. When I think about that, I can’t help but smile. An open letter to the late Dominique “Damo” Franklin. I didn’t know you while you were living, but I do know you in death. You died at 23, and were much loved by your friends and family. But as a teenager and as a young adult, you experienced run-ins with the Chicago police that instilled in you a healthy fear of the cops — a fear familiar to many African-American youth. I also know that on May 7, 2014, you allegedly stole a bottle of liquor from a convenience store. When the police showed up, you ran. The officers chased and then caught you. Once they handcuffed you, they used a taser on you two different times. The second time, you fell and hit your head, lapsing into a coma, from which you never awoke. When I think about the circumstances of your death, I can’t help but remember the first man to expose police torture in Chicago, Andrew Wilson. His life and your death lead us to question: what kinds of police violence are we willing to accept? The police electrocuted Andrew with a mysterious device called the black box. A police commander Jon Burge supposedly engineered that box for the sole purpose of inflicting pain. The City of Chicago has now apologized to more than 100 black men who were tortured in this way. What Burge did to them and to Andrew Wilson is now considered unacceptable, unlike what the Chicago police did to you. The police electrocuted you with the weapon we’ve all become familiar with. The taser company engineered the device for the purpose of incapacitating people who are deemed dangerous. The police tased you just past midnight because of your alleged actions. But the City of Chicago has never apologized to you. When it comes to you, our government believes that the police acted within the scope of the law. And therefore what those officers did to you, how they killed you, has been deemed reasonable. I want to tell you that a growing number of Americans disagree. From the taser to the black box, police violence exists on a continuum. And the violence on that continuum has one thing in common. It represents the ways our country injures and kills its most vulnerable groups. And we must change our country’s tendency to systematically kill and deliberately control people in honor of you, Damo. An open letter to the late Andrew Wilson. You passed away on November 19, 2007, while serving out your life sentence in Menard Correctional Center. But in Chicago, your memory is very much alive. I don’t know where your soul or your spirit resides. But in this world, your name will forever be linked to that of Jon Burge, given that you filed the civil suit that marked the beginning of the end of his reign of torture. I’m writing because I want you to understand the magnitude of the evil you helped thwart, though at great personal cost to yourself. I thought about your sacrifice recently when I reread the famous letter that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to his fellow clergy from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. It was quoted in a court ruling that described the scene of a black boy’s torture. In 1991, that boy, Marcus Wiggins, then 13, was brought into Burge’s Precinct for questioning about a murder. A few hours later, Wiggins was electrocuted with a torture device. Several years later, he sued Burge and the City of Chicago. After the trial, the police wanted evidence related to the Wiggins case kept confidential. But Judge Ruben Castillo disagreed. He ordered the public release of numerous disciplinary files containing allegations of torture. His rationale was that the files must be exposed to the light of human conscience. In making his case, Judge Castillo referenced King’s letter. “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up, it must be open with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, and justice must be exposed with all the tension its exposure creates to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” I could not agree more with King’s sentiment or with Castillo’s application of it. And yet, comparing the torture of a 13-year-old to a boil doesn’t do justice to the suffering that people like Wiggins experienced. A boil can be cured relatively easily, but the scars left by torture can last a lifetime. Because torture is so deeply rooted in the culture of the Chicago Police force, I think that we require another more apt metaphor. Police torture is more like a tree, a hideous and disfigured tree, a tree that blooms death rather than life, a tree that casts a long and dark shadow. You helped me see that our country bears responsibility for the torture tree, Andrew, and that our country’s investment in fear is what has allowed the torture tree to grow.

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From unjustified stops of Black teenagers to a device to torment people in custody, racist police brutality runs deep.CreditCredit…Laurence Ralph

Dr. Ralph is an anthropologist.

I made the film above to explain exactly what it means to be policed in America today. It moves from my own experiences with racial profiling as a teenager to the horrific history of police torture in Chicago.

Based on more than a decade of research, this Op-Doc serves as an instant primer on the roots of police violence. Right now, somewhere in the United States, similar episodes of police violence are still playing out.

This film is meant for everyone who has felt alone and violated after being subjected to police violence. It’s also for anyone who has wept over the memory of a victim or taken to the streets in protest.

These stories are personal. I was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents and spent my formative years in Baltimore and Atlanta. In those cities, I got a firsthand introduction to the politics of race and learned that I should be afraid of the police.

The insights and fear remain with me, decades later, as a professor of anthropology at Princeton. All of my research and writing centers on drawing attention to the young Black lives our society neglects and leaves behind.

This film aims to interrupt how police violence is driven by a false dichotomy between “good” versus “bad” people. Too often, the police inflict violence on the latter — those preemptively deemed guilty and thus unworthy of love, care or empathy. I hope this film can be part of a larger movement that helps to forge a broad alliance to unite all people, regardless of color or creed, in the service of human dignity.

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Laurence Ralph is an anthropologist and the author of “The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence.”

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