Sunday, June 27, 2010

Our attitudes towards punching black women in the face

You've probably seen this footage that surfaced last week of a white police officer in Seattle punching a young black woman in the face. It occurred when the teenager pushed the policeman as he was roughly attempting to handcuff her friend for the heinous crime of jaywalking.

Anyone with even a passing interest in African-American culture will not be surprised at this incident; brutal treatment by police is a reality of minority neighbourhoods.

What is surprising, however, is the amount of voices all over the internet who believe the cop did the right thing.

Here is a former police chief Don Van Blaricom interviewed by a Seattle news station:

With this most recent tape, he says its obvious the Seattle police officer is in trouble.

"He has two people he's engaged with,” says Van Blaricom as he watches the officer struggling with two females. “They are both good sized people. He has a hostile crowd around him. He's by himself."

But what about that snap decision to punch the 17-year old in the pink shirt? Van Blaricom says her interference is a serious threat to the officer's safety. "I think he decided he had to end that interference right there and that's what he did and it worked," he said.

Van Blaricom says, unlike the tape which surfaced last month, in this case the officer is alone and surrounded by a taunting crowd. “'I don't see any signs of anger,” says Van Blaricom. “In fact he's very professional calling bystanders sir. He's not using as much force, quite honestly, as he could have."
Check out the comments attached to that article as well. To sum them up: if you run your mouth and lay hands on an officer, you deserve what you get, and be thankful you don't get shot.
Even at a pretty progressive website like Racialicious, you get reader comments like this one, from "Silverback":
...That girl in the pink is pretty big. She looks taller than him on the video. What if she had a blade? Or, her actions emboldens other to get physical? Where I’m from girls are just as dangerous as dudes, so I feel it’s reasonable to take sex of the table. With that, if these were 17 and 19 yr old men, is the response justified?
I think if you put your hands on a cop, you get what’s coming. Not only the “good” reasons (authority figure, has to constantly be on guard, sees the worse in people all day/everyday), but because of all of the stereotypical flaws we know about (racism, sense of entitlement, abuse of power, etc…). It’s like poking a wild animal with stick and getting upset when it bites yo ass. I wasn’t surprised she got popped, and based on what I see in the clip, I can’t confidently say I wouldn’t have done the same.

This sort of thing is disturbing to me. I'm aware that compared to many people, I may have different views on the nature and acceptability of violence. But I've always held several beliefs about hitting someone that I don't believe are outrageous.

* As a male, you don't hit a female.
* If a woman is being violent with you, violence is still a last resort to be avoided as much as you can.
* If someone pushes you, perhaps you can push them back. However, to punch them is upping the ante unnecessarily.
* If at all possible, attempt to defuse a situation well before it reaches the point where violence occurs.

But clearly, not everyone agrees with that.

NBA fans might remember player Ron Artest wading into the stands and trying to punch a fan who had thrown a drink can and hit him. I recall one commentator excusing this ridiculous behaviour (which cost Artest $7 million in salary for being suspended for almost an entire season) because the throwing of the drink was such a disrespectful act, and Artest was only defending his manhood.

In acts like these, my first thought is What happened to taking the high road? Some people are going to mess with you - why not be the better man and rise above it?

Should the girl in the video have pushed the police officer? It might be understandable given the rough way he was treating her friend, but no, she shouldn't have. Should he have punched her in the face because of it? No frickin' way.

The community is taught to hold police officers in high esteem; disrespect towards them is often seen as disrespect towards society as a whole. But by the same token, we also hold them to a higher ethical standard. To say "if it were me, I woulda punched her too" ignores this fact. When police act in this way, it undermines much of the respect that members of the community have for the police as a whole.


Is racism a factor in how this incident panned out? Not necessarily, but I'd wager that it was.

Would he have acted in the same manner had it been white women in a white neighbourhood? Of course this is merely conjecture, but my suspicion is that no he would not have. To be honest, I would have been shocked if he had punched a white MAN in that way, let alone a woman.

White men do hit white women of course. But I think the particular manner and context of this cop's behaviour indicate something beyond that.

Normally you think a male police officer would be inhibited by several factors. Firstly, it's a woman. Secondly, cops are trained to handle themselves under pressure; I'm sure he would have previously faced more trying situations than that and still controlled himself. Thirdly, there are people watching.
Had it been a retaliatory push rather than a punch, it could possibly be understood in the circumstances. But to punch someone in that manner requires a serious degree of contempt, and a serious degree of "othering".
To a racist mind, a black woman is not really a woman (and thus not really deserving of the courtesies usually afforded to women), because a black person is not really a fully-fledged human being.
I'm not suggesting the police officer is a fully-fledged white supremacist or anything like that. He might only be a tiny bit racist, as many of us can admit to being. But this is one of the ways racism works which a lot of people overlook. Some acts may not be racially motivated but they can still be influenced by racism. Racism can be the factor that makes incidents more severe than they need to be. Racism could be the factor that makes him punch her rather than push her. It may make him see black women as tougher and less feminine, and thus fair game for treatment that he would think twice about applying to white women.
I also wonder about the many references I've seen to the police officer being surrounded by "a hostile crowd"; a factor given as an influence on how he acted. Now, the onlookers were certainly disapproving of his actions, but were they hostile? I sense that the interpretation of them as being hostile has quite a bit to do with them being mostly black. (ie. "you know what those ghetto black folks are like", etc etc).
In any case, I'd imagine that if anything is going to provoke hostility in a crowd of black people, it is seeing a white police officer punch a young black woman full in the face. Yet the crowd did not tear sh*t up or attack the officer; they expressed their opinions and recorded it on their phones. Hostile or not?
Were the two black women innocent victims in all this? Neither was a saint; apparently both have criminal records for violent behaviour, and it appears that the policeman was arresting one because of her direspectful reaction to being given a citation for jaywalking. However, that does not make the punch in the face justified.


  1. Happy birthday, Chris!
    I remember doing Legal Studies back in the day and hearing something about the law giving extra protection to police officers (at least in Victoria, Australia) regarding assault. Because they are in the "firing line" of physical violence more than most, assaults against them are considered one grade more serious than they would otherwise be- so a "common assault" (e.g. a laying on of hands) on a police officer becomes "aggravated assault" and "aggravated assault" becomes the equivalent of grievous bodily harm.

    In no way excuses the punch, but just wanted to point out, in case there was any doubt, that messing with a police officer is not the same as messing with a regular human being.

  2. Great analysis, I "Stumbled" it and I hope lots of other people ge to read this too.

  3. I watched the video and I absolutely think it was unjustified.

    I just cannot even imagine a police officer doing the same thing to a white woman no matter how raucous she got, which tells me that yeah, racism was the factor that escalated this incident. (I wouldn't have been able to imagine it happening to any woman, but here's the video... *sigh*)

    To be honest I can't understand anyone being arrested for jaywalking so there's that too, would he have even gone there if they were white? Or would he have just told them off?

    I would expect more restraint, not less, from a police officer because they have training, surely a police officer has been trained in non- (or less-) violent ways to subdue people?

  4. @ soda and candy:

    From what I hear, enforcing jaywalking laws is exceedingly common in Seattle.

    Which kinda sucks, but what alarms me is how police can turn a nothing-charge into a major incident, because the person "mouthed off" or whatever.

    Like the incident with Henry Louis Gates, when police thought he was breaking into his own house. They could have left it there when they found out he it was his, but they decided to arrest him because he allegedly said something about the police officer's mother. To which I say, so what?

  5. Speaking of racism, Australia's most read white nationalist seems quite happy to wear his racism on his sleeve. Without blushing, he openly suggests that there is a causal relationship between "inherited physical traits" and "cultural behavioral" features. He is quite happy and prepared to do this because nothing will happen to him. Oh, well.