On June 16, two Black, female, Seattle teenagers were arrested and detained for jaywalking.
Marilyn Levias, the 19 year-old perpetrator, unwisely chose to resist arrest. When her friend, 17 year-old Andrea Rosenthal, intervened on her behalf, the arresting officer, Ian Walsh, punched Rosenthal in the face. She was charged with third degree assault; after apologizing later that day, she was still forced to endure a lecture from the officer about keeping her hands to herself.
Many folks in the blogosphere and news outlets have debated the rights and wrongs of this issue. Certain things are clear. It is never wise to resist arrest, even when being arrested for something ludicrous, like jaywalking. It is never okay to put hands on an officer who has taken an oath “to protect and serve,” even if he is more invested in protecting his power and serving his interest than taking care of your well-being.
No, Andrea and Marilyn did not make the wisest of choices. Prevailing wisdom says that lack of wisdom is a hallmark of late adolescence. And unlike Officer Walsh, these girls are not getting paid to protect the public trust. Their job is to be happy-go-lucky, carefree teenage girls. His job, I reiterate, is to protect and serve.
In our national conscience, however, Black girls are always servants, never served, always villains, never victims. Do you think two carefree, adolescent white women cruising the streets of Seattle would have been subject to this officer’s harassment? Could he have so easily sucker punched a blonde, blue-eyed, co-ed?
The ease with which this officer responded to these girls as enemies, instinctually punching Rosenthal as though she had surprised him in a sneak attack, can only be explained by the pervasive operation of a white supremacist discourse that sees Black bodies as threatening and dangerous, and therefore worthy of excessive force.
When I watch the video of this incident, the only person I see attempting to diffuse the situation is a young Black man, who grabs Rosenthal away from the officer and from her friend. He is the one who de-escalates the situation. It goes virtually unnoticed, since Black men are visible in cases like this only when they are being criminal.
We will continue to see unjust, unchecked, excessive forms of violence against Black and Brown folks in this country until we rethink our methods of policing. I am reminded of the summer after I graduated from college, when an officer threatened to club me in a Wal-Mart parking lot because my friend and I parked briefly in a no parking zone, with the permission of store security, to retrieve a package that she had inadvertently left behind.
For that officer and many others, these encounters cease quickly to be about rationality. They become a power-struggle, which the officer can win because he has a state-issued gun and billyclub. If you choose to ask questions or insist an explanation be provided, more often than not, you are met with a threat.
While I recognize police officers risk their lives, everyday, for little fanfare and even less pay, I think they, too, are victims of a policing ideology demanding they “kick butt first and take names later.” Force before thought equals needless carnage, pain and death. But that’s taking a rational approach.
So, while I do not excuse the behavior of these young women, I sympathize with them. They reacted to this officer as though he were an enemy, because for so many people of color, police officers are public enemy #1. And, if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then the enemy of my friend is my enemy. Andrea rolled hard for her girl. As do I. I commend her sentiment even though I vigorously reject her approach, desiring she remain in the land of the living.
If this had been two young Black men we would have been outraged, and rightfully so. Police brutalize Black girls, too. RIP Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Black girls, too, are worthy of our rage.
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