Chris Rock is taking a selfie every time he gets pulled over by the cops. Despite being one of the most successful comedians in history, this unofficial project implies, he still gets harassed for the crime of “Driving While Black.”
The Internet news cycle has focused on Rock’s tweets and the Twitter response from Isaiah Washington, who traded in a fancy car for a less fancy car to avoid being stopped all the time. But what Rock can teach us in the wake of the Department of Justice’s sobering account of the Ferguson Police Department’s crimes against its citizens is much deeper, and has broader implications than the question of what make and model of automobile black celebrities should drive.
One of the ideas that can get lost in the endless media discussion of the Ferguson, Garner, and Tamir Rice cases, among others, is that beyond the specifics of each case — who moved in which direction, what thoughts were in an individual cop’s mind — is the coordinated system that creates these cases.
That system, from the top down, creates a culture of regular and sustained contact between black citizens and the police, which breeds hostility. Whether in Staten Island or Cleveland, residents report constant harassment from police. The Department of Justice’s report about Ferguson was scathing, showing the local police department to be little better than a group run by well-connected thugs, constantly issuing tickets to people who couldn’t afford them, creating a level of tension and friction so great that some sort of moment like the killing of Michael Brown almost seemed inevitable. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an even more damning summary after reading the report, “But white supremacy — as evidenced in Ferguson — is not ultimately interested in how responsible you are, nor how respectable you look… White supremacy is the technology, patented in this enlightened era, to ensure that what is yours inevitably becomes mine.” Indeed, as Rock’s story and the horrible case of Kamilah Brock show, this extended contact transcends class. It transcends region, too, as this week’s news of Toronto’s massive police database of black citizens proves.
While nosing around for interesting and profound reactions to the Ferguson DOJ report, one of the most interesting things I found was that a handful conservative bloggers, the thoughtful ones, were hard pressed to deny that something was genuinely rotten in the State of Missouri. Even if they felt compelled to deny that it was “about race,” they couldn’t deny that race was a major factor, that there were not only a disproportionate number of tickets and fines being leveled at the city’s black citizenry, but more specifically that force and violence were being used as punishment for perceived insubordination, not to stave off imminent threats.
The clear impression, even from the Ferguson PD’s own evidence, is that the Ferguson PD for years has used force – especially tasers – in a retaliatory way towards anyone who commits “contempt of cop” rather than as a means to ensure the safety [of] the public or of officers. And as with almost all other aspects of the report, it was demonstrated that Ferguson’s black community was much more likely to have force – as well as inappropriate force – used against them. For instance, each and every single instance of canine attack ordered by the Ferguson PD was against a black suspect. Blacks were shown, even among the population of arrested citizens, to have tasers and other methods of physical force used against them with far greater frequency.
It’s these two things together — the casual use of force and the regular harassment of one group of citizens — that Americans need to comprehend on a larger scale. Seeing Wilson and Brown as two individuals acting alone on a vast blank screen is tempting (what would we have done in that situation?), but it misses the point. Placing these heinous cases against the background of the widespread use of cops as revenue-generating gangs, and you have the recipe for these flash-point moments of state violence that bring protesters out into the streets.
Chris Rock is nationally beloved, in part, because as commentators have noted, his routines have both a radical and a conservative streak. But he’s always been incredibly smart about race. By showing himself in an extremely vulnerable position, he’s helping to illustrate a fuller and clearer picture of a depraved aspect of our society.