Fighting The Power

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Danesha Jackson says Black people have no choice at this point. "Yes if a police officer attacks me I am going to defend myself,� she says.... “They are killing our Black men, this is why I feel this way,� she adds.


In the wake of the murder of Sean Bell in a hail of more than 50 police bullets, African Americans are increasingly saying “enough is enough” and many people are talking about taking the law into their own hands in order to defend themselves against police, as evidenced by the angry protests in recent weeks throughout New York City. The Black Star News asked people on 125th Street in Harlem, which is a major barometer of the Black community’s views, what people believe: Do African Americans have the right to defend themselves against police brutality, using violence if necessary?

Danesha Jackson says Black people have no choice at this point. "Yes if a police officer attacks me I am going to defend myself,” she says. “I will also talk back to them the same way they talk back to me,” she adds, referring to the confrontational manner in which police often address Black people.  “They are killing our Black men, this is why I feel this way,” she adds.

Arleen Williams also feels that Black people have the duty to defend themselves against police brutality. "They stop people for no reason sometimes and assume just because you dress nice that you are a criminal," she says. Why can’t Black people with good paying jobs dress decently without raising suspicion, she wonders.
"If police officers were not so rude then there would not be a reason for people to defend themselves,” concurs Quintae Washington, also interviewed in Harlem.

Joe Williams, a Harlem resident, has a more measured response. He believes the best thing is to try to prevent a confrontation through dialogue between police and civilians on the street. "Whether it is a Black police officer against a Black civilian or a white police officer against a white civilian no one has the right to use excessive force against anyone,” he says.

However, when a civilian tries to make peace with a police officer and yet he ends up being beaten even after obeying the officer’s command, then that person has a right to defend himself or herself. Moreover, he blames the police for profiling. "If you’ve stolen something once in one store and then another store happened to be robbed the previous week then they assume it is related to you."

At the same time, Williams believes young Black men have a responsibility to improve their image in society. "It is important for our male youth to realize that how they dress and how they carry themselves have an impact on how the police officers perceive them,” he says, giving an example of gold teeth being associated with drug dealers. "A cop is going to respond to you based on your appearance and that is the reality."

Another commentator on 125th Street, Kamilah Liverman, outright rejects any notion of anyone defending themselves against police. “The law will not protect that person,” she says.

The most interesting response comes from Arvell Harris, who is an African American police officer who works in the Harlem area. "We are living in a society within a society, wherein the laws almost give police officers the right to do what they want to do with us," he says.

Harris says he drives a Mercedes Benz and that he’s often pulled over by police officers, who assume that every Black person who drives a fancy car is a drug dealer. "The attitudes of some of my fellow officers are a trip,” he explains. “When they see that they were wrong for stopping me, instead of apologizing they accuse me of not immediately identifying myself as a police officer.”

While Harris does believe that, there is a right of “every citizen to defend themselves when attacked,” he adds, “the laws do not support that person once they have retaliated.”

However, what also bothers Harris is crime committed within Black communities. "How can you rape, murder, and steal from someone that looks like you?" he asks.

Queen Watesha Allah, who is a teacher at LIU Cultural Center in Harlem, feels that the entire system is stacked against Black folk. "Logically if you are being attacked then you should defend yourself, but the reality is we do not have any rights in this society,” she says. It goes beyond police brutality, she notes. Watesha Allah has seen many cases where
a single parent is struggling to pay her bills while ACS keeps threatening to take her
child away.

Moreover, as Blacks lose their homes through gentrification, the family unit is being torn asunder, she says. All these issues combine to weaken Black people’s capacity to resist. "They can throw you up against the wall and even if others are witnessing it they cannot do anything because the officer has both a gun and the laws of society to justify his actions."

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