By: Pete Johnson
Five years ago I found myself in a situation where I was face to face with a dozen or so incarcerated juveniles in Camden County, NJ, and I was supposed to teach them about their Constitutional rights. It was hard and frustrating and early in the morning, but it was rewarding. I got to tell these people things they had never heard before, like "there is such thing as the U.S. Constitution which is supposed to pertain to you" and "NO NO NO PLEASE DON'T EVER ACTUALLY DO THAT CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED THING YOU'RE CURRENTLY TALKING ABOUT BECAUSE THEN THE COPS WILL SHOOT YOU AND YOU WILL BE DEAD."
It is terrifying and crazy and not at all good that I found myself in this position as a hungover 24 year old law student. My qualifications were being a law student and also at some earlier point writing my name on a piece of paper saying "hey, I'll do that thing." This is the person these kids were learning this information from. Every person in America over the age of 11 should already know that there is a U.S. Constitution with guaranteed rights in it that are supposed to apply to all Americans, and if you are a disadvantaged black youth, it is also sadly necessary for you to be familiar with a long list of Constitutionally protected things which you should nevertheless avoid doing because if you did them the cops will shoot you and then you will be dead. These kids should not have to commit a crime and then be locked in a room with some random 24 year old law student who was maybe going to bail but then decided to power through a hangover anyway in order to hear these things for the first time.
Of course, the list of excuses cops can rely on as a reason to kill you was not actually on the syllabus. Originally I was supposed to talk about things like what a cop can legally do to you during a search and what that means for you later on in the court room. It quickly became clear that not only were those things boring to my audience, they were not the kinds of things these kids needed to hear. From a practical, don't-get-killed-by-a-policeman perspective, these kids most needed to hear that their Constitutional rights, as people who grew up where they grew up and looked like they looked, did not mean much. A depressingly popular question was "so wait, the cops can't do that?" I told them that while cops are not technically, like in a U.S. Constitution way, supposed to do certain things which cops apparently would nevertheless always do to these kids, these legal rights are pretty goddamned moot when right then and there in the street the cops can and will do whatever the fuck they want. Unfortunately for these kids, it seemed like the smart thing was to concentrate on avoiding being murdered before engaging in any kind of conversation about "rights."
This was five years ago, and it is sadly still true that "cops sometimes shoot black people for no reason" is a way better safety tip for these kids than "don't run with scissors." I think it would be really cool if someday there was a 24 year old hungover law student that found themselves locked in a room in somewhere like the detention center in Camden with the task of teaching some imprisoned children about their Constitutional rights, and that person didn't even have to teach the "hey seriously guys the cops will murder you sometimes if you say Constitutionally protected things like 'fuck you' to them" portion of the course.
This imaginary eventual 24 year old is probably not even born yet. 24 years is a long time, but probably longer than it will take for "rights" to mean more to black kids than "murder avoiding tips." It's a frustratingly solvable problem. One idea is to put a camera on every cop all the time and actually record the footage and save it from all the cops whose job it is to lose important cop footage right after their buddy did something awful. I mean we do definitely have the technology and everything, and it would only take a small fraction of the money it took to give a every police force in Iowa a fucking tank, but nah. Something that completely doable would take forever for everyone important to agree on and to implement, and it would still be only a small step towards really holding the police accountable.
The role of police force in institutionalizing American racism is a complicated issue that no one is solving any time soon. I like to think that all this talking about it on the internet that is currently happening is helping in some way, but it's still way easier to imagine reading a "Cops Still Doing This Shit" headline in 10 years than it is to imagine ever reading one that says "Internet Fixes Racism." If talking about it has even a prayer of letting those future kids worry about something else, then good. Then maybe someday that not even born yet hungover person could talk about other things, and then the kids could get bored and start running with scissors, and everyone would win.