Leonard Pitts: Police brutality can’t be fixed by African-American self-improvement

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 21, 2015

Maybe some people didn’t understand the question.

It was posed in this space a few weeks ago by Tracy, a self-described 55-year-old white woman from Texas who is sick and tired of the mounting litany of police violence against unarmed African-American boys and men. She wanted to know what actions she, as an average person, might take to help bring about change. “What can I do?” she asked.

I thought the question so powerful and poignant that I decided to devote a series of columns to answering it. I invited readers to offer answers of their own.

It will be sometime deep in summer before I finish digging out from under the 700-plus emails that poured in as a result. Many brought intriguing and creative suggestions — civilian review boards, policy changes, body cams — that we’ll discuss in future columns. But many other readers thought the answer lay with black people improving their behavior.

One, for instance, decried a “breakdown of the black family.”

Another wrote, “Always obey, no matter what, a police officer.”

Still another advised: “Stop fornicating. Live a conservative lifestyle.”

Coincidentally enough, as I was reading these emails, police in Dover, Delaware, were releasing dashcam video of a 2013 incident in which Cpl. Thomas Webster, responding to a call of a fight at a gas station, rolls up on Lateef Dickerson, who is standing there with his hands raised. Webster orders him to the ground. As Dickerson, a 30-year-old black man, is complying, Webster kicks him in the face, breaking his jaw and knocking him unconscious.

That damning video notwithstanding, a grand jury initially declined to indict Webster and he returned to duty. Only this month did a second jury finally indict him on felony assault charges.

So I wrote to some of my correspondents asking them to explain how experiences such as these reflect the breakdown of the black family. Obey the police? That’s what Dickerson was doing when he was kicked. And how, one wonders, would sexual prudence or tea party membership have saved him from having his jaw stove in?

To date, I have seen no satisfactory response.

Let’s be clear. The question of what African-American people can and should do in the cause of African-American uplift is a valid one. But to suggest — as many readers did, as certain pundits and politicians have —that uplift is the answer to police brutality is to miss the point. The issue here is not: What can black people do to improve themselves? Rather, it is: What can we do to stop cops from assaulting them for no reason?

We might begin with something as simple and self-evident as demanding police accountability. It should tell you something that it took two grand juries to indict Webster, even though that video leaves no doubt of his guilt. It should also tell you something that he did this knowing the camera was on. Obviously, he didn’t fear any consequences. Why should he? America’s bizarre terror of black men is so epidemic that a police officer will often get the benefit of the doubt even when there is no doubt.

The “reasoning” goes something like this: If the cops beat you, they must have had a reason. And obviously you did something wrong or they wouldn’t have shot you.

In a nation where those naive assumptions are very common, who can be surprised that indictments and convictions of bad cops are very rare? In such a nation, the brazen misbehavior of a Cpl. Webster becomes not simply predictable, but inevitable. So it’s deeply frustrating that some of us believe police brutality can be fixed by African-American self-improvement.

You will never solve any problem you can’t even bring yourself to face.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Contact him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.