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Racial profiling by police in the age of Covid-19

By Jihad Hassan Muhammad Contributing Writer @JihadHMuhammad | Last updated: May 20, 2020 - 10:21:20 AM

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As various areas in the United States began lifting coronavirus stay-at-home orders, which in most areas requires people to practice social distancing (maintaining at least a six-foot distance) and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) which includes masks and gloves, an age-old problem is re-emerging. 

Covid-19 has rendered a health crisis for Black and Brown people in America. This demographic has historically been the victims of America’s oldest social sickness, racism. Racial profiling and heavy handed tactics by some in law enforcement is on display under the guise of enforcing social distancing and PPE orders in a new Covid-12 America.

In this April 29, image made from video provided by Adegoke Atunbi, an unmasked New York City police officer in plain clothes begins to wrestle a man to the ground while making an arrest in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The video is among those posted on social media recently that show the NYPD using physical force while out enforcing the city’s 6-foot-of-distance social distance rule. Despite mounting pressure from watchdogs to stop using police to enforce social distancing, Mayor Bill de Blasio stood by the practice on May 7, saying: “We’re not going to sideline the NYPD.” Photo: AP/Wide World Photos
“In this moment of the global pandemic Covid-19 what we’re seeing is, as communities have been under the order to wear face masks in public, the people who have been harassed and have faced excessive and even deadly force have been Black and Brown folk, particularly Black men,” said Sara Mokuria, co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality a national organization headquartered in Dallas.  

Ms. Mokuria says the disproportionality is vast between Whites who are often called upon to social distance and abide by new laws, and Blacks, whom she says are being treated horribly and unfairly.  “We have seen this in Dallas with the White woman who defied stay at home and court orders by opening her salon for business, and the Texas Supreme Court all the way up to the office of the president says to let her go because she is a God-fearing American who was exercising her rights. But when it’s Ahmaud Arbery exercising in the middle of the day, he is chased down and killed by vigilantes in his neighborhood; you see a stark contrast on what an American is, its execution for Black folks, and White folks not having to follow the law at all,” said Ms. Mokuria.

In New York City the vastness of the racial divide was on display when a video went viral showing a New York City police officer brutalizing a man with his knee in his neck as another officer handcuffed the man. NYPD officials stated the incident was a result of social distancing enforcement.

Blacks and Latinos have been reportedly harassed while viral images show NYPD officers giving masks to a mostly White crowd who did not appear to be social distancing. According to the New York Times, in one week the NYPD made 40 social distancing arrests with 35 of those arrested being Black, four Latino, and one White.

Perhaps a solution is present in nearby Newark, New Jersey. When asked why these same tactics and approaches do not seem to be widespread in Newark police, Mayor Ras Baraka, told The Final Call, “We have been working a long time trying to change the culture of this police department. We still have a ways to go but we have come along way. We train our officers longer than other departments. Our officers are given sensitivity training with ministers, pastors, activists, and people from the community, which gives them a greater sense of community.”  

Mayor Baraka also points out that their last four to five academy classes have been mostly Black, Latino, and women. The mayor emphasized that officers in the Newark Police Department know that if they do something wrong, they will be punished. “That’s the primary difference, people know there is going to be some consequences for their actions,” he said. 

This sense of community in Newark Mayor Baraka talks about was tested when in the early stages of America’s quarantine, a video went viral of a group of youth outside disobeying stay at home orders. When they were asked to go in the house they used profane language toward the police, while defying them by continuing to stay outside. 

The incident did not end in police brutality, but became a teaching moment for the youth, when Mayor Baraka went to knock on the door of the main instigator shown in the video. The mayor explained to the young man that the quarantine was in the best interest of the citizens of Newark. The young man later apologized alongside the mayor at a press conference. 

B-Gyrl, of knows all too well how police respond with a heavy hand in Black communities. As a longtime hip-hop activist, and Ferguson protest front liner, she recounts how as peaceful protesters in the early stages of the demonstrations of the police killing of Mike Brown Jr., Ferguson police only saw mostly young Black people and reacted with tear gas and brute force. 

She says the solution has to be Black leadership. “New Black politics is different than old Black plantation politics, when you have someone like the example of a Mayor Ras Baraka, reaching out and going above and beyond with young people in particular, you have better police relations. We can’t be afraid to engage our young people, instead of having a criminalized approach,” she demanded.

Covid-19 racial profiling has also found its way to Chicago. According to Chicago’s NBC affiliate, in Illinois, while leaving a store, State Rep. Kam Buckner, with PPE on, was asked by a uniformed police officer to see his receipt. Rep. Buckner told Chicago’s NBC 5, “He said ‘I can’t see your face man, and you look like you may be up to something,’” recounted Rep. Buckner.  The Chicago Police Department has reported that all stops must be “predicated on reasonable suspicion.” 

Living under the stress of a new Covid-19 America has been detrimental to the overall health of the Black community and these incidents of police brutality and the fear of such is causing health problems as well. 

“Based on some of the clients I have worked with during the pandemic, some are having anxieties just to leave the house and get gas, or to go to work if there is still a job present. I have been told some people are just afraid to drive to work even as essential workers, fearing they will be pulled over, arrested or hurt because of their skin color, yet someone who is not a person of color may not even be pulled over. Parents with Black and Brown children are worried about their children even leaving the house,” said Gwen L. Hodrick, a licensed professional counselor and licensed chemical dependency counselor. 

Coach Gwen, as she is known, says people are worried about the state of the country since the pandemic started. The quarantine has people overly anxious, now with racial profiling by police, people have become all worked up on a daily basis.   

Dr. Wesley Muhammad, author, Nation of Islam student minister and a member of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan’s research team, thinks the mental and physical health of Black people is in great danger from every aspect of the Covid-19 America. 

“Police bullying Blacks for not socially distancing and police assisting Whites who are not socially distancing, is just business as usual, there is nothing new about that America. Black America entered this pandemic already suffering from a mental health crisis. Every single Black person has to one degree or another a mental health condition. The virus was deliberately migrated into our community and the viral bomb was dropped on Black people,” said Dr. Muhammad.  

The coronavirus had become detrimental for Black health, whether it’s the great numbers of Black people dying from the virus, or the brutality and profiling from law enforcement in response to enforcing local, state and federal orders. But what solutions can Blacks implement to maneuver these trying times? And as the weather gets warmer and more people come out of their shelter in place, how can Black and Brown people avoid the all too common threat in America’s DNA which once again brings to light the reality of how they are policed differently than Whites? 

Regardless of the social distancing and PPE regulations, will Whites continue to be given mercy, unlike Blacks who could be profiled, or even pay with their life?  

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced May 15 that NYPD will no longer be issuing tickets or making arrests for people not wearing masks or are gathered in small groups.

B-Gyrl says the Black community must be cautious and careful to not listen and be led by those who “practice plantation politics.”  “We must do what is best for us, not what those outside of our community says we should do. They don’t have our best interests at heart, so we must be weary of those among us who just because they are Democrat or Republican tell us it’s okay to go out now, when we can be harmed by the Covid-19 and police with heavy hands,” she said.

 “We have strategies in regards to policing our own communities and now we must organize to amplify those, because having a police force that uses brute force to tackle every issue our community faces doesn’t work for us,” said Ms. Mokaria.

She also spoke about addressing injustices that are sure to persist as the country opens up more. “Mothers Against Police Brutality is working to change the policies and practices of police departments and district attorney’s offices across America,” continued Ms. Mokaria.

Dr. Muhammad stated the importance of the Black community policing itself and making neighborhoods safe without police presence. “The solution to this problem is still the pre-Covid solution, as the Honorable Brother Minister Farrakhan has been admonishing us to take control of our own communities.” 

Dr. Muhammad says the police department’s culture since slavery has been the same and that coronavirus was not going to change that. “The only solution is Black people have to take responsibility of organizing our own policing of the community, which must be proceeded by making our neighborhoods a safe place.” 

He also views shelter in place as a viable solution regardless of the country opening up again. “The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan’s instruction to us, to stay in our chamber and become one with Allah (God) in our homes, that is our prescription, those are our marching orders if we want to live,” declared Dr. Muhammad.

Newark provides an example for Black America to reduce profiling by law enforcement and the decline of health due to coronavirus. “This disease is getting us. There are more Black people dead from Covid-19 than entire countries, so that’s what our people need to understand,” explained Mayor Baraka. 

There is a power and responsibility that you may be carrying the virus that kills people in your family our community must be careful, he explained.  “We have to take leadership to save our families, this is our Noah moment. We can’t open back up, our people can’t do it, we have to save our lives,” said Mayor Baraka.

Their police department will continue to enforce shelter in place because he says it is best for the city’s health. Yet it will not be done with a heavy hand, but with patience and service as the world saw in the viral video with the youth disobeying the order. The mayor reiterated that the last thing people need to worry about is the injustice of police during this time. 

“We have a tremendous change in our culture with our police than most. When an officer does something, they know they will not be allowed to get away with it. We are still a work in progress, so some officers demeanors could be better in terms of talking to people disrespectful, and cursing but if they beat and put their hands on anyone there will be great consequences,” cautioned Mayor Baraka.