Do white New Yorkers care about police brutality?

The only way Giuliani and the NYPD will be held accountable is if white people join the protest.

Published April 10, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

The morning of the funeral of 26-year-old Patrick Dorismond, the man who was shot by an undercover member of the New York Police Department on March 16 for saying no to drugs, I went swimming at the Harlem YMCA.

I swim nearly every morning, as much to dissipate my anger and frustration and to order my thoughts as for exercise. Somehow, the cool water and the repetition of strokes hones and focuses my passions, especially intense at this moment, living in a city where the police have shot and killed four unarmed black men in just over a year.

That Saturday morning, as always, swimming did its magic. Getting dressed I felt calmer, cooled out, ready to deal with another day. I was wearing a "Stop Police Brutality" button, and the sisters in the locker room asked for one. So I handed them round to all, including a silent white woman who was there, too. She looked at the button, looked at me, and asked, "What's police brutality?"

My first reaction was to slap her upside her head, give her a taste of the brutality that stalks people like me every day. I could not believe that here she was in the center of Harlem -- where white people are moving by the thousands -- still draped in the white privilege that allows her to not know what police brutality is, even as she stands in a community victimized by it.

Of course, someone who purports not to know what police brutality is probably hasn't heard the term "white privilege." But back in the day, white privilege was what young recruits to the civil rights movement tried (and usually failed) to shed: the advantages that accrue simply based on being white; the freedom to go about your business without worrying about your race, whether dealing with shopkeepers, schoolteachers, employers or police officers.

In today's winner-take-all, post-affirmative-action society, apparently privilege of every kind is to be grabbed, not shed, and it seems most whites have lost consciousness of the privilege their skin color represents. That's always galling to me, but in this period of crisis, it's dangerous. In the wake of the Amadou Diallo and Dorismond killings I've found myself asking desperately: Where are the white voices of outrage?

Since the murder of Diallo in February 1999 and the acquittal of the four officers who fired at him 41 times, the tension in this city is so thick you could grab a handful and put it in your pocket, although this is not necessary since there is no way to avoid it in the subway, on the streets, in stores or nearly anywhere you go. And it's not just tension between people of color and the police, but also with the white community, which has been by and large silent on the issue of police violence and use of excessive force.

Of course this tension has historic roots. Law enforcement historically was not charged with protecting black rights -- we didn't have any -- but white property, including black slaves. Today, many people of color still see the police as protectors of the racial and economic status quo. It's also clear that many whites in New York voted for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and remain silent about his excesses, because of their fear of black and Latino people, particularly the young. And they've been willing to let Giuliani curtail these people's civil rights in exchange for feeling more comfortable and safe.

Perhaps there's cause for hope in the results of a recent polls. A CBS News/New York Times poll released Friday shows Giuliani's Senate rival Hillary Rodham Clinton with a lead in the race -- 49 percent vs. 41 percent. It is the fifth poll in two weeks to show Giuliani losing popularity. More to the point, a Daily News poll released April 2 reported that 72 percent of New Yorkers, across racial and economic lines, agree that the NYPD's use of deadly force has gotten out of hand.

But I'm not sure. Giuliani immediately dismissed the poll, and he can do that, with no consequences politically, unless white New Yorkers raise their voices against police brutality in an organized and sustained fashion.

If they don't, racial tension in this city will continue to mount, and New York will divide into two camps, people of color on one side, aided by a handful of progressive whites, and the mayor, police commissioner, police and all the silent white people on the other. A prescription for disaster and urban upheaval if there ever was one.

The woman at the YMCA might have been an aberrant extreme, but she is nevertheless indicative of an insensitivity, or maybe it's helplessness, that manifests itself among white New Yorkers as silence about police brutality at a time when white understanding and activism is crucial. A few brave white citizens raised their voices early, such as New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel and public advocate Mark Green, and lately they have been joined by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Hillary Clinton, Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and, hesitantly, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. Whites were well represented at the protests against the Diallo verdict -- but it was the first time New York saw a sizable white turnout on the issue.

So far the only significant and sustained response has been from young white students, several hundred of whom walked out of schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on March 3, a week after the verdict in the Diallo shooting. Wednesday, 41 days after the verdict, nearly 1,000 junior high, high school and college students participated in a walk-out, rally and march to City Hall protesting police violence. Eighteen students were arrested after they blocked rush-hour traffic on the bridge.

To this day, most of New York's white elected officials, along with religious leaders, heads of community-based nonprofits, and both of New York's Democratic senators, Charles Schumer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have been silent about the brutality crisis within the NYPD. Surely their voices would be raised if their constituents, average New Yorkers, demanded that they speak out.

It's crucial that they do. Giuliani and his minions have made it clear that they don't care what black and Latino people experience, perceive or think about police misconduct. He knows that we did not vote for him for mayor and will not send him to the Senate, and he has long since written us off. What he does care about are white residents, whose votes elected him mayor and whose votes, or silence in the face of the current crisis, will help him reach the Senate as the man who saved New York from crime.

Let's be clear about the fact that many people of color live in high-crime neighborhoods and need police services, too. But it is not rhetoric or hyperbole when I say that nowadays I am more fearful of the police than of potential criminals, since it is the police -- who my taxes finance and from whom I should have a reasonable expectation of protection -- who have been given a green light to shoot and kill citizens at will, whether it is an unarmed Amadou Diallo in the vestibule of his building, or Patrick Dorismond saying no to drugs on a city street. We're already paying the police with our tax dollars, must we now pay them with our civil rights as well?

Last weekend I had dinner with my friend Anya. I gave her a button and implored her to wear it. It is important that white residents disturbed and disgusted by police brutality and the mayor's insensitive, maniacal, blame-the-victim response to it identify themselves in some way. Perhaps the first step is wearing a button. The next step is raising voices and uniting with others to take action. The alternative is that residents of New York continue to be divided into warring camps defined by Giuliani as those who support the police uncritically on one side, those who don't on the other.

As it stands now, those camps are overwhelmingly segregated by race. Those who consciously or unconsciously partake of white privilege stand on one side; those who cannot and those few whites who will not, on the other. The Southern civil rights movement was in full swing before white citizens, often radicalized by televised images of black people being assaulted by police dogs, members of the Ku Klux Klan, Southern sheriffs and water cannons, raised their voices and put their bodies on the line for African-Americans' struggle for equal justice and against white privilege.

I'd like to think that these highly publicized police murders, not only in New York but all over the country, might have the same effect and spark a movement against police brutality and for social justice for all Americans.

It is time for white New Yorkers to cross over. If they don't, the tension will escalate, the killing of unarmed men will continue and this city will be destroyed, all of us burned in the fire next time.

By Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson is the author of "Volunteer Slavery" and "Straight, No Chaser."

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