Commentary: Ferguson to Berkeley, A Tragic Year of Police Violence

Commentary: Ferguson to Berkeley, A Tragic Year of Police Violence

The frayed relationship between Blacks and police continues.

Published December 24, 2014

As we enter the final week of 2014, we've heard a lot of important news about Cuba, immigration, the midterm elections, Ebola and ISIS. But the biggest news story of the year, the story that has captivated the nation's attention, is the ongoing saga of police violence against African-Americans.

I went to bed last night exhausted after walking alongside New Yorkers protesting the recent police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. They marched in the rain from the fancy Fifth Avenue shops in midtown Manhattan all the way up to the Adam Clayton Powell Building on 125th Street in Harlem, just a few blocks from where I live.

Then I woke up this morning to the news that another Black man had been killed by a police officer at a gas station in Berkeley, Mo., just three blocks from my grandmother's house and only five miles from the spot where Michael Brown was gunned down. In a morning press conference, Berkeley Mayor Theodore Hoskins was careful to distinguish the police shooting of Antonio Martin from Officer Darren Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last August.

Berkeley, as Mayor Hoskins reminded us, has a Black mayor, a Black police chief and a majority-Black police force. He could have mentioned the city also has an all-Black city council. I know the area well. I've filled up my car's tank at that gas station dozens of times. My grandmother lived in the neighborhood for 50 years and once served on the Berkeley City Council herself.

Berkeley is not Ferguson. But despite the differences between the two communities, the shooting of Antonio Martin last night revealed just how frayed Black America's relationship with the police has become in light of recently reported killings. We saw this tension in video depicting Berkeley residents on the scene moments after the shooting engaged in an angry confrontation with police.

To the protesters, I doubt it matters if every elected official and most of the police officers in Berkeley are Black. The officer who shot and killed Martin was white. And even if the officer had been Black, it's likely there would be a certain level of distrust about any police killing of an African-American man in today's post-Garner, post-Brown climate.

The shooting also reveals the limits of video, as the officer involved who shot Martin wore a body camera on his uniform which was not turned on at the time of the incident. Nor was the dash cam on the squad car turned on. All this technology is meaningless if police officers don't actually use it. Instead, police initially released grainy surveillance video from the gas station that they claim showed Martin aiming a gun at the police officer.

The initial surveillance footage was not enough to satisfy skeptics on social media, many of whom questioned why the officer's body cam was off, why his dash cam wasn't activated and why police failed to release video from another surveillance camera that appears to be right in front of the incident.

Ultimately, this is a question of trust. Those who trust the police will accept the official account of events and immediately believe they see the suspect in the video pointing a gun at the officer. Those who distrust the police will not accept the police version of events without independent verification and evidence that answers their lingering questions.

The question of trust goes far beyond Missouri's borders. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and other community leaders asked demonstrators in New York to hold off on their protests until two NYPD officers killed on Saturday were buried, but protesters last night rightly rejected those pleas.

To halt protests would be to accept the "outlandish" idea, put forth by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, that police critics were responsible for the death of those two officers. It would also send a signal that police officers' lives are more valuable than the lives of the civilians who have been killed by police. I respect the valuable role police play in our society, but in America, police are paid to serve and protect civilians.

When peaceful protesters call for justice, they are not seeking revenge or violence. They simply want victims of police violence to have their day in court. But this week, we saw no charges would be filed against the officer who killed Dontre Hamilton, marking at least the fourth time in two months a police officer faced no legal consequences for killing an unarmed Black man. As long as this pattern continues, then peaceful protesters have every right and responsibility to continue.

I believe 90 percent of cops are probably good just as 90 percent of protesters probably are as well. But only one group seems to be held accountable when they do wrong. Trust and respect must be mutual. If police ever expect African-Americans to trust them when they make a difficult call under tough circumstances, they have to be willing to hold officers accountable when they clearly do wrong.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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