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The Bad Dude Syndrome: What unarmed black men in Milwaukee have to fear

A black man, 40-year-old Terence Crutcher, was walking away from several Tulsa police officers with his hands in the air when he was shot and kiIIed by white officer Betty Shelby. She is now facing a “heat-of-passion” mansIaughter charge in the case. He’s dеad, she’s alive and well, walking free after posting a $50,000 bond. She was released 20 minutes after being booked. A police helicopter flying above the scene filmed the incident. The husband of the officer who fired the fatal shot was the pilot in that helicopter. In released video, one of the officers in the helicopter is heard saying Crutcher ‘looks like a bad dude.’

The conversation in the helicopter documented that one of the officers stated ‘he’s got his hands up there for them now.’ Several seconds later someone says ‘got a feeling it’s about to happen. It looks like a bad dude too. Might be on something.’ Within seconds Crutcher has been tasered and shot. According to Officer Shelby, she feared for her life. Crutcher became the 32nd unarmed black male to die as a result of police action in 2016 according to the Guardian’s police kiIIings database.

This is not a new narrative. African Americans are intimately familiar with this story of the “bad black man” menacing whites, who in turn fear for their lives. This is one of the longest lasting stereotypes of African American males. Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Philando Castille, and now Terence Crutcher are all men and boys who fit the stereotype. All of them were kiIIed or beaten. In all of the cases the people involved claimed that they feared for their lives.

It appears unarmed African American males have a target on them because of the dozens of cases over the past four years. American cities have exploded in rage over police kiIIings of African American men including Milwaukee, and now Charlotte in the past month. Everyone is looking for answers. I’ve heard dozens of reasons for the explosions in the aftermath of these cases. So-called experts tell us it’s related to a lack of work, a lack of opportunities in black communities. I’ve heard political leaders tell us that we need to come together and heal. Church leaders tell us we need prayer. Commissions are set up to address the problems. Money pours into the pockets of those with solutions. If we could just help these poor, disenfranchised, disenchanted people everything would be so much better, is what everyone says.

If we take an honest look, something else is festering under the surface that we as Americans want to deny. Not a single black community has exploded in rage because people are out of work. No one has burned or looted any city because African American children don’t have community centers to play at. No city has suffered looting and fires because African Americans are disenfranchised. Poverty has not led anyone to throw rocks at police. The precipitating factor in Milwaukee, Charlotte, Baltimore, Ferguson, Watts in 1965, Newark and Detroit in 1967, Los Angeles in 1992 and dozens of other similar events, has been a police action that resulted to the dеath of a bad black dude.

Civil unrest, riots, rebellions, or whatever else people want to call them, are the culmination of the devaluation of black lives in America. Black Lives Matter became a hashtag, then a slogan and eventually a movement, because black lives have never really mattered in America. We can deny it but the evidence is clear.

Malcolm X once said, ‘History is best qualified to reward our research.’ Throughout the nation’s history the bad black dude has been a recurring theme.

It’s impossible to understand this idea without being honest. Far too many of us are dishonest. Racism has poisoned our hearts and minds to the extent that most non-black Americans still see black males as a menace to society. In fact it has infected the hearts and minds of African Americans too. People have a visceral reaction to the mere sight of black males. This reaction and the fear that comes with it are the manifestation of racist stereotypes of black males. This has been experienced and written and talked about since colonial days.

I can hear people squirming at the mere thought of someone having the audacity to accuse America of being a racist place in the time of so-called colorblindness. We have an African American in the White House. They say, people aren’t like they used to be. They say, things have gotten so much better, and they repeat this to anyone listening. Some are crying out ‘what about black-on-black crime?’ I’ve heard it a seemingly a million times whenever police kiII a black person and people express their rage. ‘Why don’t they riot over black people kiIIing each other?’

“They” don’t riot over black people kiIIing each other for the same reason white people don’t riot over white people kiIIing each other. Because it would serve no purpose. How would protesting people kiIIing each other in the nation with more guns than any other on the planet make any difference? Did white people in Columbine protest after the kiIIings by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in 1999? How about after Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh kiIIed 168 and injured hundreds more in 1996. Did white people riot when John Wayne Gacy ʍurdеrеd at least 33 young boys between 1972 and 1978? Did whites protest when white biker gangs got into a shootout and kiIIed 20 people in El Paso, Texas? No they did not. Why then are African Americans expected to protest every ʍurdеr in our community?

Police officers, vigilantes, and good white citizens have been ʍurdеring black people since we arrived in 1619. Thousands of documented cases of black lynching victims attest to this fact. Enslaved Africans could be beaten, raped and kiIIed without legal recourse. Lynching perpetrators walked free when the criminal justice system said these people ‘died at the hands of persons unknown’ even when they posed for professional photographs in front of their victims.

Why has the ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ allowed black lives to be devalued for so long? Our nation never valued black people during 246 years of legalized slavery as anything other than free labor, sexual victims, property to be sold, leased, purchased, capital to pay off debts and eventually bequeathed to their children and grandchildren in wills. This is without dispute. Colin Kaepernick upset the apple cart by protesting the national anthem. When the Star Spangled Banner was written over 2 million blacks were legally enslaved. In fact, the person who wrote this poem, which became the nation’s national anthem, owned black people.

A degraded people who were purchased from European slave traders in West Africa at places like El Mina and Cape Coast Castles in present day Ghana served one purpose. Free laborers. Had their labor not been needed by the such European nations as British, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and later Americans, we would not have been placed on slaving ships. We fought back at first contact with these men who kidnapped us. Immediately black men became seen as bad dudes for fighting back.

For nearly six hundred years black men have been stereotyped as bad dudes for doing what any man in his right mind would do under the same circumstances. We fought those attacking us. Due to superior weapons of war, Europeans were able to steal tens of millions of men, women, and children from Africa to replace a rapidly depleted supply of hundreds of millions of Indigenous men, women and children who preceded them as victims of European enslavers. These facts are not disputable. They are well documented by the people who participated. Spanish Conquistadors, as well as American leaders and military heroes like former President Andrew Jackson bragged about their viciousness.

Very early on, unarmed or marginally armed black men became a danger in the eyes of whites in America. Slave patrols were set up to control their movements and activities. These slave patrols eventually became America’s first organized police forces. They were designed to protect the white community from bad black dudes. Not much has changed. The stereotype of black men as dangerous, has ben ingrained in the psyche of the nation for centuries. Everyone over the age of five has been exposed to this image.

When black men like Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel, and others who decided to fight violence with violence they were brutally beaten down by American militias of white men armed to the teeth. Although there were hundreds of these revolts planned and carried out, most were unsuccessful and not a single white person was touched. Simply kiIIing the leaders, their followers, and anyone else deemed to have knowledge of these revolts was not enough. They were beheaded, skinned, and their corpses put on display to scare other blacks. This was done to show the power whites had over both the free and enslaved black populations. Hundreds of blacks were expelled from the cities and towns where these events unfolded.

Vicious lynchings followed, and cemented in the minds of whites what measures were required to deal with these bad black dudes. The successful Haitian Revolution in the late 1790s was the ultimate manifestation of “bad black dudes.” Despite the fact that these formerly enslaved, brutalized black people formed only the second Republic in the Western Hemisphere, they were never allowed to enjoy the spoils of their victory. The United States and all other European nations boycotted the sugar industry of Haiti to teach these “bad black dudes” a lesson. As a result, Haiti is still the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Once legalized slavery ended in 1865 after the bloodiest, dеadliest war in American history we are told that things got so much better. They did get better for a very short time. Historians call it Reconstruction. During Reconstruction blacks became citizens for the first time, and black men were given the right to vote. Another important event during Reconstruction that no one likes to talk about was the founding of the nation’s first organized terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan. They were founded to ensure that the formerly enslaved would not enjoy the fruits of these freedoms Congress granted them. Thousands of black men, women, and children were beaten, maimed, tortured, raped, and ʍurdеrеd across the country.

By 1877, all of the Federal troops were removed from the South and black people were left to protect themselves. These bad black dudes formed militias to protect themselves, their families, and communities from the onslaught of violence they faced. Within a few years, and into the early 1880s, the public spectacles of lynchings became commonplace.

The voting rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment which stated the ‘right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude’ were systematically eliminated by states across the country. Constitutional conventions were convened to take the franchise away from black populations. In 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina a white mob set in place a coup-d’etat that removed all of the black elected officials. The mob beat and kiIIed blacks and destroyed black businesses throughout the city.

Black men who fought in WWI were lynched in their uniforms when they returned from fighting overseas tyranny. They were under the impression that their service would lead to rights afforded white citizens, many of them recent immigrants to the nation. They were mistaken. They continued to be seen as bad black dudes and were aggressively monitored by what would eventually become the FBI. Lynchings continued unabated because the U.S. Senate refused to pass a federal anti-lynching law.

In 1919, across the country mobs of whites beat and kiIIed hundreds of blacks, looting, and destroying black homes and businesses in places as far and wide as Chicago, Illinois, Elaine, Arkansas, Brisbee, Arizona and Charleston, North Carolina. This summer is known as Red Summer but most Americans have never heard of the twenty-plus riots led by whites into black communities. The entire black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma was destroyed by a mob of whites in 1921.

Another conflict consumed the globe, and once again bad black dudes went to fight foreign tyrants. In WWII they were segregated and treated worse than German prisoners of war despite the valor they displayed in all theaters of battle that they served in. Upon returning home, domestic tyrants denied them their freedoms once again. Black men continued to be lynched after the war. As they began to fight back non-violently, during what would become known as the Civil Rights Movement, these “bad black dudes” were brutalized by police and civilians. Homes and business were dynamited so often in Birmingham that it became known as “Bombingham.” We forget that less than a month after the March on Washington, four young black girls were ʍurdеrеd by a dynamite blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

The nation now celebrates these brave black men and women who fought for their civil rights. They were not celebrated while they were doing so. They were called bad black dudes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was considered the most dangerous man in America. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, a group formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to protect black people form police brutality in Oakland, California, was disarmed by Governor Ronald Reagan despite the state previously being an open carry state. Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase Black Power and was labeled a terrorist. These “bad black dudes” who were simply protecting the honor of their community were hunted down by Hoover’s FBI. In 1969, Chicago police ʍurdеrеd Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther leader, in his bedroom in a hail of hundreds of bullets that was followed by two point blank shots to the head after surviving the initial attack. He and Fred Clark were two “bad black dudes” who the police said the following day were part of a violent and extremely vicious group that attacked police. The narrative was a fabrication. Only one shot was fired from inside the home. No officers were indicted for the ʍurdеrs. In 1982 the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the U.S. Government settled a civil suit paying nearly $2 million dollars for the dеaths and cover-up.

Throughout the next 47 years police, vigilantes, and ordinary American citizens have kiIIed untold numbers of unarmed black males because they were seen as bad black dudes. For those who dispute these facts, google these things on the internet. Look up Yusef Hawkins, Amadou Diallo, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Natasha McKinney, Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, and Michelle Cusseaux. For those who deny that black lives have not been devalued in America since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, open up a history book.

Racism clouds our judgment and prevents us from seeing the obvious. We prefer to feel comfortable and pretend that the Black Lives Matter activists are wrongheaded, misguided, and misinformed people who need to expend their energy teaching their community members to accept personal responsibility for what they do. These same people never talk about personal responsibility for white people or police officers that kiII unarmed blacks.

There are certainly bad black dudes out there. Likewise there are “bad white dudes” out there as well. Unfortunately it appears some of them also wear police uniforms. Ask the family of Walter Scott if the officer who ʍurdеrеd him and lied about it is a good guy. Ask the black citizens of Chicago if they should trust a police department, which lied about the circumstances of the LaQuan McDonald dеath for over a year until they were ordered to release video proof of the truth they contradicted.

For all of those people who think police retraining is the answer, you are deluding yourselves. Police reforms like sensitivity training, de-escalation training, and such are only band-aids. Police reforms have been called for and created since the 1960s, yet we continue to have the Department of Justice requiring police departments around the country to reform. Their Ferguson report stated this, ‘Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias, including stereotyping. The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race. Restoring trust in law enforcement will require recognition of the harms caused by Ferguson’s law enforcement practices, and diligent, committed collaboration with the entire Ferguson community.’ Similar things were said about how blacks and Latino people were treated in Milwaukee, Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle, Miami and police departments in numerous other cities.

Weeding out racist cops who have a long history of mistreating people of color is the necessary solution. De-militarizing police reaction is also part of the answer. Training our police to see citizen encounters as non-combat situations is necessary. There is no reason for officers to have guns drawn on an unarmed man in the middle of the freeway. There is no reason that well trained law enforcement officers should be so likely to pull a gun, when blacks are the people they are having encounters with, and then not doing the same during encounters with whites. Many of us have seen videos or read stories of armed white criminals who police talked down alive instead of shooting.

Stop seeing every black male as a bad dude. All of the unarmed men who have died at the hands of police are only a small part of the devaluation of blacks. As a city and a nation, we have practiced devaluing blacks for so long that we do not know how to value them. This will not change because we get angry and march and demand justice. We have been demanding justice peacefully and non-peacefully since we arrived in this land. Only when we allow our hearts and minds to change so that we see black lives as valuable will we even take the first step.

About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As the Community Relations Writer for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also a former Board Chairman of the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation, which is the parent organization of America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM), and currently serves as the museum’s Head Griot (docent).

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