If you wish to be taken seriously, there are a few things you need to do before speaking critically of the police. Suggesting that such a vaunted American institution may be fallible is a sin only mitigated by pre-emptively issuing certain caveats. If you’re going to talk about police brutality, for example, you must first say, “The police have a very dangerous job.” If you’re going to talk about unjust laws, you first have to acknowledge that “the police are here to protect us.” If you want to talk about racist profiling tactics, you have to note that “most police officers aren’t racist.” And if you wish to talk about how aggressive policing disproportionately affects black, brown and poor people, subjecting them to daily harassment in addition to pushing them into our nation’s prison system, which has consequences on their economic, political, and social futures, you must first reassure your audience that “not all cops are bad.”
James Baldwin did none of these things.
There is probably no other writer, living or deceased, who has diagnosed the problems of American racism better than Baldwin, and that’s due, in large part, to his refusal to issue those sorts of caveats. We can still turn to him to glean a deeper understanding racism, which he sought to weed out of the American garden, root and branch. He didn’t hedge. He wasn’t especially concerned about being alienated from the mainstream for telling the truth—as a black gay man who had grown up poor in America, he was plenty alienated to begin with. Articulating a vocal and radical critique of the American institutions responsible for that alienation could hardly have left him more powerless than he already was.
In 1966 he turned his big, penetrating eyes toward the police. Here in the pages of The Nation (which has the distinct honor of having been the first publication to carry his work), Baldwin wrote “A Report from Occupied Territory.” A group of young black boys were harassed and beaten by the police, and for their crime of being young black boys, they were punished with long prison sentences. To read it in 2015 is to read an all too familiar story. In some ways, eerily so. I paused in rage upon reading this passage: