Chokehold- Policing Black Men (Book Review)

A Renegade Prosecutor’s Radical Thoughts on How to Disrupt the System- Paul Butler

Chokehold: Policing Black Men was pitched this year as a book exposing police violence and targeting of black men in the same way that The New Jim Crow exposed prison violence and targeting of black men in America.

“A chokehold is a process of coercing submission that is self reinforcing… The Chokehold is a way of understanding how American inequality is imposed. It is the process by which black lives are made vulnerable to death imposed by others and death that comes from African Americans themselves. The Chokehold works through overt state violence- such as the way communities of color are policed- and slower forms of vulnerability, such as the poison water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the gentrification, all over the country, of inner-city neighborhoods formerly occupied by poor people of color, and the way that when a black man chooses to kill somebody, nine times out of ten it is another black person… The Chockhold evolved as a ‘colorblind’ method of keeping African Americans down, and then blaming them for their own degradation… The Chokehold means that what happens in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland- where the police routinely harass and discriminate against African Americans- is not a flaw in the criminal justice system. Ferguson and Baltimore are examples of how the system is supposed to work.”

Racial Profiling

The Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio in 1968 it was upheld that it was not a violation of the 4th amendment to do search and seizure (stop and frisk) without probable cause to arrest if the police officer has reasonable cause to suspect the person “may be armed and presently dangerous.” Butler argues that these practices are done to “humiliate and control” black men specifically.

“Stop and frisks signal that the police control the streets, and they signal this in a way that is, as Foucault described torture, ‘public,’ ‘spectacular,’ ‘corporal,’ and ‘punitive.’ When one sees a row of black men spread against a wall, one is witnessing what Foucault called ‘the very ceremonial justice being expressed in all its force.”

In the 2000 Supreme Court case, Illinois v. Wardlow ruled that if a person runs from the police, the police have a reasonable cause to follow and search a person. The white man would not flee because he has no reason to suspect interaction with police if he has not done anything wrong. The black man will flee because he has lived a lifetime of unnecessary stop and frisks.

“Throughout the existence of America, there have always been legal ways to keep black people down. Slavery bled into the old Jim Crow; the old Jim Crow bled into the New Jim Crow. In order to halt this wretched cycle we must not think of reform- we must think of transformation. The United States of America must be disrupted, and made anew.”

Police Violence

Along with this racial profiling also comes differences in police use of violence. Butler explains how the media has not helped in ending racial bias.

“Here is an amazing fact that goes a long way toward explaining the construction of the thug: Most white people have only one black friend. If the primary way you get to know African American men is the local evening news, I don’t blame you for being scared of us. Several studies have demonstrated that news programs overrepresent African American men as criminals and white people as victims.

With this fear of black men in our society, cops are given more leeway when using violence against people of color who predominately make up the population of low income, “high crime” areas.

“Police brutality is so widespread, and so predictable, that many small and medium-size cities actually purchase insurance policies to pay money to people who have been subject to police abuse. Big cities, however, self-insure, which means they set aside a certain amount of money to be used for this purpose. This raises an issue scholars call moral hazard, since police departments might be less likely to encourage their officers to act responsibly because paying for brutality is already included in the budget.”

Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory provides a framework for critical examination of society and culture around the intersections of race, power and law. As Butler notes in the book,

“…ideas from critical race theory help us understand why the crisis in criminal justice stems more from legal police conduct than illegal police misconduct… The system is now working the way it is supposed to, and that makes black lives matter less.”

Examining society through the lens of critical race theory shows that our criminal justice system must change. Whether this is through “reform” as liberals advocate for, or “prison abolition” as radicals call for.

“…white privilege itself brings a sort of prison abolition. White people don’t get locked up, or get less time, for the same conduct that sends black people to prison. When we wonder what would be the effect if most people who break the law were not locked up, we can look at white folks as an example of a community where that is already the case.”

Butler references three suggestions for immediate action toward prison abolition.

  1. Advocating for a maximum sentence of 21 years in prison (a current law in Norway). In the the US, 1/9 people in prison are serving a life sentence or more.
  2. Reduce number of things you can be sent to prison for. Every year currently, 10 million people go to prison for misdemeanors. Also, we need to reduce fines to be based on income.
  3. Stop spending excessive money on the police and instead invest this money in community health care. Almost 80% of people in prison suffer from either addiction or mental illness.

If you would like to read about black women’s experiences with police, check out the book: Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie.

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