Cops Really “Fit the Description”

The killing of an unarmed young black man in Ferguson, Missouri and the brutal response of police forces there to protesters brought down much needed media examination of the practices of police forces in the US. Several interviews reveal stories of constant police harassment, showing the singling out of minorities by law enforcement to be a common thing. It’s a sadly familiar occurrence. Yet, sometimes particular cases shine a magnifying glass on the overall injustice by way of driving home the central absurdity in it.

August 22nd, around 5pm local time, a black man walking down LaCienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills, California, was surrounded by police, cuffed, searched for weapons and detained on a six-figure bail demand. Contrary to pop culture portrayals of police procedure (unless you remember FX’s “The Shield”), he was neither read his rights nor allowed to contact an attorney for several hours. He was held on suspicion in an armed bank robbery in the area, the suspect’s description being “tall, bald black male.”

That such a vague description would cover anyone from Shaquille O’Neal with a fresh shave to the local UPS driver? Unimportant to the cops. He’s tall, black and bald, close enough … until a look at the bank’s security tape proved that they had the wrong guy and they let him go.

What made this stick out like a sore thumb was who this wrong man was: Charles Belk, a producer/director and head of his own marketing company. Seeing him discuss his background and his encounter with these cops, I was reminded of the “If They Gunned Me Down” trend that emerged on Twitter after Mike Brown’s death, and what it said about respectability politics. If someone who seemingly ticks every box on what American society has deemed the Respectable Citizen Survey MULTIPLE times can be treated like this, imagine the outcome if he didn’t have such resources at his disposal — say, if he were a struggling actor or waited tables for a living.

The treatment that minorities get, particularly get in the US, whether they’re Charles Belks or Joe Blows, is part and parcel of a system that sees non-whites as an undifferentiated mass. In cities across the country, minorities are subjected to disproportionate stops and searches for drugs and weapons, typically treated more harshly by police and tend to “fit the (ridiculously vague) description” a lot. Given the history of racial profiling, police brutality and corruption, those carrying the badge of enforcement of an unjust order for the state are themselves suspects. The charges are thousands of counts of murder and millions of counts of assault, armed robbery, kidnapping and terrorism.

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