Police, Black Lives Matter, and Violence: A New Hampshire Perspective

Jul 8, 2016

Today, as we follow the developments out of Dallas and the killing of five police officers, and the killing of two black men earlier this week in Louisiana and Minnesota, we’re left with many questions and lots of emotions. We’ve heard a lot from people in Dallas, as well as politicians in D.C.; now, a local perspective. Reena Goldthree is a professor of African and African-American studies at Dartmouth College.  In the past she organized Black Lives Matter protests, and she now teaches a course on the Black Lives Matter movement.  She joined NHPR’s Peter Biello to discuss these issues.

We’re all affected in a variety of ways by the repeated reports of violence this week—what’s your reaction to what’s happened?

I’ve gone through a series of reactions. I, like I imagine many African Americans have, have felt despair, tremendous sadness, an overwhelming sense of outrage, and then, quite simply, a sense of fatigue. Fatigue both at the seemingly endless cycle of innocent men and women being killed by police, and also at the seemingly endless cycle of gun violence in this country.

I was particularly affected by the remarkably spectacular and graphic example of the killings in Dallas. The horror of the spectacle—of seeing police officers carrying out their job at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, and being shot down by snipers—was profound. It’s been a remarkably difficult week. It’s difficult to put into words what the sight of violence has done.

Sight is a particularly important part of these events, it seems, this time around. I was wondering if you could weigh in on that. One of the things people are saying online is that the violence is not new, but the cameras are new. How true is that?

I think that’s a really important point. Certainly we know, historically, that gun violence is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Nor is state-sanctioned violence against African Americans. And yet the spectacle—the visual image of someone like Philando Castile being sprawled out in his final seconds of life—is particularly striking.

We know that, for instance, the photographs and videos from the Civil Rights Movement helped to galvanize the national campaign. Seeing African American children being attacked with dogs, or in water houses, in particular helped to galvanize support for the movement among white northerners. And I think the spectacle of death, once again, has sparked a really intense national conversation.

How would you describe the relationship between police and the African American community here in New Hampshire?

I think in some ways, New Hampshire is a unique space because of the relatively small size of the African American community. I also think, however, it’s important to think about the ways in which African Americans in New Hampshire, just like African Americans in other parts of the country, live with this anxiety about encounters with police officers.

I, as a black American, have had negative experiences with police officers, including here in New Hampshire. I think that most African Americans have either personally experienced it or have close friends or family members who have had negative encounters with police.

I think it might be difficult for some of our white neighbors in New Hampshire to understand the depth of fears that African Americans often experience during encounters with police officers. During routine traffic stops, many people are simply worried about receiving a citation, but African Americans wonder if they will be able to drive off with their lives. And I think that that deep sense of fear is still present here in New Hampshire.

What do you think needs to be done to reduce the conditions that make African American people feel such anxiety?

I think the anxiety itself is rooted in a really well-documented historical reality, and that reality is that African Americans are disproportionately killed by law enforcement officers. The British newspaper “The Guardian” has been working to collect statistics on police use of force in the United States. It’s perhaps ironic that a British newspaper is at the forefront of this effort, but their data on 2015 shows that African Americans were nine times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police.

So certainly part of alleviating that fear has to do with reducing the number of times that police use deadly force against African Americans. That may come in the form of increased training, and particularly to emphasize de-escalation instead of escalation. I also think that it’s important for police officers, when they use deadly force, to be held accountable. There should be really close legal scrutiny of any fatal use of force by police officers, whether against African Americans or anyone else.

How do you believe such violence could be prevented in New Hampshire, if you believe it could be?

I certainly think it could be. I think part of it is training, and an emphasis on de-escalation. I also think it’s important for police officers to understand the anxiety that many African Americans feel during encounters with police. It’s important for them to be sensitive and cognizant of that anxiety.

I also think that there has to be a reckoning with the legacies of fear around African Americans. Studies have shown over and over again that police judge African Americans as more hostile, and often older, than they are. I think that that is something important for police officers to be aware of as well.

I wouldn’t be able to do the work that I do, as an educator or as a member of my community, if I thought that this problem could never be solved. I absolutely think that there are ways that we can address this problem and I think it’s absolutely urgent that we do so.

You attended a vigil a few days ago for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the two men killed in Minnesota and Louisiana—what was the mood like at that vigil?

As you would perhaps anticipate, it was certainly somber, and reflective. But I also think that there was, among the 100 or so of us gathered, a deep commitment to justice, and a deep belief that justice is possible.

So many of these kinds of gatherings that I’ve attended, whether it be protests, or vigils commemorating the lives of those who have been victims of police violence, there is a deep commitment to the pursuit of justice.

I think one of the most important things to remember in this moment, and something that the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement tweeted out in the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Dallas, is that the Black Lives Matter movement is a movement for justice, equality and community. It is not a movement that in any way celebrates or promotes the murder of anyone—police officer, civilian, black, or white. What we are all working for is a world that is less violent, less unequal, and less unjust.