The deaths of the fallen Hattiesburg police officers were unequivocally unnecessary loss of valuable and valued lives. No young man should have his life taken as the result of a violent and vengeful act. Last Sunday, the families and community of the fallen Hattiesburg police officers woke to a new day in our lives without these brave young men. Also and unfortunately last Saturday, Mississippians woke to find that Governor Bryant had chosen to capitalize on this tragedy to spew divisive words instead of encouraging our community mourn and heal together. I was appalled to read his acrimonious words which clearly had been written and submitted for publication even before these brave men were laid to rest.
Out of dignity and respect for the families, the community and our great state, I purposefully delayed submitting a response as a citizen of Mississippi and in my capacity as the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi (ACLU of MS). I am, however, compelled to respond to the Governor’s comments. The governor sent a message intended to invoke fear in the hearts of the “good people” in order to set conditions to further erode the freedoms of Mississippians who in coded language are referred to as the “criminal class”. I cannot sit quietly by and let his words go unchallenged. I write this letter to submit to this state and all of its people facts over fiction.
The Governor begins his statement with “It is becoming apparentthat a deadly conflict now exists”. While this reality is just starting to become apparent to the Governor, it has been a reality in the lives of young men of color for decades. The facts are that blacks disproportionately are subjected to abuse during traffic stops. Blacks are nearly four times more likely than whites to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with the police. In the first month of this year alone, nearly 100 young people of color were killed in police related encounters across this country according to killedbypolice.net which documents occurrences of people killed by nonmilitary law enforcement officers, whether in the line of duty or not, and regardless of reason or method. This reality, while justbecoming apparent to the governor, has caused mothers and fathers when teaching their teenagers to drive to keep their hands at “ten and two” on the steering wheel when, not if, stopped by the police. “Ten and two” not because that is what the driving manual states but because we hope that it will help our children survive a close encounter with the police. Long before the phrase “hands up, don’t shoot” was coined, we have been forced to teach these additional lessons of survival when driving while black.
The governor goes on to state this conflict exists between the criminal class and law enforcement and then immediately makes a reference to race. Translated, his coded message equates the “criminal class” to people of color. The governor’s race-based assumptions perpetuate negative racial stereotypes that are harmful to our diverse democracy, and materially impair our efforts to maintain a fair and just society. The facts, according to the FBI, in 2011, are that white people committed about 6.58 million crimes; blacks committed 2.7 million and that white individuals were arrested more often for violent crimes than any other race, accounting for 59.4 percent of those arrests. His message only further alienates communities of color from law enforcement, hinders community policing efforts, and causes further erosion credibility and trust among the people of Mississippi.
He states “[t]his is an attack on law enforcement . . . by the criminal class” (again his coded fear summoning messaging). The fact is that there has been a long standing attack on young men of color. “Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater”, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.”
“Simply put, if you don't violate the law, disobey a police officer during an intervention and don't resist arrest, your chances of being in conflict with an officer are non-existent.” This statement was among the most ludicrous statements made by the Governor. He further asserts this is not a racial conflict and uses the word “allegedly” in reference to racial profiling as if this is a baseless notion or some whimsical myth. The facts are racial profiling is a real and pervasive problem. Even former President Bush and the U. S. Supreme Court acknowledged and condemned racial profiling as a reality. Data collected across America documents the persistence of racial profiling throughout the country. “Hit rate” analysis of stops and searches innumerous jurisdictionsshow that people of color, including Blacks and Latinos, are stopped, frisked, and searched at rates far higher than whites, but areno more likely, and very oftenlesslikely, to have drugs or weapons on them. Racial profiling violates the U.S. Constitution by betraying the fundamental American promise of equal protection under the law and infringing on the Fourth Amendment guarantee that all people be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Organized destructive movements” these words penned by the governor are reminiscent of rhetoric of the “good people”, who commonly referred to themselves as the White Citizens Council during the 60s and 70s, “a time of social unrest” according to the governor. Historical fact refers to this period of as the Civil Rights Movement. An organized movement, such as the Civil Rights movement, typically arises when intolerable conditions imposed by an oppressive government have caused a people to be “sick and tired of being sick and tired” in the words of the Civil Rights veteran and heroine, Fannie Lou Hammer. The organized civil movement of peoples of color joined and supported by people of different races brought about positive change for all people of this country. I wonder if Governor Bryant were governor in the 60s or 70s would he have referred actions by the Citizens' Councils, white segregationists and supremacists, who organized to oppose integration and the Supreme Court decision, or the Ole Miss riots as an “organized destructive movements”. Or maybe he would have stood on the steps and said about the Civil Rights Movement that such undertaking a will not come here because “our people are just simply better behaved and more respectful of authority” as he stated on May 1, 2015 in reference to rioting in Baltimore and other incidents of racial discord in America. To many of us, his words were received as coded language “our [black] people” know their place”.
The governor calls on the “good people” to once again stand for law and order. It is this type of speechmaking which spurred Jim Crow laws. I, therefore, call on all the people of Mississippi to stand for and embrace fairness that we esteem as Americans and to build trust not discord between police and our communities that is essential to keeping all of us safe. I also implore all Mississippians to be aware and to be vigilant in defense of freedoms. Be ever watchful in the next legislative session, be it special or regular. The Governor’s message should be considered an early warning that knee jerk fear baited legislation will be introduced to further erode the rights, freedoms and liberties of Mississippians, especially those he has attempted to disguise as a “criminal class”.
The ACLU of MS in no way condones criminal activities or the unlawful killing of any law enforcement. Equally we oppose the abuse and unnecessary killing of ordinary citizens at the hands of law enforcement officers. I reiterate my intent here is not to further divide but to delineate what is truth from rhetoric intended to expand the still existing rift the between the people of this state. Only together will Mississippi be made better.