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Know Your Rights: Criminal Justice Reform After Gates

New America Media, Commentary, Zachary Norris Posted: Jul 30, 2009

Understanding proper conduct with a police officer can be a matter of life and death for a young person of color in urban America. The relationship between police and many people of color (primarily black youth) has been a turbulent one—filled with resentment, antagonism, and hostility.

For many youth of color, issues of profiling are constant and commonplace. At the start of this year the Oscar Grant incident that took place in Oakland, Calif. -- where he was shot by a policeman with his hands cuffed behind him while laying face-down on the ground -- heightened the already rocky relationship between youth of color in this country and the police. So when one of America's premier black intellectuals ends up in handcuffs, it’s not just another incident of profiling — it's simply another pothole on the nation's rough and bumpy road toward equality.

The news from Cambridge has been published and reported in newsrooms across the country and e-mailed and debated by everyday people in America’s communities. Let us not forget that this was Henry "Skip" Gates, a man with accreditations and recognitions galore: A MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, acclaimed historian, Harvard professor, PBS filmmaker, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale, and holder of 50 honorary degrees. If this man can be taken away and humiliated by police officers from the porch of his own home, what does it tell us about the treatment of average blacks--or for that matter people of color in general--in the United States today?

With this case, we must discuss stereotyping, profiling, and the alarming incarceration rates of African Americans and Latinos. In California, where Books Not Bars (an Ella Baker Center campaign) works to redirect state resources away from youth incarceration and toward youth opportunities, the arrest rate for black youth is three times higher than for white youth. Youth of color make up more than 90 percent of the population within California’s failing youth prison system, and African-American youth are 28 times more likely to be sentenced to adult prison than their white peers.

Knowing your rights is one way you can defend against the biases of the justice system. Here are some useful tips to remember when interacting with a police officer:

If the Police Stop You...

* Stay in control of your emotions and words. Don’t physically resist.

* Keep your hands visible.

* Remain silent. They have guns, pepper spray and billy clubs. Your strongest weapon is your mind.

* The less you say, the better. Silence is not a crime.

* Ask, "Am I free to go?" If they keep you, you are being detained.

* Ask, "Why are you detaining me?" To detain you, the police must have concrete reasons to suspect your involvement in a specific crime.

* If you’re detained, show ID. If you don’t, the police can hold you for three days to ID you.

If the Police Try to Search You...

* Never consent to a search.

* Say loud and clear (especially if there are any witnesses present): "I do not consent to a search."

* Don’t resist physically.

* Don’t open your bag for them. It will count as consent to the search.

* Police may 'pat down' your clothing if they suspect weapons or drugs.

While educating ourselves is essential, the work can't end there. We must join together to fight for comprehensive criminal and juvenile justice reform, from ending the death penalty and “three strikes” laws to implementing alternatives to youth incarceration.

As Prof. Gates saw, sometimes knowing your rights is not enough. Ultimately, until we build a movement for comprehensive criminal and juvenile justice reform, neither Skip Gates nor the brother on the block will be safe from the caprice of police officers.

Zachary Norris is lead organizer for Books Not Bars (a campaign of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights). To learn more about the campaign for an equitable justice system in California, visit www.booksnotbars.org.

Related Articles:

What if Henry Louis Gates Were Not an Acclaimed Professor?

The Curious Case of Henry Louis Gates

Professor Gates and Me: Racism vs. Blacks, Filipinos in America

Latino Cops Organization: Cambridge Police Acted "Stupidly"

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