Walking while black, then dying.

A few weeks ago, a young African-American man wearing a hoodie on a warm night, was stopped by a suspicious off-duty African-American Charleston police officer.  A few minutes later, that young man was dead. The police investigation ruled the death a suicide, saying he shot himself in the head with his own gun.

Yesterday I attended a “town meeting” hosted by the Charleston chapter of the NAACP inviting public comments about racial profiling. Numerous people stood up and told us about the ongoing and frequent stops and frisks they are subjected to by the Charleston police for nothing more suspicious than not being white.

I’m a fifty four year old blond and graying white guy and I've been stopped by the police just three times in my life. All three stops were for speeding in my car and they all happened within two months back in the late 90s when I lived in Salt Lake City.

I heard from a few young black guys last night and spoke with them afterwards who said they get stopped by the police three times EVERY WEEK!  I apologized to one guy and he said “don’t worry about it. It’s so common that we just don’t even think about it anymore.”  Yet this guy finally got "Veteran" license plates on his car (he'd done a tour through Iraq), in an effort to stop getting pulled over for "driving while black".  No charges have ever been filed.

Another guy said he made an illegal left turn into a gas station and got stopped, frisked, and cuffed by the cop from his neighborhood who he knows by name. He then had his life threatened by the police sergeant who was called to assist with the harassment.  No charges were filed.

My immediate thought is that this must be some southern racist hold-over from the past. I thought that police procedures and policies up north must be better. I spoke with a minister who’s lived in many places around the country, both north and south. He says it’s the same everywhere he’s lived but up north it’s not so much white against black, as rich against poor.

As an experienced “business-guy”, I immediately think this policy of stopping people for not being white MUST be effective at reducing crime or it couldn't possibly be sustained. Why would the police purposely disenfranchise and antagonize a large percentage of the population if they were not seeing a significant benefit from it? The question is, what's the benefit they’re seeing and who is receiving that benefit?

So what ARE the possible benefits of stopping and frisking and harassing numerous non-white people?

Is the benefit reduced crime rates? Are people who are about to commit crimes, or people who are about to sell illegal drugs, or people with unlicensed weapons, or people with stolen property regularly found through this policy? Is stopping and frisking actually catching criminals and taking them off the streets?  Serendipitously, the New York Times had an article about exactly this subject today.   

Have you seen the movie “Minority Report” starring Tom Cruise? It takes place sometime in the future when a number of “gifted” people are discovered who can foresee violent crimes which will occur in the near future. Perpetrators of the crimes are arrested before committing the crime. Is this where our society is hoping to end-up? Is that the kind of society we want to live in, where people are arrested for their thoughts, not their actions?  

Or is the benefit realized in keeping a large segment of our population in constant-enough fear so that they never even think of committing crimes? If so, has the crime rate gone down with this policy? Again, is it worth purposely disenfranchising and antagonizing a large percentage of the population for this reduced crime rate, if it is actually occurring?

Or is the benefit realized from having more bodies filling more for-profit prisons? America has the highest incarceration of any country in the world, any country in history. Almost one percent of our population is in prison or jail.  Almost ten percent of non-whites are locked-up. Is locking-up people for minor infractions actually a benefit to our society? Or is locking people up a detriment to our society - a waste of creativity and talent from which we will never recover?

I like to follow problems to their root-cause. If crime from non-whites really is such a problem that it IS effective to stop random non-whites on the streets and search them, perhaps it would be better if we discovered why those people are committing crimes. Given the choice between living a comfortable “normal” life, or a life of crime, why would anyone choose to put up with the stress of criminal activity?

I met a guy a couple years ago who has since become a very good friend. He’s funny, honest, open, thoughtful, loving and loyal. He told me that in the late 90’s he gradually found himself at the top of a large cocaine distribution business in Charleston. He had dozens of people working for him. He told me that one Tuesday night while his wife and kids were sleeping upstairs, he and his lieutenants were sitting around his kitchen table counting the weekly revenues – all cash – it totaled more than a million dollars. That’s when he got really nervous and realized he needed to find a way out of that life. Unfortunately, he was discovered and arrested before that happened. He said his arrest was a HUGE relief. He hadn't realized just how stressful his life as "drug lord" had been until it finally ended. He saw his eight years in prison as an opportunity to start his life over. I met him two weeks out of prison and he was more joyful than almost anyone I've ever met.

This is a guy with many talents – clearly management of small organizations being one of them. Yet as a poor black kid growing up in Charleston, he didn't have a lot of opportunities to earn the kind of living he wanted. Cocaine sales offered that opportunity.

What if we, our American society, offered every kid an opportunity to get a good start in our economy? What if every kid coming out of high school and college was guaranteed a good job whenever they wanted it? (If they could be professional enough to keep it). A good fulfilling job making a difference in the lives of people in their community. A job paying a living wage, and providing full health insurance. That’s exactly what the Job Guarantee program I’m proposing would do.

Would employing disenfranchised youth reduce crime more effectively than stopping and frisking every non-white once every few days?   I think it would.

Would guaranteeing a job to anyone who wants one be less expensive and more beneficial to our society than incarcerating almost one percent of our population?  I think so.  

Would having the federal government provide grants to local non-profit organizations employing otherwise unemployable people provide a net-benefit to our economy by giving more people more dollars to circulate to more businesses - helping improve the economy for ALL of us?   My study of economics tells me that is exactly what would happen.

Or are non-whites being harassed and incarcerated solely because some people - probably rich white people - are getting very rich off this policy? If so, I have a way to fix that too – let’s implement the 100:1 take-home pay range.

Let’s start the job guarantee program and see ALL our youth for what they really are – productive, creative Americans eager to have a fulfilling life by making a contribution to our society and advancing our civilization.