The crime of being black


This troubled modern history comes under careful examination in two powerful books, Chokehold: Policing black men by Paul Butler and I Can’t Breathe: The killing that started a movement by Matt Taibbi, the former deeply informed from a legal standpoint and yet in some ways still highly personal, and the latter closely reported by a veteran journalist, and yet historically informed and full of pathos. The two reach consonant conclusions. For both authors, a Supreme Court decision in the late 1960s, and revolutionary changes in the theory and practice of policing that followed a decade and a half later, combined to create a prison industrial complex in the US, whose cornerstone is the hair-trigger search and seizure of black men. This has led to a nearly weekly spectacle in which black men die in street encounters with the police. As this article was being written the latest of these incidents was playing out on American television screens, as black residents of Sacramento buried Stephon Clark amid angry street protests. Clark had been shot by police – who were following up on reports of someone in the neighbourhood breaking windows – in his grandmother’s back yard. He was unarmed.

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