By M’Shai S. Dash
What happened to college student and musician Jason Goolsby and his friend at a local Citibank ATM last Tuesday is not exactly sensational in Washington, D.C., but, for many reasons, it does rub more salt on an already open wound. One of those reasons is that news of this incident comes on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the original Million Man March, an event which drew tens of thousands of visitors of all kinds to the city who wished to stand in solidarity with Black Americans in their demand for equitable treatment. The aggressive apprehension of the two young men at the hands of D.C. law enforcement, following a call from someone who merely thought they looked suspicious once again reminds people of color that they are feared and unwanted, often in their own communities.
I grew up in D.C., went to school here, and currently work here. A couple of decades ago, many fondly referred to it as “Chocolate City” because of the large population of Blacks who resided here. There was a succession of Black mayors, a well-run summer school program, and a thriving cultural scene that reflected the Black and brown influences in the city. Even though D.C. was once considered one of the most dangerous districts in the nation during the ‘90s (the city’s second nickname was “Murder Capital”), it was also a place where Black youth enjoyed the many resources required to navigate their shaky transition from childhood to young adulthood. A lot of that is still true.
But memories of what I loved most about my hometown make the recent uptick in incidents of racial profiling in the city even more heartbreaking for me, especially when I note that some of the changes directly coincide with the drastic gentrification of many Black neighborhoods throughout the city in recent years. I’m not saying that gentrification is the big bad wolf of the racial climate here, or a direct cause of what happened to Jason, but I mention it because it’s important for people who aren’t from here to know that the city, like many American cities and towns, has actually been softly segregated for many years. So after reading about Jason’s life and aspirations, it occurred to me that the reason Blacks still get profiled in this place that most outsiders consider to be pretty liberal, is because of a problem that’s two-fold.
The first part of it does, indeed, involve gentrification. Now the city is flooded with young professionals opening businesses or clambering for jobs in D.C., many of whom happen to be white. While it’s ridiculous to assume that a great number of these new residents are new to interacting with people of color, it’s not as ridiculous to accept that some residents might feel anxious about living in posh new buildings looming over the struggling communities of color who’ve lived there for years. So it appears that the accelerated, intentional switch in the cultural landscape of D.C. has prompted its share of backlash, and that backlash, unfortunately, comes in the form of an influx of complaints from new residents about young Black males engaged in “suspicious activity” in areas that newcomers now refer to as their neighborhoods.
But as difficult to believe as it may be, it does take more than a cocktail of negative perceptions about Black youth to drive these incidents. It takes more than a racial climate that’s boiling up more each day as these issues are pushed to the forefront in the media. It even takes more than an endless supply of bigoted onlookers ready to sound the alarm at anyone they deem suspicious looking. People of color remaining caught in a cycle in which we are continuously brutalized by the police requires the willing participation on the part of the people responding to these false alarms: the police.
Understanding that makes the second part of the problem that fuels these recurring incidents and tragedies ardently clear: If the mantra under which law enforcement is instructed to operate under is flawed from the top down, there is no hope of changing the way these arrests are made. The reality is that officers cannot, in good faith, protect Black people and offer them fair policing—free from the profiling and excessive use of force, and death– if the way they’ve been instructed to maintain order is to protect others from Black people at all costs. With that enforced line of thinking, incidents like the one below will never cease.