The Truth About Police

Another unarmed Black man died at the hands of law enforcement on Thursday night. The NYC Police Commissioner was quick in calling the incident an “unfortunate tragedy” at the same time that the mainstream press has included that the officer was a “rookie” in most of their headlines. Akai Gurley, the 28-year old Brooklyn victim and his girlfriend were leaving her apartment via the stairwell when they ran into two officer’s who were in the midst of conducting a vertical patrol and had just entered the stairwell on the floor above. Officer Peter Liang shot Akai Gurley in the chest after drawing his gun as a safety precaution while entering the stairwell.

Photo By Peter J. Smith

The NYC police are saying things like “probationary officer,” “accidental discharge,” and “dark stairwell.” The kinds of things that the police will say when there is absolute certainty that the victim wasn’t doing anything wrong and they have a P.R. nightmare on their hands. They were also quick to take responsibility and talk the talk of changing police culture and conducting a full investigation.

We’re hearing things like that from police muckity-mucks a lot these days. I hope it makes a difference but it doesn’t change the fact that another Black man is dead as a result of a brief encounter with a police officer. The circumstances don’t matter when you’re dead. All that’s left is his grieving loved ones and a righteously angry community.

For the rest of us, it’s another opportunity to think about police authority and bureaucratic discretion. In NYC, an officer has the discretion to draw their weapon while patrolling. But patrolling in a dark stairwell while also carrying a flashlight and experiencing heightened stress seems like a recipe for disaster. I grew up with the myth (and I do believe it is a myth) that police officers rarely if ever draw their weapon. To read the mainstream press, it seems like police are drawing their weapons more often than not because they feel “afraid.” That’s a real bag of power right there, the privilege to feel afraid and brandish/fire a weapon with all the authority of someone the people hired to protect and to serve.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? A whole lot of people already know the truth about police, this isn’t anything new under the sun. It gets a lot of press because it’s a tragedy but also because there are two grand jury verdicts we are waiting to hear. The Michael Brown verdict in Ferguson, MO and for choke-hold victim, Eric Garner. There is much fear in Missouri and calls for calm as the community there and communities across the country await the outcome. I want to be hopeful, really I do, but I know the truth about police authority and discretion.

Video Animation by artist activist Molly Crabapple

UPDATE: A Cleveland, Ohio police officer shot a twelve year old boy in the stomach yesterday, he died in a hospital early Sunday morning as a result of his injuries. The name of the child has not been released but he was Black and deemed a “threat” because he was holding a BB gun while playing at a local rec center. The police were following up on a 911 call that there was “A guy with a gun pointing it at people.” During the recorded call to the police, you can hear the caller say that the gun is “probably fake” twice. Per usual, the muckity-mucks are pointing out that the cop was a “rookie” with less than a year on the force. They also pointed out that the BB gun’s orange safety marker had been “scratched off,” as if that was just cause for shooting a minor at a rec center. If you read this article here (link) you can view the “Official Statement” from Cleveland Police where they insinuate the boy was trying to “commit suicide by cop.”

Searching for Answers: Retracing a Hmong Heritage

Today’s post comes from Guest Ethnographer Dee Thao. This is a beautiful and honest film Dee directed and edited about her search for information and connection to her Hmong heritage and identity. Her “advisor extraordinaire” (and co-star) on this project was’s Tony Waters.

Dee Thao is a documentarian based out of northern California. Click this link to read her bio and view her most recent work.



Privilege In Life, Privilege In Death

By: Tony Waters

To provide some broader context about Marc Thompson’s murder…Julie and I talked on the phone last night about two different cases that have been in the newspapers of Butte County, California, recently, where we live.  Two years ago, a young man was tragically lost during the annual Labor Day river float–a fun-filled day of drinking and floating by privileged students and their friends from out-of-town, who celebrate the beginning of the school year in Chico.  The story made local headlines for days. Attention from the Sheriff’s Department, and local press was abundant.  Several days later, the body of the young man was found, a victim of drowning. Julie and I discussed the contrast with how local powers responded to Marc’s murder last night on the phone.

Anyway, the quick story behind Marc’s death was that he left a local casino where he enjoyed playing poker.  His burning car, and his body inside it, was found just a few hours later in a remote area.  Instead of the massive attention from the press and Sheriff’s Department, the story was quickly swept under the rug, except from notice by alternative newspapers like a local paper called The Synthesis, which is where UC Berkeley grad Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff writes and edits.

I hope that Julie and Emiliano pursue this story.  As Julie notes, Marc was an African-American man from a poor area of Butte County (i.e. Oroville). But, he was also well-known in the community for both his activism, and cheerful curious nature (I knew him mainly for his cheerful curious nature, even though he was not in any of my classes!).  Because he was in Lee Mun Wah’s movie, he was also a local celebrity!

I have no idea why anyone would want to kill Marc. I don’t know if the motivation was robbery, racial, personal, or anything else, and the police are not telling us yet.  I do know that every time I Google for more information about his death, the websites at the local newspapers and sheriff’s office come up blank, though.  I conclude that the police just do not seem to care enough about Marc’s death, the extremely odd circumstances, the lack of “closure” for Marc’s family and friends, or that there are very strange murderers running around Butte County.  Given such circumstances, I cannot fathom why the murder of such a well-liked young man has so rapidly disappeared from the “running conversation,” to borrow a term from the Blumer article Julie cites.

Resources, Resources, Resources!


We are updating our links and resources here on Give this link a click, and check out what’s new. I’ve added some sociology into the mix but we’d love to hear from you, our readers. What kind of resources are you looking for on our website? Please give us your feedback and your links! Many thanks, Julie

If These Halls Could Talk

In spring 2010 director Lee Mun Wah asked me to co-facilitate a documentary he was shooting that summer titled, If These Halls Could TalkI remember the day well, it was spring break and I was at home, a tired teacher sitting in the sun outside when the phone rang. I was a fan of Mun Wah’s work, I showed his film The Color of Fear in my sociology classes each semester. We’d met at workshops I’d attended with students from my classes and from the Black Student Union, the student club I advised.

Teaching about racism is difficult but showing The Color of Fear made it easier, especially with white students. It got students feeling emotional and it opened them up and made them want to talk about race and the complexity of identity, skin color, and group position. I taught about race, class, and gender at the same time in my intro courses, intersecting these inequalities to highlight the ways that we experience both privilege and oppression, to help students see past the cultural conditioning and constructs and understand their experiences but also wanting to make their world’s larger and bigger than them. That is what sociology and anthropology did for me.

One of my tasks on the film was to help with casting students. Stirfry Seminars (Lee Mun Wah’s company) had collected applications from interested students across the country and I was reading apps and talking with students on the phone in search of people who were willing to take the risk and talk about racism, classism, and sexism on their college campuses. One thing was certain, I wanted to cast my friend and student Marc Thompson. When you watch the clip below, Marc is the young man who says, “We turned the word nigger into a term of endearment for ourselves.” That was how Marc was, he was bold and not afraid to tell truth. He was like that in the classroom and in everyday life, he was powerful that way and wise beyond his years. Our friendship started in the classroom but grew as we made the film and attended conferences to show it to the public.

Marc Thompson was murdered two months ago. His car was found on fire in a remote area of Butte County, off a rural highway in the middle of nowhere. He was buried a little over a month after he was killed, his family and many friends waiting on the DNA results from the coroner’s office. I know I’m not alone in this feeling but that was one of the worst months of my life. I miss him every single day and of all the people I would want to talk about this fuckery of an investigation with (see upcoming blog), it would be Marc.

When you watch Marc in the trailer below you get a taste of who he was, a brilliant man with a bright future. He was one of those rare people who pushed past the fear to say what needed to be said. At his service, that was repeated over and over, how he modeled and showed others that it was worth it to tell the truth in spaces where the truth is said to be welcomed, but often is not (see: predominantly white institutions or PWIs). I don’t want my friend’s words or his work to be forgotten so I’m sharing this with you because I was lucky to know him, he changed my life and I hope in this bit of time you spend with him, that he changes yours too.

La Crueldad del Hombre

Is art ethnographic? Art and visual representation cut across the disciplines but is especially suited for sociological and anthropological inquiry. Art tells us a story about our practices and beliefs and we find ourselves in what we and others create. It also reflects us back to ourselves, sometimes we like it but if it’s really good, we feel it and in that brief, aesthetic moment in time we change.

I saw this video by Steve Cutts yesterday, shared by a friend on facebook the day after the mid-term elections in the U.S. (a whole other area of ethnographic inquiry, yes?). I’m one of those cynical types who suggests that we are culturally going to hell in a hand-basket, a society that truly won’t do a thing about its impact until real crisis hits (running out of food, oil, etc…no need to bore you with what you probably already know). But until that day, all we social scientists (the Debbie Downers of the academic set) can do is warn the others and hope that art like this video opens eyes, even if it’s only a single pair.

“Man” by Steve Cutts: httpv://

Researching Around the Surveillance State

Last month in the New York Review of Books, historian Natalie Zemon Davis wrote a short essay about her experience with the FBI in late 1952. Upon returning from France, where she was conducting archive research for her PhD thesis, this happened:

Not long after my return, two gentlemen from the US State Department arrived at our apartment to pick up my passport and that of my husband. A publication event had brought them to our door. Early in 1952, I had done the research for and been major author of a pamphlet entitled Operation Mind, which reviewed past interrogations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and urged readers to protest as unconstitutional its announced visit to Michigan. (In 1954, when the Michigan hearings finally took place, students did in fact protest on campus.) The pamphlet was issued in photo-offset, without the name of author, but simply listing two University of Michigan campus groups that had sponsored it. Whatever local readers thought, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not pleased with Operation Mind and sent its agents to the printer, who obliged with the name of the treasurer of the campus organization that had paid the bill—that is, my husband. The seizure of our passports was one of the consequences.

I was devastated, heartsick, by the loss of my passport. I had counted on getting back to the archives in France not only to finish the research for my thesis, but for any future work I hoped to do on my new path of social history. (Remember in those days there was no web, no digitization, and not even microfilms of most documents.)

Natalie Zemon Davis

The FBI visit had left her cutoff from the archives she needed to finish her dissertation. She had only partially finished her research and it isn’t hard to imagine the panic she must have felt. But, Davis turned the blow from the FBI that could have derailed her career before it started (no doubt their intention) into a lever to broaden and deeper her research.

But wait a minute! Those sixteenth-century Protestant books and Bibles, made by the workers on my three-by-five cards, were available in American rare book libraries. I could find traces of printers and other artisans and much more in the pages of these books and their marginalia; even their bindings held treasures. The FBI could keep me from France, but not from the New York Public Library or the Folger or the other great rare book collections in the United States…

This episode also expanded my notions of human response to situations of constraint, both my own and that of people in the past. I realized that between heroic resistance to and fatalistic acceptance of oppression, there was ample space for coping strategies and creative improvisation. Much of human life was and is carried on in this fertile middle ground.

Given the recent dusting off of the Espionage Act by the Obama administration and the NSA disclosures, the Davis essay is well worth your time. Consider it a bit of counsel and hard-won wisdom for conducting research in an age of surveillance.

Is Your Class in the Way?

By: N. Jeanne Burns

Fortune cookie image


A few weeks ago at the YWCA Midtown I sat outside the gate to cool down from my run. I scrolled through Twitter posts about the Dunn trial and read about whites fearing blacks. Then I heard the desk clerk say, “You can only use your driver’s license three times. After the next two times, you won’t be admitted until you get a new YWCA ID.”

I looked up and saw two black women walk toward the locker rooms and I said to the clerk, an older white man I’d seen there before, “Really? That’s the policy?” He nodded yes.

“Because I lost my YWCA ID and got in with my driver’s license for WEEKS and was never challenged.”

“I guess you’re just likeable,” he said.

I was stunned. I surprised myself and went on.

“But I’m white. Those women were black.”

He got flustered, defensive and then said, “I’m offended. I’m not even going to talk to you about this. Not at THIS institution.”

After calming down a bit, he asked for my last name. When I asked why, he said he wanted to see what other privileges I’d been given, as if it were a problem with me personally. I certainly didn’t do anything wrong. Eventually he asked who was on duty when this happened, but since I go every other day, I’ve gotten checked in by many different people. No one person is to blame here, I don’t think.

I see the trust I got over and over again (by people of all races at the YWCA) as integral to the system that demonizes black men by making me as a white woman as trustable. If we can’t talk about race openly, how are we going to undo it? If an institution that I’ve witnessed doing work around race is replicating this system in small ways (and maybe big), what hope do we have for the future of racial justice work Minneapolis?

I also see the problem with talking about race openly. Middle class people avoid conflict and value their own individual place in their work, communities and world over justice.

In Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, author Barbara Jensen talks about the language differences between middle and working class people in Chapter 3: Belonging vs. Becoming. She says she found that the two classes used the same language for different purposes:

“The middle class groups used language and discussion to think and argue, to display their individual ability, and to uncover differences of opinion and debate them within the group. The working class groups used language and discussion to find agreement within the group and to connect emotionally with one another.”

And that “…middle class language and culture tend to promote individual achievements and competition between outstanding individuals, or people who ‘stand out.’ Working class language and communities tend to recreate values of social connection, solidarity and mutual aid.”

Yes, in the moment I thought at the YWCA that I could find agreement with staff, find a source of solidarity; I thought that they’d be well-trained in open dialog about race, that they’d understand what I could see.

Now I understand that what I thought was just stating a fact was challenging his individual ability. He then sought to find ways to reaffirm his individuality and uniqueness.


Barb Jensen’s emphasis in Reading Classes is about the inequality in schools because of some of these differences. But I wonder if social class gets in our way in addressing race and racism. Specifically, if the middle class way of communicating, which is highly valued and rewarded in our schools and organizations and companies, is keeping race and racism a quiet topic of discussion instead of an opportunity for solidarity and mutual aid.

I mess up all the time around race. Recently I posted an article on Facebook about the Minnesota Supreme Court striking down a law that would incarcerate parents who refused to pay court-ordered child and spousal support. I was outraged. But a friend posted a comment reminding me about the “justice” system that unfairly targets men of color and poor people, and how that law has been used unequally. I was embarrassed that I didn’t think about race when I read the article, but I didn’t take her comment personally. She was direct and plain speaking. And I thanked her, remembering that we are on the same side, that we both want justice for families AND for people of color, that it’s not one thing or the other. That we do have a lot in common on the issue. That we are on the same side, even when I fail.

I know a lot of white people who care about race and racism. A lot of those people are middle class.

Is your class getting in your way toward doing something about it?