Watching a young black man arrested on the train and seeing the racism of the police laid bare

protestors flood the Capitol in Wisconsin after the death of Tony Robinson (via
protestors flood the Capitol in Wisconsin after the death of Tony Robinson (via

I could hear to person in the row in front of me breathing heavily. It sounded like more than the light panting of someone who ran to catch the train. Something was off about it, and it made me wonder if he had been running away from something or someone.

Before long, I saw a person out of the corner of my eye, heard a gruff “Stand up!”, and saw that it was a police officer. He wrestled the young black man to the ground trying to handcuff him and yelled at him throughout to stop moving and give him his arm. When he had him upright and in cuffs, the young man responded to everything with “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” and seemed like he was trying to explain what he saw as some kind of misunderstanding. The cop told him to never run from the police. I didn’t see what led up to this interaction, but he looked like a scared kid–he couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15–who got spooked and ran away from the cops. The officer shuffled him off the train at the next stop as someone yelled out at the kid to not say anything and just do what the officer told him to do.

It was disturbing to watch. To some degree it would be disturbing no matter who the kid was; as much violence and conflict as I might watch on television or in movies, any hint of it in person provides a jolt that reminds you that real-life violence is deeply unsettling. But of course it’s hard to see a black man wrestled to the ground on a BART train and not think of Oscar Grant. In the wake of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson and so many others, it clearly could have turned out much worse for that young man.

There’s so much wrapped up in that interaction–a history of brutality and an animus that grows out of living in a racist society and is exacerbated by exerting power in a broken criminal justice system. However much some police officers want to pretend it’s not there, the Ferguson report laid it bare. And of course it’s not just Ferguson. Right here in San Francisco, the police department is investigating a string of racist and homophobic texts that are almost too outrageous to be believed.

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) will investigate dozens of racist and homophobic text exchanges between a former SFPD sergeant convicted of corruption charges and four other police officers, the San Francisco Chronicle first reported. The texts made public Friday included jokes about Kwanzaa, calling African Americans monkeys, calling for the lynching of all African Americans, and even one that said, “Its [sic] not against the law to put an animal down.” The four officers have been on the force for at least a decade, with two having faced disciplinary action in the past. The revelation comes at a time when police practices around the country are under scrutiny for racial bias.

You can read more of the texts at the link if you can stomach it. How are we supposed to trust law enforcement when the officer who is cuffing a black man might be sending texts that sound like something you’d hear at a KKK rally? When instead or reporting such despicable behavior, other cops are joining in? It’s horrifying that people with these attitudes in Ferguson, San Francisco or anywhere else have the power of the law behind them. Just as insidious can the biases people don’t recognize and still act upon. This American Life  spent some time examining how police departments try to train officers to recognize these biases and adjust their behavior.

Watching that young boy on the train was yet another reminder of why I have such a visceral reaction to police officers and why that reaction becomes serious life and death fear for people with less privilege than I walk through the world with. If communities are ever going to build more trust with law enforcement, the police need to face this legacy and atone for it.


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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