From Profile to Prison: Criminalization of a Community

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While news of police mistreatment in African-American communities is nothing new in the post-Rodney
King era, what is new is the nation-wide organizing
against it. From Los Angeles to New York, Chicago to
Champaign—grass roots organizations have come
together to fight the widespread criminalization of
black youth. Caught in a dragnet cast by the criminal
justice system, today 2 million prisoners sit in jail and
another 5 million are currently on parole, probation, or
house arrest, by far the highest incarceration rate of any
nation in the world. The problem is deep-rooted and
racism is rampant. Whether endemic racial profiling
(according to Amnesty International there were 32 million
victims last year) or America’s continued practice
of the death penalty, the intent is to both discipline and
punish. The trumped-up charges of eavesdropping
against Martell Miller and Patrick Thompson, Founders
of VEYA, Visionaries Educating Youth and Adults—
filed and quickly dropped by Champaign police after
strong public support—expose the need for police
reform at home. While the issue of criminal justice
remains off the political radar in the upcoming national
election, Urbana-Champaign residents have a unique
opportunity to send a message to public officials on
November 2 and come together to do the work needed
for the day after election day.
I recently moved to Champaign
from Los Angeles, where the LAPD
is known as an occupying army by
black and Chicano communities. In
the Rodney King beating or the more
recent 2002 incident in Inglewood
where 16-year old Donovan Jackson-
Chavis was thrown against a
police car and punched in the face by
an off i c e r, videotaping has given
credibility to black urban legends of
pervasive police brutality. Yet the many “stolen lives”
that have come at the hands of police are less known
because they have been off camera. One of these was
Irvin Landrum Jr., a 19 year-old black youth, who in
January 1999 was shot and killed by white police in the
seemingly “enlightened” college community of Claremont,
where my wife and I were living.
According to the police report, Landrum was pulled
shortly after midnight on a routine traffic stop. After he
was asked to step out of his car, police claim that Landrum
drew a gun on them and fired. The two policemen
pulled their guns and returned fire, fatally shooting
Landrum. Family members, members of the community,
students, and a few radical professors organized to
question the account. The local police chief promptly
released the criminal record of an organizer to the local
press and the city council later gave thousand-dollar
city employee awards to the two police off i c e r s
involved, due to the harsh public scrutiny they endured.
As details of the incident unfurled, it was discovered
that Landrum’s alleged weapon had no fingerprints, had
not been fired, and was formerly owned by the police
chief of a nearby city.
This was where I, a young white college student, got
my first taste of grassroots protest—attending weekly
public events, marching in solidarity, and standing in
front of offices at the local newspaper chanting “no yellow
journalism.” I and other members of the community
picked up skills to later mobilize for migrant workers,
fight for the right of campus employees to unionize,
and stand up against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In standing side-by-side with other students, blacks,
Chicanos, women, gays, lesbians, and people of many
ages, I have gained my best role models. In raising my
own voice, I have found precise language for criticizing
America’s hypocritical “war on terror,” a war of mass
distraction from a more real threat of police terror that
patrols our city streets.
Across the nation, similar incidents have provoked
public outrage. In a hail of 41 bullets, Amadou Diallo, a
22 year-old West African immigrant, was gunned down
outside his Bronx apartment by four police officers
under Mayor Rudolph Guilliani’s indiscriminate crime
sweeps. In Brooklyn, a white off-duty police officer
went on a day-long drinking binge and drove his car
through an intersection, mowing down a Latino family,
and then was promptly released by a judge without bail.
Reports from death row by America’s most famous
political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, an independent
journalist from Philadelphia, have received attention
the world over. A growing national movement has
emerged to call for a moratorium on prison construction
and a repair to the broken relationship between police
and communities of color. October 22, coming up this
month, has been set aside as a day to wear black in
protest of “police brutality, repression, and the criminalization
of a generation.”
Yet it is the Midwest that provides a weathervane for
the future of America, this region of the country that
rarely makes national news, but where the sense of
frustration among black youth has become most acute.
One way points to Cincinnati and Benton Harbor,
where riots in 2001 and 2003 erupted after repeated
police abuses. Another way points to Chicago, where
Fred Hampton Jr., the son of Fred Hampton, leader of
the Black Panther Party who was killed in the infamous
1969 FBI raid on his house, is again
organizing on the South Side and
has vowed, “You can kill a revolutionary,
but you can’t kill a revolution!”
As Chairman of the Prisoners
of Conscience Committee, Hampton
J r. has been working with gang
members, parolees, prisoners, and
individuals on death row. Presented
with these two options, founders of
VEYA are working to address problems
in education and community
relations with police before they reach a boiling point.
Although Irvin Landrum Jr.’s death remains a closed
case, public disgust led to the voting out of two city
council members. In Los Angeles, police districts are
now installing videocameras in squad cars to monitor
traffic stops, a positive step in answering the demands
of citizens. The absurdity of Champaign police, who
have targeted two men for doing what police departments
across the country are now doing of their own
accord, could only be a product of America’s racist
logic. More than just a public relations blunder, these
charges were an attempt to suppress the irrefutable
images contained in the VEYA video, Citizen’s Watch,
such as those of Sgt. David Griffet who is captured
holding a can of mace to control a black crowd outside
a club in downtown Champaign. We can be sure that if
police are carrying these chemical weapons, they are
using them on black youth. This is why there was public
outcry over the proposal to arm Champaign police
with tasers. This is why voters must send another signal
to city officials this November.
Also shown in Citizen’sWatch are images of young
white males terrorizing the streets of campus town and
vandalizing public property, with no police in sight.
Police say that they simply do not receive the same
number of calls from this side of town. This video
sharply contrasts assumptions of black criminality with
images of white male students whose binge drinking
and lewd behavior is tolerated, as if it were a part of
their college experience. Members of this “enlightened”
community must find more sufficient answers
and demand equal enforcement of the law on both sides
of the tracks.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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