Community Activism in Response to Dehumanization & Policing Methods
The following was written and researched in the Fall of 2019 for a Graduate School course as I pursue my Master’s Degree in Social Innovation at Grand Valley State University. This research paper includes a narrative of my personal experience with race and racism. Since I have lived across the country, I reflect on the time and the place that I am existing with the ending in my current residence, Grand Rapids, Michigan. After the original text, I’ve added an update and I will note where that starts.
America is a country that is obsessed with ‘race’. As a young girl, I was constantly asked “What are you?” in reference to my race or heritage. I grew up in a small city where the majority of the population were African American. With the exception of family, everyone I knew was Black. My heritage is Mexican, depending on which side of my family I am either third or fourth generation in the US. We shopped outside of our city for fresher produce and meat, and I grew up hearing people tell my mother “go back to Mexico”, “she must look like her father” or assuming she didn’t speak English. I happen to have the lightest skin and eyes of all of my parents seven children. Favored by my paternal grandmother, I had an internal conflict because I knew at one point she referred to my mother as “Negrita”.
My parents didn’t mention ‘race’ to us growing up, or at least not that I remember. It wasn’t taboo, but it just wasn’t a subject in our house because they taught us to love everyone. Maybe it was because I wasn’t as brown as my parents and siblings or that my eyes weren’t brown, but I was constantly asked that question that haunts me. I lived in a city, went to a church, and went to a school where I stood out because of my skin color. In my house being called “weta” or “gringa” was an insult. My sister used to tell me I was adopted or switched at birth. These concepts stuck with me, and fed the American obsession for ‘race’. I needed to prove my non-whiteness, I learned a lot about genetics and punnett squares. It wouldn’t be until I was in my thirties that I would find out “What I am.”
“Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism — the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them — inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men. But race is the child of racism, not the father.” (Coates 7)
The first time I was asked that question, I didn’t know the answer, my own ethnicity, so I did as any first grader would do, I asked my sister. She told me if anyone ever asked me, I was ‘Mexican’. That didn’t help me when I took standardized tests and had to check a box, and ‘Mexican’ wasn’t an option. I asked a teacher once, what do I put? I started checking ‘Latino/Hispanic’ but I didn’t know exactly what that meant either. Now, I check ‘two or more races’. Because that’s what I am in America, I am in between. I am not Black, and I am not White, I have blood of Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, Indigenous Mexicans, and African Slaves, they are all my ancestors.
I realize now that I was only asked questions about my race by my peers because they were trying to figure out if I was “White” or “Safe”. This is only something I realized after becoming the mother of a Black son in America. His confrontation with ‘race’ in America started when he was 9 months old, and someone in a grocery store asked his age, and then told me “he’s gonna be a beast” because of his large size. He’s tall, and is constantly mistaken for older. This robs him of his childhood, but this is a story that isn’t unique to him. This is all Black boys in America.
“As the perception of innocence is a central protection afforded to children, it follows that this social consideration may not be given to the children of dehumanized groups, such as Black Americans, in equal measure as they are given to their peers. In the context of criminal justice, such dehumanization could explain some of the racial disparities in sentencing and even the disparate use of force by officers.” (Goff et al. 527)
My son was 4 months old when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. He was barely 17, but the media and Gorge Zimmerman’s defense painted him as a “thug” and blasted his social media presence and one school suspension to reinforce the negative stereotypes of Black men, to dehumanize, and justify his death. “Because dehumanization involves the denial of full humanness to others (Haslam, 2006), one would expect a reduction of social considerations afforded to humans for those who are dehumanized. This reduction violates one defining characteristic of children — being innocent and thus needing protection — rendering the category “children” less essential and distinct from “adults.” This may also cause individuals to see Black children as more like adults or, more precisely, to see them as older than they are. As a result, dehumanization may reduce prohibitions against targeting children for harsh or adult treatment (Rattan et al., 2012).” (Goff et al. 527)
In the transcript from a 911 call released during the trial of George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman describes Trayvon Martin as “This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” He also told the dispatcher that “He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.” Later on he says, “Somethings wrong with him. Yup, he’s coming to check me out, he’s got something in his hands, I don’t know what his deal is.” Trayvon Martin had an Arizona Ice Tea in his hands, and skittles in his pocket. He wanted to become a pilot and took classes at George T. Baker Aviation School. He was a young man with a dream and a future that was cut short because he was dehumanized.
“Historians of genocide often argue that dehumanization is a necessary precondition for culturally and/or state-sanctioned violence — a view echoed by some social psychological theorists. The logic of this assertion is that dehumanizing groups morally excludes them, making it permissible to treat people in a way that would be morally objectionable if they were fully human. U.S. history is replete with examples of this kind of moral exclusion of Black children. For instance, the policies of chattel slavery (mostly pertaining to peoples of African descent) permitted children to be separated from their parents and forced into labor at any age. In 1944, a Black 14-year-old, George Junius Stinney Jr., became the youngest person on record in the United States to be legally executed by the state (electrocuted without the benefit of a lawyer, witnesses, or a record of confession; Jones, 2007). And, notoriously, in 1955, a 14-year-old Black boy named Emmett Till was dragged from his bed, disfigured, and lynched for allegedly whistling at a White woman.” (Goff et al. 527)
Having my son changed my perspective of the world. I decided that I could no longer be a bystander in the conversation about ‘race’ and ‘racism’. Even though I had such a positive experience growing up in a Black city. Navigating the world was a bit easier for me, I was allowed in certain spaces and at tables that perhaps people that were my mother’s shade of brown were denied. I didn’t always have the courage to speak up, but I found myself as the only Person of Color in many rooms, and thinking about my son and the things he deals with daily empowered me to question bias thinking in my workplace and in the public when I encountered it. I told a cashier once that she didn’t have to yell and speak to someone rudely, because she couldn’t understand their English with their Spanish accent.
When my son was called a “beast” at 9 months old, I recognized it as dehumanizing. At the time, I was so angry and offended I couldn’t come up with words to retort — but I’m sure my face said everything I needed to. As a mother this pained me, because I knew there would be a time where he will navigate the world without me by his side. I was just thinking of him going to school and I can’t go with him there and I can’t protect him from everything. There were also times when strangers wanted to pet my son’s head. Yes, his curly Afro is beautiful, but he is not an animal on display for your entertainment. He’s not a pet, he’s not a beast, he’s a human boy.
“Although a general association between a group and “animals” is one form of dehumanization, there are reasons to believe that some animals are more strongly associated with some groups than others. For instance, Jews were frequently represented as vermin (particularly rodents) during the Holocaust of World War II. Similarly, in the context of United States immigration, Latinos are frequently referred to with insect-related language, such as “hordes of immigrants” that “scurry over the border,” “infecting” U.S. culture. Likewise, there is a long tradition of peoples of African descent being likened to nonhuman primates — what the philosopher Lott referred to as the “Negro/Ape metaphor.” This dehumanizing representation can still be found in depictions of soccer players of African descent, especially in Europe, and of the first Black president of the United States.” (Goff et al. 528)
In a speech, after the ruling of George Zimmerman, President Barack Obama addressed the nation. He said, “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
The Black Lives Matter social movement, was birthed in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. “Community organizers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi… began to question how they were going to respond to what they saw as the devaluation of black lives after Zimmerman’s acquittal. Garza wrote a Facebook post titled “A Love Note to Black People” in which she said: “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter”. Cullors replied: “#BlackLivesMatter”. Tometi then added her support, and Black Lives Matter was born as an online campaign.” (Wikipedia) The devalue and dehumanization of Black people in the United States is a systemic oppression of which our constitution was built.
Ta-nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, speaks to his son about what it’s like to be a Black man in America. He reflects on his experiences navigating different cities and cultures, the death of his friend who was killed by police, and the time he spent at Howard University which he refers to as ‘the Mecca’. He writes about the history of the Black man in the United States, information that is left out of history books or merely glazed over. “As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guest room, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers; today, when 8 percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.” (Coates 131)
Simply put, Black Lives Matter.
The benefit of having grown up in a Black city, is that I know Black people. I’m still friends with people I met in elementary school. I went to a gifted and talented school in Gary, Indiana. We didn’t sing the national anthem, we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. In music class we learned the regular kids songs, but also “Young, Gifted, and Black” by Nina Simone. On the walls of my classrooms and in the hallways were pictures and posters of famous Black people. Not just athletes, but scientists, mathematicians, musicians, artists, and politicians. You can’t be what you can’t see. My principal was a Black woman, my teachers were mostly Black, one Latino, one Asian and only two White teachers in my elementary school. I didn’t realize the importance of all of this, until I had my son. Until I enrolled him in school and recognized that he didn’t see himself represented in any of the staff, not on the walls, and wasn’t being taught Black Excellence as I was taught as a young girl. This is why I know that Black Lives Matter. Because I can see myself reflected in Black people, because we are more alike than different. Because we are all human.
I’ve had to take a hard look at where I’ve chosen to raise my son. When my son was 4 years old in Preschool, he told his father and I that a boy in class told him “I don’t like Black people.” We began talking about ‘race’ because we had to. I had to tell my 4 year old that he’s Black, and some people don’t or won’t like him because of the color of his skin. It’s not right, and you are more than your skin color. It might hurt to hear, but that boy, is not your friend. It won’t be my son’s burden to lessen himself to be accepted. We discuss friendship a lot at home. “How do you know someone is your friend?” I tell him, “They like you for who you are. Friends laugh together, play together, and are helpful. They fill your bucket. Friends don’t hurt you, they always include and are genuinely nice to you.” He’s able to use that context and identify people who are his friends. This context has been simple to explain and to apply to different situations.
More than anything I’ve used this context to explain situations where my son is experiencing microaggressions at school, mostly on the playground. He doesn’t know that term yet, but he’s able to decipher the actions in the context of friendship. “Friends don’t disqualify you for no reason, or not tell you the rules of a game, or change the rules to exclude you from playing with them. Friends simply play with you and enjoy that time.” As the mother of a Black son, but who is not Black herself, I had to have a lot of conversations that were difficult. I’ve had them in public, at work, at school, and of course at home. I must be aware of what is happening in my community that affects my child, and I can’t afford to be complacent. I’ve learned about different resources available through Grand Rapids Public Schools verses a local charter school he used to attend. I transferred him because of those available resources, and that there’s more People of Color represented on staff in the public school system. When my son was in Kindergarten at the charter school, his teacher would call and email me almost daily with concerns and stories of him being a trouble-maker. My son was in childcare and preschool since he was 6 months old, he knew how to behave in a classroom setting. He didn’t quite have full control of his emotions, but what 5 year old does? I talked to him every time she did this, and it finally became apparent during a parent-teacher conference. She told me, “Sometimes, I just look at him and I know he’s up to something, because he’s smiling.” My son’s innocent and happy smiles at the age of 5 were being misinterpreted as mischievous and mal-intended. “He’s up to something” That’s the same thing that George Zimmerman said about Trayvon Martin before he killed him. “If human childhood affords strong protections against harsh, adult-like treatment, then in contexts where children are dehumanized, those children can be treated with adult severity.” (Goff et al. 527) There’s nothing more human than a smile. A genuine happy emotion expressed through the innocence of a child’s face, who was happy to be at school and learn.
Overwhelmingly People of Color are told that we have to be twice as good to get half as much in life compared to White people. Ta-nehisi Coates reflects on this while addressing his son in Between the World and Me. “I am speaking to you as I always have — as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologize for his human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” (Coates 107–108)
It is deeply troubling and problematic when adults target children of color and dehumanize them and rob them of their innocence. “Grand Rapids Police used excessive force when an officer handcuffed an 11-year-old girl at gunpoint, said NAACP leaders on Tuesday, Dec. 19. Police were searching the northwest side of Grand Rapids for 40-year-old attempted murder suspect, Carrie Manning, on Dec. 6. That’s when an officer pointed a gun at 11-year-old Honestie Hodges and handcuffed her. Hodges is the suspect’s niece, who was on the way to the store with her mother. Partial body camera footage released by Grand Rapids Police show Honestie screaming while the officer cuffs her. Her mother, Whitney Hodges, yells “She’s 11 years old.”” (WZZM13)
How could an 11 year old girl be mistaken for a 40 year old woman? In the case study, The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, researchers found, “Participants overestimated the age of Black targets and deemed Black targets more culpable for their actions than White or Latino targets, particularly when those targets were accused of serious crimes. The magnitude of this overestimation also bears repeating. Because Black felony suspects were seen as 4.53 years older than they actually were, this would mean that boys would be misperceived as legal adults at roughly the age of 13 and a half. This racial disparity appears to be related to implicit dehumanization of Blacks. The more participants implicitly associated Blacks and apes, the greater the age overestimation and perceived culpability of Black children… This suggests that our findings do not represent a general out-group perceptual phenomenon. Rather, the implicit dehumanization of Blacks appears to be related to unique effects on the perception of Black male children.” (Goff et al. 532)
The same study found that police officers also overestimated the age of Black children, more prevalent in boys. “Police officers — whose judgments are consequential to experiences of children in the criminal justice system. In this study, participants, despite being better versed in dealing with criminal suspects, overestimated the age of Black and Latino child crime suspects. White children, on the other hand, were not subjected to such overestimations. Again, the magnitude of the Black felony age overestimation bears repeating, as Black 13-year-olds were miscategorized as adults by police officers (average age error 4.59).” (Goff et al. 535)
The same cast study states that, “The observed associations between dehumanization and violent outcomes for Black children provide further support for our hypothesis that Black children, in contexts of dehumanization, are prematurely treated as adults. Again, the implicit dehumanization of Black children predicted the extent to which police officers overestimate the age of Black suspects, how culpable those Black suspects are perceived to be, and the extent to which officers were more likely to use force on Black suspects than suspects of other races throughout their career, controlling for how much suspects resist arrest or are located in high-crime areas.” (Goff et al. 535)
This is seen overwhelming in the case of Honestie Hodges, here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In a WZZM13 news story and article, the footage of Honestie Hodges being handcuffed is described as “disturbing to some readers. It shows the 11-year-old girl screaming, “No, please” as officers place handcuffs on her.” In the same story, Police Chief David Rahinsky says, “Listening to the 11-year-old’s response makes my stomach turn, it makes me physically nauseous.” He goes on to say that his biggest problem with the situation is that the 11-year-old should not have been treated like an adult by GRPD officers. Rahinsky said that on the body cam footage, it can be seen that the 11-year-old was treated the same way as an adult. “When you are dealing with an 11-year-old, it’s inappropriate. So as an agency, we got to have some tough conversations.”
“No one can look at Honestie and say she deserved what she got, said Greater Grand Rapids NAACP President Cle Jackson at a news conference in front of city hall.” He later goes on to say “The policies and procedures of the Grand Rapids Police Department target communities and youth of color.” Honestie is unfortunately not the first young person of color in Grand Rapids to be treated like this nor was she the last. We do not exist in a vacuum, what’s happening here in Grand Rapids is happening across the country. Social community activism like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName bring national attention to the stories of abuse of power, dehumanization, and over-policing of Black and Brown people by police.
“It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.” (Coates 103) In Grand Rapids, the GRPD worked with the local NAACP chapter to create the Honestie Policy, which “codifies the department’s expectation that officers use good judgment and act in the best interest of the youth — as well as best practices used by police departments across the country. Prior to implementing this adopted policy, GRPD did not have a freestanding youth policy.” (WZZM13)
While this all sounds promising in this city, tensions are still high between residents and police officers. This year “The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has officially opened an investigation into the Grand Rapids Police Department after receiving 23 complaints of discrimination. The state department announced its decision Tuesday, May 7, almost a month after representatives visited Grand Rapids for a pair of listening sessions to determine if there was enough evidence to open an investigation.”
One of those listening sessions mentioned took place on March 29, and lasted over eight hours. There were no Grand Rapids Police officers were present, and among residents sharing their experience, Leah Thomas stated, “For me, as a woman, a single woman, I am so tired of the disrespect of not being treated as a human being and the disregard of me being as a human. Something has to change. If I had planned accordingly, I would have moved out of this city a long time ago because I would never recommend a person of color to move here for nothing.” (WGVU News)
Racism and hate crimes have been on the rise nationally since this current administration took office. The dehumanization of immigrants in our country and city have also been in the media. In 2018, Grand Rapids Police made national headlines when Jilmar Ramos Gomez, a US citizen and Marine Veteran was detained by ICE. He was racially profiled and was mocked for having PTSD, officers calling him “loco” and “mad”. GRPD Captain VanderKooi texted and FBI contact about Jilmar, and evidence says that he’s a veteran and has PTSD. Jilmar’s passport was even in his possession during the time of the arrest. His legal status was questioned while he was in custody, by VanderKooi who sent an email to ICE. GRPD transferred custody of Jilmar to ICE, where he was nearly deported. Jilmar spent 27 days in custody between the two departments. Unfortunately Jilmar isn’t the first US citizen to be detained by ICE, but what his story does show is collusion between ICE and the GRPD. ICE had a contract with the GRPD, only after this story gained national attention, and a case was filed against the GRPD. Jilmar’s lawsuit was recently settled for 190,000. A new policy was created for how the GRPD should interact with immigrants following this incident.
In this year alone in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, an oversight committee was created by the City Manager to increase accountability and rebuild community trust in local law enforcement. The City Commission and Mayor approved an ordinance that bans racially bias 911 calls. It seems that there is some progress and accountability happening in this city, thanks to countless community organizers. I think that national stories and social media held a mirror to the city and made some folks looks at themselves.
As the mother of a boy that is constantly mistaken for an older child, my fear is that this will never be enough. My hope is that with the appointment of a new police chief, and so many community organizers holding the police and city accountable that things will change. How do we as citizens hold each other accountable for the dehumanization of Black and Brown youth? It’s something that is systemic, they are microaggressions that my son experiences on the playground at school, and Black athletes being compared to animals. It’s the kindergarten teacher policing my son for smiling. A fairly recent social movement also gives me hope, Black Boy Joy. I’ve used the hashtag quite a bit for pictures and videos that I share of my son. Black Boys are allowed to be happy, and have emotions, and have the human right to express that. I find hope in the official portrait of President Barack Obama, painted by Kehinde Wiley that hangs in the Simthsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Kehinde confronts negative stereotypes and dehumanization with his portraits of Black men in front of flowers and foliage. Dehumanization of Black and Brown people in this country needs to end. And I find comfort and empowerment in the social activism and local community activism that are battling these issues.
Here we are about six months after I submitted this paper’s final draft and the country has exploded and for good reason. If you’ve made it this far, you’ll know how deeply rooted policing methods and dehumanization go. Since writing and researching this topic, I’ve also read The New Jim Crow, and was not surprised that the current law enforcement system we have evolved from slave catchers.
The last few months during this pandemic and the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd… protests have erupted across the United States and in other countries. Social and community activism has propelled the Black Lives Matter movement forward. I’m filled with hope because the conversation has been centered around Black Lives Matter. More people are listening, and more people are educating themselves.
This is a long fight, the country didn’t get this way overnight. Dehumanization goes all the way back to slavery. Our country is a two party system with polarizing views — systemic change will take time. To dismantle institutionalized/systemic racism it will need to be done systematically… just like these laws were systematically instated over centuries.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi. (2015) Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
- Goff, Phillip Atiba. et al. (2014) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children. Vol. 106, №4, 526–545
- Remarks by the President on Trayvon Martin
- Full text of “Transcript of George Zimmerman’s Call to the Police”
- Black Lives Matter
- NAACP: Grand Rapids Police Used Excessive Force Handcuffing 11-year-old
- ‘Makes Me Physically Nauseous,’ GRPD Chief on Body Cam Footage Of 11-year-old Being Cuffed
- GRPD’s ‘Honestie Policy’ Now on the Books and in Effect
- “I Would Never Recommend a Person Of Color To Move Here”: Gr Residents Share Experiences with GRPD. Michelle Polo https://www.wgvunews.org/post/i-would-never-recommend-person-color-move-here-gr-residents-share-experiences-grpd
Gr Votes Unanimously To Approve Human Rights Ordinance. Michelle Polo
- Grand Rapids Police Department Officer Who Called Ice on U.s. Citizen and Marine Vet, Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, Racially Profiled and Mocked His Disability, Show Documents Obtained By Aclu and Michigan Immigrant Rights Center
- Grand Rapids To Pay $190,000 To Marine Vet Who Faced Deportation Based on GRPD Tip. Dustin Dwyer https://www.michiganradio.org/post/grand-rapids-pay-190000-marine-vet-who-faced-deportation-based-grpd-tip