How does policing prevent communities from producing safety and healthy well-being?
Gloria Verdieu is a longtime San Diego activist, well known for her tireless work on progressive issues and especially her dedication to causes of particular importance to the African-American community. As a leader of San Diego’s Committee Against Police Brutality, she was asked to speak at the “Ending Police Violence” shadow session at the American Public Health Association meeting held in San Diego from Nov. 10 through 13 (See the accompanying report). The Public Health Justice Collective convened the plenum “Health Equity Now: Ending Police Violence” as an addendum to the annual meeting. This plenum was held at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego’s Balboa Park and included a keynote address by professor Alex Vitale, author of “The End of Policing.”
Modern policing in the United States and Western Europe has two origins: the systems of controlling enslaved Africans and surveilling poor and working people. In both instances, policing has remained a tool to disrupt the survival and self-determination of oppressed people.
What follows is a slightly edited version of Verdieu’s presentation:
In a recent article titled “Police killings and brutality damage mental health of Black communities,” it says that policing should be treated like a public health issue, forcing the entire system of recruitment and training to change. Boston University’s School of Health and the University of Pennsylvania released a study that found that the high rate of unarmed African Americans being killed at the hands of police has caused more incidents of depression, stress and other mental health issues among Blacks. In other words, overwhelming police brutality is damaging the mental health of African Americans — even those who have no direct connection to men, women and teens who have lost their lives at the hands of police. This report was released two days after 17-year-old Antwon Rose II was shot, June 19, 2018, by police in East Pittsburgh following a traffic stop.
Here is a recent Facebook post by a Black man in San Diego: “Today I was in America, driving an American car with American license plates down an American road when a Border Patrol agent stopped and asked me what country I was from.” Even though I did not have information to determine if this stop was right or wrong, I was relieved that no one was killed, locked up, tazed, choked or beat up.
I thought about the times that I was followed and/or stopped by the police. I recalled how nervous and stressed I became, wondering what I did wrong. Checking the passenger seat to make sure I had my purse where I keep my driver’s license and that my registration and insurance cards were in the glove compartment and, at the same time, reminding myself to stay calm. You see, I know what to do if stopped by the police. After all, I am an organizer with the Committee Against Police Brutality.
What about all the people — Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous and white — who can’t calm down or don’t have insurance or registration, for whatever reason? They may know their rights, but express them in the wrong tone, because they haven’t been trained on what to do when stopped by the police, or they are just stressed, frustrated and at that moment lose it.
It is normal to have anxiety and some stress when a police car is behind you. But there is a point when we become so stressed that our health is affected. Why so stressed? An encounter with the police could be a point of no return, especially for Black and Brown, or poor people. It could mean losing your driver’s license, job, jail time, months and possibly years of litigation because you have no money for legal representation. The effects all of this has on families and close relatives can be devastating.
We see this happening all across the nation and in San Diego.
Twenty-three-year-old Sagon Penn was racially profiled by San Diego police on March 31, 1985. He fought the charges against him and was acquitted after two trials, but committed suicide in 2002. Sixteen years have passed and his family is still deeply affected and continues to look for answers.
Twenty-year-old Sonserra Holloway was killed by a Border Patrol agent in the San Diego neighborhood of City Heights in 2000. She was 5 months pregnant. Her mother, Chery, who became an activist for years following the murder, has now moved away. The last time I spoke with her, she said, “My life and my other children’s lives will never recover.”
Billye Venable, Anastasio Hernández, Victor Ortega, Valeria Tachiquín, Alfred Olango, are only a few of over 100 people killed by the police in San Diego since 1999 when CAPB started recording people killed by the police. It’s a partial list, because we will never know exactly how many because the state has no comprehensive database that lists the names of those killed by police.
These are people who paid the ultimate price when stopped or confronted with law enforcement. The number multiplies when we consider those who were beat up, in litigation, in jail or prison for years. Their families paid the cost and do the time along with them.
A documentary on Native American health and healing said that the primary source of health issues is stress, emotional stress, family stress, time related stress and the many other things that can cause mental stress in the mind and body. It went on to say that stress affects every tissue in the body – the digestive system, the cardiovascular system, diarrhea, heart disease, the list goes on. This is a concern for all of us, but Black and Brown people face high doses of stress daily just driving or walking while Black or Brown.
Policing has a negative effect on the health and safety of our communities because many of us see the police as a force that intimidates and harrasses the communities who pay them to protect and serve.
Policing is a public health issue!