Why do American cops keep killing unarmed black men?

‘The Wire’ actor Gbenga Akinnagbe takes on the problem of state brutality after Freddie Gray's death in police custody

Gbenga Akinnagbe The Wire
Gbenga Akinnagbe in The Wire

Gbenga Akinnagbe is best known for his role of Chris Partlow in The Wire, where he played an ice cold killer who patrolled the streets of Baltimore. Akinnagbe has lived in Baltimore himself and founded Liberated People, a lifestyle brand that pushes for social change and fairness. Here, the actor-slash-activist breaks down the problem of police brutality in post-Ferguson America.  

Michael BrownEric Garner, Dante Parker, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Noel Polanco, Jersey Green, Barrington Williams, Kyam Livingston, Clinton Allen, Aaron Brown, Derek Williams, David Raya, Manuel Diaz, Richard "Pedie" Perez, Ramiro James Villegas, Darien Hunt, Darren Rainey, Amadou Diallo... These are just a few of the unarmed black males killed by law enforcement in the United States between 1999 and 2014.

2015 promises to keep pace with previous decades. While black and brown males are the subject at hand in this piece, it is important to recognize that black and brown women are also more likely to be killed and abused by the police than white females.

On April 12, Freddie Gray of Baltimore, Maryland was arrested illegally. His spine was somehow broken. The police refused to give his handcuffed, limp body any medical attention, though he cried out for it several times before lapsing into a coma. A week later, Freddie would succumb to his injuries in the hospital. Since then more black unarmed men have been killed by law enforcement.

To many of you reading this, the photos of all the people who have died at the hands of police probably look like images of what you have learned dangerous people look like, even twelve year old Tamir Rice, shot and killed in a park in Cleveland, seconds after the police arrived on the scene.

All these faces are examples of bullets I've missed or beatings I’ve dodged. Time and time again, I look at these names and faces and think how any day, one of them could be me.

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CNN coverage of Freddie Gray's deathvia CNN

After spending a number of days in Baltimore City, including Sandtown, the neighbourhood in which Freddie Gray grew up, I realized two things. One, it would be incredibly difficult to remain objective as again and again I heard the same accounts of abuse by the police. Even the methods mirrored each other in the various stories.

The second thing I realized was how easy it is to hurt, cause damage to or even kill a person who is not viewed as a full human being. Dehumanizing a group of people can allow one to commit any range of horrid acts upon them while the perpetrator is able to still go home, play with their children, pay their bills on time, make love to their spouse and when they go to bed at night, still consider themselves a good person.

Repeatedly, history shows us how far we can go once we take away the humanity of a people. Examples of this include apartheid South Africa, 1940s Germany, the Balkan Wars, and the occupation of Palestine. The typical next step is to blame these same disenfranchised people for the hell brought down on them by the authority.



“Blocks of abandoned buildings with random residences half-occupied. In certain neighbourhoods there are holes, in the streets, the buildings, and the bodies and souls of the citizens.”

I grew up in Maryland, worked in Baltimore for years on The Wire and have also been fortunate enough to spend time living in the UK. The worst British council estate I've seen does not even scome close to what parts of Baltimore have been allowed to become over decades.

Blocks of abandoned buildings with random residences half-occupied. In certain neighbourhoods there are holes, in the streets, the buildings, and the bodies and souls of the citizens. Though they are brutally treated by police and a system that supports police, the inhabitants of these neighborhoods are not ignorant of how they live.

One clear red flag that a group of people are being dehumanized is the classic trope "they want to live that way”. After interviewing dozens and dozens of people from the poorest parts of Baltimore, I can assure you they would rather live happy, safe lives and have stable jobs.

In the United States the average life expectancy is 78.8. In the neighbourhood where Freddie Gray grew up, life expectancy is 65.3 at birth. On average in the US, for every 1000 young people 39.4 have been arrested. In Sandtown 211 have been arrested out of every 1000. Nationally, unemployment stands at 5.5 per cent. In Sandtown, it is 21 per cent. The outcomes for people born in that neighborhood are almost certain. While it is true that people are responsible for their actions, the lives we are born into say a lot about the lives we will lead and the range of choices we have in actuality.

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Mike Brown
Mike Brown, 18, was shot in August 2014 by police officer Darren Wilson

Neighbourhoods like Sandtown are the the result of these disparities and perpetuate a system habitually violent to segments of its own population. This is why black and brown men and women, but especially men, continue to be killed by those wielding the authority of the state. Unfortunately there is little mystery as to how we got this way.

Black people were always meant to experience violence in the United States. Brought over from their own lands and put in chains, tortured and beaten into slavery, blacks in America were not seen as being human, so dehumanizing acts were part of the culture of dealing with them. These cultural norms have withstood the end of slavery, desegregation, the civil rights act, and even the constitutional amendment giving blacks the rights of a full human being as opposed to being three fifths human as originally written.

Many people blame the police. I don’t. I don’t even blame racist police. I place fault with our “shoot to kill” fear-driven policing policies that cares about class more than justice. Law enforcement’s motto is to serve and protect, but from what the citizens in the streets of Baltimore have experienced, they do neither.

The murders of these unarmed men of colour are an obvious tragedy. White people are simply not killed in the same way. Living in a society where different rules apply to different citizens can be maddening to those getting the shorter end of the stick. Especially if some of those differences result in death. People are angry, and they should be. Things are going to get worse, as the divide between those who make the laws and those subject to the laws, grows.

Here’s the part where I'm meant to say that everything is going to get better and peace will prevail. But I can’t say that. Ending stop and search, promoting affirmative action laws, and sensitivity training for police will only serve as inadequate dressing to the gaping wounds of classism and white supremacy. Things will not get better as long as we are looking for equality under a system that was built on inequality. While there may be moments of peace, under a system like this there simply cannot be justice.

But is it possible to create change and destroy this system? Absolutely. People created this mess and we have the beauty and strength in us to fix it. As Martin Luther King Jr said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

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