Local News in Virginia

Part Two: Black In America – Is History Repeating Itself?

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

Will the increasing number of cellphone and dashboard cams change police conduct in minority communities, like Lewis Hine changed child labor laws by simply aiming his camera at thousands of youngsters toiling in coal mines, factories, and cotton fields in the early 1900s? The answer is obvious. Take one look at Hine’s photos. You believe what you see.
The same applies to a cellphone or dash-cam video that shows a violent confrontation between a police officer and a minority. You believe what you see. As a result, more celebrities and public officials are speaking out about police conduct.

For example, Norfolk City Councilwoman Angelia Williams Graves recently spoke out against police misconduct at an NAACP luncheon. According to The Virginian-Pilot, Graves said modern racists have taken off their white hoods and sheets and put on “police uniforms, suits and ties and robes.”  Graves, who was elected to the council in 2010, encountered political blowback after her speech. Former Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe, who was at the recent NAACP event, said he and other law enforcement officers were offended by the Ku Klux Klan comparison and considered walking out.

Asked about McCabe’s comments, Graves said, in a recent interview in The Virginian-Pilot, “There is a long-standing history of Black people being stereotyped as anything other than law-abiding citizens. And that has come from the police.“ Graves continued. “Not all police are that way. But I don’t see unarmed white men shot dead in the street. I’m sure they exist, but that’s not what I see on the news.” 

Graves added, “Good police officers who don’t stand up and speak out about their counterparts that they know are biased or racist, they make their jobs harder.” Others are speaking out about police conduct including Michael Jordan, NBA hall-of-famer who said in a statement, “I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late. I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent.”

In his statement, Jordan applauded and commended police officers for the dangerous and important work they do, while acknowledging that his wealth and fame shield him. “I also recognize that for many people of color their experiences with law enforcement have been different than mine,” he added. Jordan, who donated $1 million to the International Association of Chiefs of Police for a community-relations program and $1 million to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said dialogue and education can lead to change. 

The point is child labor laws changed in the middle 1900’s because Hine supplied a steady stream of photos, more than 5,000 raw images that showed the harsh realities of child workers.
But will a steady stream of cellphone and dash cam videos, which increasingly show violent confrontations between police officers and people of color, have the same impact? The debate between Graves and McCabe is a case in point because it shows people have different views on police conduct. The two divergent views raise a question: Are most police officers fair or unfair to minorities?

NewsOne posed the question to a minority officer with the NYPD. “Well, I can only speak on behalf of what I’ve witnessed and encountered and I have to say that race relations are (believe it or not) good … The only thing I could comment on is that some officers believe there is a certain ‘look’ that most perpetrators have and that tends to be those who follow the trends of urban Hip Hop culture. That would consist of cornrows, sagging jeans, earrings, fitted caps, etc.” The minority NYPD officer continued, “So, if a cop fits this mold in his civilian clothes, they often joke ‘you look like a perp.’ I believe some of them try to mask it behind a few smiles, but they really believe that. Though, many do fit this ‘profile’, at least in the communities I’ve worked in, it’s still an unfair generalization.”


To determine whether most police officers are fair or unfair, consider what Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, said. Newton said he has been reluctant to speak out on race and social justice in the past. But the recent shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte hit close to home. Newton said in a Sept. 21 interview in USA Today, “The place that I stand, sometimes it’s a lose-lose (situation) … You say something in one sense and everybody is saying ‘you’re a traitor.’ You say something in another sense and ‘oh, he’s just too real.’”

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Newton continued, “I’m in a position now where it’s like, if I say something, it’s going to be critiqued. And if I don’t say something, ‘oh, you fake.’  … I’m a firm believer of justice. I’m a firm believer of doing the right thing. And I can’t repeat it enough; of just holding people accountable. I’m an African-American. I am not happy with how justice has kind of been dealt with over the years – the state of oppression in our community.” 

Newton added, “When you get a person that does some unjust things or killing an innocent person; killing fathers; killing people who have actual families.” Newton said. “That’s real. Like, I have a son (and a daughter).” But back to the question: Are most police officers fair or unfair to minorities? For some, the best answer is in the steady stream of cellphone and dashboard cams that show officers with minorities.

Or, the answer surfaces when you try to imagine Hine lugging around a turn-of-the-century, Black-and-white camera.  Try to envision him working behind the scenes to help change child labor laws. In a time when child labor was widely accepted, Hine aimed his camera at more than 5,000 child workers from 1908 and 1924. This means in a time when child labor was the law of the land, Hine, who grew up as a child worker and actually worked six-days-a-week, 13-hours-a-day for $4 because his father died in an accident – intentionally used his camera as a tool for social reform.  Specifically, Hine photographed youngsters toiling in dangerous coal mines, hawking newspapers on the corner, shining shoes, or picking cotton.

“If I could tell the story in words I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera,” said Hine. So, how police conduct themselves is widely accepted, now, like child labor was accepted in Hine’s era. And as Hine aimed to capture raw, gritty, day-to-day-reality in the early 1900s, thousands of cellphone and dash cam videos aim to record police conduct. According to The Washington Post, the number of fatal shootings by officers increased from 465 in the first six months of last year to 491 for the same period this year.

Hine shut down the pro-con debate on child labor by supplying a steady stream of graphic images. But much like the debate on police conduct continues today, the one on child labor continued for several decades. On one hand, many families needed their children’s meager salaries. On the other hand, their children often worked in dangerous situations including farms where they had to wield blades, operate shoddy machinery, or breathe coal dust in underground mines all day.

Some of Hine’s photos show youngsters who lost fingers, an arm, or a leg in a work-related accident. Finally, in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act which limited many forms of child labor. The new law introduced the 40-hour-work-week, established a national minimum wage, guaranteed time-and-a-half for overtime in certain jobs, and prohibited “oppressive child labor.”

About a decade later, in 1949, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibited child labor for the first time. This means new laws finally banned child labor in factories and mines. Specifically, both of the new laws established age 16 as the age when children could work during school hours, it also established age 14 for after-school jobs and age 18 for dangerous work.  Today all of the states and the U.S. government have laws regulating child labor.  Thanks to the graphic photos Hine provided, the nation finally turned the page. “Photography can light up darkness and expose ignorance,” he said.


To light up darkness and expose ignorance, more celebrities and public officials are speaking out about police brutality. But few critics are saying they plan to push for new laws, unlike Hine, who retired as a New York City schoolteacher, became an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, and photographed child workers for 16 years. “If I can take photographs with language then I’m taking one right now,” he said. 

Do you see the point? What connects police conduct in 2016, to child workers in the early 1900s, is the fact that child labor laws did not change overnight. And police brutality will not change overnight. The truth of the matter is child labor laws changed slowly. The Fair Labor Act of 1938 and the 1949 Amendment came on the heels of the nation establishing The Children’s Bureau.  Launched in 1912, this federal agency aimed to protect children’s rights.

Do the math. It took more than 40 years to end child labor. But step-by-step, the nation established a federal oversight agency in 1912, passed the Fair Labor Act in 1938, and the 1949 Amendment. The Children’s Bureau, meanwhile, had powerful critics including manufacturing interests who feared the bureau would push for the elimination of child labor, and conservatives who argued the bureau duplicated efforts in other federal agencies.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church warned that the Children’s Bureau might interfere with parochial education, promote birth control, or interfere with parental authority.  Since it actually took about four decades to enact legislation that banned child labor, and establish a federal office that provided oversight protection for poor, exploited, vulnerable children, would a new federal office change police conduct toward poor, exploited, vulnerable individuals?  An analysis by The Washington Post showed that of the 54 officers who were charged for fatally shooting someone while on duty over the past decade, 35 have had their cases resolved. Of those, a majority – 21 officers – were acquitted or saw their charges dropped.

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Moreover, no federal office tracks police shootings nationwide. The Washington Post has culled through media reports and filed hundreds of public-records requests to obtain the names and work histories of officers involved in fatal shootings – “information that is not tracked by any federal agency,” it noted. More than 360 officers’ names have been added to the database, and more names will be included. 

To launch change, about two dozen celebrities appeared in a recent Alicia Keyes video titled “23 Ways You Could Be Killed If You Are Black in America.” In the recent Alicia Keyes’ video, celebrities cite seemingly innocent pursuits, including “Riding in your girlfriend’s car with a child in the back,” Beyonce said, referring to the fatal police shooting death of Philando Castile,  whose girlfriend snapped and posted his fatal police shooting on Facebook. Actress Taraji P. Henson said, “Selling CDs outside of a supermarket,” referring to the shooting death of Alton Sterling whose killing was captured on camera in Baton Rouge. 

In plain terms, more celebrities and public officials are speaking out. But a June 2015 survey by the Gallup Organization shows that their perspectives are not unique. Blacks (46 percent) said they were treated unfairly in many daily encounters, Gallup noted. Meanwhile the Gallup Organization reported this past April that more than a third (35 percent) said they worried “a great deal” about race relations in the US. This rate is “higher than at any time since Gallup first asked the question in 2001.”

As Hine supplied a steady stream of photos that helped to end child labor, a steady stream of cellphone and dash cam videos could have the same impact. A July 25 Washington Post report showed that more of the police shootings were captured on video, 76 in the first half of 2015 and 105 in the first half of 2016.  “This year has also seen more officers shot and killed in the line of duty and more officers prosecuted for questionable shootings,” The Washington Post noted.

“Blacks continued to be shot at 2.5 times the rate of whites,” The Washington Post continued. “About half of those killed were white, and about half were minorities. Less than 10 percent of all those killed were unarmed. One-quarter were mentally ill.” Experts such as James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, said, “There will be a ‘lag time’ before there is a measurable drop in deaths, even among the departments that are earnestly embracing reforms.”

Fox added, “It takes time to get everyone through training. It takes time to change a culture.” But Fox said he is not surprised that the rise of video has so far had no impact on the number of fatal shootings. He thinks cameras may affect police behavior in “routine, calmer situations,” such as during interactions with motorists who are complying with traffic stops, but not in more intense encounters.

“Once an officer feels they are in danger, or their emotions get elevated, then video is not paramount in their mind,” Fox said. “Then, they would tend to act more instinctively than deliberately.” Thanks to the thousands of photos Hine added to the controversial child labor debate, it is history. The problem is history has not turned the page on police brutality.
According to the analysis by the Washington Post and Bowling Green University, half the criminal cases, forensics and autopsy reports show unarmed suspects had “been shot in the back. And in 10 cases, or about a fifth of the time, prosecutors alleged that officers either planted or destroyed evidence in an attempt to exonerate themselves – a strong indication, prosecutors said, that the officers themselves recognized the shooting was unjustified.”

Stinson, a Bowling Green University researcher who previously worked as a police officer said, “They are used to giving commands and people obeying … They don’t like it when people don’t listen to them, and things can quickly become violent when people don’t follow their orders.” Of the increasing number of cellphone and dashboard cams that clearly show police conduct, Samuel Walker, a national expert on police training said in an interview with The Washington Post, “They may be stuck in their old ways.”

In a sense, the increasing number of images that Hine produced are remnants of a bygone era. This means his photographs helped the nation slowly turn the page. Thanks to Hine, you no longer see thousands of exploited children working in dangerous coal mines, unsafe factories, on street corners selling newspapers or in cotton fields.  Moreover, you no longer see other brutal realities. For example, an employer could legally shove, push, or mistreat a child worker. An employer could pay a child paltry wages. An employer could place a child in a dangerous work environment that might lead to injury or death. But new legislation ended the old order.

Will new legislation end the old order and turn the page on police brutality? Of the debate on police brutality, Michael Muhammed, a Norfolk activist said, “It must stop.”
Talk show host Bill Maher weighed-in using clear language during his appearance on The Late Show with Steven Colbert in July, “You can only look at so many shootings of unarmed Black people” Maher said.

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