How race shapes the relationship between police and community

Keene, New Hampshire was the site of widespread riots that left many injured, dozens arrested and extensive damage to property. The impetus for these riots? A pumpkin festival, held every year in the city of Keene. Students from nearby Keene State College were the primary instigators in the riot. Police responded with pepper spray and nonlethal measures to suppress the rowdy throngs of students, who flipped cars and shouted expletives at police officials. Other than the destruction wrought by the students, the riots came and went with minimal serious incidents.

If you contrast the Pumpkin Fest riots with the events of Ferguson, Missouri, however, they take on a far more damning significance. The mostly-white crowds in New Hampshire––who were openly hostile toward police and posed a real threat to their community––received approximately the same response from police as peaceful protesters including journalists in Ferguson.

For those who deny that white privilege manifests in tangible ways in the 21st century, explain this: if you’re white in 2014, you can curse out a police officer and flip a car and expect to be treated the same as a black American peacefully protesting the killing of an unarmed teenager.

This highlights the differing relationships communities across the United States have with their police forces. In majority white cities such as Keene, police use rational, measured responses to quell chaos. In Ferguson, police officers arrest peaceful protesters with reckless abandon and kill teenagers with guns.

In Brownsville, a poverty-ridden majority black and Latino neighborhood in Brooklyn, the New York Police Department is experimenting with the tactic of “omnipresence.” Under omnipresence, the NYPD has set up massive floodlights that are meant to illuminate public parks, street corners or anywhere that low-level street crime might take place. Police officers monitor these areas from a distance, ready to intervene if they see something suspicious.

In this sense, omnipresence is founded upon an inherent distrust of the population of Brownsville, the same distrust upon which racial profiling is based. Actively seeking out criminals does nothing to stymie the causes of crime; those are problems that local governments rarely, if ever, address.

In Keene, citizens need to actually give police a reason to act before they do. In Brownsville, they are already there waiting to pounce. These imbalanced dynamics between police and the people they are supposed to serve and protect are at the heart of the riots that take place.

In Ferguson, protesters demonstrated against police brutality because of the killing of an unarmed teen. In Keene, rioters tore up the town because, as one rioter put it, “It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”