Murdered by His Country: Police Brutality in “Between the World and Me”

From the very first page, “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a commentary on the current state of affairs with regards to the treatment of black bodies. The body is a recurring theme in Coates’ book, and in no context is it more powerful than when he describes the consequences of having a black body on the s

ta-nehisi-coates-and-samori-1024x575
Coates and his son, Somari (via ainsfield-wolf.org)

treets of America. Coates struggles with the systematic oppression and aggression shown towards black people, and particularly when these concepts are applied to how he is raising his son. Written as an open letter to his child, “Between the World and Me” expresses a father’s fear and frustration that the safety of his family is always under threat from those who should be protecting it.

In Part II of the book, Coates dives straight into his experiences with police brutality in the late 1990s – early 2000s. Most poignantly, he describes the death of his Howard University acquaintance, Prince Jones. Jones was killed in what was revealed to be a convoluted wild goose chase by an officer known to be unstable. He was “murdered by the men who should have been his security guards.”[1] This story is all too familiar to the news-watching public of the past five years. An innocent person in possession of a black body is falsely accused of inciting violence towards a police officer, who shoots, tases, or strangles without hesitation – it’s almost formulaic. “Between the World and Me” is a message to Coates’ son, a teenager in today’s world. He references the victims of police brutality in recent years; Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray, just to name a few. The almost endless examples of those taken by police aggression illustrates the deep-seated problems explored in the text.

Coates says that the death of an innocent black person at the hands of the police is not about the individual officer, but rather the social climate of the country. America quietly sanctions the actions of the trigger-happy. This parallels another reflection, in which he described the trap that children with black bodies are forced into: street vs. school “if the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.”[2] “Those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society would say ‘he should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him.”[3] Coates goes on to say that the intentions of any individual educator do not matter, however noble they may be, as long as the institution remains slanted. This statement is a macabre comparison to his statement that forgiving a single officer for his heinous deeds is irrelevant because the system cannot be forgiven.[4] “The officer carries with him the power of the American state, and the weight of American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”[5] The disturbing connection between the education system and the justice system in America, seemingly set against those in possession of black bodies, paints a picture of constant discrimination from the moment a black child is entered into the system.

Coates expresses his frustration that from day one, his son has to grow up “perfect.” That is to say, that if he makes any single error, that error can be interpreted as a death warrant, just like “Eric Garner’s anger… Trayvon Martin’s mythical words… Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd…”[6] He speaks of the difficulty that his son, just 15 years old at the time the book was written, has with the news about Michael Brown’s killer being acquitted. He says that there is no way to comfort a young person, who still has hope in the world for justice, when something so unjust takes place. Coates’ own father could not comfort his son either, beating him for putting himself at risk and repeating the mantra “either I can beat him, or the police.”[7] Although approached differently, we see a multi-generational struggle to cope with the long-standing reality of police brutality in America.

police-violence
Protestors (via quietmike.org)

Trying to understand the trend of police brutality against black people is a daunting task. While Coates grapples with it on an emotional level, it can also be powerful to approach the issue from the perspective of raw data. In fact, a deeper reading of the emotional struggle can be attained by knowing the facts. Websites such as mappingpoliceviolence.org share a wealth of data concerning the killing of black people in the United States by police. Not only does this site provide the statistics of this nationwide issue, but it also contains the names, photos, and stories of victims, turning the numbers back into real people.[8]

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 90.

[2] Ibid, 24.

[3] Ibid, 33.

[4] Ibid, 79.

[5] Ibid, 103.

[6] Ibid, 96.

[7] Ibid, 82.

[8] “Police Killed More than 100 Unarmed Black People in 2015.” Mapping Police Violence. Accessed April 27, 2016. http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/unarmed/.

Featured image via nvcopblock.org

15 thoughts on “Murdered by His Country: Police Brutality in “Between the World and Me”

  1. Very interesting post, Jules. Ta-Nehisi’s explanation of the effect of police brutality and parenting style based on the fear of their children being beaten or killed by police was eye opening to me. Your summarization and explanation puts all of Coates’ facts on one page and the website you suggest is another staggering example of how police brutality takes black bodies.

  2. Awesome post, Julia. You hit the nail right on the head “An innocent person in possession of a black body is falsely accused of inciting violence towards a police officer, who shoots, tases, or strangles without hesitation – it’s almost formulaic” A disproportionate number of black men are arrested, assaulted, and even killed by Police every day in the US. Your post does a wonderful job of summarizing some of Coates’s most important points!

    1. Agreed, this si a great post! I think you have done a great job at summarizing the main points of Coates’ book. Your inclusion of the map of police brutality really helps visualize how widespread police brutality is and shows just how much we don’t hear about it, which only supports the violence.

    2. I love the visuals associated with this post. They are incredibly helpful. Growing up near Chicago and Milwaukee I heard a lot about violence in the news. It more often then not featured people of color, in conflict with each other or with the police. It’s something I thought I was used to seeing but in the past few years I saw more of it and in even less understandable circumstances. I think this post does an excellent job of explaining this.

  3. Police brutality and fear are consistent themes throughout Coates’, Between the World and Me, thanks for unpacking it further for us. I had never seen the website that you posted, the statistics are startling and the visual representation of those numbers illustrates just how wide-spread this issues is. I found it really helpful at the bottom of the page, after reading these troubling facts, the site suggests possible solutions and things communities can do to help end in the violence. This includes holding elected officials accountable and shows a breakdown of the presidential nominees and their views/statements/proposals that address this issue.

  4. Thank you for sharing that website. To see the faces of people who have been killed by police officers all in one place is incredibly impactful. Especially chilling is the line under almost all of the photographs that reads, “No officers have been charged with a crime for killing [Name].” The importance of movements like Black Lives Matter is evident in those lines. When there is no repercussion or punishment for these deaths, the country is essentially saying that they were justified. It is painful to see this happen over and over again.

    1. Very true. The most frustrating thing for me in watching all this is how even with all the increased scrutiny, most of these officers get away with murder. Black Lives Matter has made great strides in raising awareness, but it seems we still have a lot of reforming to do before awareness leads to justice.

  5. I like how you drew out one of the most striking elements of the book–the comparison between the streets and the schools. It makes sense to challenge police brutality, but to think of the education system as an extension of the same systemic injustice really broadens the horizon. The fact that even Coates as a young man with aspirations to be a writer and a clear love of learning was not supported by his school is indicative of the problems we face.

  6. Reading about Coates interactions with police brutality in the 90s and early 2000s was incredibly startling, and your post did a great job summarizing and expanding on “Between the World and Me.” Through Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement police brutality has integrated into the consciousness of more people. While this is a very important conversation to have now, it is unsettling to think this conversation has been going on with varying degrees of success since the 90s. Blog posts like this one and the mapping violence site are important ways to make sure society is still having the dialogue. Thank you for bringing the site to our attention!

  7. Great post Julia! The focus is one that I found particularly poignant as well. As much as people like to say there is no racism in today’s world, the recent episodes police brutality in the past few years and the Black Lives Matter movement show distinct parallels to the Civil Right Movement. We are still fighting many of these battles. I love that you took it the next step and brought our attention to the Mapping Police Violence webpage, which is shining a light on this issue in a poignant way.

  8. Reading this book and these blog posts, I ‘m reminded of the discussion that took place after the public viewing of “The Black Panthers: The Vanguard of the Revolution” at the Fenimore. Today we, i.e. white Americans, often say that racism doesn’t exist anymore because it doesn’t seem apparent to us – segregation is over, interracial marriage is legal, we have a black president, etc. However, when Coates makes the comparison between school and the street, it seems to me that what he’s talking about it an entire culture subtly propagating racist ideologies. Unlike overtly racist acts, this is harder to recognize and harder to change. I agree with other responses that dialogue is necessary to raise awareness of these issues, but this dialogue must also lead to action. I wonder how, as museum professionals, we can spark productive conversations that also inspire positive change?

  9. This post summarizes the main points of Coats exceptionally. What I like most is the quotes you took from the text focusing on the “school or street” mentality. It is a cycle that is constantly chewing up and spiting out youth who have to choose. The worst part is that society, like Coates says, washes their hands of them and casts them out deeming detriments and outcasts. You bring up the point of police brutality and the link to the map was an excellent supplement to the post.

  10. I like that you chose to talk about police brutality because it was definitely a strong theme throughout the book. I think it’s so interesting because Coates talks about how his experience is certainly different than his son’s, both now and in the future, however there are still big problems in society that need to be faced. Although it is a difficult idea to grapple with, we must look at both the data as well as the human experience to try to make things better.

  11. Wonderful post Julia, a strong and concise breakdown of all the issues that surround the murder of such a disproportionate number of African-Americans and the personal dynamics inherent to that, most obviously that of parents. That element of fear that Coates’ described, both on his own part and that of his parents, was for me the hardest thing to read in the book, reflecting a reality all to real, all too recurrent, and all too long-established, but something we as a country now are paying more attention to. The truly upsetting thing you point out is how formulaic the image of police violence and the black body has become: the twisted equation of a subset of police officers and departments across the country, where the wrong answer or a miscue from being “perfect” or “twice as good” is fatal. It is both a sobering and impossible thing to wrap one’s head around.

  12. Julia, thank you so much for that link at the end. You leave us with such an amazing resource, and I feel that your blog is very much a call for action while also connecting the reading to current events.

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