The haunting legacy of police subculture

In the wake of Councilman Kevin Conwell being racially-profiled by Case Western Reserve University police officers, a larger problem is being signified—a police subculture pervasive throughout the United States that sustains biased methodologies and hate-fueled rhetoric.

As a Black man and a historian, my interests have always been focused on the complexity of race relations throughout the Americas. Combined with my own firsthand experiences of growing up in an environment where my peers and family members were routinely harassed or even murdered by high-profile police officers, I’ve always been cognizant of the feud between law enforcement and people of color. It doesn’t matter if you were raised in the slums or the suburbs, the perils of moving through life and avoiding confrontation with police officers haunt all people of color. It is ingrained in the Black and Latinx experience.

We live in a society where Black and Latinx parents are given the responsibility of explaining to their children that the color of their skin is a warrant for patternized forms of police brutality.  

This isn’t as simple as “don’t break the law,” or appealing to the skewed standards of civility theory, something obviously noted in the case of Councilman Conwell. The tone of your skin can constitute permanent grounds for being questioned by police officers. If Councilman Cowell can be stopped without justification, then what do you think happens to the average person of color? If Conwell’s social status and political ties didn’t stop officers from mistaking him as a babbling transient, then what do think happens to Black or Latinx teenagers as they walk to their schools or jobs?

I was taught as a young child to be aware of the characteristics of police subculture that mimicked the hierarchy and code of conduct of the street gangs that surrounded me in inner city Cleveland. I actually felt more comfortable in the presence of known gang members rather than when pulled aside by local law enforcement. I still feel the same way, knowing that the majority of said gang members, kids that I grew up with, ultimately have no intention of killing me for simply existing.

I’ve previously touched on the warped relationship between police officers and African-Americans, primarily the fact that the occupation itself was formed to create patrols for the capturing of runaway slaves. We are dissecting a career that was professionalized and founded in an openly-accepted culture of blatant racism. Police have always been key to enacting provisions of state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans and Latinxs.

American police have internalized a sociocultural expectation of structural racism to the point where some of the officers that harassed the youth of my neighborhood were men of color. These men are forced to abandon their racial identity and solidarity in order to be indoctrinated with police subculture, which itself is dominated by the quasi-culture of Whiteness and an intergenerational tradition of white supremacy.

For people of color, especially Black men, this has never been a difficult concept to grasp. We are the living proof of stop-and-frisk legislation and the constant shootings of unarmed civilians; of alleyway beatings and illegal searches. I’ve never thought to myself: “What are police officers capable of doing?” because I’ve never seen a limit. My interactions with police officers, as for many other men of color, existed beyond the perimeters of the law. It manifests in a space of utter criminality, where saying the wrong thing or moving too suddenly might result in your murder.

Black and brown people must navigate through a society of being constantly monitored. We are always seen through a lense of suspicion and exaggerated masculinity. We are seen as monsters.

The subculture and techniques associated with policing in the United States have to change. A dialogue to address the tragic history shared between law enforcement and racial minorities must be advocated. We are reliving the same cycles, subcultures, and inheritance of generational prejudices. When will enough be enough?

Christopher Alan Cannon is a third-year student studying English and history.