Is America a Police State? For Many, Yes

Police harassment is an everyday reality for millions of Americans, and the video of a Minnesota man’s arrest shows just how ugly it can be.

I don't know what it's like to live in a police state. But some people who live in America do.

This week, a video surfaced of an event that occurred in St. Paul, Minnesota, back in January—and it's as horrifying as anything I've seen and heard in a long time. I've watched it several times because (1) I can't believe what I'm hearing, and (2) I don't want to believe what I'm hearing.

In this video, a young, African American man, Chris Lollie, is waiting in a bank skyway to pick up his kids from pre-school. Although the place he is waiting is a public space, with no signs indicating that it is improper to be there, someone apparently reports him to the police as "loitering." A female officer approaches him and asks for his name and ID. He asks why, since he's doing nothing illegal. She is persistent, but the young man insists that he knows his rights and declines to offer his name or ID unless the officer tells him what he has done wrong. Lollie is acting within the law to do so.

Soon, backup policeman Bruce Schmidt arrives. It is unclear when or how he has been summoned. As soon as this male cop arrives, things escalate quickly. The issue has quickly turned from the supposed issue at hand—namely, is he "loitering" in a place that forbids it? —to the issue of his resisting this grilling from the police, which is, in his mind, unacceptable. He tells the police why he is there (to pick up his children from the pre-school) and even points out his children as they apparently emerge from the school.

Early on, Lollie says to the male officer, "What's going on, brother?" To which the officer replies angrily, "You're going to jail, and I'm not your brother!" as he proceeds to order the young man to put his hands behind his back (presumably for handcuffing). "Please don't touch me. That is assault!" Lollie warns. The young man pleads with the officers to stop, and to tell him what he has done wrong. "It's because I'm black," he accuses. In the background, there are sounds of the policeman's taser being charged up. The man pleads, "Please don't do this," and screams at the police, "My kids are right there! My kids are right there!" And the male cop stuns Lollie with his taser, right in front of the man's children. He cries out to passersby for help.

The video on the Lollie’s cell phone is stopped, and presumably he is carted away to jail where he is charged with trespassing and obstructing the legal process. Later, the news story reports, all charges are dropped. Presumably that is in part due to one of the school's instructors, who saw the entire incident and corroborates Lollie’s version of what happened, as well as a woman who works nearby and told investigators that she often sits in the exact same location where Lollie was arrested and eats her lunch, without ever being told to move.

This video—just recently released because the police confiscated the man's phone and kept it until July—is incredibly difficult to listen to. The speed with which the escalation takes place is breathtaking. And it makes me understand better the fact that all Americans don't live in the same America.

I have no doubt that if I had been the man sitting there, I would not have been asked to move in the first place. I would not have been reported as "loitering." I would not have been tased. I would not have been arrested. But then again, I'm white, and not a young black man like Chris Lollie. He was reported, he was tased (in front of his children), and he was arrested.

Think of the impact of this event on this young father's children, who watched police screaming at and scuffling with their father. Imagine the image seared into their brains of their father being tased as he called on passersby to help him. What is the image of police they are now carrying around in their minds? And to whom will they be likely to turn for help when they need it?

This all happened six months before Ferguson. This type of unjust treatment, I fear, is what African Americans, other people of color, LGBT people, and poor people have been experiencing for a very long time. It's just that post-Ferguson, we are noticing it more, hearing about it more. And I, for one, do not want to live in a country that is a "police state" for some, and not for others. That much of this division falls along racial lines is detestable to me. I am ashamed of not having seen or believed it so clearly before now.

The sad truth is in the officer's declaration to Lollie: "I am not your brother!" Indeed. But wouldn't this be a better democracy and nation if that officer did see this young black man as a brother, a fellow citizen of this great nation with every right to be treated with respect and dignity?! If you are my brother, then I treat you as innocent until proven guilty, not as suspicious and dangerous because of the color of your skin.

Racial prejudice—and the systemic injustice that incorporates racial bias into our policing—is eating us up from the inside like a cancer. This is no isolated incident, no "one rotten apple in the barrel." This is a national disgrace, and if we don't do something about it, we will all pay a terrible, terrible price.

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The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, and the IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.