Jelani Cobb and the Newark Police

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I just watched my friend Jelani Cobb’s Frontline documentary, ‘Policing the Police’ again. Cobb is a top notch writer and historian. He has been impressing me since I met him when he was a student at Howard University.

‘Policing the Police’ takes you into the world of the Newark Police Department and misconduct. Police legacies. Stop and frisk. Race. Rough house tactics. All of it. Cobb has been tracking the issue of police and black people and the terrible consequences for years now and writing about it but this time, he rolls with the police. He is in their world. In their cars. Talking to them on camera. Trying to understand why they do what they do and what can be done to stop the bad stories.

Newark Police like many are under a microscope. The U.S. Department of Justice flagged them for their racially motivated unconstitutional approach to policing and they are being pressured to change. Ras Baraka, mayor Newark, and the son of the late Amiri Baraka, the revolutionary poet and activist of Newark, is pushing for major change under difficult circumstances.

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Regardless of the nature of the problem and the prospects for change, Cobb’s doc is tightly woven, focused, and well presented with in the moment sequences that do raise serious questions. Cobb also brings to the film his own jacked up (no pun) experiences with police in New York City growing up. You truly understand the gravity of the problem, such as when one officer tells Cobb that this is “not about race” when, of course, it is. DOJ went after Newark because it is about race and they have the statistical evidence to prove it.

In addition, one troubling street stop in particular is ruthless and almost unjustified; yet, one higher up police official completely defends it much to Cobb’s chagrin. You can see Cobb’s face almost constrict as he listens. It is a moment when you can feel that Cobb is telling the watcher of the program that this is really, entrenched human behavior; what do you do?

Overall, the documentary forced me to look at it as a film about symptoms. Ras Baraka and everyone else are focused on guns and police relationships but they know, and we all know, the issue is money and wealth. The reason the relationship between the police and the black population in Newark is so bad is because of money.

Newark is a “poor” city. When poverty clashes with an oppressive social structure that curtails the most basic of human needs: food, shelter, education, health care, you get tension. Human tension. Mistrust.

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And the squeeze on revenue, the fundamental problem in social policy in America right now, and all the ills that brings is not new. Ferguson, Missouri is what it is because of racism but also because of insufficient revenue.

Insufficient revenue is an ideological matter. Entrenched long before Ras Baraka became mayor of Newark. It is now known today as austerity. It is preached by Democrat and Republican. The discourse in America today on the talk shows, on the editorial pages, in the political camps is owned by austerity. No new taxes. Read my lips. Every decision made by government is affected by austerity and neoliberal approaches to governance. The sequester, the fiscal cliff, the deficit, we have heard it all before; Newark is caught in its own unique crosshairs.

I am sure Mayor Ras Baraka knows that more money, revenue, investment in human capital, redistribution of wealth and assets, would change his city. He is working hard and doing a great job despite the fact that you know this one is tough.

At the end of the film, the city’s council votes to create a citizen’s police oversight entity that will try to police the police. The citizens support the effort. It is the highlight of the film for those looking for the positive.

Cobb has given us what is hoped the beginning of something larger. He wanted to know ‘who policies the police?’ It is an old question. In cities like Newark, where there is no trust, and a commitment to old tactics, you have to ask: how do you fix this? At the end, this question lingers. Cobb has begun that journey.

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