Over the past three weeks, I’ve watched protests swell in cities across the country and Black Lives Matter attract millions of new supporters to their cause after the killing of George Floyd.
U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, has walked with protestors. Confederate monuments are toppling and white childhood friends of mine from Georgia have signaled they want to learn about “systemic” racism.
Even NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag.
We’re experiencing a cultural shift, breathtaking in its pace.
As agitation for change sweeps the United States (and the globe), it leaves many of us wondering if today’s marches will lead to deep, substantive changes tomorrow in a centuries-old system that has demonstrated its resilience.
Still, the passion one sees on the streets is hard to ignore. Protestor after protestor in TV, radio and newspaper interviews cite familiar reasons for turning out.
Police brutality. Over-policing in communities of color. The systems in place that make prosecuting law enforcement shootings difficult. I say familiar because since 2015, reporter Jeff Proctor has written about each of these deep-rooted and long-lived issues for New Mexico In Depth. I hope you will view our stories as a resource as you try to make sense of the truly monumental size of the crowds taking to the streets across the country to protest.
Proctor’s latest story, published Thursday, at its core poses a question for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham: How does she square her hesitance to release from state prisons those convicted of non-violent drug possession as COVID-19 threatens to spread behind the walls, with her advocacy for legalizing recreational cannabis and her recent creation of a Council for Racial Justice?
About one quarter of those locked up in New Mexico’s prisons are in for nonviolent drug offenses, including many, some long-time criminal justice watchers say, who were prosecuted for possessing marijuana — an offense that would be legal if New Mexico green-lighted recreational cannabis as Lujan Grisham has lobbied. Hispanic and black people are disproportionately incarcerated in New Mexico, as they are nationwide.
It’s the latest example of New Mexico In Depth seeking to examine injustice, going deeper than the daily coverage of events.
Proctor tackled over-policing in communities of color in a multi-year series about a 2016 federal sting in Albuquerque that snapped up African Americans in disproportionate numbers. Our coverage sparked outrage among Albuquerque’s black community leading to high-level conversations between the Justice Department and community advocates. Lauded as targeting the “Worst of the Worst,” the operation’s agents arrested mostly low-income people of color, some living in their vehicles, for possessing mostly small amounts of drugs. Led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Proctor found the operation was designed and carried out by a traveling team of ATF agents that left pervasive complaints of racial profiling in other cities where they oversaw similar operations. New Mexico In Depth also uncovered that the Albuquerque Police Department handed over a list of names to the ATF that contributed to the disproportionate share of African Americans arrested in the federal sting.
The names were associated with a loose network of black people that APD had raised to gang level in 2009 for the TV news cameras and newspaper scribes, making their arrests seem more significant than they were.
Then, there are law enforcement shootings — what makes prosecuting them so difficult, the weaknesses of some prosecutorial methods, how no statewide uniform system exists for district attorneys to decide whether such cases rise to the level of a crime and how the state’s elected officials and state lawmakers are in no hurry to fix the problems.
Beyond Albuquerque, Proctor has written about policing in Hobbs’s communities of color. Using documents in a federal civil rights case brought by police officers who said they were punished for raising concerns about policing in Hobbs’ black and Hispanic communities, he examined the details of that city’s policing practices.
And he looked at the difficulty in proving racial profiling claims in federal criminal court and the financial burden put on low-income people by the state’s cash bail system before voters demanded change in November 2016. Add to this list the APD’s policing of people living with mental illness in Albuquerque and the difficulty to assess larger trends of policing around race because New Mexico does such a poor job of collecting such data.
Reflecting on these stories, certain things stand out: The intractability of institutions. The long and frustrating experience of black communities seeking change. The silence of our biggest media outlets and powerful people to situations that target people with very little power.
Agents in the 2016 federal sting arrested mostly people struggling with drug addiction. That 28 black people — or 27% — were among those snatched up in a city with a 3% African American population stands out as an example of how institutions and policing methods converged to disproportionately criminalize people of color.
The silence from some corners of Albuquerque’s establishment to this day remains deafening.
This originally appeared in the New Mexico In Depth weekly newsletter. To receive the newsletter on Fridays, sign up here.