The behavior of the Rancho Cordova police officer who pinned an unarmed 14-year-old African American boy to the ground and punched him repeatedly for purchasing a tobacco product is disgraceful, distressing and outrageous. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. It is one of far too many videos of police using physical force on a daily basis against people of color in neighborhoods of color. Most police officers work hard to do the right thing, but bad police behavior is enabled and fueled by racist policies such as the proposed ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes preferred by over 80% of African Americans who choose to smoke.
This is not the first time we have seen a Black man beaten by police for violating tobacco laws. Eric Garner, father of six, died in NYPD custody in 2014 after he was stopped on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.
The Baptist Ministers Conference and Southern Christian Leadership Conference does not want people to smoke. We don’t want our youth to smoke and we strongly encourage smokers to quit. Although we appreciate the efforts to protect the health and well-being of all California residents, you cannot ignore the disproportionate unintended consequences of a menthol cigarette ban on African Americans.
Menthol cigarette bans are not proposed or passed with racist intentions, but they will have racist effects. Not only do menthol cigarette bans deny our civil right of personal choice, they will give police another reason to come in black communities, approach people of color, and create an encounter that could deteriorate into tragic deaths or unjustified detentions, beatings and arrests.
Public health advocates insist that menthol cigarette ban ordinances will only make the sale of menthol cigarettes illegal. They claim that no one will be violating the law nor will anyone be approached by police, if they simply purchase or possess menthol cigarettes. The recent encounter of the Rancho Cordova police officer and a 14-year old African American youth is a perfect example that contradicts that claim.
Health proponents maintain that there will be language in the law to prevent these situations from happening. In the real world of fragile police-communities of color relations, what language or wording can you include in a paternalistic, racist menthol cigarette ban that will stop bad police behavior?
Criminalizing the sale of products people wish to consume only encourages the establishment of illicit trade to provide these products to consumers who want them. Law enforcement will be called upon to enforce the ban and to enforce the law against those who engage in this illicit trade that will inevitably happen in African American communities. At a time in which we know that interactions between law enforcement and young men and women of color lead all-too-often to tragic results, we should be looking to lessen any negative encounters in our community with law enforcement.
No one wants another Eric Garner. No one wants to watch another video of a Black youth being attacked and beaten over buying or possessing a cigarette.
We will no longer tolerate bad police behavior. We will not support elected officials who insist upon and support passing ordinances that create the environment for inevitable negative police encounters to occur in communities of color.
We wholeheartedly support the proven methods of education and treatment to reduce smoking which have brought smoking rates down drastically over the past forty years.
Let’s not defer to the criminal justice system to solve a public health crisis.
PASTOR KW TULLOSS
Baptist Ministers Conference
REV WILLIAM SMART
Southern Christian Leadership Conference