The American public exists in a state of denial when it comes to police reform. Despite this inertia, there is overwhelming evidence that relations between police forces and communities of color are at an all-time low according to some analysts. But we may ask when were “relations” good? History does not record a single decade in American history when black communities were not the quintessential targets of police. So while there is a movement afoot to confront the policing of those communities, this is but the latest phase in a long struggle.
Justified or not, there is nothing that silences criticism of policing than slain officers. In the wake of such unfortunate moments, the public, following the logic of the blue line tends to conveniently ignore the fact that police do not “serve and protect” all citizens equally. Though the police utilize public tax dollars and are sworn to keep the general public safe, too often they are protecting non-black people from black people through what social psychologists have called “stereotype threat.” The treatment of black people by police agencies signals to the non-black public how black lives are valued. Since the police are the arbiters of justice on the street level, the mere sight of a police officer or police car, is intended to give some a sense of safety and send a message to a potential wrongdoer to reconsider their actions. But for many black people, the sight of police signals that they might be perceived as in need of policing.
Generations of anti-black policing have helped to define modern society. It is one of its permanent features. Too often this kind of policing ends in death. Often black people experience the relative simplicity of degradation. As a safety valve for civil society, the police emerge as an occupying force with the legal authorization to kill if an officer feels threatened. This is how most black Americans view the police, even as many have officers as family members. Thus, the police do not merely “capture bad guys”, “keep the streets safe” or “put their lives on the line” and “deserve to go home at night.” Such catch phrases ascribed to police belie the fact that police regulate citizenship.
This is hardly the first time police and community relations have come under scrutiny—at least from the black community. Nearly fifty years have passed since the Kerner Commission’s 1968 findings that America was in fact “two Americas.” That damning report cited that a dozen major uprisings (called “riots”) were sparked as a result of police actions. Though the President mentioned in his recent remarks that this is not the 1960s era, what he failed to mention but must acknowledge is how police have swollen in numbers, tactics, and technology since then. They have always held the authority over life and death, only its provisions have expanded, its repertoire more diverse. It is a simple fact that since the shake-ups of the social order that mark the 1960s police across the United States have never stopped building, expanding, and most of all vilifying a segment of the population most often poor and disfranchised, and routinely black.
Despite President Obama’s consistent invocation that “both sides” (i.e. Black communities and police across America) have reasons for distrusting the other, such a position continues to confuse the issue. Police are overwhelmingly in power. Once sworn in, the authority of the state forms the fabric of their uniforms and the texture of their badges. This is a power that basic citizens simply do not possess. What the President is therefore asking is that black people trust in the police, although that trust cannot be reciprocated. Since his first comments, the President has made a trip to Dallas to speak at the funeral of the slain officers though, adding to the imbalance, no effort was made to officially console the families of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. And while Chief Brown’s eloquence and equanimity seem out of place in a police uniform, his mention of “divisiveness between the police and residents” also ignores the one-sided nature of policing in America. For too long, police have reserved one set of protocols for the general public and another set of protocols for black communities.
What both the President and the Chief miss is that there can be no restoration of order until the police and their unions become honest brokers and partner with the citizens they are supposedly sworn to protect. Anger and rage will take numerous forms but this is a product of historic neglect, spatial marginalization, and human debasement that are characteristic of modern society. The critical attention on police oversight that has been called for by generations of black people is just now being taken seriously. There is not a new set of ideas being offered, these are the outcries of history. Policing in this country and the unions and courts that protect them, even when there is blatant evidence of guilt, have remained a long stretch away from black peoples’ desires to maintain safety in their individuality and community. State violence towards black communities in the form of hyper-policing has historically been the law and order arm of sociopolitical and economic forces that destabilized black communities throughout the United States. The fact that black people have the consciousness that any encounter with on-duty or off-duty police officers may end in their death is a sobering reminder that those who protect some fail to guarantee the safety of all.
In a conversation published in the New York Times, social theorist Joy James and philosopher George Yancy contextualized the current era as one locked between “grief and action.” It is this sense of both intense worry and the energy of activism that helps measure the impossible circumstances facing black lives. James states,
The implications of public servants and deputized vigilantes violating black life with impunity are profound, especially for young black people. We need to publicly debate whether it is just, moral, appropriate, or even safe and sane, to believe in modern policing, given the fallibility, corruption and danger present in the institution. Police agencies have a history of racial bias and violence that has been investigated and condemned by governments as well as civil and human rights organizations. Citizens are supposed to flee or fight criminals, not the police. But reality teaches you that in black life you need to be ever vigilant for both.
Black experience is thus framed by persistent grief the need to heal from a persistent state of mourning exacerbated by social media. Almost as soon as black people attempt to heal from one loss of life, another tragedy strikes.
Police, on the other hand, express empathy when their own are in danger. The general public is expected to empathize with their grief and ritualistically condemn the aggressor. No one wants to be shot at by a sniper or killed while handcuffed to the ground, clearly posing no danger. And yet, there are Philando Castille and Alton Sterling. Yet, black people are left to ask: Who will it be today? Who will it be tomorrow?
Even as the cases pile up, police are loath to admitting their bias. To their mind everyone is treated equally. They will never admit that in their view all black people are potential criminals. Still, daily acts of aggression are routine. Most black people who have never committed a crime consider modern policing as an interruption and intrusion on their lives. Black and brown officers of color are not immune to and often embrace this coding, coming as it does with the uniform. Some have expressed dissent from the prevailing norm only to be shunned and reprimanded from within.
It is clear that the fatal shootings of five Dallas police officers has shaken the nation, but it will be a damned shame if this is what it took to get police across America to talk candidly about deep level police reforms. Such has been the call from Black Lives Matter since 2012. Though in reference to sniper Micah X. Johnson, Dallas Police Chief David Brown has said that he “will not let the actions of a coward” lead to increased militarization of police, as we witnessed in Ferguson, we can be sure that not all police agree, especially as reports from Baton Rouge indicate violence directed at police officers as the Sterling investigation continues. But a policy of de-escalation may be the kinds of assurance that builds community trust.
History teaches that somewhere between the incarceration of captured Africans, the frequent lynching of black bodies and the rise of the prison industrial complex, the public went from that which needed to be protected, to that which threatens public safety. The police then were the go between of two publics at odds with one another: one criminal and one law-abiding. The crux however was that the black public has always been the criminal public, and the white public always potentially, and ostensibly law abiding, the place from which the arbiters of justice emerge. The best the black public could do in this ecology was attempt to be as law-abiding as possible, i.e. more law abiding than their white counter-public. Another option was to join the ranks of the lawmakers and enforcers, or thirdly, be swept into an alternative economy sure to draw the attention of law enforcement. This was an already skewed situation for black people, one in which basic fairness was not only not a possibility, but was virtually unthinkable. Police thus have historically policed the color line.
Demands for reforms must also point out the role of police unions in fending off public concerns as part of our analysis, strategy, and action. Police union representatives are typically hypersensitive to any criticism. Police thus want to reserve the right to take lives while also being impervious to critique, and ultrasensitive to changes that favor the public they are sworn to protect. As what Steve Martinot called “the walking embodiment of the law,” police essentially determine which laws to enforce at any given time. That is power that the public gives to the officer on the assumption that that power will not be abused, and that innocent or unarmed people will not end up dead as a result of said power. With power comes a great responsibility and as evidenced in the Sterling and Castile cases discretion turns casualty.
Their reactionary response to Black Lives Matter with Police Lives Matter was and is a notoriously absurd usurping of vocalized discontent, is an example. The police have always had the tacit approval of the general public and elected officials, leaving little room for disagreement and public accountability. Even elected officials who publicly support police, but who have questioned recent police actions including Stop-and-Frisk, immigrant profiling, and the killings of unarmed black people, receive police scorn. It should be recalled that after New York Mayor Bill De Blasio mentioned in the news that he and his wife worry for their black biracial son’s safety, the NYPD turned their backs on him as he eulogized two slain officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who had been ambushed in Brooklyn. Moreover, the New York City Police Benevolent Association underscored their chagrin by saying the blood of the slain officers was on De Blasio’s hands. The police throughout this country cannot have it both ways. They cannot have the authority over whether individuals live or die by their weapons or while in their custody, and then complain that the public is not letting them do their jobs when questions are asked or wrongdoing is suspected.
The apparatus of power and dominion over law and society that police retain must be made visible. Too often attention is focused solely on the encounter that ends in an unarmed person’s death, without accounting for the overall social structuring that make these interactions possible. By encouraging the visibility of the structures, the procedures, the laws, and the protections afforded police, accountability comes into greater focus. In this way they would know the public was truly their boss, that their actions were being scrutinized, possibly improving their behavior. In this scenario they might deescalate as a first option. The public would know the protocol that police are to follow. Police would not just come to neighborhoods looking for wrongdoers. They would come to answer questions. They would come to comfort communities of color, not to coerce them to cooperate. They would lead “Know Your Rights” trainings. In a sense, they would cease to be police as we know them. But police are casualties of their own unilateral access to power and authority. On one hand they reserve the right to kill, on the other they protest the right of the public to object. This is becoming more evident as concerns and public outcry has increased in recent weeks.
In the sports world, ESPN and the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Minneapolis police left their security posts at Saturday’s game after their WNBA team the Lynx wore shirts that read: “Change Starts with Us—Justice and Accountability” on front, and “Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Black Lives Matter” on the back. Their statement and action of solidarity came on the heels of New York Knicks’ star Carmelo Anthony’s plea on his Instagram account, demanding that athletes use their platforms to address social problems and ignore possible repercussions. When made aware of the action, four police officers of the Minneapolis Police Department left their security posts at the stadium protesting the players’ stance, a position applauded by Lt. Bob Kroll of the Minneapolis Police Federation, a stance summarily rejected by Police Chief Janee Harteau.
In another notable high profile act of solidarity, NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade issued a plea against violence at the opening of the ESPY awards. While invoking the tradition of athletic-activism that included legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Billie Jean King, and Jim Brown these athletes spoke of a need to end all forms of violence against black and brown bodies, whether inflicted by the state or carried out within communities. While commendable in a day and age when athletes are encouraged not to offend their multimillion-dollar sponsors, their carefully worded plea seemed to point to the structural arrangements that produce such violence. The spatial, racial, and violently enforced segregation from which their talents grew is the same terrain on which black deaths are reproduced on a daily basis.
While media has attempted to derail the Black Lives Matters organizer’s efforts to distance themselves from violent acts, organizers have resolved to stay the course towards transformation that had been set for over two years. Days following the Dallas shooting, activists again took to the streets in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, St. Louis, and Inglewood/Los Angeles. They have stopped traffic, disrupted normalcy, and confronted police officers. With heightened media attention around these actions the Inglewood mayor James Butts, himself a former chief of police, demonstrated a sense of restraint in not calling for an all out aggressive policing of protestors. For now, at least in some places, officials in charge of police have been following a different course toward protestors. However, as the mobilizations have centered on the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, news of two additional officer-involved shootings that occurred but have received very little media coverage. Adding to the list of the deceased are Delrawn Smalls and Alva Braziel, also men of color killed by police within a week of Sterling and Castile.
As has each preceding era, this one is about the relationship of black people to the state. It is about achieving definitions of citizenship that values black peoples’ lives by guaranteeing safety and the ability to navigate society with a range of options, not by being tracked out of adequate educational opportunity and sufficient employment opportunity, while being tracked into prison, or the encased by the invisible lines of spatial segregation. Police, not black citizens, have been safest under President Obama’s tenure. Rarely are police departments initiating open conversation with the general public about its principles, beliefs, habits of occupation, policies, or even the laws that they are charged with enforcing. Moreover, police unions are notorious for calling any demands for change “anti-police.” This is their chief function: to at all costs defend the rights of police, and the tactics they employ no matter the violence. Thus, police become complicit with the expectations of white supremacist logic, which entails spatial dominion, fear of people of color, especially when black, imperviousness to critique from outside of law enforcement, and the self-referential belief that wielding power is the natural order of things. In this sense, following Joy James’ assertion, black people have every right to withhold their trust for the sake of their own safety and sanity.
Each killing of an unarmed black and brown life at the hands of a policing agency or carceral institution or the conditions of existence that lead to so-called Black-on-black violence adds to the list of indictments leveled at civil society. The acceleration of death represents a “carceral continuum” wherein the ability to live is measured by the proximity and exposure to state aggression, often of the most violent variety. It is a continuum that links 14-year old George Stinney to Oscar Grant, Troy Davis to Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu-Jamal to Vonderrit Myers, Tookie Williams to Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride to Claude Neal, Yuvette Henderson to Antonio Zambrano-Montes, and countless other lives. These names and histories are remembered to mobilize communal pain into generative action.
It is time for a national conversation, informed by history, and clear-eyed strategy on police reform in the United States. In fact, conversations have been happening since the Kerner Commission’s report. The national media have long proven that black lives mattered less than police lives. So, too, have courts, prosecutors, judges, and juries. So, too, have millions upon millions of individuals throughout the country. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement has forced a discussion of racial injustice and state produced anti-black violence into presidential debates, judging by the comments of high-ranking officials, the country pretends that there are equal sides in the police versus community divide. Yet the stark imbalance can be found in the fact that the national mourning of slain officers has all but silenced the vocal criticism directed at police from a range of activists, lawyers, scholars, and youth around the country. However, if the call for healing being heard from various sectors including President Obama and Dallas Police Chief David Brown is to have any relevance in this era of discontent, it must come on the heels of justice.
Although the interruption of the normal flow of social activity is an important tactic and is certain to continue, Black Lives Matter activist’s strategy must stretch past highly effective traffic stoppages or private meetings with selected state officials. Indeed, as their official statements indicate, nothing short of an overhaul in our governing systems will do. The ground may be shifting. However, if history teaches us anything it is that social order will once again be restored at black peoples’ expense.
At the turn of the 20th century the prescient scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois warned that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line. In the 21st century that color line is police blue, a line that continues to victimize black humanity with impunity. As an African American student at Brown University recently stated, being black “should not be a death sentence.” Key to curing black suffering will be the restructuring and transformation of the social systems that produce it.