Police officers have had racism’s back in the United States since the beginning. In colonial times, law enforcement was sometimes made up of volunteer police officers or private individuals who were hired by a community to keep order. It wasn’t until the 1850’s that the first municipal police departments were organized, but all these types of police have one thing in common:
From the first time an officer of the peace arrested a black person who’d escaped slavery or looked the other way when an overseer or plantation owner murdered a black person, to all the unprosecuted lynchings of the Jim Crow era, to Emmett Till, to the mass incarceration of black bodies that began in the late twentieth century, right up to the police murders of unarmed black people captured on cell phone videos in our current era, law enforcement has enforced racist terrorism.
Today, with the increasing militarization of police departments across the country, law enforcement is, more than ever, literally dressed to kill. Military grade weapons and equipment get to local law enforcement through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which facilitates transfers of surplus. A series of studies found “a positive and statistically significant relationship between 1033 transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings across all models.” In other words, departments with access to military grade weapons are more likely to kill civilians than departments without access.
When someone shows you who they are, believe them. When an institution shows us who they are, we must believe them. The institution of policing is a deadly source of racist violence. No matter how many community policing trainings take place, no matter how many people of color are hired and promoted by police departments, law enforcement continues to kill innocent citizens. It continues to act out its racist policies. As an institution, it is not going to change. It must be abolished.
Let me say that again. Law enforcement has proven it supports racism for the last four hundred years. Law enforcement is not going to change, so it must be abolished.
It is the nature of law enforcement to support the status quo, and the status quo in the United States is racism. That status quo needs to go, and law enforcement needs to be swept out with it.
Who am I to say that? Just an informed citizen, an old, middle class, 97% white lady, the sort of person law enforcement is often depicted as protecting, and I would not call the police to my home or my neighborhood because there is no telling who they might kill or hurt, or what trouble they might cause.
Disempowering law enforcement won’t happen instantly, but many strategies exist to help make policing, and especially racist policing, a thing of the past. Like most big changes, the work can start at home. Locally, we can support and vote in candidates who have a more constructive vision of what community safety looks like. At local city, town, and county meetings, we can speak out on police budgets, and police hiring, and policing alternatives.
Following the police killing of George Floyd, which came hot on the heels of the police killing of 26-year old Brionna Taylor, members of Congress from both parties have proposed legislation to limit police powers including a ban on choke-holds and limitations on military grade weapons. It’s too soon to tell whether these proposals are mere pandering to voters during an election year, or whether these representatives mean business. Letting candidates know which pieces of legislation you support is crucial, as is telling them when their proposals don’t go far enough.
Or, as Dr. Ibram Kendi recently suggested, we can join with other citizens to amplify our individual voices, to “ask the question, ‘Well, who here is challenging the policy that is leading to these racial disparities?’ . . . Every single individual has the power to do that.”
Defunding police budgets might be another way to do abolish the violent, racist policing that’s tearing the U.S. apart. As Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris pointed out in an opinion piece recently, if police departments are defunded, more targeted services can be expanded:
· We don’t need cops to intervene in disputes. We need unarmed mediators.
· We don’t need cops to sweep people who are homeless off the streets. We need affordable homes.
· We don’t need cops to bust low-level dope dealers, or drug users, or alcoholics. We need substance abuse counselors who’ve been there who can share their experience, strength, and hope.
An important step in the abolition process is to bring police departments to an accounting. It’s clear that police forces in the U.S. are dangerous sources of anti-citizen violence, but data about those deaths is notoriously unreliable — because there is no national database keeping track.
According to one source, Mapping Police Violence, police killed 1,099 people in the U.S. in 2019, and a disproportionate number of those victims were Black people.
Keep that fact in mind, and what it implies: Work toward disarming and abolishing police forces must be based in anti-racist policies.
This work is not, by any means, the sole responsibility of Black people. American racism has benefited white people for centuries, and white people must step up now to make amends. A good first step in anti-racist work is to examine one’s own underlying assumptions and implied biases about race and the systems of racism.
In American society, racist ideas attach themselves to people like ticks. The ticks embed under our skin and suck our blood, and unless we see them, we can’t shed them. Reading Black authors, watching Black films, and listening to Black people sharing their experiences can help anyone see those racist ideas, analyze them, and rip them out of our lives. For good.
For the good of all, work to abolish the racist institution of policing.