Across the US—and around the world—protesters are taking to the streets to demand an end to systemic racism and police brutality, after George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, was murdered by a white officer in Minneapolis. Peeling loudly amidst the clamour for justice is a growing call to defund police forces across the US; some have even called to altogether abolish the police and replace it with alternative solutions to emergency response.
It is a well-documented fact that police forces throughout the US disproportionately target communities of colour, and particularly black Americans. A recent investigation by the New York Times reveals that in Minneapolis, 60 per cent of cases in which police use violent force involve black targets. Such trends hold true across the country.
But in order to understand the scope of the problem and consider potential solutions, it is necessary to educate ourselves about the origins of the police in the US and the function they served over the years.
Policing in the US finds its roots in slave patrols that were established to police runaway and defiant slaves, as well as in other forces that aimed at monitoring and controlling minorities across the country (Native Americans for instance) and protecting white property.
Over the centuries, many of these teams of vigilantes had morphed into today’s police departments, and although the official explanation behind their operations has changed, they largely serve the same purpose: maintaining a socio-economic status quo that disproportionately benefits white Americans.
Throughout the years, America’s police forces grew increasingly militant. This mainly resulted from a Pentagon programme called 1033, which funnels weaponry surplus from the military to local police departments. Such gear includes battery rams, explosives, grenade launchers, and bayonets. Initiated in the 1990s as part of the War on Drugs and accelerated following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the programme was temporarily restricted by former President Obama only to be reinstated by President Trump.
The militarisation of police has been linked to a swelling pattern of use of excessive force by police officers against unarmed people of colour, and particularly, but not exclusively, black men. The police response to the current protests further exhibit the consequences of a heavily militarised police force—as many officers have been firing tear gas, macing and violently dispersing peaceful protests, resulting in countless injuries and even death among demonstrators.
On top of that, in 1967 the Supreme Court forged the notion of ‘qualified immunity’ as a way to shield police officers using excessive force against demonstrators from being held accountable. This notion, which was subsequently adopted by lower courts as well, continues to grant immunity to cops brutalising and murdering people while on duty to this very day.
It is important to recognise that the ‘good cop bad cop’ narrative being floated around isn’t only inapplicable, but also diverts the conversation away from the core of the issue. While serving under this system, in these uniforms, equipped with this gear and endowed with enormous, virtually unrestrained power, even a decent human being can end up committing or abetting acts of aggression and harassment simply because of their job, their status, and the institution they’re embedded in.
The evolution of American police and the nature of their mandate all but guarantee that they too often threaten and terrorise the very communities they claim to protect; instead of safety, they frequently inspire violence and intimidation.
That’s why the task at hand isn’t to conduct a character assessment of each individual cop, but rather to address the dysfunctions of the police system as a whole.
Diversity, de-escalation training and awareness building among police forces don’t seem to help. As pointed out by Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris in the New York Times opinion piece No More Money for the Police, Minneapolis is an example of a city whose police department implemented numerous justice, mindfulness and de-escalation training, and was lauded as “a model of progressive police reform,” while continuing to use excessive force against minorities. George Floyd was still murdered in Minneapolis police custody.
A call to terminate the Department of Defense programme furnishing police departments with military-style gear is now gaining steam in Capitol Hill. “It is clear that many police departments are being outfitted as if they are going to war, and it is not working in terms of maintaining the peace,” said Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii in an interview for the New York Times. De-militarising the police with Trump in the White House has slim prospects for success and would only tackle one aspect of the problem and be insufficient in uprooting the systemic issues entrenched so deeply in the police.
It seems that the most effective solution would be to re-invest the bloated police budget (roughly $100 billion) in communities themselves: through education, infrastructure, healthcare, and various community projects. Such an act could significantly improve the quality of life in struggling neighbourhoods, promote equality, and eliminate many of the issues that require policing in the first place.
In addition, redirecting a portion of the current police budget toward community-led emergency response teams (as an alternative to policing) could guarantee the actual safety of residents. Teams such as the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (HAVI), which already operate across the country in various capacities, dispatch people with the appropriate skills to de-escalate situations or provide help and rescue in cases of emergency.
As the debate about how to tackle police brutality continues, it is important to recognise the police as an organ of a criminal justice system that through mass incarceration, criminalisation, intrusive surveillance, excessive force, and draconian immigration policies perpetuates the subjugation and oppression of people of colour in the US.
This article has been published as part of an ongoing content partnership with FAIRPLANET.
A week after we saw Derek Chauvin kill George Floyd in front of a camera he knew was recording, Emily Maitlis asked George the Poet on Newsnight: “But you’re not putting America and Britain on the same footing […] our police aren’t armed, they don’t have guns, the legacy of slavery is not the same, we have had a report many years ago looking at institutional racism and, you would hope, reversing or aiming to open that up, it’s not the same is it?” Here is why ignoring the UK’s denial of its own racism is as disingenuous as ignoring the US’ police brutality and racism.
“It’s not the same, is it?”—this is the language of denial that infiltrates almost all mainstream discussions about race in the UK. George the Poet had, at the beginning of this interview, outlined that although black people only make up 4 per cent of the UK population, they represent 40 per cent of the poorest households.
George the Poet also highlighted that black and brown people account for 50 per cent of young offenders in prison—this exponential rise taking place at a time when youth imprisonment in general had fallen by a third. In the face of clear examples of the structural and systemic racism black people face, it is therefore dishonest to say “but our police don’t have guns” as a means of separating the experiences of black people in the UK and the US.
The UK police, even without guns, kill black men at a disproportionate rate. The lack of guns did not save Sean Rigg, Rashan Charles, Ibrahima Sey or Sheku Bayoh.
It is interesting to watch the UK’s reaction to race rebellions. While it is true that the UK is definitely not as armed a country as the US, the lived experiences of black people in Britain bears significant parallels to those in America.
A report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in April 2020 stated that a black person in Minnesota, the state in which George Floyd was killed, was 5.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession between 2010 and 2018. And this was despite black and white people having comparable usage of the drug in the state.
In the UK, The Colour of Justice Report from 2018 highlighted that black people were 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs despite using drugs at a lower rate than white people. My point is: the statistics are out in the open, and yet, Maitlis referenced the 1999 Macpherson report in her interview, ignoring the fact that things largely remain the same in 2020. It seems that rather than investigate institutions, Britain instead interrogates black people about the credibility of their assertions.
The criminal justice system is one area where we see black people being treated differently, beginning with the initial engagement with the police and all throughout their court proceedings, at which they receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts. However, we also know that black children are excluded from mainstream education at a higher rate than white children.
We know there is a dearth of black people in leadership roles in media, law, finance and even sports. As a black person who arrived in this country as an asylum seeker and went on to become a barrister, I and many others can tell you countless stories of exclusion and outright racism.
You do not have to have a knee on your neck for over 8 minutes to have experienced violence. There is violence being perpetrated by school exclusions, by underemployment, unemployment, immigration detention and a lack of PPE in the midst of a global pandemic.
There is also violence in the way one minimises racism. Just try to remember the way black women were shouted down by mainstream media for saying the vitriol directed at Meghan Markle was because she was black. In the UK, as well as in the US, there is no desire to look beyond the surface. Why are commentators so interested in white working-class students having low grades at school while never mentioning that these white graduates who underachieve academically somehow manage to have higher employment rates than black students with equivalent grades?
These things matter. They matter because the death of George Floyd is not only about police brutality. It is about the life opportunities of black people in the towns and cities that they live in. On 31 May the Governor of Minnesota, Tim Waltz, outlined how Minnesota actually stands at the top or close to the top on a number of rankings in the US due to the quality of its public schools, personal income of its residents, homeownership rates, life expectancy and happiness.
But all these rankings were only true if you were white. If those rankings only focused on Minnesota’s black residents, the state would be at the bottom. This gives some insight into how different races can live completely different lives in the same space. This is what is happening in the UK and pretending that we don’t have a problem just because the police aren’t armed is not going to cut it.
To experience institutional racism and repeated micro-aggressions and then have to constantly debate our reality is violent. There aren’t two sides to this argument: white supremacy and racism exist. Diversity and inclusion literature and meetings are not the revolution, the real work is to be done by white people.
Dismantle your privilege, hire black people, magnify black people’s work and respect our humanity without qualification. Only when these things are done, without the prompting of black people, will real change materialise. It’s up to you now.