They can’t breathe

By Pearl Benjamin | Jun 18, 2020

Let’s talk about law enforcement. The conversation is long overdue. In just the past five years, police have shot and killed over 5,000 Americans. In the U.S., black people are shot and killed at disproportionately higher rates than white people. They’re also subject to higher police brutality and incarceration rates. As a result, we’ve seen flare-ups of anger and distrust erupt in black communities time and time again and yet we’ve made no progress. We sit and watch the slaughter of Americans like Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd without questioning if our law enforcement is protecting or rather threatening the citizens of our country.

Now, we need to wake up. We need to recognize that our current form of policing was founded on the principles of systemic racism and continues to serve that purpose. We need to deconstruct and reform law enforcement to ensure that officers truly value black life.

Before I go on, I want to address the fact that this article should not be the first you read on this topic. I’m not nearly as qualified to speak on the topic of racism and police brutality as the activists of color on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement. Thankfully, I have no personal experience with violent and oppressive policing. Simply because I’m white, I will likely never fear for my life in the presence of a police officer. Black citizens, on the other hand, experience this very rational fear every day of their lives. Please take the time to hear their stories before reading any further.

My favorite articles written on this topic include “Dear White People, This Is What We Want You To Do” from the blog “Inside the Kandi Dish” and “What Exactly Does It Mean To Defund The Police?” by Amanda Arnold in New York Magazine. The books I’ve found most educational on the topic are “When They Call You A Terrorist” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and “How To Be An Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi. The black experience is far more valuable in this conversation than white input. That being said, I have the privilege of a writing platform, and I’d like to use it to amplify black activists’ call for reform.

Most law enforcement in the southern U.S. was born out of a need to control slave uprisings and rebellions. Before there were police departments, there were “slave patrols” which targeted and brutalized slaves who challenged their oppressors. To many black Americans, the profiling of young men in hoodies, the constant harassment for minor offenses, the easy escalation of force against unarmed people and the near total lack of consequences for officers who kill shows how very little progress has been made.

Our law enforcement needs massive reform. We should be training peacekeepers rather than attack dogs. We should also acknowledge that police departments aren’t the only useful resource for improving public safety. If the problems communities face revolve around homelessness, substance abuse and people struggling with mental health, we should be allocating our funding in ways that address those underlying issues, instead of hiring more armed cops.

As Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors-Brignac explained in an interview with Trevor Noah: “Police are at the helm of criminalizing the homeless. We need county government to show up and get them housing and shelter. What about people who have mental health crises? That is a job for a social worker or a psychiatrist. All this infrastructure is essentially gutted and replaced with bloated police budgets.” Cullors-Brignac is one of many Black Lives Matter leaders calling on American cities to “defund the police”– a term considered radical and polarizing by centrist and right-wing media. But there is nothing “radical” about reallocating unnecessary funds to the resources their communities actually need. We need to focus on improving healthcare, education, affordable housing and job opportunities for low income communities of color. Only then will we see a decrease in both crime rates and police brutality.

Beyond reallocating funds, we also need to retrain our police. Campaign Zero recently released a list of eight policies that police departments everywhere should immediately adopt to end violence against black people. They include banning choke holds, requiring de-escalation, warning before shooting, requiring officers to exhaust all alternatives before shooting, instating a duty to intervene, banning shooting at moving vehicles, establishing a use of force continuum and requiring the reporting of all force used on citizens. All police departments, including Camden’s, should implement these policies right now. Law enforcement should serve and protect, not dominate and oppress.

What can white people do to help? Speak out, show up at protests and maintain momentum in this fight. Set up a meeting with your local police chief and demand the eight policy reforms. Write to your legislators. Donate to foundations like the Minnesota Freedom Fund, Black Lives Matter, Black Visions Collective and The American Civil Liberties Union. Continue to educate yourself by reading works by black writers and creators. Use whatever platform is available to you to amplify black voices. This fight is far from over, but we now have a clear set of goals to achieve. Cities like Minneapolis have already made plans to disband and reform their police departments. We have to keep the pressure on.

Eventually, when the weight of our corrupt and oppressive police system is lifted, America may be able to breathe again.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: George Terrien | Jun 18, 2020 10:07

Excellent article!  Though reading it makes me grateful for what I perceive is Rockland's police department, I recognize the value of critical examination of what we do, in every endeavor and organization.  I gratefully believe that our municipal government and police force, including the chief, act with the same attitude.  Without knowing enough to address our own situation here in Rockland, I do raise one other consideration:  the value of police unions to support fair practices in hiring, work requirements, and compensation.  Other communities seem to be constrained from addressing issues outside of this appropriate and valuable purpose of unions, with unions often protecting and hiding misbehavior:  unacceptable, in my view.

Thank you, Pearl, for taking the time and making the effort to contribute to our discussion of current evens so constructively.



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