The Perisistence of Police Brutality: Part 1

The first thing about police brutality is that it’s not a problem. It’s a symptom of severe issues in American society. The first and most primary one is racism. Contrary to the way we behave, racism did not end in a flourish at the end of the Civil Rights Movement. It has been festering under the surface of American society like an untreated cancer for centuries. Every now and then there is a breakout which reminds us that racism is still alive and well. In August of 1965 a drunken motorist was stopped and people on the street felt he was harassed unnecessarily by police. It triggered the Watts riots which lasted for 6 days and resulted in 34 deaths. Three years later Richard Nixon employed a political strategy based on appealing to racial and cultural tensions in order to be elected President. He initiated a War on Drugs which would take place largely in urban areas which were disproportionately inhabited by African Americans because White people avoided integration by moving to the suburbs. The initiation of the War on Drugs not only intensified friction between the police and African Americans, it also became a self-fulfilling prophecy which provided rationale for racial profiling. In turn, racial profiling led to stop and frisk policies which became nothing more than a license to stop young African Americans, because they looked like they might be criminals. Centuries of slavery and racism; a couple of decades of racially tinged policing policy, combined with the already dire circumstances in urban America created an explosive brew.

Twenty seven years after the Watts Riots, Rodney King was brutally beaten by police officers and the incident was videotaped. The offending officers escaped conviction of any wrongdoing. This event became the catalyst for the Los Angeles riots which resulted in over 50 deaths. Even this event was unable to stem the police brutality that existed in urban communities. Currently, there are still high levels of crime and decay in urban areas, there are still low employment prospects in most urban areas, and the attitude of racism is still prevalent in the minds of many.

Earlier I mentioned that centuries of slavery and racism helped to create the explosive brew America finds itself in. Usually, when there is a statement like this people think about what slavery and racism has done to Black people. But let’s flip the coin for a second and stop to ponder what racism has done to White people. What rationale could a people have to tolerate the enslavement of a group of human beings solely based on the color of their skin? The psychological trick that White people had to play on themselves in order to support slavery was to accept the idea that color of skin was an accurate indicator of the value of human life. The lighter the skin the more valuable the life, the darker the skin the cheaper the life. This idea is the foundational basis of racism and it is buried deep within the American psyche. This drives the idea that Black people are ultimately more dangerous, more savage, and more in need of some kind of control from society.

This stereotype of Black people as “dangerous and savage” perpetuates fear within society. Police officers being human beings and members of society are not immune from it. In addition, police officers are always in a hyper aware state because their lives could be in danger at a moment’s notice, there is very real violence that is happening in urban areas all across the country. This is a dangerous cauldron of social ingredients that result in disproportionate murder of black people by police officers. But it doesn’t stop there. In 1996 Congress decided that the military could turn over any excess weaponry it had to police officers. This equipped them with military grade equipment, but yet training on the proper use of military grade equipment was not scheduled at the same rate. It was not known at the time, but it stands to reason that if you give police military grade weaponry, they may begin to act like soldiers in their everyday dealings. The advent of the war on terror in 2001 and the need to be on the alert for domestic terrorism only poured further fuel on what was already an incredibly volatile situation.

Even though urban streets can be dangerous and violent, the last thing that is needed is police who think of themselves as warfighters or who have little understanding of the community they are tasked to serve. The reality is with police harboring outright or latent racist ideas; they are unable to view the community sympathetically. As a result of militarization they move and appear to the community as an occupying force, rather than providers of security. Due to their own fears of African Americans and of not making it home safely to their families, they act rashly. They speak in terms that are disrespectful to the community, they escalate situations that could be resolved peacefully and people get killed for violations that might be criminal but certainly do not call for the death penalty. With every death the legitimacy of the police, the law, and the government, becomes more questionable.

As we have seen in the past three years, the level of police brutality is and has always been an epidemic in Black communities and I’m not sure simply putting cameras on police will solve it. I’ll examine some of the proposed “solutions” in Part 2.

For more information on the events I cite, please refer to the timeline.