The past two weeks of media coverage has been filled with video footage of cops all over the country exercising brutality against people of color and protestors, despite their compliance with orders. In cases of alleged or actual crime, the proportionality of the response is greatly exaggerated against the crime. Where else but America are black people killed during apprehension or in custody for egregious crimes such as passing a counterfeit bill (#GeorgeFloyd), selling loose cigarettes (#EricGarner) or not obeying traffic signs (#SandraBland). In every single video, you see individuals with their hands up and unarmed being maced, shot with nonlethal bullets, beaten, maimed, and in some cases blinded.
While having a discussion with a very close friend regarding the militarization of law enforcement, a question occurred. I spent 20 years in the United States Army. During that time, I had to abide by strict codes of conduct. My personal feelings and beliefs did not matter; it was about maintaining a high level of discipline and professionalism. There were rules of engagement that had to be followed at the highest level, from private to General. Failure to follow those rules could result in punishment ranging from oral reprimand up to and including dishonorable discharge and prison time.
Yet the very officials hired to protect and serve are using the same weapons and protective gear I once was issued as a Soldier without any of the ethical training associated with its use under the premises of the Geneva Convention and Law of Armed Conflict. Overzealous law enforcement exercises tactics that would get me stripped of my rank and freedom if I did it. Instead of Protecting and Serving they are Oppressing and Enslaving through fear and violence. Law enforcement now represents an existential threat to basic human rights. The archetype of the friendly neighborhood cop is no longer. What’s ironic is they all remind me of the Decepticon Barricade from the Transformers movie series. His disguise is a police patrol car with the inscription, “To Punish and Enslave”. I no longer see the friendly neighborhood cop coming to my school as a kid teaching us about saying no to drugs. The patrol unit on Bourbon Street as I partied in my twenties till five in the morning, drunk and flirting, telling them thank you for keeping us safe. Now I see uniformed thugs subsidized by my tax dollars to openly maim, murder and oppress others in violation of the very human rights that are supposed to be protected under the U.S. Constitution.
The military isn’t the only profession bound by internal laws and ethics regulations. Every profession designed to help people in this country, like doctors, lawyers, and most clergy, are held to a standard of professionalism with the exception of Law Enforcement. Why is that?
African Americans have been subjected to the brutality of “law enforcement” since slavery. Prior to the end of the Civil War, an additional duty for police included the formation of patrols to capture runaway slaves. After slavery, the police evolved to enforce Jim Crow laws. African Americans are not the the only group of people subjected to brutality; Asian, Jewish, Poor White, Muslim, Hispanic, and other marginalized groups have also been subjected to the same. However, African-Americans have been the primary target — especially Black Men.
During the turn of the century police brutality was mainly an isolated event due to the increased diversity of different cultures and ethnicities. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica online article, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, poor and working-class whites expressed frustration over discriminatory policing in northern cities. At about the same time, Jewish and other immigrants from southern and eastern Europe also complained of police brutality against their communities. In the 1920s many urban police departments, especially in large cities such as New York and Chicago, used extralegal tactics against members of Italian-immigrant communities in efforts to crack down on organized crime. In 1943 officers of the Los Angeles Police Department were complicit in attacks on Mexican Americans by U.S. servicemen during the so-called Zoot Suit Riots, reflecting the department’s history of hostility toward Hispanics (Latinos). Regular harassment of homosexuals and transgender persons by police in New York City culminated in 1969 in the Stonewall riots, which were triggered by a police raid on a gay bar; the protests marked the beginning of a new era of militancy in the international gay rights movement.
Whenever there is a diverse mix of cultures and ethnicities there is an increase of police brutality. If there is an influx of racial demographics immigrating to a community, the brutality against them is often exacted by the police. The first time the world witnessed via modern media the brutal beating of an unarmed Black man was Rodney King. This triggered the LA riots. Fast forward 30 plus years later and it seems videos of Black people being assaulted by law enforcement are a weekly occurrence on social media.
Have you ever noticed lately how law enforcement is starting to look more like a paramilitary organization? Military grade weapons, body armor, and armored vehicles resembling tanks are quickly finding their way into local cities and communities courtesy of the Wars on Drugs and Terror. Some look like paramilitary storm troopers from a dystopian science fiction movie. Did you know those military grade weapons, armor, and equipment all came from the United States Department of Defense? According to an article written in Wired.com the Pentagon funneled billions of dollars to law enforcement agencies through a 1033 program. Created as part of 1997’s National Defense Authorization Act, the 1033 program allows the Department of Defense to get rid of excess equipment by passing it off to local authorities, who only have to pay for the cost of shipping. According to the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), which oversees the process, over $7.4 billion of property was transferred since the program’s inception. More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies have enrolled to receive military grade clothing, tools, weapons, vehicles, and other tactical equipment.
The issue lies when weapons provided by the Department of Defense are issued with no formal training and oversight.
In most metropolitan areas, the Police have a lion’s share of the spending budget. Some cities have allocated billions of dollars towards law enforcement, while schools, arts programs, and public health initiatives are left grossly underfunded.
Lack of Accountability & Oversight
A smart phone seems to be the only tool Black people have to document the racist violence of law enforcement. If a civilian murdered another civilian on video and posted to social media it would be an open and shut case. This is not the case for the members of law enforcement. They kill with a cool, calm demeanor knowing they are going to get away with it. The criminal justice system protects its own. They go on paid administrative leave; they might get charged, go to trial and ultimately be acquitted. Very few get fired but in most cases they get hired somewhere else if still desiring work. Those who are found guilty and sent to prison only serve a short sentence then get paroled; in most cases, sooner than later.
The problem is interconnected. The lack of accountability begins with the Mayor, District Attorney, Judge, and Police Chief. What many Black People forget is almost, all these positions are elected positions. Conducted at the local level where many do not vote. The same positions that allow those same officers to exact brute violence towards peaceful rioters and people of color. It’s no secret police corruption is really bad. It’s in music, movies, and other forms of media.
It’s pretty comical when the Mayor and Police Chief stand in front of the press condemning police brutality yet are in the position of power to investigate, fire, and charge the individual in question. It’s the same as having a misbehaving child and when they are reported to the parents. Their parents do nothing more than just verbally condem the child but do nothing more.
Moving Forward and the Way Ahead
Police brutality and corrupt racist cops are just cogs in the larger systematic and institutional machinations of the prison industrial complex. Those souls who are fortunate enough to survive have an uphill battle of having their freedoms stripped away without due process.
News outlets are reporting discussions regarding defunding and reducing the roles of the police. But the real discussion and actions that needs to be taken is accountability. People of color,to include myself and my loved ones, live with a heightened fear of wondering if a routine stop will leave us dead, wounded, or deprived of our freedoms. The fact folks are being shot in their own homes without a warrant or justified reason is terrifying. White people are very much aware of the threat law enforcement pose and they are calling the police in the hopes they will be shot dead without consequences. Instead of suicide by cop, its now turned int0 murder by cop. This creates a unique form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) unlike anything I have seen in a warzone fighting America’s enemies. The irony of being less safe here than I am in a combat zone is not lost on me or others.
Let’s start holding folks accountable who deliberately call the police on innocent black people for doing nothing more than just being black. Let’s start properly training law enforcement and have them conduct proper screening processes. Evaluate spending and procurement on our police departments. Start holding Law Enforcement to the same standard as the military where they have their own internal oversight mechanisms that are ultimately accounted for by external oversight (such as Congress in the case of the military). Until the system is corrected these violations of civil and constitutional rights will continue and the American dream will remain out of reach for many of its most disenfranchised citizens. This should not be a trend but an actual way forward so that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is provided to those whose ancestors built the socioeconomic might of this country. Reparations may be a far reach but black people being able to simply live without the fear of being killed just because of their skin color should be a premise that every American, independent of race, creed or political affiliation, can agree on.