During a panel on the health impact of police brutality and killings in the United States at the American Public Health Association’s annual conference in Chicago, professionals there made it clear that the Black Lives Matter movement is alive in their field, too.
“I have several friends that always look at me like, ‘How come y’all aren’t saying Black lives matter?’ I’m like, ‘I am,’ ” said Alicia Smith, an Arlington, Virginia- based public health professional during the American Public Health Association’s panel on the health impact of police brutality and killings in the United States.
The association’s Black Caucus of Health Care Workers looked at the roots of the modern-day police force and discussed ways the public health community could lend its professional gravitas to the groundswell that seeks to halt police abuse of African-Americans. Evoking the likes of Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, panelists discussed everything from economic motivations for police overreach to solutions to keep both police and residents safe with body cameras and better community oversight during the conference attended by nearly 13,000 public health professionals.
“Violence impacts health regardless of who perpetrates it,” said Richard Wallace, field-organizing director for The Workers Center for Racial Justice in Chicago.
To be clear, the modern-day police force was never meant to enforce the law neutrally, according to Dr. Cheryl Conner, who practices at the Jesse Brown Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Chicago.
“The roots of modern-day police forces come from slave patrols in the South, private security firms to squash early labor conflicts,” said Conner, who prefers to evaluate law enforcement through a Marxist lens to explain the role of racism in making capitalism work: “Keep workers divided, keep wages low, allow for the super-exploitation of minorities.”
Conner took the audience back to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, America’s first rebellion when White and Black indentured servants banned together, Conner said. Racial lines were hardened afterward, and Blacks were legally identified as hereditary slaves, she said, and Whites were given modest rewards, using race as a wedge for the first time.
“As northern cities industrialized, these people were socially separated from the ruling classes,” said Conner, describing a physical and psychic line of demarcation between workers and the wealthy during an era prone to strike over wages and working conditions. “Rich businessmen hired [men] to keep working-class neighborhoods under control.”
Reforming the American way of policing will require a realization that communities are not threatened by a “few racists cops, a few bad apples,” they represent a structure designed to work just as it has, Conner said. Police “are backed up by the courts, they are backed up by politicians. They are used disproportionately to affect people in our society that have the most reason to resent the system, which are poor Black people.”
Americans will need to stop looking at the reform battle as a Black-White issue, shaking off the false division created by Bacon’s Rebellion, thriving to this day, panelists agreed.
To that end, Wallace said he is excited about what he characterizes as America’s shrinking middle-class and continued march toward wage slavery:
“Then White people will realize they’re poor, too,” Wallace said with a sly smile. “And Black people will stop acting like they’ve got something they really don’t. We can have that revolution.”
Energized by the discussion, audience members nodded knowingly when Smith stood up to point out that public health workers are better positioned to facilitate better communication between police and communities because their work is all about offering solutions to the workaday lives of underserved communities. She pointed to a disconnect between robust conversations about the roots of policing in America within the cozy confines of a convention room and failure to address these issues back home on the ground.
“We come back to our regular public-health lives, and we’re like ‘People aren’t coming to the clinic. We can’t get them to come in and get STD testing, this, this and that.’ But if we’re not going to stand by them on issues that are most important to them, then we can’t expect them to look at us as a safe haven for their communities.”