Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Amadou Diallo. We speak these names and instantly feel the weight of injustice. Why? Because law enforcement took their breath away.
Rekia Boyd. Yvette Smith. Miriam Carey. Aiyana Jones. They were killed by police too. We should feel the weight of injustice with their names, but because the deaths of Black women and girls (cis- and trans-gender) are interrogated and protested with far less vigor than their male counterparts, their stories are lesser known.
Protestors against police killings have been chanting “No justice, no peace” around the country as they stage die-ins, or raise their hands and beg not to be shot by police. I understand the statement and I appreciate the campaign to raise the public consciousness about how the police misread “risk” or “threat,” particularly in association with Black people. The thing is, raised hands is a sign of surrender, and now is the time to do just the opposite.
More than 76 unarmed people of color have been fatally shot by police since 1999. The pattern of police misconduct and discriminatory use of force disproportionately against Black people (along the entire gender continuum) and other people of color is a threat to our lives, our communities, and our American democracy.
This nation better recognize.
In the years that I have professionally interacted with law enforcement, one thing has become abundantly clear—there is very little that the public really knows about how policing works in this country. There is a level of secrecy that surrounds the Fraternal Order of Police—its decision-making processes, its internal culture and rationale for surveillance, and its practices (including training, funding, and leadership trajectory). While some have recently attempted to lift the veil of secrecy, there remains a basic lack of transparency between policing jurisdictions and the communities they serve throughout the country. In this absence of transparency, there is fear—a fear that drives distrust. This distrust then feeds racial bias (implicit or otherwise) and stereotyping, which does a disservice to everyone. In this space, Black people are disproportionately vulnerable to police misconduct and use of force, and law enforcement over-assess “risk” or “threat” when Black people are concerned. This is a dangerous power dynamic.
In Where do We Go From Here: Chaos of Community, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. interrogated this question of power, stating, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice as its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
For years, policymakers have offered piecemeal “reforms” that would supposedly address the concerns that communities of color have long been articulating with respect to law enforcement practices. These include legislation like the End Racial Profiling Act or the New York chokeholds bill, and the latest, body cameras. But let’s be honest. Offering body cameras as a remedy to this problem is like offering a Band-Aid to someone who suffers from a virus that is attacking their central nervous system.
Instead, we have to tell the truth. South Africa understood this following Apartheid. Canada understood this, too, in relation to its historical mistreatment of indigenous populations. Big problems need big solutions, not small reforms.
We need a radical transformation. That is why I stand with my friend Fania Davis in calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on policing in the U.S. Policing must be rigorously, truthfully, and publicly interrogated and then radically restructured—not just in the Ferguson, Oakland, or New York, but nationwide.
Our commitment to justice should be visceral and visible. In order to “open wide the gates of freedom,” we have to do away with the practices, policies, and consciousness that facilitate bias and violent oppression. We have to eliminate the secrecy that is putting this nation’s integrity in a chokehold.
We must facilitate the demands of justice.
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Defender of Black Women and Girls