The system isn’t broken, it’s racist by design

December 9, 2014

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor asks why proposals for reforming the police should be taken seriously when no one will address systemic issues like criminalization.

LESS THAN a month before Mike Brown became an international symbol of police violence and racism in American law enforcement, Eric Garner was choked to death in broad daylight on a sidewalk on Staten Island in New York City. As Officer Daniel Pantaleo literally squeezed the life out of him, Garner repeated 11 times, "I can't breathe."

The killings may have taken place half a continent apart and the causes of death were different, but Brown and Garner will be forever linked in people's minds because grand juries in the two cases decided, within days of each other, not to indict a white police officer who killed an unarmed African American man.

In Brown's case, several witnesses testified that Brown's hands were raised in the surrender position, when Officer Darren Wilson continued to shoot, ultimately killing Brown in a hail of bullets.

In Garner's case, there were witnesses, too--but the whole world could watch his murder unfold on a video recording. The Garner case evoked memories of the video recording of the beating of Rodney King. The outcome was the same--Black America reacted with disbelief as the four white officers who almost killed King were exonerated, despite the video evidence of their brutality against an unarmed man.

Terrorists in blue

With Garner, as with the case of Mike Brown, two grand juries came to the same conclusion: no probable cause to go forward with a trial. The message could not be any clearer that in the eyes of the law, and especially law enforcement, Black men and women have no rights that officers are bound to respect.

THE IMPACT of these cases, coming within days of each other, produced a genuine crisis in American policing, and its defenders are scrambling to hold onto whatever fraying threads of legitimacy remain.

In response to the resurgent wave of protests in Ferguson after the grand jury announcement, there was an unprecedented meeting that brought grassroots anti-police brutality activists into the same room with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder. Out of this and other discussions, Obama emerged with a proposal he hopes will restore confidence in law enforcement, including a pilot program for 50,000 police to wear body cameras, a review of how local police departments utilize military equipment, and a new commission to study policing and community relations.

The announcement from the White House barely had time to make a ripple before the non-indictment of Eric Garner's killer reduced the plan to a pile of junk. In one stroke, the idea that body cameras could make a difference in whether a police officer would be held responsible for the death of an innocent and unarmed person collapsed--and with it, the centerpiece of Obama's proposed reforms.

The focus on body cameras assumes that the reason violent and brutal police aren't punished is because of the absence of visual evidence or proof. But this has nothing to do with it, as the Eric Garner case makes crystal clear. Instead, violence in American policing goes unpunished because the criminalization of Black people has legitimized brutality, humiliation, incarceration and even murder as reasonable practices.

That Obama and Holder have launched initiatives to address policing in Black communities, and yet phrases like "racial inequality," "mass incarceration" and "racial profiling" are never invoked, raises questions as to whether this is a serious inquiry or a stalling mechanism designed to give the impression that action is being taken, when in reality, they are simply buying time in the hopes that Black Americans will cool off.

In fact, it is impossible to imagine any serious response to police brutality in Black communities not involving the undoing of the so-called "war on drugs" and all of the resulting effects of mass incarceration.

The cumulative impact of these policies has cemented the public perception that all working-class African American men and women are suspicious and worthy of close scrutiny and surveillance. Police transform these perceptions into policy, as Black communities are targeted and suffer overwhelmingly disproportionate rates of "stops and frisks," frivolous arrests and other engagement that can only be described as harassment.

This is the essence of the "broken windows" theory of policing--first pioneered in New York City during the first reign of current police chief William Bratton, but now practiced across the country.

The "theory" is that if low-level offenses are aggressively policed, more serious offenses will be deterred. In reality, this approach to policing has criminalized entire communities, leading to thousands of frivolous arrests that ruin people's lives.

Moreover, policing in the neoliberal era relies on all sorts of statistics that document the rise and fall of crime and incentivize the manipulation of numbers to shape the perception of crime-fighting in a given locality. Politicians regularly invoke arrest numbers, crime rates (when they're going down) and other supposed markers of "crime-fighting" as evidence of their competence--big city police chiefs parlay these statistics into pay raises and political capital. They are all getting fat off the destruction of the lives of the young Black men and women who are the overwhelming victims of American policing and unjust practices in the wider judicial system.

NONE OF the reforms that Obama and Holder at the federal level or New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are suggesting will do anything to address these systemic issues. Instead, Obama's commission on policing in the 21st century is likely to produce many of the same "reforms" that created the problems in the first place.

The commission is to be led by former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson and Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey. These two particular people at the helm of a commission aimed at curbing errant police conduct in Black communities is akin to putting the fox in charge of investigating a rash of attacks on chickens. It's literally absurd.

All one needs to know about Robinson is that she worked in the Department of Justice for seven years during the Clinton administration, when the U.S. became known as the "incarceration nation." Under Clinton, the federal and state prison populations rose faster than under any other administration in American history--the rate at which Black people were incarcerated tripled.

As an assistant attorney general, Robinson will have had her fingerprints all over Clinton's signature crime legislation, which included the immoral and racist expansion of the use of the death penalty, as well as adopting the "three strikes and you're out" sentencing rule that helped to explode the prison population across the nation.

As for Ramsey, the idea that any law enforcement official from Philadelphia could have any meaningful contribution to the national discussion on curbing police brutality and racism in Black communities is an affront to common sense.

Philadelphia is, of course, home to a police union that remains committed to using its resources to keep Black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal behind bars. It is also where the police participated in the bombing of MOVE activists, a Black counterculture organization, in the 1980s.

Aside from these spectacular examples of police misconduct and racism, there is the daily targeting of Black communities, which has, to take just one example, led to disproportionate rates of arrest and imprisonment for nonviolent drug offenses. Despite the fact that Blacks and whites use marijuana at relatively the same rate, Blacks were four times more likely to be arrested and charged with possession. According to one study, of the adults arrested in 2012 for marijuana possession, 3,052 were Black, compared to 629 whites.

What is Charles Ramsey's role in this? Even though the Philadelphia City Council voted to ease laws criminalizing pot possession, Ramsey spent last summer insisting that his police department would continue to arrest people for possession. His public statement: "I am not in favor at all of any form of [marijuana] legalization...We still have to treat [marijuana possession] as a misdemeanor until we are told otherwise by state law...State law trumps city ordinances."

Finally, since Ramsey became chief of police in 2008, the city of Philadelphia has paid out $40 million to settle lawsuits involving wrongful shooting deaths, illegal searches or excessive force complaints.

Just last May, Philadelphia was forced to pay $14 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit against police that involved 128 plaintiffs. In 2012, the city negotiated deals on several different cases of police misconduct, at a cost of $8 million. As one lawyer who successfully sued the city explained about Philly police, "The rank and file have no expectation that their behavior is ever going to be subject to any real, meaningful review...That becomes admissible evidence that shows the city is not properly supervising and disciplining officers."

What on earth does the Philadelphia police department have to teach the nation about ending racism and brutality in American policing?

THIS IS a crisis that won't go away. As the U.S. continues to assert its authority internationally, the ugly fact of white police officers murdering and abusing Black men and women looms over American actions abroad. It renders hollow the kind of rhetoric that Barack Obama employed when he framed the new U.S. war on ISIS back in September, saying:

[O]ur endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia, from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East, we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These are values that have guided our nation since its founding.

These comments didn't fit reality then, but today, they are completely absurd. The U.S. has not an ounce of credibility when it comes to any discussion about freedom, justice and dignity.

At home, Obama has directly inserted himself into this crisis, and in doing so, he is raising the expectations of African Americans that he will finally use his office to do something other than chastise Black people. Talking about the Eric Garner case, Obama said, "We are going to take specific steps to improve the training and the work with state and local government when it comes to policing in communities of color...We are going to be scrupulous in investigating cases where we are concerned about the partiality and accountability that's taking place."

But the question remains how, when all the parties involved refuse to address the systemic issues involving criminalization, racial profiling and mass incarceration. How many more commissions and investigations are needed to come to the obvious conclusion that the police operate above the law, and that legal institutions generally view Black people, especially Black men, as expendable?

When the police and other state-sanctioned vigilantes are killing African Americans at a rate of one every 28 hours, people won't accept toothless reforms meant to quell anger while doing absolutely nothing to punish, imprison and disarm the real menace--the agents of the state who terrorize African American communities with impunity.

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