I was recently at a Roll for Justice rally in support of Black Lives Matter. The speaker said, and I am paraphrasing, “People are mad about us protesting, rioting, burning buildings. Have any of them thought about how they would feel to be descended from people who were bought, mutilated, raped, and murdered without consequence?” I think it’s an interesting question, because I believe that many people know that this happened, but don’t really believe it. A weird mental state to be sure, but it definitely seems to be the case. The fact of the matter is that many Black people in the United States have relatives that were bought and sold like farm equipment, but were treated far worse. Farmers don’t beat their tractors to death.
It’s more than that though. Not only were their ancestors enslaved, but the government never actually did anything to rectify the fact they were enslaved. Some people who owned enslaved humans were compensated, a select group in Washington D.C. were given $300 for each enslaved human being that was freed. A far bigger injustice was that every person who had been enslaved was supposed to receive 40 acres, in order to help them overcome the insanely horrible conditions in which they had been brought or born into the United States. The land was supposed to come from the former estates of Confederate soldiers, who were all obviously guilty of treason. However, Lincoln was murdered and his successor, Andrew Johnson, reversed the order. He actually gave the land back to the confederate soldiers who had unsuccessfully waged war on the United States. Those people who had been enslaved recieved nothing at all.
So that’s the start of Black people living freely in the United States. After 246 years of slavery, during which time they had no capacity to save money, acquire land, gain a traditional education, they were simply told, “Good luck!” The government didn’t even officially apologize for slavery until 2008.
1865 to 1965 were also horrible. Black people were disenfranchised at every opportunity. Jim Crow laws, redlining, discriminatory hiring practices, segregation, all completely legal means of making sure Black citizens gained as little ground as possible towards any kind of actual equality. Other tactics, such as lynchings, cross burnings, race massacres, were not officially legal, but they were winked at by the entire judicial system. In Tulsa, in 1921, an entire Black neighborhood was burned to the ground and over 300 human beings were murdered. Not a single person was punished to any extent whatsoever.
That’s the backdrop, I could go on and on, but I won’t. It suffices to say that discrimination against Black people has been the law for a longer than it hasn’t. The police were designed to protect property owners from people without property, and because of the laws of our country white men have always been property owners, while Black people have rarely been. Therefore, by proxy, for a long time the police existed to protect white people from Black people. This function continues to influence the way in which Black people are treated by the police.
In the last few years lots of people have started to notice the rate at which unarmed Black people are killed by the police. It’s a welcome development, but it bears repeating that this is not a new problem. It’s a problem as old as law enforcement itself. All that is new is that, with the advent of every human being having a camera, these interactions are far more often caught on film, and shared with the world.
The speaker at that rally shared with the crowd that whenever she is driving, and a police officer is behind her, she becomes nervous. She sweats. She wonders if she is going to be the next hashtag, if her parents will ever see her alive again. I am not Black, so I have to imagine this reality. I also get nervous around the police, but I do not have this degree of fear, because history suggests that as a white male, I’m going to be fine. In fact, history suggests that as a white male, I could kill a dozen people, and still expect to be treated respectfully by the police. That is a big fucking problem.
A colleague for mine once made the moronic argument that being upset at the police for isolated incidences of violence is like being made at teachers for isolated instances of molestation. She, an idiot, didn’t recognize the fact that if a teacher is caught molesting a student, that teacher will be fired, arrested, tried, prosecuted, and likely face prison time. Police officers, on the other hand, kill people with impunity. The phrase, “I feared for my life,” seems to be all it takes for a case to be dismissed. USA Today, hardly a bastion of liberal apologists, determined that police had killed 25 unarmed Black men in 2019 alone. They also found that the police kill around 1,000 people every year, and yet, since 2005, there have only been 3 police officers convicted of murder. The numbers just don’t make sense.
Many of these unarmed Black people who have been murdered by the police were doing absolutely nothing wrong at the time of their murder. It should be noted, of course, that even if they had, the police are not supposed to murder anyone.
George Floyd was being detained, he wasn’t resisting arrest, the cop simply chose to kneel on his neck until he died. George Floyd was executed on the street while three other officers told onlookers to move along. The officers were arrested, and are awaiting trial. Three of the four officers are currently out on bail.
Breonna Taylor was asleep, the cops had come to issue an arrest warrant for a drug dealer. That drug dealer was not Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend, and he did not live at Breonna Taylor’s house, and he had already been arrested. That man was in custody when this happened. The cops didn’t announce they were officers, tried to ram down the door, and her boyfriend acted in the protection of his household with a legally owned firearm. He is still alive. Not one cop has been arrested in connection with this case.
Atatiana Jefferson was standing in front of her window. Someone had called the cops to let them know her door was open, the police saw someone in the window, and just shot her. The officer has been indicted, but there has not yet been a trial.
Stephon Clark was holding a cell phone. The Sacramento police force shot him 20 times. No officer was arrested.
Philando Castile, with his girlfriend and daughter in the car, had informed the officer of a legally owned firearm in the car during a traffic stop. Philando then reached for his wallet to give his ID to the officer, and the officer shot him dead. The officer was acquitted of manslaughter.
Alton Sterling was pinned to the ground by another officer. He was shot six times while utterly unarmed and entirely defenseless. No officer was arrested.
The list goes on, and on, and on. Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Charleena Lyles. So many dead, so few police officers facing any kind of consequences.
So, civil servants have gained such power that they can do just about anything they want without punishment. The law must be changed, police officers must be held to a higher standard of conduct than that if they are scared, they can kill whoever they want. Nurses and therapists don’t just get to kill people when they are scared, social workers don’t get to, teachers don’t get to. it is doubtful that people in those professions wouldn’t even if they could, because they recognize their role as a helper. They do not go into situations believing they are judge, jury, and executioner. That is exactly why people in those professions, among others, need to be hired in place of the police.
It should be noted that the budget of a police department is always a significant portion of a city’s budget. Seattle, for example, has allocated $409,000,000 for the police in 2020. This is 27% of their General Fund, $1,500,000,000, which the amount of money they spend on all administrative activities. The Seattle City Council has recently voted to reduce that budget by half, and spend the money in other ways. Outside of replacing the police with qualified professionals in particular scenarios, another way to spend the money is to reduce the causes of crime in the first place.
Mental health is of primary concern here. If people with mental disabilities, addictions, trauma, depression, and more were able to access mental health professionals, the resulting reduction in crime would be extraordinary. a 2006 study conducted by the US government on their own inmates showed that 61% of citizens in state prison suffered from a mental illness, and a staggering 74% suffered from some kind of dependence or substance abuse. Imagine if these people were actually able to get help for these issues. This also, of course, calls into consideration the astounding injustice of our healthcare system. Taking money from the police to fund subsidized health care workers.
For example, Janisha Fonville was killed when the police arrived for a mental health check, and then the police got scared and killed her. Why would the police be sent? They have no qualifications enabling them to deal with such a situation. The city ought to employ therapists for such a call. Anytime someone is suicidal, or there is an argument between couples, or a person is talking to themselves in public, the police have nothing to provide. Again, they exist to protect property. Give this job to someone qualified to handle it, a licensed therapist. Had Janisha had regular access to a therapist in the first place, an intervention may never have been necessary.
Another issue that leads directly to crime is homelessness, often directly correlated with mental disabilities and addiction issues. Providing housing for people suffering on the streets should not seem like an extreme idea. Finland has reduced their homeless population by 38%, the only country in Europe in which homelessness is falling, and have actually ended sleeping on the street altogether. They did this through a Housing First initiative in which anyone who is homeless is given access to housing without condition. By first giving them the stability of a home, leading residents towards detox programs, employment, and community reintegration becomes far easier.
Education is another massive factor. The way in which we educate children must change. A whitewashed history is a significant issue in the first place, teaching any child who isn’t white that there ancestors gave no significant contribution to society, well, except for the guy who invented peanut butter, ingrains in them a feeling of being less-than. Furthermore the punitive measures enacted against children must change, especially when students of color are punished far more often than their white counterparts. Finally, what is being taught must change. The idea that every student is going to follow a similar path after high school is simply false. Giving every student an education grounded in their strengths and providing of pathways towards success will be far more successful than trying to cram every kid in the liberal arts major box. Yes, this will take a significant expansion of educational services. You are goddamn right. It is exactly what we need.
There are other, smaller, changes we could that would still have a significant impact. Philando Castille was pulled over for having a broken tail light before being murdered. We take it for granted that this happens, but why? Having a broken tail light isn’t an act of malice, it just happens sometimes, and given that we don’t generally walk behind our cars when it is on, we often only find out when the police pull us over. Instead, pay city employees who tend to the infrastructure of a city to also provide basic automotive services to its citizens. If you have a broken tail light, or a busted turn signal, or whatever, one of those white trucks pulls you over, instead of a cop, and then they fix the problem on the spot. No one pays an arbitrary fine, no one is at risk for being murdered, everyone gets home safely. Wouldn’t that be amazing? It sounds crazy, but it’s crazy that it sounds crazy! This is what tax money is supposed to do, help citizens.
This is just a small part of what it might mean to defund the police. It would mean funding so many other aspects of our social network that desperately need it, and actually giving help to people in need, instead of treating incarceration as a panacea. Its time we start holding our governments accountable for our well being by imploring that they fund the actual services needed to give every one of our citizens the chance to pursue happiness, be free, and achieve success. It would be to the benefit of each and every one of us, and the time is long past due. Defund the police. Now.