Police reform is simultaneously vitally important and relatively useless. Vitally significant: as Ijeoma Oluo demands, we need to work for police reform “every day like your life depends on it – ours actually does.” And relatively useless, because policing in America is embedded in and represents a culture and society that remain deeply racist and that culture and society must change or no police reform will succeed.
I started to write a post about policing and reform. That’s not enough. Police reflect the society that gives them guns and tanks and armor them and sends them out like armies of occupation. So I decided to write two posts: one about police reform, which is needed, and a second about why police reform will not (by itself) solve anything.
In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates give what may be the best description I have read of the roots of police problems:
“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to represent them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies – the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects – are the product of democratic will.” (p. 78)
Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza, interviewed in Essence, echoes the critique of police reform efforts:
“I think that it’s really difficult, this framing around “good cops” and “bad cops.” Policing as a system is incredibly corrupt, period. There are people inside of these departments who want to reinstate a level of integrity into those departments and they should be commended. But they cannot do that on their own. So, the first thing that I would suggest is that we stop doing this framing around good cops and bad cops and really address the fact that policing as a whole in this country is deeply, deeply corrupt and cannot be reformed.”
Diamond Reynolds, the friend of Philando Castile who was with him when he was killed, described the police officer who shot him as “crying, frantic, very nervous.” That cop’s lawyer and at least one former teacher at Mankato State University have defended him as a good person. And maybe that’s a defense that can be made. But the system of policing sets police against the people they stop, tells police that black men, in particular, are dangerous and to be feared, and teaches them that they must control every situation and that guns are the ultimate form of control. The New York Times Magazine published an article about how police see people and how they train us to see them:
“In a vacuum, it isn’t natural to pre-emptively shoot people to death, just as, in a vacuum, it isn’t natural to keep your gun trained on a person who has been rendered incapacitated and is bleeding out before you. This is specialized behavior, the sort expected from military forces entering unfamiliar war zones. … In such an environment, the burden of not killing is lifted from the soldiers, and local people are tasked with the burden of not provoking death.
“In a vacuum, the United States of America is not a war zone. Falcon Heights, Minn., is not a war zone. Dallas is not a war zone. The nation’s thruways are not war zones. In a vacuum, police officers shouldn’t kill the very citizens they swear to protect. But the police, especially officers who commute to patrol communities not their own, are — or can act very much like — an occupying force. “
Seeing one another— cops and civilians, white people and black people — is essential to our future. Michael Eric Dyson wrote eloquently this weekend about the need to change our way of seeing:
“At birth, you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class. In fact the greatest privilege that exists is for white folk to get stopped by a cop and not end up dead when the encounter is over.”
“The problem is you do not want to know anything different from what you think you know. Your knowledge of black life, of the hardships we face, yes, those we sometimes create, those we most often endure, don’t concern you much. You think we have been handed everything because we have fought your selfish insistence that the world, all of it — all its resources, all its riches, all its bounty, all its grace — should be yours first, and foremost, and if there’s anything left, why then we can have some, but only if we ask politely and behave gratefully.”
That failure to see, that failure to challenge our white minds and hearts to understand and feel what happens to black people in America is deadly.
“Yet black people will continue to die at the hands of cops as long as we deny that whiteness can be more important in explaining those cops’ behavior than anything else.”
Police reform is essential, but not enough, not half enough. We need to continue to push for police reform, but more importantly, we need to re-form our hearts and minds, to re-commit to the battle against racism and hatred, and to re-affirm our common humanity. That means thinking, talking, writing, marching, protesting … finding some way to move ahead. Listen to Michelle Alexander, author of the bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:
“I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. I know that I am not alone. But I also know that the families of the slain officers, and the families of all those who have been killed by the police, would rather not be attending funerals. And I’m sure that many who refused to ride segregated buses in Montgomery after Rosa Parks stood her ground wished they could’ve taken the bus, rather than walk miles in protest, day after day, for a whole year. But they knew they had to walk. If change was ever going to come, they were going to have to walk. And so do we.”
- Following horrific violence, something more is required (Michelle Alexander)
- Death in black and white (Michael Eric Dyson in New York Times)
- Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza talks about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and how you can get involved in fighting injustice (interview in Essence magazine)
- How police see us and how they train us to see them (New York Times)
- A black police chief on the Dallas attacks (The Atlantic – much more than Dallas: includes a nuanced discussion of police community relations, race, and change)