On Sunday afternoon, multiple police departments converged in Charleston, S.C. to break up peaceful protests calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality against black people. Their actions made another great case for why we must drastically reduce policing in our society, especially in communities of color that historically have been over-policed. Their response to a non-violent protest about police violence was pure and unnecessary brutality. It was both unbelievable and predictable.
The protest was one of many occurring from coast-to-coast in response to the murder of yet another black person by the police. This time in Minnesota. His name was George Floyd.
Police violence is an everyday reality for black people in America. April marked five years since the murder of Walter Scott by the North Charleston Police Department. Last month, a new video emerged of North Charleston police using excessive force against a young black man.
Following each of these acts of violence comes the usual calls for “reform” — more police training, more diverse police departments, getting rid of the so-called “bad apples,” more community-oriented policing and holding individual police officers accountable for their abuse of power.
We should have learned long ago that these “reforms” don’t work. They aren’t nearly enough to foster the systemic changes needed to drastically alter our policing institutions across the country. The only solution to the ongoing murder and other forms of violence against black people (and other people of color) by law enforcement is less policing. Less policing may sound radical to some, but it’s not. Policing does not make our communities safer — experts have noted that there is no correlation between the number of police and crime rates. If police don’t make our communities safer, and in fact perpetuate harm, why in the world do we have so many?
Throughout American history, our laws and political leaders have protected the oppressor over the oppressed — from punishing abolitionists instead of slave owners, to punishing opponents of mass incarceration and police violence instead of those who perpetuate it.
Police have been, and continue to be, a key mechanism for enforcing many of these racist and exploitative policies. The earliest example of organized city policing actually merged in Charleston, where a professional force of white free people formed to maintain control of black enslaved people living inside the city, to prevent them from organizing. This force was an entity whose explicit purpose was to maintain a racist social order against the will of whom it policed — it was a slave patrol. With the abolition of slavery, the role of police shifted from protecting the institution of slavery to protecting the revised political and economic hierarchy, with white people still the oppressor. This regime included enforcing some of the earliest versions of voter suppression, including poll taxes. In the decades since, police have enforced policies designed to exploit and destroy Black communities – from convict leasing, to Jim Crow, to the war on drugs.
Today, political leaders continue to use racist dog whistles like “law and order” and “tough on crime” to convince many that it is safer and smarter to prioritize policing and incarceration rather than things that will actually improve public safety and health, like ensuring all people have a roof over their head, comprehensive healthcare, a living wage, and quality public education.
Today, political leaders continue to use police to carry out their oppressive policies that undermine public safety and destroy black lives and communities. Our political leaders have turned police into society’s “solution” for drug use, misbehaving children at school, homelessness, mental illness and protests against these destructive policies, to name just a few.
While political leaders are responsible for these racist and exploitative policies, police departments are a major obstacle to real, substantive reform. The massive role of policing in American society is matched by their enormous budgets and massive lobbying power, which is used to grow their size and shield them from public scrutiny. Examples of this power are plentiful.
In response to the murder of Mr. Scott by the North Charleston Police Department, community members made a simple and common sense request — they asked the city to commission an independent, comprehensive racial bias audit. Five years after one of its officers murdered Mr. Scott, the City of North Charleston continues to successfully oppose this basic transparency. And this is not an anomaly — every legislative session brings fierce and usually successful opposition from police associations to bills proposing greater police transparency and accountability, or for that matter, legislation seeking to end the war on drugs and criminalization of the black community.
If our society truly wants to stop the murder and other forms of violence against black people by police, then the only solution is to divest from policing. It’s time to take the billions of dollars we pour into our police and criminal justice system each year and reinvest it into our communities. This will not fix all of our injustices, but it will be a major and necessary start.
The police violence our community witnessed on Sunday in Charleston — and what others have witnessed across our state and country this week — should be a wake up call to those who have been calling for more training or other so-called reforms to end police brutality. It won’t work.
The system isn’t broken — it’s working as it was designed. Coming to terms with that means recognizing that the system has to be completely dismantled so that black people can finally live freely and without fear in this country. It’s time to recognize that public safety and police don’t go together.
Frank Knaack is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
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