Whenever a black, brown or Muslim person commits a crime, pundits spend the next news cycle trying to diagnose what it is about those communities that produces such violence. White Americans are so convinced the problem is with the groups themselves, and not individuals or social forces, that they elected a president who wants to ban all Muslims, build a wall to keep out immigrants, and instill law and order in black neighborhoods.
Yet when a police officer kills an unarmed citizen, media presents the officer’s side of the story; digs into the victim’s past for any evidence of wrongdoing, no matter how petty; and urges the public not to turn against law enforcement. When the officer is truly indefensible, he’s cast as a bad apple. But if there’s any group in America whose violence needs to be examined on a systemic level, it’s the police.
People of color know that police violence is nothing new. Some of the earliest citizens deputized to maintain law and order were the slave patrols. As laws and the culture evolved, so too did the police force, and now members of every race and creed wear the badge. Still, white supremacist infiltration of police forces, too many incidents of cop-on-black crime, and a lack of justice for the victims suggests the problem goes far beyond a few bad apples.
Recently released video of a 2015 incident at Woodland Hills High School in Pennsylvania shows an officer pull a seated, black 14-year-old out of his chair, place him in a chokehold, and drag him out of camera view. The kid lost a tooth and was charged with resisting arrest. He was never even able to comply as the officer manhandled and threw him around. Other students have since come forward with stories of abuse.
On April 29, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards was killed by Dallas area police as he and his friends left a party. Police Chief Jonathan Haber initially justified the killing. After watching the body cam footage, Haber reversed himself. The officer who killed Edwards has since been charged with murder, but it’s indicative of police culture that his chief issued a false statement before reviewing even the most basic evidence.
This gets to a core problem with police culture: the blue line. It’s become the symbol of police brotherhood and unity, emblazoned on flags and bumper stickers. But what it means in practice is that police have adopted a mafia-like code of silence. Good cops don’t rat out the bad for fear of crossing the blue line, and killer cops are defended and supported.
Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in North Charleston. There, in 2015, officer Michael Slager shot an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, in the back as Scott attempted to flee. Slager then attempted to frame Scott by placing a weapon on his body. It was all caught on camera. Despite the incontrovertible evidence and Slager’s own guilty plea, someone posted a “Blue Lives Matter” billboard near the scene of Slager’s crime.
Blue Lives Matter has been the police response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which protests the extrajudicial killing of black people by police and racial inequities more generally. Conservative reactionaries have labeled Black Lives Matter a hate group. But this police backlash is another problematic component of the blue line.
When an officer kills an unarmed person, abuses a child, or allows someone in their custody to die, no one should be more outraged than good cops. They are supposed to be the pillars of justice, and such violence is clearly an injustice. Police brutality also casts a dark shadow over their entire profession. Instead, spokespeople for police lash out against critics and the media. With Blue Lives Matter they mock the real grievances of Americans they are sworn to protect.
One of the most gratuitous acts of police violence happened to Graham Dyer, a 110-pound, 17-year-old white kid who was tripping on LSD when he died in the custody of Mesquite, Texas police. For years, the details of his death were hidden from his family. When the department was finally forced to release video, it revealed police tortured and taunted the teenager. One officer used a Tazer on Dyer’s testicles and told him, “Motherfucker, I’m going to kill you.” The case involved multiple officers and a high-level cover-up. It is as sure an indictment of the blue line as can be.
If police want the public to believe these actions don’t represent their profession, they should direct their hostilities and resources at the bad cops – not at those who expose them and not at black people proclaiming their right to exist. Departments must expel racists and sociopaths from their ranks. Grand juries must determine whether a killing was justified, not an internal review. Small-town police should demilitarize their forces.
Some precincts are hearing the outcry and making some of these changes. But the prospect for meaningful reform under the Trump Administration is bleak. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has promised to roll back Justice Department scrutiny of civil rights abuses. Many of the relevant cultural issues are centuries-old, including white paranoia about black crime. America must radically rethink not just policing, but its very notion of justice.