Get Rid of Racism in the American Police Force

Only a collective, powerful voice of the people is likely to put an end to structural racism in the police departments of many American cities.

The murder of George Floyd provoked a collective reaction with a force and volume that has already surpassed the protests which followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. This passionate protest movement in dozens of cities is part of a long history: that of organized protest against police brutality, which has been at the heart of Black American activism for a century.

In the early 1920s, the NAACP, the main organization for defending the rights of Black people, condemned the collusion between certain police departments and white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, then all powerful in the deep South. The leaders of the KKK wore a sheriff’s star by day, and a white mask by night. In the big cities of the North, it was the police officers, almost all of whom were white until the 1960s, who were accused of violence, like in Chicago in 1919, when they took part in racist attacks in the Black neighborhood.

Police Brutality

During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. did not hesitate to condemn violent and racist police officers. In his most famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he warned, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” The fight against segregation and violence had profound echoes in Africa.

In 1964, Malcolm X, who had then left the Nation of Islam, made a long journey which led him to Mecca, where he converted to Sunnism, and then to a large number of African countries where he met political representatives. As an observer, he also helped at the Cairo summit of the Organization of African Unity (the organization which preceded the African Union), in July 1964, where he demanded that the U.N. latch on to the cause of oppressed Black Americans. In a report released a few days ago, Moussa Faki Mahamat, president of the Commission of the African Union, rightly reminded us that, during that summit in Cairo, the U.N. reaffirmed its condemnation of discrimination faced by Black Americans.

In 1966, the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was motivated by police behavior, which armed activists patrolling Black neighborhoods had to physically counteract and fight back. Violent incidents between police and the Black Panthers multiplied. Huey Newton, one of the Black Panther founders, was accused of murdering a white police officer, John Frey, in October 1967. Many Black Panther activists, such as Fred Hampton in Chicago, were shot by the police.

Even though the Black Panther Party only attracted a limited part of the Black world, its activists were often thought of highly in the ghettos, which were infuriated by the arrogance of violent and sometimes corrupt police officers. After the race riots of 1967, almost all caused by an altercation between young Black men and the police, an American federal commission recommended recruiting Black police officers to change the racist culture of the American police force, among other measures. It was a good idea, but not enough. In Baltimore, three of the six officers blamed for the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 were Black.

Structural Racism

In addition to this recurring violence, we must also add the ordinary interactions between Black people and the police. Many African Americans have been caught in a hellishly vicious circle of arrest for relatively minor crimes, for unpaid and ridiculously inflated fines to prop up the municipal budget, and for driving with canceled driving licenses, leading sometimes to dismissal from jobs and deportation.

How can a population subjected to such treatment not rise up when, for good measure, a police officer coldly suffocates a man whose sole crime is being Black? The police departments in too many American cities are deeply rotten from structural racism that has ruined the lives of Black Americans for decades. Serious efforts have been made here and there, but we still have a very long way to go.

Faced with this intolerable situation in a large democracy, the federal government is relatively helpless. Yes, the attorney general can institute legal proceedings for the violation of civil rights, but the courts give police officers complete freedom to choose to use their weapons if they believe their life is in danger. Consequently, only a collective, powerful voice of the people is likely to change things. For example, making sure that Floyd’s killer is charged with murder, and not manslaughter.

An End to this Nightmarish Term

Two aggravating factors complicate the current situation. The first is the COVID-19 health crisis, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans, a quarter of which are African American. These people, particularly affected and grieving, often get the feeling that their lives count for less than others in the eyes of the authorities. Their social and professional situations, their health status and the cost of health insurance explain this sad trend.

The second aggravating factor is President Donald Trump himself, who, even before he was elected, reiterated his hostility for the Black Lives Matter movement, and has sent many a friendly nod to racist white supremacist movements. He has, in recent days, multiplied the number of venomous tweets about protesters, describing them as “thugs” and calling on police to force them back home.

While we expect strong and unifying words from a president, particularly in these difficult times, Trump does exactly the opposite. He tweets and he locks himself up in the White House. The end of his term, which is seeing a combination of a health crisis, economic crisis and further political crisis, is like a nightmare.

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