Systemic racism and the origins of police brutality

Something is wrong with the United States police. How can an institution that claims to protect its community be oppressing, tormenting and killing without being punished?

In May 2020, protests took over America’s major cities to denounce police brutality and racial bias in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He was a 46-year-old black man who died at a police officer’s hands after allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Some of the protestors’ placards read “ACAB”, which stands for “All Cops Are Bastard”, or the PG-13 version “All Cops Are Bad”. People use this acronym to denounce the abusive and racist law enforcement system in the United States of America. How can police brutality be historically linked to systemic racism but still faces denial from a number of US citizens?

You might all be familiar with the recent cases of US police brutality and their use of force toward Black Americans. But unfortunately, the American police have a history of killing black people. This anti-black culture in law enforcement has roots dating back to the antebellum era in the Southern states with the creation of the Slave patrols, organized groups of white men armed to monitor and discipline enslaved people of African descent. Doesn’t it sound vaguely familiar? A group of white men armed who have the liberty to monitor and punish Black people on US soil. A person who uses the title given to them to legally kill and use the same title to avoid any of the consequences for their blunder, even being protected from it. And the unspoken rule among law enforcement personnel that says: “We protect our own” shows that it is not only a particular officer’s pattern but an entire culture that condones this behavior.

You might say that the police kill more white people, as Donald Trump stated in an interview with CBS News. When asked about Black people dying because of Law Enforcement, he responded, “So are white people. So are white people. […] More white people, by the way. More white people.”

It is true. The police kill more white people. Statistics show that as of 2019, 406 white people were killed by the police, compared to 259 Black Americans. This argument only works on a surface level. It does not take into account the proportion of white and black people in the US. According to the United States Bureau, white people make up about 76% of the population compared to 13% for Black Americans. Therefore, if we proportionate the death rates to the population estimates by ethnic groups, we obtain a different result. This argument fails to acknowledge that black people are in fact killed at a higher rate than white people. Twice as much. Between 2015 and September 2021, the rate of police shootings being fatal for Black Americans stood at 37 per million of the population, compared to 15 fatal police shootings per million for white people.

Police secure a perimeter following a night of rioting sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 29,2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US.[AFP]

You might think, “not all cops are bad”. Or even “It’s just a few bad apples”. You are right. Not every single police officer is inherently racist and or a killing machine. We all know that it is common sense. But here, I am not judging the character of a human being but looking at the action of the police officer. They may be a good person, but they participate in the same system that continually persecutes and kills black people. They may be a good person, but they work for a system that keeps a deafening silence when it comes to acknowledging their crimes. They may be a good person, but they serve a system that perpetuates injustice and racism.

It is alarming that the argument that only some cops are racist is made with the sole purpose of contesting Black Americans’ experience with law enforcement. Most of the people who argue back with these arguments are only disagreeing to disagree—turning a blind eye by saying “not all cops” doesn’t change a thing about systemic racism.

Some people want to turn a blind eye to this matter. Some claim that black people aren’t dying at the hands of police officers. Others still claim that this is not an issue: they should try and tell Breonna Taylor’s family that the five fatal gunshots she received that night didn’t happen. They should tell Michael Brown’s parents that he didn’t get killed by Ferguson police officers. They should also tell Gianna Floyd that Derek Chauvin didn’t put his knee on her father’s neck – that her father gasping for air while whispering “I can’t breathe” as his last words before dying was just a figment of her imagination, an exaggeration of the media.

A protester clenches her fist as she stands in front of German police officers following a Black Lives Matter vigil at Alexander platz square in Berlin, Germany 06 June 2020. EPA-EFE/OMER MESSINGER

Since George Floyd’s murder, officials have been trying to implement legislation to regulate police brutality. Minneapolis has engaged in putting fewer police officers in schools. New York City has become the first big city to ban qualified immunity for police officers who use excessive force. This ban allows a civilian to sue an officer who violated their rights. These changes that States have made as a response to the protests have happened on a small scale. At a national level, change is only performative. The same Minneapolis city that has engaged in lessening the number of police officers in schools spent 6.4M$ in recruiting other officers, though they promised to defund their police department.

Change needs to happen on a national level, in the constitution, regarding police brutality – to allow black people to breathe. “To protect and serve”.

Mariama. C


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