The Sharp Edge of American Racism
In April, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, spoke in Chicago about why police violence has returned to the center of anti-racist activism. The text of her talk, below, was first published in Socialist Worker.
Protests on I-94 in Minneapolis following the killing of Philando Castile. Via Unicorn Riot.
Why the issue of police brutality?
Police violence against Black people is not new. In 1951, a multiracial contingent of activists in the Civil Rights Congress raised the slogan "We charge genocide" to characterize the depth and consequences of police murder and the silent complicity of the state. The preamble of their petition read, in part:
There was a time when racist violence had its center in the South...Once most of the violence against Negroes occurred in the countryside, but that was before the Negro emigrations of the twenties and thirties. Now there is not a great American city from New York to Cleveland or Detroit, from Washington, the nation's capital, to Chicago, from Memphis to Atlanta or Birmingham, from New Orleans to Los Angeles, that is not disgraced by the wanton killing of innocent Negroes.
It is no longer a sectional phenomenon. Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman's bullet. To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.
Today, there is no shortage of issues that Black people in this country could mobilize around. But police brutality remains the catalyst for Black protest because it is the clearest example of the compromised citizenship of Black people. When the police can approach you, search you, arrest you and even kill you with impunity, it means you don't have first-class citizenship — you have second-class citizenship.
This second-class citizenship, and its sharp conflict with what the United States says about itself, is what drives the radicalization of young Black people and others who know it to be true. In other words, we as a nation are always told that this is the greatest country on earth. We believe in "American exceptionalism" and the promises of unfettered opportunity for anyone willing to work for it. We believe in the American Dream.
Just a few weeks ago Obama traveled to Cuba, where he said, "I believe that every person should be equal under the law...Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads...American democracy has given our people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and enjoy a high standard of living."
Obama likes to tout his own story and rise as a product of America's greatness, but what on earth do these words mean to the family of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police within 1.6 seconds arriving on the scene. What does it mean when the cops who killed him will not face charges?
What does it mean to Aiyana Jones, a 7-year-old girl sleeping on the couch in a house in Detroit, who was killed by police in a botched raid? What does it mean that those officers will not be punished?
What does it mean to Laquan McDonald's family? To Rekia Boyd's family?
But the movement has exposed what the vast majority of Black people in America know to be true — in inner cities across this country, there exists a police state, where the police are governed by a completely different set of rules; where they can kill, often with impunity; where they are empowered to do what they want, when they want, all with the intention of maintaining discipline and control over the country's Black population.
If you think this is an exaggeration then consider this: Since January 2015, American police have killed 1,405 people. According to the findings of a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on police homicides, in the years 2003-09 and 2011, American police killed 7,427 people.
That's an average of 928 people a year. If we include the last four years, American police will have been responsible for killing more than 11,000 people. In 2015, when the Guardian newspaper began to keep track of police killings, it found that young Black men aged 15 to 34 were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by the police.
Consider that 22 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan last year. Or that 25 people were killed by law enforcement in Canada in 2015. In the last 24 years, police in England and Wales have killed 55 people. By January 31 of this year, American police had killed 89 people. In Germany police killed no one in 2013 and 2014. China, with a population four and half times the size of the United States, recorded 12 police killings in 2014.
And this is only a fraction of what we know in the U.S. There are 18,000 police departments in this country, and only 1,000 of them bother to report to the federal government how many people they kill each year.
The New York City Police Department, for example, has not reported on how many civilians it has killed since 2007. The state of Florida does not report at all. So we have a very limited view of the extent of police homicide in the United States, and because of the lack of consistent tracking, we have no idea what proportion of these deaths are incurred by African Americans or Latinos.
The police in the United States have always been an oppressive institution, but these practices have become worse and more widespread recently. The increasing brutality of police has coincided with the attrition of the already weak American welfare state. The political establishment in its Republican and Democratic clothing is gutting our neighborhoods.
When you close public schools and mental health clinics, cut funding for public hospitals and public libraries; when you cut welfare, housing assistance and food stamps in the midst of a jobs crisis when there are already 50 million poor people in the United States; when you do these things, you are creating the conditions for crime. Policing has become the public policy of last resort, intended to contain crime to certain neighborhoods, not actually stop it.
For example, the section of Baltimore where Freddie Gray — whose death ignited the Baltimore Rebellion — lived, 21 percent of residents are unemployed; 25 percent of the buildings are abandoned and in a state of disrepair; life expectancy is six years shorter than in the rest of the city; 55 percent of families live on less than $25,000 a year; and 30 percent officially live in poverty.
Three weeks before Gray was killed, police were instructed to increase their presence and arrests on the corner Gray was picked up on. The police have been inserted where the rest of the state has failed its citizens.
This key role played by the police in governing our cities today means they are a protected class governed by a separate set of rules and regulations. This is why mayors and city council members regularly turn a blind eye to brutal policing. Brutal policing is simply the cost of doing business.
And the cost of doing business is quite high. In the city of Chicago alone, the city alone has spent $500 million over the last 10 years in settlements or payouts for lawsuits against the city for police brutality and wrongful death suits. The NYPD has averaged $100 million settlements for police brutality and wrongful death lawsuits each year, over the last decade adding up to $1 billion.
The 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out $248 million last year in settlements and court judgments in police misconduct cases, up 48 percent from $163 million in 2010. In the last five years, those same 10 cities have paid out $1.2 billion.
Any other public institution that incurred this kind of deficit would have its budgets and services shrunk or the institution is shut down. When the Chicago Board of Education claimed it was running a billion dollar deficit, it simply closed 52 public schools and never looked back.
Policing in the United States has nothing to do with crime. As activists and radicals, we don't deny that crime is an issue in the lives of working-class and poor people. But crime is a product of poverty and economic inequality.
We live in the richest country in the history of the world. If the United States wanted to end poverty in this country tomorrow, it could. Since the economy crashed in 2008, the federal government has spent close to $4 trillion in a bailout of the nation's financial sector. The federal government spent $438 billion to bail out Citigroup alone.
That $4 trillion could transform every school in the country, provide health care for all, provide housing for millions, end food insecurity and upend the kind of economic inequality that produces crime. But while it was determined that the banks were too big to fail, our public schools, hospitals and other vital institutions were and continue to be too insignificant to save.
Instead of money, wealth and other resources being dedicated to eradicating poverty, we get policing and more policing. And the logic of policing only begets more policing as elected officials create political value out of rising arrest rates and falling crime rates by aggressively tracking policing statistics and turning them into campaign fodder. Police are rewarded not for stopping crime, but for making arrests.
Finally, as revenue streams have tightened in American cities, as no American politician will take responsibility for raising taxes, law enforcement has become a de facto way for municipalities to raise funds on the backs of the politically weak and vulnerable. In Chicago, there are red light cameras, endless tickets, fines and fees. New York City profited $10 million a week from parking tickets. The city also made almost $1 billion a year in court and administrative fines.
These, of course, create incentives for the police to target people and entire neighborhoods as sources of income for the city. And encounters with the police of this nature, of course, drag people into the criminal justice system, thereby making it even harder to get a job or maintain any level of economic stability.
In other words, ending police terrorism also means recognizing it as the logical outcome of a brutal society that willfully turns a blind eye to inequality and injustice. It means that police brutality and murder are not the products of "bad police," but they are built into a system that actually has no solution to poverty, racism and inequality. Instead, the system and its representatives manage the products of inequality.
It is for this reason that there has never been a golden age of policing that any of us can point to as a place to get back to when the police were not violent and abusive. Such a period does not exist.
What then can we do? The systemic violence of the police does not mean that the movement is helpless. Our movement should fight for the resources and programs that would minimize the pretext for police in our neighborhoods — good-paying jobs with benefits, fully funded public institutions. Instead of paying for police, we should be paying to rebuild the public and civic infrastructure of our cities.
We should also be fighting to decriminalize the growing list of so-called offenses that serve no other purpose than to put people under the control of the criminal justice system: from the possession of marijuana, to feeding the homeless, to sleeping in your car, to begging for money. We have to end the American obsession with criminalization as a form of social control.
But perhaps most importantly we must continue to build the movement.
What does this mean in this era? At the end of the 1960s, it was almost a common sense that the Black movement should and would be all Black. But the most significant transformation in Black life in the last 40 years has been the emergence of intense class differences among African Americans, which in turn have given way to deep political differences.
As we come upon the one-year anniversary of the Baltimore Rebellion, there is not a better example of how these differences express themselves. Not only does Baltimore have a Black mayor, police chief and state's attorney, but this amassing of local Black power is happening within the context of the greatest concentration of Black political power in the nation's history.
Today, there is a Black president and a Black attorney general, not to mention the thousands of Black elected officials in cities and states around the country. There are 43 Black members of Congress — the highest number in American history.
It is clear that a layer of Blacks have been fully absorbed and integrated into American capitalism, and they, like the president, can be the most vociferous when denouncing poor and working-class African Americans.
African American Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake, prior to the rebellion in Baltimore, said, "Too many of us in the Black community have become complacent about Black-on-Black crime...While many of us are willing to march and protest and become active in the face of police misconduct, many of us turn a blind eye when it's us killing us."
Of course, she and Obama both referred to young Blacks in the rebellion as "thugs" and "criminals" — two words that were never used by the white officials of Ferguson. In other words, Black elected officials often help to narrate that experience of African Americans in ways that white elected officials could never get away with — by blaming Blacks through rhetoric that emphasizes culture and morality and irresponsibility as the source of Black inequality as opposed to racism and economic inequality.
This deepening chasm between the Black elite and the Black working class has made the question of class solidarity in the movement an important one. Historically, the Black movement has always been across class lines because of the all-encompassing nature of American racism. But as more Black elected officials are governing the cities and suburbs where Black workers live, it has created a deeper antagonism that frays the notion of solidarity between all Blacks.
When the Black mayor of Baltimore mobilizes the military to occupy the Black neighborhoods, while allowing whites to come and go freely ignore an imposed martial law for Blacks, the idea that we are all on the same side and in the same struggle is blown up.
Building a broader movement, then, means trying to bring together the many different groups who are impacted by police violence and who are often already involved in activist projects, like the undocumented and immigrant rights movement; and Arabs and Muslims who are actively fighting against Islamophobia and other forms of state-sanctioned violence.
There is even a basis for drawing working-class and poor whites into this movement as well. Compared to the rest of the world, white people are arrested at unprecedented rates in the United States. We know that police are many more times predisposed to killing Black and Latinos in the U.S., but the police have literally killed thousands of white people in the last 10 years. Moreover, the physical repression and crushing of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the winter of 2012 shows that the state is willing to do anything to maintain control in this society.
Black Lives Matter should look to deepen in some places and develop in other places relationships to the movement for educational justice and the movement to increase the minimum wage, as just two examples. Not only is this about drawing a more specific connection between the attacks on the public infrastructure, poverty and economic inequality as directly connected to abusive policing, but it also puts the movement in relationship with those who have the social power to shut down key aspect of the economy in ways that disproportionately threaten the economic health of the system.
One need look no further than the action called by the Chicago Teachers Union on April 1 to see the power of the organized working class. We can imagine a future of workplace stoppages in response to police brutality or police murder.
The need to build a larger movement is not something to suggest so that we can all get along or feel good about ourselves. It is really about coming to terms with the enormity of our task when we talk about ending police terrorism in our communities. For as much as the movement has accomplished in exposing the issue of police violence, we are right now witnessing the resilience and determination of the political establishment to protect criminal, killer cops:
— The refusal to indict Tamir Rice's killers;
— The decision to grant bail to the cop who killed Walter Scott;
— The embattled Rahm Emanuel putting in his personal puppet as police chief, who had the audacity to say that in his 27 years as a cop in Chicago he has never seen police misconduct;
— A recent decision to of a San Francisco judge to reinstate police officers who exchanged texts that declared "white power" and, among other things, "All niggers must hang" and "Niggers should be spayed...I just saw one with four kids";
— Granting bail to Jason Van Dyke, who killed Laquan McDonald;
— The Justice Department reinstating asset seizure as a practice;
— Thirteen months have passed and the 59 recommendations from Obama's police commission have yet to be implemented;
— The Chicago Police Department will not even fire Dante Servin;
— And American police have killed approximately 80 people a month since January.
The Political establishment, led by Barack Obama, is always willing to throw together a commission, invite activists to a roundtable, and unveil countless studies with the objective of creating the illusion that something is happening. And they try and convince the rest of us that "something" is progress.
But what we are confronting is the systemic, rooted and institutional feature of racism and oppression in this society and it requires a political strategy that can challenge it — but also look beyond it.
These are the things we can do now, but our goals of Black liberation cannot be measured only in units of reform and that which is possible today. The fight for real freedom requires the fundamental transformation of a society founded on genocide, which flourished because of slavery and thrives on economic inequality.
Last year was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and, with it, the first declaration of civil rights for African Americans. This year, we continue to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of the civil rights movement from the decade of the 1960s. But as long as the question of Black freedom is only ever asked within the context of this existing society, as long as it is posed as a question to today's existing political institutions, it will never be answered.
Simply put: We cannot vote or even protest our way into ending racism in a society where racial inequality and racial injustice is so tightly wound into the marrow of its bones. There is literally no period of time in its existence where Black oppression was not a key feature.
This is not a reason for despair, but a sober reminder of what exactly we are fighting for. What are the social forces that can lead a struggle for a new society based on freedom and justice? What are the politics necessary to shape the struggle for a new society? These are not new questions, but they are debates that have animated the struggle for Black liberation for as long as Black people have been struggling for freedom in the United States.
In 1967, King posed the question, "Where do we go from here?" After civil rights, how do we achieve Black and human liberation? He said:
We honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there 40 million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?...Your whole structure must be changed. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them--make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the author of From #BlackLives Matter to Black Liberation and writes on Black politics, social movements, and racial inequality in the United States. Her articles have been published in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, Jacobin, New Politics, the Guardian, In These Times, Black Agenda Report, Ms., International Socialist Review, Al Jazeera America, and other publications.