With the George Floyd protests now spanning the entire United States, and even beyond, a disturbing pattern of police violence has been on display for all to see. Protests to call attention to an unjust killing and a pattern of racism have led to widespread chaos, with protestors often giving way to looters later in the night. In response, no matter the tenor of the protests, we’ve seen police all across the country respond with military-grade weaponry. If you wonder why this is happening or if you’re just catching up, we recommend what we always recommend: listen to a few great podcasts. Being educated on this topic of police brutality, especially toward minorities, is more important now than it ever has been.
These actions even have caused many to question police tactics, even as others turn a blind eye and claim that the behavior of law enforcement has been justified, Police are supposedly in place to “serve and protect.” Most do. What has happened to the others?
Police Brutality in 2020
In the current circumstance, nearly every day a new story pops up of a protestor being beaten, shot with rubber bullets, or maimed by tear gas. A 75-year-old man suffered brain damage after being shoved to the ground in Buffalo, a 22- year-old Ohio woman died after exposure to tear gas at a peaceful protest.
Police brutality and the politics around it have been in the zeitgeist since the early days of our country, but since the 1960s, police have been militarized. While Black citizens have often been at the wrong end of a police officer’s nightstick or gun, there has been an increasing number of cases of police brutality toward people of color in the early 2010s. The NPR podcast Codeswitch discusses this in its episode A Decade Of Watching Black People Die, and discusses the dynamics of the currents protest in Bonus Episode: ‘Not Just Another Protest’
American society has experienced a continued progression of race relations, especially since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When Barack Obama ran for office and won in 2008, some intellectuals theorized that the US was a post-racial society where prejudice and discrimination were a thing of the past. Blocking of his programs and racist rumors about his heritage proved that this was not true. Even during his presidency, there were many cases of police actions deemed racist, including:
- 2012 Trayvon Martin who was murdered by a neighborhood watch member.
- 2014 Michael Brown at the hands of a 28-year-old police officer in Ferguson, Missouri
- 2014 Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy was shot by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio, when the boy drew what proved to be a toy gun
- 2014 Eric Garner, killed in Staten Island, New York after an officer put a choke old on him
- 2016 Philandro Castile, who was shot during a traffic stop in St. Anthony, Minnesota
Police Brutality Widespread in 2020
As the Reveal podcast points out, following an outcry protesting the COVID-19, which disproportionately affected Blacks and protests against the quarantine by some, the nation was rife with discord leading up to the death of George Floyd. His death followed those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and after the disgusting video, so tension was due to break.
Police brutality has become a rallying cry for Blacks and other marginalized groups as well as young and liberal Americans across the countr to showcase “systemic racism,” or “systemic classism” – the thought that many American institutions are developed in such a way as to maintain marginalization. As many Americans reject other institutionalized parts of the nation, systemic racism is one of the first that has to go.
Listen to the episode “The Uprising” for the details,
The History of Police Brutality
Of course, police brutality is not a new issue. The concept of systemic racism is an acknowledgment of the deep-rooted history of police racism. To cover this, we should walk backward a bit. We’ll start with recent history and dig deeper from there. The podcast CrimethInc. is good to use for this journey,
“Stop and Frisk” laws, formalized in the 1990s, allow the police to stop and perform a rudimentary search on any reasonable suspicion of a crime. Police did not have to specify a specific crime. These laws were used disproportionately to stop Black Americans.
Before even then, the police enforcement of Jim Crow laws heightened tensions leading in. Police played a similar role sometime later during the development of the prison industrial complex. In both cases, we saw police enforcing laws that many didn’t agree with. Racism always played a part in enforcement, as The Economist discussed this on their podcast.
Finally, American police have always had seeds in racism. Many are quick to bring up that the earliest American police forces were developed not to enforce the law, but instead to wrangle runaway slaves. These forces were civilian for some time, a job shared with early white supremacist groups, until being fully adopted by local governments. Modern police departments still have this in their DNA.
Racist actions have led to minorities viewing the police as “ACAB.” While the “B” is often misinterpreted as “Bad,” the statement is meant to be: “All Cops Are Bastards.” The police are not regarded as instruments of civilian service. but are instead seen as enforcers on behalf of government institutions that are either corrupt or inherently racist.
A modern history of a code of silence, officers being too militant, and untrained officers on power trips is born from this deep history. There is a sense of enmity between police and civilians that has been fostered for hundreds of years. We’ve seen this even throughout the protest, as an entire task team stepped down in support of the two officers who were terminated in Buffalo. Police are seen as a gang by some, and seen to operate that way since America’s inception.
More from NPR on the history of the police and their race relations on Throughline.
How Police Reform Can Work
For many people, the unrest has not been the most difficult part of recent news. For many people, the easy militarization of the police has been unsettling. The natural question for them is, “why do the police have these weapons at the ready?”
This has led to two new rally cries: “Defund the Police,” and “Abolish the Police.” These ideas sound more radical than they are and require a bit more inspection to fully understand.
“Defunding the police” posits that that the budget of a police force should be proportional to its use to a community. It is not a suggestion to cut police spending down to 0.
Defunding would redirect money towards other aspects of the community. In many cities, the police budget outnumbers education and housing budgets by a significant margin. The idea is that better educated and thriving communities would commit less crime.
“Abolishing the police” is not attempting to remove law enforcement entirely. Instead, it looks at the many roles that police officers fill and asks if there is a better way to fill those roles. Police officers are best equipped for violent crime, in spite of violent crime making up a small portion of crime in most cities.
This idea has been rejected by many conservatives and not entirely without reason, as exhibited on The Rubin Report. Notably, many of the voices speaking along with it imply that tearing down the police is anti-American. Congress members on NPR’s On Point refute this concept.
However, there are less drastic measures to which both sides seem more likely to compromise. One of these is the idea of a Citizen’s Review Board, which would have citizens involved in decisions regarding the police department. This would be a stopgap for issues of police officers with repeat offenses.
8 Can’t Wait, a moderate liberal group, follows similar patterns of thought. They want to remove the ability of police officers to perform actions that increase the likelihood of police brutality. Choke holds, for example, would be a fireable offense. We are already seeing many states began to adopt these ideas.
We are living through a tumultuous and confusing time. Without staying glued to the news and a ton of prerequisite reading, it can be hard to know what’s going on. Undoubtedly, there are ideas you’ll like and ideas you won’t. However, sifting through both to find the truth of the past and intelligence in the future is necessary to being part of today’s political landscape.
With so many phrases and concepts being thrown around, it can be hard to keep up. Hundreds of years of history are being brought to light, and many ideas of reform are being suggested. There’s a lot to learn, a lot to feel, and a deep mourning across the nation.
These are the podcasts that will help you form your opinions and lay a foundation of knowledge.
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