The call to “restore trust” is a racist fantasy, and pure political pandering. For candidates to earn our votes, we need substantive policy that dismantles the abuse of power.
During the first presidential debate, both candidates were asked what they’d do to address our country’s racial problems. Not surprisingly, neither candidate offered any substantive solution. Instead, they pivoted to a discussion about policing.
Channeling his inner Richard Nixon, Donald Trump called for “law and order,” a not-so-coded racial message that calls for increased policing of persons who are poor and/or of color, immigrants, or otherwise marginalized by the mainstream.
As NPR says, “Trump’s single-handed effort to revive the slogan ‘law and order’ is the key to creating the perception of a new crisis of crime and violence; it weaves together assaults by those he calls radical Islamic terrorists, inner-city thugs and illegals.” And let’s be clear: The Donald is not calling for a policy shift that will lead cops into dorms, cocaine apartments, and gated communities or police stings against tax cheats and Wall Street executives.”
But Hillary Clinton’s response was equally problematic, and similarly coded.
“We have to restore trust between communities and the police. We have to restore trust, we have to work with the police, we have to make sure they respect the communities and the communities respect them,” she said.
Two days before the debate, Clinton had said that the police shooting of unarmed Terence Crutcher in Tulsa was “horrible … just unbearable. And it needs to be intolerable.” Having given a nod to Black voters, especially those elusive millennials, who haven’t forgotten or forgiven her “super-predators” descriptor of Black people, the debate offered a moment for her to appeal to suburban women, those who fled the cities in fear of crime and disorder.
Clinton’s calls for “trust” echo a widespread argument that not only creates the illusion that the police and the people they prey upon are somehow equal participants but that each constituency bears an equivalent responsibility for the brutal scenarios.
Lawyers and pundits have been singing the same song, especially when police are the victims such as in Dallas. Iván Espinoza Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan legal organization that provides pro bono legal representation of victims of discrimination based on race or national origin in Boston and Massachusetts, said about the police shootings in Dallas, “We need those communities standing together. I hope that’s that they continue to do because what we need to do is have more bridges that connect our communities.”
In recent years, the Justice Department has held forums to examine what can be done to restore trust between police and communities of color. As former Attorney General Eric Holder wrote on the White House blog in 2015.
“With the launch of our National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, we’re striving to strengthen the partnerships between community members and law enforcement professionals at every level of government.
“Through the President’s groundbreaking Task Force on 21st Century Policing, we’re bringing law enforcement leaders and experts together to provide strong, national direction on a scale not seen in nearly half a century. And going forward, we intend to continue to use every tool at our disposal to enhance our capacity to combat crime while restoring public trust.”
Not surprisingly, several sheriffs and police chiefs are singing the same song. In the Detroit News article, “Experts Debate How to Restore Trust in Police,” Sheriff David A. Clark, Jr., of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, who is Black, chose to blame the community, saying that, “The discussion must start with addressing the behavior of people who have no respect for authority, who fight with and try to disarm the police, who flee the police, and who engage in other flawed lifestyle choices.” Clark, who oversees the Milwaukee County jail, where Terrill Thomas died of thirst, went on to say that he’d heard from officers across the country that the “constant bashing and maligning of the profession is starting to take its toll” on police morale.
The public focus on “trust” is part of the problem. There has never been a golden age between police and Black communities—that is just a racist fantasy that folks in positions of power like to push to maintain the illusion that oppressed communities are somehow as powerful as the police. The constant call for restoring “trust” makes injustice little more than a therapy session rather than the deeply entrenched structural imbalance that controls how police are deployed in communities of color. History tells us that policing in America has always been—and continues to be—designed to control Black bodies and behaviors, and knowing that, Black folks have been suspicious of law enforcement for centuries.
Southern states established police patrols to enforce the slave codes. The origins go back to the pre-Revolutionary era when laws in the 1630 and 1640s were passed to “apprehend, properly chastise, and send home” any slave found outside his master’s plantation. “The patrol system was thus a fundamental part of the evolving systems of control designed to institutionalize effective control of Blacks socially and economically,” according to Gladys-Marie Fry’s book Night Riders in Black Folk History. Slaves were kept under constant surveillance. Fear of patrollers, who could enter into their spaces without notice, who were empowered to chase and beat them mercilessly for recreation, defined this chapter in racial terrorism.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, new laws were passed to regulate the movement, freedom and lives of African Americans. These “Black Codes” criminalized everything from vagrancy, breaking job contracts, not showing up at work, possessing a firearm and “insulting gestures or acts”—all vaguely-defined offenses designed to keep Black folks in bondage. The police enforced these laws, and when Black folks went to trial with all-White juries, they were found guilty and sent to work in the convict-leasing system, another form of slavery.
And the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” program lauded by Trump is described by Khalil Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness, as “an old and enduring form of surveillance and racial control” stretching back to the “Black Codes” in every Southern state.
“Those codes were intended to use the criminal justice system to restrict the freedom and mobility of Black people. And if you crossed any line that they prescribed, you could be sold back to your former slave owner, not as a slave, but as a prisoner to work off your fine after an auction where you were resold to the highest bidder. It tells you something about the invention of the criminal justice system as a repressive tool to keep black people in their place,” Muhammad tells Bill Moyers in an interview. “And it’s still with us. It’s still with us, because ultimately, as a social problem, crime has become like it was in the Jim Crow South, a mechanism to control Black people’s movement in cities.”
Jim Crow also led to countless Black people being hanged, shot, or burned to death for being accused of disrespecting Whites, testifying in court, and not repaying their debts. Most Black men and teenagers, however, were lynched for accusations of rape, even when there was proof of a consensual relationship.
When lynchings began to decline in the early 20th century, court-ordered executions rose dramatically, especially for people of color. In the 2015 report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” the Equal Justice Initiative noted that African Americans were only 22 percent of the population in the U.S. South from 1910 to 1950, but accounted for 75 percent of executions.
Under Jim Crow, African Americans faced daily violence from the police, who were empowered to enforce the laws of the segregation. Jim Crow prevented Black people from entering areas designated as “White Only”—including but not limited to trains, buses, schools, parks, restaurants, stores, hotels, and medical facilities. It was the job of America’s “crime fighters” to enforce these laws.
Look no further than the protests of the Civil Rights Movement where White police used billy clubs, tear gas, attack dogs, and water hoses against Black people without any consequences. Those purported to “protect” and “serve” have always been about protecting and serving white supremacy at the expense of Black freedom, and Black lives.
Given this history, it isn’t surprising that many Black people don’t trust the police. And this isn’t simply about the history books. The past is the present. Today, we are bearing witness to nonstop viral videos of Black people being tasered, pepper sprayed, beaten, gunned down, while walking, standing, sitting, reading, working, and breathing while Black. Meanwhile, police are waging a public relations campaign to position themselves as victims.
The last three decades has witnessed an era of broken-windows policing, stop-and-frisk, the balancing of budgets through fines from arrests and court proceedings, and mass incarceration.
More recently, social media is saturated with posts and text messages from cops, officers wearing “I Can Breathe” and “Blue Lives Matter” T-shirts, and pictures of cops using drawings of Black men’s faces for target practice.
We’ve come to be all too familiar with cops planting guns, drugs and trumped-up charges on victims, tampering with body cams and/or police departments refusing to release body cam or dashboard cam footage of questionable police activity. According to one report, 80 PERCENT of Chicago’s police bodycams were sabotaged. So forgive me if I don’t trust the police. Trust is earned. And the police in Chicago and throughout the nation have earned my outrage, and that of so many others who rightfully protest the ongoing history of violence.
The proof is ubiquitous. The Department of Justice has or is currently investigating police departments in Albuquerque, Inglewood and Los Angeles, East Haven (CT), Miami, Boise, Baltimore, Missoula, New York, Newark, Ferguson, Portland (ME), Cleveland, Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle, and a host of other cities across this country for systemic civil-rights violations.
So this nonsense about “rebuilding trust” is based on the lie that “trust” ever existed in the first place. It gives the impression that it is Black peoples’ “bad attitudes” towards law enforcement that are at the root of the problem, rather than the institutional makeup and agenda of law enforcement itself. And this whole dynamic serves the purpose of devaluing Black life, undermining the concept of Black humanity, and maintaining a systemic status quo that guarantees keeping Black folks at the bottom.
This insulting illusion of “restoring trust” ignores the reality that the vast majority of these cases involving an African-American victim and a police offender never result in the officers being charged or convicted of the appropriate charge. All of this reminds us that Black lives aren’t valued, either in America’s criminal justice system, or in our everyday lives.
It’s painfully obvious that “trust” and “better relationships” are not the issue. Naturally politicians and police officials can’t address the real truths, so they continue to promote the dangerous fantasy that Blacks and the police are on equal footing, and that both sides have a responsibility to improve their interactions. That sitting down for a beer, that getting know one another, and that seeing the ‘goodness’ in each other hearts (never mind the fact that institutions don’t have hearts) will lead to peace.
If law enforcement officials are genuinely serious about building trust (because you can’t “restore” something that never existed in the first place), they can begin by:
1. Ending racial profiling.
2. Establish true police accountability.
3. Institute training for cops on how to de-escalate volatile situations rather than attacking, arresting or shooting people. Instead of seeing Blacks as “bad dudes” and as target practice, view Black people as human, as innocent-until-proven-guilty, rather than as living, breathing sources of target practice.
4. Stop using military-grade gear, weapons and vehicles—no more tanks and robot bombs.
5. Get rid of arrest and ticketing quotas as a measure of effective policing.
6. Tear down the Blue wall.
Until then, political candidates can spew all the rhetoric they want about restoring trust. Each and every time they mention “trust” as something that once existed and needs only to be “restored,” they are displaying their willful ignorance about the history of racism and policing in this nation.
We can barely catch our breath between viral videos and hashtagged names on the ever-growing list of Black casualties at the hands of police. The next time you hear someone in power mention “trust,” remind them it’s all just a hustle until we hear an actual plan backed up by viable policies that will protect our communities and not the men in blue, who are already well protected. Enough with the vague pandering promises that are never realized: Until these candidates recognize our humanity, the rhetoric baiting our votes ain’t worth shit.
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