Police Violence Against Black People Will Only Stop When the Root Cause is Eliminated

Forty years ago, as a new immigrant to the US living in Miami, Florida, I witnessed my first anti-police riot. What triggered this riot was a black man, Arthur McDuffie riding his bike led police on a chase. When they caught up with him, he was brutally beaten into a coma by nearly a dozen white Dade County police officers. McDuffie eventually died from his injuries, which included a broken skull. His crime was running a red light. After all the officers involved were acquitted, Miami erupted in riots that lasted for over a week.

I witnessed the flames lighting up the night sky as Liberty City burned for about three nights. I was living in the Cedars Lebanon Hospital Tower and from the 12th floor I had a good view. Day three into the protest, I was standing on the side walk alongside the hospital observing the large protest group marching by. I hurriedly ran back to my apartment when a large stone came flying over my head and crashed into the window. Forty years later it seems that not much has changed as black people continue to lose their lives at the hands of the police.  

The long history of police violence against black people − Police violence against black people is not a new phenomenon in America.  Its history goes back to slavery up through the Jim Crow racism era when Bull Conner the Commissioner of Public Safety for Birmingham, Alabama ordered police officers to use fire hoses and police dogs to disperse black civil rights protestors.

Despite the dismantling of Jim Crow racism in the 60s, racism still persists. And since that time, police brutality (including the extra judicial killings) of black people have continued at an alarming rate.  In recent years, four such victims that gained national attention were the Eric Garner (July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, New York), Michael Brown (August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri); Tamir Rice (November 22, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio); and Freddy Gray (April 19, 2015) Baltimore, Maryland.

Garner who was unarmed was taken in custody for selling cigarettes at a street corner. Brown who was unarmed got into an altercation with the police officer who shot him several times. Tamir Rice incident is sad because of the fact that he was 12 years old and had a toy gun in his possession. He was shot immediately after the cop drove up and saw him. Freddy Gray was arrested for having a pen knife and beaten to death.

The Eric Garner case especially was heart wrenching to watch on video. Americans saw an overweight black man with health issues being held in a deadly choke hold as he repeatedly said to the officers, “I can’t breathe.”

Garner’s death raised a call for police reforms in training and helped sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. The expectation for this training was that it would provide some form of racial sensitivity training to police and focus on improving how the police interact with black and other non-white people. Apparently, this training has not happened or if it did, has not been ineffective. Since Garner’s death several unarmed black men and women have experienced police using excessive force on them and killing them.

The latest case that show the police have not learned any lessons from Eric Garner’s death, occurred on May 25th in Minneapolis where George Floyd a black man died at the hands of a white police officer. Floyd’s death bears similar characteristics to Garner’s death. After being handcuffed by the police for trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes, the video showed the police walking him to their cruiser. Floyd ended up on the ground and an officer later identified as Derek Chauvin is shown with his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd is heard pleading just like Garner said, “I can’t breathe.” What is disturbing about the video is that Chauvin while applying pressure with his knee on Floyd’s neck has his hand in his pocket as if he was posing like a hunter with his kill.

Racism is the root cause of police violence against blacks − If there is any doubt that racism is responsible for what is sometimes referred to as police brutality against blacks you just have to look at the attributes of the victims. These attributes correlate to racism and include the following:

  • Blackness (perceived in their defiance and attitude)
  • Underprivileged (they are perceived to be of a lower socioeconomic status)
  • Under-educated (their inability to communicate with the police makes them more vulnerable)
  • Dress style (their style of fashion draws negative attention)
  • Residence (they live in deprived neighborhoods)

These attributes enable the police to quickly profile black people and trigger them to treat them as criminals or thugs who are dangerous and whose lives have no value. Another factor that has been noted with several of these extra judicial killings is that a number of the victims had mental problems (i.e. their behavior was irrational), were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Under these conditions they were more uninhibited in their reaction to the police officer they encountered (e.g., failing to obey their instructions). The police, however, do not seems to recognize these conditions or take these conditions into consideration and instead of trying to disable them they end up killing them.

To understand why the police use deadly force, we must know that the police are trained to defend and protect themselves. This mean they are trained and empowered to use deadly force in certain situations that may not necessarily be motivated by race. In Jamaica where I was born, cops who are black often kill people who are black (Jamaica is 98% black). For most of these killing, the police are accused of extra judicial killing, but not of racism because both sides are black. So, this is the mentality of the police kill or be killed.

What makes it easy to accuse the police in America of racism when they use violence and deadly force against unarmed black people is due to two things. First, police violence and extra judicial killings are prevalent with blacks and rare for whites. Second, there is a history of racism in law enforcement and the justice system

Accusing anyone of racism is usually met with denials. This is understandable because racism is so contrary to the positive values and character traits that are universally cherished – no one wants to be labeled as mean-spirited or a hater.  

Despite the denials about racism, the fact is that American society is deeply entrenched in a history of institutional racism that targets black and nonwhite people. This is a history that began with slavery and has meandered its way through subsequent generations. Today, despite incremental changes, this racism manifest itself in every aspect of black life that include the disparate treatment of blacks by law enforcement and the justice system, the severe prison sentences handed down to blacks compared to whites for similar crimes, and systemic racial discrimination in other areas of their lives.

It is not surprising then that racism has influenced the behavior law enforcement like it has done to other institutional entities. The tenet of racism which is that white people are superior to non-white people and especially blacks, makes it difficult for white people who subscribe to it to have empathy, compassion, or even a sense of understanding the plight of black people. It is also not surprising that white police officers who are influenced by the oppressive system of racism find it easy to treat blacks and other nonwhite people as less than humans who have no rights.

The racial animus of the police −Three separate observations that points to the racial animus of the police towards black people are: the police have zero tolerance for black people they encounter or take into custody. One misstep and the wrath of the police comes down on them like a ton of bricks. However, in their encounter with white people the police will invariably tolerate their disrespectful behavior, their belligerence, or their failure to follow police orders. I have seen this several times on the TV cop shows.

The second observation is that we never see police brutality or extra judicial killing of a white person – it is always a black person.  This observation could be refuted with the argument that it happens, but the media ignores it. This is hard to believe because if an unarmed white man was killed by the police in a manner similar to how unarmed blacks are killed, why would the media ignore that story.

The third observation is that involving a white woman who was pulled over for a traffic stop by a white police lieutenant in Georgia.  During the conversation, the woman became frantic saying that she doesn’t want to be killed by the police. The police lieutenant was caught on dash-cam telling the woman “we only kill black people.”

The extreme form of police violence against blacks affect everyone −The extra judicial killing off unarmed black people does not occur in a space that is hermetically sealed −thanks to cell phones.  These killings are like the toxic wind that blows over the landscape of the nation and affects our breathing.  Everybody is affected – the community where it happens is permanently stained with the blood of the victim; the lives of family members of the victim are left with pain and emptiness for the rest of their lives; the police officer that did the killing will live with his demons (unless he atones for his wrongdoing); his family members will endure the pain and suffering brought on them; and the nation’s reputation as a racist nation is further reinforced.  

American society that bears witness (via television and social media) are also affected when they see the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of the police. They cannot escape the toxic miasma that is a cultural product they live in.  And like the Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “No one is free until everyone is free,” no one escapes this tragedy until everyone renounces racism.    

Radical reformation of police training is necessary −If the police culture of violence and deadly force against black people is to be eliminated or even reduced, then the training of police must be completely reformed. And it must be done in a radical way that will make police think twice about initiating brute force on black people. The challenges of doing this is enormous as they will have to find ways to neutralize the source of the problem that is racism and its by-products − like “white privilege,” deep rooted racial prejudices, and stereotypes.  

Reformative training of police officers must also make them understand that the uniform they wear gives them the right to arrest people and use force only when absolutely necessary. However, it does not give them the right to use deadly force in a reckless manner outside the boundaries of good police work. In such instances, the police should be made to understand that their actions will be accounted for with severe punishment that include forfeiture of all benefits (pension, health care, etc.) and that they will be precluded from working in any law enforcement position.

Because racism is an omnipresent force, the police by themselves cannot bring about the changes to reduce or eliminate their racial animus. The collective society (especially white people) will have to be a part of the change. White people must treat people with respect regardless of their skin color and background.  And the hatred must stop because it is immoral, it is not spiritual, and it is a destructive force that destroys not only vulnerable people who are targeted, but also those who perpetrate it.  

One way America can start to make meaningful progress in race relations is to initiate a truth and reconciliation program like South Africa did to end their pernicious apartheid system. The focus of this this program was based on a restorative justice concept and it seems like it has worked for South Africa.