The most recent police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile added to an already smoldering Black community outrage. Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Michael Brown helped to fuel these flames. Protests took place around the country, including Baltimore, to demand justice for these young men.
The banner “to protect and to serve” provides the shield to justify police actions. The myth continues that a few bad apples carry out police brutality.
President Obama reinforced this sentiment. He said, “To admit we’ve got a serious problem in no way contradicts our respect and appreciation for the vast majority of police officers who put their lives on the line to protect us every single day.” The big business press and most politicians promote the same theme.
Police review boards, more Black cops, and community policing have not deterred these incidents. Police body cameras represent the newest deterrent to catch the bad cop. The Eric Garner case showed how the local justice system exonerated the police despite the camera’s objective contents.
The criminal justice system often give cops a pass for various reasons. “I thought the person was reaching for a gun.” “I was in fear of my life.” “I was in a crime-ridden neighborhood.”
Plus cops are insulated from being treated as everyday citizens when it comes to crime. The Maryland Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights that treats cops differently displays these incongruities. Many states enacted these police shields.
Class and race are ingrained in the American fabric when it comes to law enforcement and the criminal justice system. U.S. police history vividly shows this.
The South’s police roots began with police slave patrols. They captured wealthy slaveholders’ runaway slaves. Post Civil War South saw the rise of KKK vigilantes. Black people were herded into jails and fed to the convict labor or debt peonage systems.
In the North vaguely defined disorderly vaguery and disorderly conduct laws were used to temper the teeming masses that streamed to cities for jobs. More important big business owners hired private cops to quell strikes and riots. The police were presented as protecting civilization.
They still are.
The “Wild West” violence myth was more about the U.S. military troops annihilating the Plains Indians for railroad corporations than the lawless Wild West that cowboy movies portrayed.
Radical Reconstruction’s failure provides a backdrop to the lasting Black disparity. Historically, scapegoating Blacks and equating crime with Blacks mask economic and political oppression and racism. The systems associated dog eat dog mentality and the needed daily grind to survive promotes an inhumanity towards one another racking up senseless murders in Black marginalized neighborhoods. This is mistaken for “us killing us.”
Critics wrongly slander the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement continues to express its democratic rights peacefully to protest. Ignore these critics. The expression goes “no justice, no peace.”
Who do the police protect and serve?
The struggle continues.
Dr. Ken Morgan is Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Coppin State University