A serious conversation about dismantling systemic racism
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
The murder of George Floyd in the streets of Minneapolis brought systemic racism to global attention and called into question our moral legitimacy as a society. Systemic racism is deeply embedded in every country affected by Western European colonization, and its global presence adds to the difficulty in dismantling it. To dismantle the systematic oppression, we have to examine the consanguinity of social systems: race construct that claims racial superiority, an economic system that emphasizes efficiency, and relegates humans to mere resources for wealth accumulation, political and judicial systems that promote misuse of power to create inequality. Furthermore, there is an educational system that rewards the privilege of the few and not the ability of all, and a religious system that utilizes guilt and fear to prevent the oppressed from working to change corrupt systems.
I hope to write about some of these topics and connect them as we work to create a beloved community. We will work to create a just and equitable reality for all. This week we will start with power issues and discussion around what it means to "defund police."
There has been a significant amount of talks about defunding police, and each day more municipalities are reallocating funds from the police department to community engagement programs. However, amid budgetary debates, we cannot lose sight of the root problem with the concept of "police" as we know it today. Before I go further, I need to note that what I am writing about is the "concept of police," not individual police officers. The latter will be a later discussion.
When we see civilians, mainly people of color and poor, dying in the hands of police in the middle of our streets, we should not be surprised. This treatment of civilians is not a new development. Using soldiers, armed with weapons to be used in a military campaign, against civilians have been present in every society that held a view that civilians were enemies of the state. This is usually in circumstances where its citizenry challenges the unjust power systems. The civil rights movement and the 60's protest against the war in Vietnam are two examples of this in recent US history.
The questions that need to be asked are, "who are the police supposed to protect?" and "Who do the police work for?"
History shows from its inception, that the role of the police in the US was to protect the rich from the poor. Thus, it should not be a surprise to any of us that there are countless deaths of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) at the hands of police in predominately poor neighborhoods. We never hear of white suburbanites being killed in wealthy areas. This does not happen because you do not kill those you work for and who you are hired to protect.
In the South, the first police were slave patrols who hunted down runaway slaves. While the job on paper was to capture runaway slaves and return them to their plantations, the real job was to create such a fear in the enslaved population that they would not consider running away. This instilling of fear was done with unimaginable brutality and incomprehensible violence. Power and economics colluded to uphold the most dehumanizing systemic oppression known to humankind. In the North, the police's job was to kill and injure workers who were protesting to change the dehumanizing working conditions and subhuman wages with such brutality that they would never ask for change again. We have to remember that those factories where the protests occurred enabled their owners to become some of the wealthiest people in the US's history, including Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and DuPont, among others. The police were the strikebreakers who charged the protesters with guns and batons with such force that the protesters would go back to work under the fear of death. The police forces were domestic military forces who were tasked with protecting the assets of the rich and silencing the poor. People who spoke up against the injustices of oppression and unfairness were considered the enemies of the state as it endangered the economic engine of the time.
The reason for the creation of the first urban police US provides insight into the problem we face in the current state of police. The Encyclopedia Britannica says the following about the first police force being created in New York City in 1844:
"Beginning in the early 19th century, large numbers of immigrants from Germany and Ireland settled in the steadily growing urban centers of New York City and Boston. Their cultures and lifestyles initially offended the sensibilities of Americans whose families, mainly from England and The Netherlands, had settled in the country in the previous century or earlier. Indeed, the existence of large immigrant populations in the crowded cities of the East was perceived as a threat to the very fabric of American society."
We see that the US views on immigrants have not changed in the last 200 years. We also have to remember that Germans and Irish were not considered "white" at that time because they were the "poor." At that time, the definition of "white" was limited to only the English and Scandinavians, who were considered "rich." Reading the history of British enslavement of the Irish reveals centuries of English oppression of the Irish. The English thought the Irish as lesser people because the Irish were the impoverished people. Ireland is the westernmost part of the British Isles, and the land is not as fertile for agriculture, so they were always poorer in comparison to England.
The police's power system was used against poor people because the poor offended the "sensibilities" of the rich. The poor's crime is that their existence causes the rich to fear that they may lose their financial security, thus offending their sensibility. In the US, the crime of the poor is that they are visible to the rich, and the police are used to segregate the poor and assemble them into neighborhoods far away from the rich. So the police problem at the core is that it exists to protect white fragility.
BIPOC and the poor are conditioned to fear the police. How did your body respond the last time you saw flashing lights in your rearview mirror? My body tensed up, my hands sweat, and my heart rate jumped. My fear is not about what law I may have violated, but how the law might violate me. However, if we lived in a society where we believed the police protected and served me, my response would be joy, not fear.
The real question of "defunding police" is about creating a system where all citizens, especially the oppressed, mistreated, and marginalized, feel protected and served by the power structures. In a democracy, the right of the majority is to rule, but the responsibility of the majority is to protect the rights of the minority. The system has the responsibility to use their power to protect the minority, not the majority. The police are not given the power to protect the property of the wealthy from the poor, but to protect the poor from being taken advantage of by the rich.
"Defund police" is a cry for a just and equitable power structure that works to protect the "least of these" and to serve the poor.