“There are good cops” is a desperately reassuring refrain we hear regularly in the movement for Black lives. Indeed, we are often the ones who say it.
When a cousin of Quintonio Legreir—a 19-year-old who, while in the midst of a mental health crisis, was shot seven times by a Chicago police officer on the west side—spoke at a vigil for him and Bettie Jones last month, he was careful to paint a nuanced picture of the Chicago Police Department: “A badge amplifies who you are. If you’re good it can bring out the good in you, if you’re bad it can turn you into a monster.”
These sentiments are common, as much from those who criticize the movement for Black lives as from those who feel they must defend it. “Not all cops,” “restoring trust,” “building reform,” and “creating accountability” are calls we’ve all heard, maybe said ourselves. Viral videos and staged news clips of cops buying groceries for young moms or playing baseball with neighborhood kids are regularly offered as evidence of a system that can be amended, can be harnessed to do good.
There is something deeply immoral about these sentiments. Anti-movement propaganda aside, it is irresponsible to keep defending any corner of a system that has continuously demonstrated the capacity for so much violence and death, and that in 2015 facilitated an historically unprecedented number of extrajudicial killings of Black people.
This should be especially clear in a moment where that violence is no longer relegated to certain sides of certain cities, the dimly lit halls of off-the-books holding sites, the communities with the least economic and political clout. The privileged can no longer claim ignorance of these practices. The shields of mainstream media, of segregation, of the distracting rhetoric of liberal politicians are no longer enough to convince us of our isolation, nor the wealthy and white of their innocence. The timing is ripe for us to face as a culture what the policing system writ large has always, and continues, to represent.
The current policing model in the US is not inevitable, has not always existed. It was originally conceived not in response to violent crime, but to class stratification under industrialization. It was strengthened by the institution of chattel slavery, expanded in the wake of abolition, and honed under Jim Crow. As it has evolved, it is always the wealthy and white it has protected, the poor, Black and Brown it has attacked, and the victims of class war and capitalism it has seduced as its pawns. This is exemplified by the common practice of major cities during the Great Migration—including Chicago and LA—of actively recruiting Klansmen and other supremacists to their police forces, exploiting the resentment poor whites already held towards Black people, and molding it into a tool for their suppression in newly forming urban centers. This is the mark of a system that is not merely fueled by racism, but dependent on it, one which has it encrypted in its DNA.
We hardly need look to the past to find such evidence. After Jeb Bush and other conservatives helped facilitate the passage of open-carry gun laws in the state of Florida, states across the nation followed suit, including Ohio. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was murdered by police while open-carry laws were on the books. Just last month in Akron, OH, when Black residents called the police on a white man who had repeatedly passed through their neighborhood carrying a rifle, police confronted the residents, not the gun carrier, stating he was breaking no laws. This is the face of a social, legal and political structure that has already decided who is dangerous, who is worth defending, has already committed to upholding an order of deadly inequity.
Even now in Chicago, the citywide coverup of the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald has been exacerbated by the fresh killings of activist Bettie Jones and Quintonio Legreir—who was suffering a mental health crisis when police shot him. In the wake of the new murders, mayor Rahm Emanuel instructed police from his vacation in Cuba to review the department’s training on dealing with mental illness. The same mayor who closed half the city’s mental health clinics, and whose proposed city budget for 2016 allots 40% of funds to the police department—compared to less than 1% to social services—now introduces a new plan that will give every officer a taser by summer.
The underlying assumption is unchanged: New weapons and better training—which means a deeper financial investment in policing—will solve issues of inequity, economic injustice, and the violent suppression of the mentally ill.
We have clearly been convinced as a movement, as oppressed communities, that we cannot make generalizations about the policing system. My question is: Why not? What is politically incorrect about condemning a system that extracts untold billions out of social services and community resources, destroys lives through murder and incarceration, and does so overwhelmingly at the expense of the poor, the Black, the immigrant and the disabled? Why do we continue to defend a structure that purposefully preys on class tension and racist resentment?
If there was ever any doubt of the indivisible link between policing and white supremacy, we need look no further than the implicit expectation that we temper our rage every time another member of our community is killed. For white supremacy has always focused on the reactions of its victims to distract from its own inherent violence, always accused the oppressed of exhibiting the behaviors that it is rooted in itself. So, too, the police system would have us demonize a rebelling Black populace, afraid it might make up its mind to do what the US government and its multiple violent extremities have done to it consistently for generations.
When I look into the faces of police on the street, at protests, what I see more than any other feeling is confusion. And I almost understand. It must be utterly bewildering to find yourself doing exactly the job you were hired to do, exactly the way you were taught to do it, and abruptly being told you are doing it wrong. Police chiefs instruct their forces to work on community relationship building, commanders tell officers to be personable with protesters. Even movement leaders call on cops to be friendly, helpful, and hold up examples for them to follow. This has to be confusing when weeks and months earlier, excessive force was the expectation, racist, sexist and homophobic violence was the norm, and the exact communities you’ve been painstakingly trained to be wary of are suddenly ones you’re supposed to pretend to protect. Suddenly, the exact qualities which made you a good cop—qualities for which you were explicitly recruited and hired—are the source of national criticism, and you are expected to conduct yourself in precisely the way that has been systematically beaten out of you.
Let’s say it together: There are no good cops. For individuals are complex and nuanced, but genocide is not. We need to stop apologizing for an occupation that is remorseless by definition, which intentionally uses racist, sexist, classist and ableist violence as tools for enforcing order, and which is consciously protected by laws and courts for doing so. Policing—like the criminal justice system, or the school-to-prison pipeline—doesn’t have a race problem. It is the crucible that churns out inequity and death. We can no longer be duped into believing that we can become human by attempting to humanize its representatives.
And for those who think police abolition is somehow extreme, let’s think back to another moment in US history when we hotly debated the abolition of a large system with cemented cultural roots and reaching economic implications. Let’s compare the arguments of critics then to those of critics now: Are slave trade reformists those we remember and celebrate? Was sensitivity training what overseers lacked? Didn’t slave traders have families they needed to support? Were slave and master relations the root of the problem? Should we gradually stop murdering Black people to protect the fragile economy?
No more indictments. No more investigations by a genocidal federal government, or high-profile firms connected to the politicians they’re trying. No more jail time. No more money or faith wasted on the same systems designed to make us into capitalism’s collateral. The studies are in, and they all say the same thing.
“To serve and protect” has never been anything more than a clever slogan. As long as the prison and policing systems are what pass for justice, it will always be the same communities deemed criminal, with new twists on old rationale to keep us in chains.
It is time to stop apologizing for our rage and our pain. It is time to stop searching for the good in the policing system. It is finally time for us to commit fully, unwaveringly, to its abolition.