BLM Leads The Rebellion Against Police Brutality. Now Is The Time For Major Change.
2020 feels like a dystopia, but one we’ve been building for a long time.
From 2013 to 2019, police killed 7,666 people in the United States. This is a despicable, shameful, and tragic average of 1277–1278 people murdered per year. The latest most publicized case of police violence ending in the death of George Floyd has spawned an momentous outcry across American streets, media airwaves, and social media platforms. Protests and riots have erupted in major cities and town squares that have ranged from peaceful to destructive to violent — with the cops often (though not always) showing up to the nines in riot gear with multiple weapons at their disposal, and in too many cases, little restraint shown in both uncalled for violent response and unjustifiable arrests that disproportionately affect black citizens..
The protests and riots occurring this week are perhaps some of the most intense we have seen across the US since perhaps the 1991–1992 events surrounding the beatdown of Rodney King and subsequent acquittal of the four officers charged. At that event, a dozen officers watched the beatdown without stopping their colleagues. But it’s not like things have been silent, or reformed, from then until now. In 2012, Occupy Wall Street and related Occupy protests were at their height — alongside the rise of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and state led violence. Around this time, Atlanta also saw the case of Troy Davis, for whom Woodruff Park was renamed following his death-penalty related execution for the killing of a police officer, a crime which he maintained to his death he was innocent of.
In recent years, due to the sports celebrity Colin Kaepernick, kneeling has become an iconic move to stand in solidarity against the tragedy of police brutality against the black community. This is a /very/ limited list of many protests over the years (#Handsupdontshoot; #Icantbreathe; #Saytheirnames); most protests have most often been peaceful, law abiding responses to events that have been anything but peaceful or righteous, often involving state violence.
We didn’t get to this point suddenly. The subtle approach was squawked at and dismissed.
The less subtle approach has our cops geared up in military gear but not trained with the restraint or tactical deployment of de-escalation strategies the military has built into it’s processes. The military has it’s own separate issues we’ll save for another discussion, but this is a solid point. It’s shocking we have money to give the cops riot gear but not give our hospitals enough personal protective equipment or ventilators to deal with the pandemic that’s killed 377,437 people and growing across the world (106,925 + in the US) as of today. We always find the money for war and the excuses for death, but can’t find the resources for universal healthcare, communally paid for higher education, shelter and food for the poorest and most afflicted of citizens.
No one can claim ignorance to the problems of police violence and racism, though some people have chosen to focus more on condemning protests against murder than the incident itself. Property destruction of corporations such as Target or state symbols such as the police department/police cars is loudly declared a crime by many in ways that seem to overshadow their outrage about the crime of the murder of a human being. It’s a response that holds up the status quo, and ignores the complicity of the state and corporate entities in endangering and exploiting communities whom historically have continually been treated as second hand citizens or lesser people — or, during slavery, segregation, and in too many other instances, as less than human.
Only few headlines have read along the most accurate and well focused lines of: ‘Police Retaliate Against BLM Protests Over George Floyd’s Murder With Additional Brutality’; only some reporters and other figureheads have been wholly, unproblematically, in support of empathy for the injustice suffered by protesting communities and against the excessive responses from law enforcement individuals. Perhaps this is due to the need to feel like the state will provide stability or in fear of the unrest, but the unrest is here, regardless of attempts to beat the righteous anger at mistreatment out of those fighting against a system that leaves black communities and POC in fear on a daily basis.
While the burning down or looting of small locally owned businesses is deplorable, it’s unclear how much of this is happening as the results of Black Lives Matter. In a world where white supremacists and alt-righters calling for race wars can infiltrate otherwise peaceful or more strategically directed protests, and in the middle of the confusion of a riot, it is important we recognize the distinction between righteous outrage of the community against major symbols of oppression and dissenters of other natures mimicking purge-like chaos to simply use the events as an opportunity to run amok, to defeat the aims of the actual affected groups, or to sew additional discord outside the [understandable] emotional response to culturally traumatic events.
Property damage of major corporate and state symbols is not the same thing as murder or violence, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is — and it is unfair to the situation to only focus on one element of what’s happening when the comprehensive picture involves many simultaneous events, actors, agents, and motives. It is both an understandable language of the oppressed for some, to not undercut the reasons some BLM members may engage in destructive action, and as well possible that much of the more senseless acts may have nothing to do with the BLM movement as all, and that many BLM protesters have remained peaceful or non-violent against other persons — even as law enforcement has in multiple incidents not.
The answer to the question of what to do immediately have preoccupied everyone’s minds in different ways. Depending on where you stand, the answer may be to protest as safely as possible [masks, eye gear, milk/baby shampoo for tear gas, attempts to keep six feet away in groups from other groups], to support the protests if you can’t be there [with supplies, bail fund, etc.], and, for the cops, to do thier best — which means protecting small businesses or actual threats of bodily harm to innocent protesters, focusing on white supremacist infiltrators or the most senseless of acts with help from the FBI — something I’ve seen disturbingly little of in contrast to the overstepping of police with tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and physical violence against peaceful protesters or relatively harmless looters of major corporate stores who have insurance to cover losses. Other immediate responses can include funding hotel space for those living in any hot zones seeking shelter as well as funds for medical care and rebuilding costs for any smaller or uninsured stores destroyed. Ideally, we would have created these funds to begin with, instead of spending taxpayer money on warrior gear for local enforcement.
More long term solutions need to be thought about as well, however. Fascists often are organized well; we’ve rarely seen the same level of massively organized resistance against oppressive structures be successful in any lasting way without the use of violence, riots, or strategic state or corporate owned property destruction. Martin Luther King Jr understood riots as the language of the unheard, and even as he himself was peaceful, he was shot too. If the judicial system is supposed to work so well to correct these supposedly rare events, we wouldn’t see the outcry we do today. The whole problem is that the system set up to prevent harm is itself too often the cause of it. The lack of accountability and consequence can’t be remedied by unfulfilled promises that the system will work if we just let it — clearly, it hasn’t been. The problematic nature is amplified by the way our country and it’s justice system were founded — it’s legacy set it up to be racist and violent from the very start.
The reason we keep seeing the same cycles repeat is because it’s not a problem with a few bad apples; the problem is the flawed and harmful legislative, judicial, and executive branches of our government. Watching the videos of police brutality inflicted upon peaceful protestors shows how ubiquitous, planned, and sanctioned this bad apple culture is. We’ve given bullies badges. Assholes think it’s okay to push people around when they don’t comply with orders, even when those orders are violations of the constitutional right of freedom of assembly included in the First Amendment.
We live in a country, and a world, where dominance is gained and held by violence, or threats of violence. Exploitation holds up our economic system and white supremacy holds up our justice system, and both heavily impact the policies we create in the related sectors of health, education, housing, and city upkeep. The need to protest hasn’t stopped, because the killing of civilians by state agencies using lethal force hasn’t stopped — cases of profiling and targeting that disproportionately affect African Americans and other people of color both here and in US military deployments abroad — nor have we replaced corporate exploitation of the impoverished with better labor-reward/redistributed ownership structures, nor have we ensured that health care is a universal right. Safety, opportunity, and health are by no means guaranteed to all. There is much more going on here with COVID, the elections, and the opportunity for change. This rebellion is off the cusp of the realization that the way we have ordered things is by no means necessary or inevitable — and the responses to such is emblematic of all that needs to transform.
Audre Lorde famously stated that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The tools oppressors have used to keep the marginalized in line have never been thrown away, however; they keep using them [and building new ones.] Our national policies and practices claim that violence is righteous when defending the status quo — that corporate interests, elite safety, and too-often self-serving government matters more than the lives, health, and protection of the vulnerable.
Working within the system is difficult when the system is itself corrupted by the aim to criminalize, imprison, and kill groups who do not support the elevation of elite group’s goals. The system is not of, by, and for the common people. It’s built for elite groups who expect the common people to work for them, to fight for them, to die for them, and who aren’t afraid to kill and deprive others to get what they want or when the unprivileged refuse to do so. BIPOC, LGBTQ, women, and the poor are not guaranteed protection and the common person’s best interests are not being looked out for, in a nation where bullying for selfish gain is praised and revered.
Communities with the least money, power, or status are constantly in danger for looking a certain way or committing acts that arguably are only criminalized to make targeting of select groups easier [see the history of the drug wars], and then claim that property destruction of places owned by power or representational of repressive power structures is a surprising or condemnable offense following the cultural trauma of murders of individual members of communities targeted by genocidal white supremacist fascism — and it’s cousins, white apathy, implicit bias, prejudiced policy, and racial profiling.
After burning things down [physically or metaphorically], there is always a need to be reborn and to rebuild. If we want effective change, there needs to be a list of centralized demands — a plan, or at least a blueprint, to shape our planet into a world that functions successfully without the crutches of exploitation, pollution, and violence to keep the wheels turning. Impassioned caring people upholding values that reject suffering and oppression want to dismantle the state as it currently stands. Maybe we should. To this end, here are some suggestions.
We don’t need police officers. We need peace officers [preferably ones that remain in solidarity, instead of just kneeling for a photo opp before resuming brutal practices.] We don’t need an offensive military, even as we may need defensive reserves (though, again, division exists in reinforcements of nationhood; whether hatred could stop if we stopped drawing lines — who knows?]. Stopping crime should mean stopping immorality; that which hurts people. We cannot win if we keep perpetuating violence inside our borders and suppression via violence — what are you winning, but subservience, dominance, and the loss of liberation for those who live under you? There’s a difference in protecting the peace and demanding compliance to unjust rule. We need to get over trying to bend others to our will with force unless they pose an immediate danger of inflicting bodily harm, and get on hearing, respecting, and upholding acceptance for diversity. We are not preventing harm if we’re causing it. The idea that our actions can bring suffering to those already suffering and that somehow this is good is backwards. The deaths of multiple community members (the black community) at the hands of another community (/-ies: the police, the state, and white-supremacists) is nothing more than racist targeting.
We are all human beings. Even fascist assholes should get the chance to see the error in their ways and reform [behind a much-revamped, limited use, restorative justice institution, and until then, perhaps, behind the bars they support the use of so much.] I don’t support the death penalty, no matter how pissed I may be at Derek Chauvin and other cops over time who clearly think it’s fine to be police, judge, jury, and executioner in a fit of rage — and the teammates and the filmmakers who watch the at-least-2nd-degree murder happen, and the people who think this is totally fine and just how the system should work, and the people who think it’s wrong but still condemn protest responses to it in denial of the ineffectivity and in accordance with a lacking timeline for progress, and those who keep working within the system that is clearly built to fuck the most vulnerable people over without challenging it. We need accountability, however, and consequence that is sufficient to prevent further abuses of power.
De-escalation must meet demilitirization. Screening of officers must include psychological evaluations for aggressive tendencies, anger problems, and association with bigoted philosophy. Accountability can’t mean just shifting ‘bad apples’ with lists of complaints and offenses to another department; rules can’t be changed regarding misconduct reports to appease contracts for funding, and federal or other outside oversight programs are essential — as are comprehensive, transparent, and trustworthy databases on police use of force offered for public review. Body cams used have to be kept on and attached to legal consequence in policy and practice. The variation of quality in implicit bias training needs to be remedied; it goes beyond implicit bias to a culture that rewards displays of machismo, aggressive toughness, and domination [the ‘be a man’ BS that always seems to incorporate into it the ‘put others down to make yourself feel powerful and be respected by other men’ lesson.] Moreover, alternatives to the police department must be well funded — both preventative programs supporting community activity and responsive organizations intervening as first responders in cases involving individuals with mental illness.
Beyond all this is the need for change that goes beyond the official channels. We must on the local level challenge preconceptions involving race (among other identity factors.) We must all be educated on the history of our country — not the whitewashed version — and both historical and cross cultural racism across human groups. We must build off compassion and empathy and understanding and equal footing in power, resources, and status — not off systems rewarding dominance or requiring submission, nor off systems supporting the elite on the backs of the impoverished or vulnerable. We must, in short, continue this revolt far beyond the protest zone — and we must start yesterday, rather than forever pushing it off to tomorrow because we’re busy compromising with, and giving badges and political office to, fascists, bullies, and their self-interested and easily cowtailed supporters.
Voting is supposed to work, but then a popular vote win for Hillary is followed by four years of Trump and a discounting of Bernie Sanders — twice — most recently resulting in the nomination of Biden. This is not to mention the many local elections that remain with poor or uncontested choices for district magistrate and local leaders that have direct impact on area-level justice practice. Approximately thirty to fifty percent of the country doesn’t vote in most presidential elections; more don’t vote for local offices. Some of those who do have clearly internalized really skewered and harmful attitudes towards policy; either believing in supporting the broken parts of the system, or being perfectly fine coasting on compromise of certain values in exchange for being promised others. We need to do better, on multiple levels. If we need to disband our national institutions, our national symbols, and replace them with something new, then let’s go ahead and do it.
Perhaps we may decide presidential figureheads are unnecessary even — that the rebuild will not be the time for hero cults or outdated tributes to problematic pasts but instead a time for us to build humanistic, fair, and functional networks that take into account the technological and emotional achievements we have made as a species — a recognition of our capacity to shape our world intentionally with love and fairness the likes of which we have not yet seen. This requires local involvement and national restraint, outside of regulations on excess and human-rights-protective standards of conduct [in business and enforcement.] Our conversations have been democratized by social media; everyone has a voice and status — this offers unprecedented platform for reorganization efforts that can outdo that of official channels — if we yield them right, and act on the principles we collectively create as intersectional solidarity coalitions amongst communities most in need of equalization and allies willing to aid in protecting civil and human rights.
No shift is too radical if it can overhaul the escalating repetitions of oppression-protest we’ve been stuck in. This is a rebellion; next is the revolution.
Originally published on The Conscious World (June 2nd, 2020):
Hannah Spadafora is a researcher and writer living in the Atlanta area with multiple cats, in-progress manuscripts, and underused degrees in anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies.