Defund The Police: The True Human Toll Of Racism In American Policing

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In a year that has been marred by pandemic, economic uncertainty, and political turmoil, America is once again reminded of one of its racist pillars — the terrorizing of African Americans by the police.

In a seemingly endless barrage of police killings, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, the country exploded into uprisings that spread throughout the entire world during the summer of 2020. Protests, police departments in flames, and cries for justice played out on television and social media. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021, brought another tragedy — 20-year-old Daunte Wright of Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis, was shot and killed during a traffic stop. Reports state that officer Kim Porter accidentally fired a shot into Wrights's chest.

This killing echoed memories of Oscar Grant, who in 2009 was fatally shot by a police officer who claims he thought he was holding his taser.

All of these deaths of unarmed Black people make up an institution that has shown nothing but contempt and disdain for African-Americans.

Tired of being asked to have patience with a system that targets Black men, activists are proposing more aggressive solutions. One of them is to “defund the police.”

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The term “defund the police” essentially means to divert some or all of the funding that goes from police departments to other crime prevention methods.

Organizations that support mental health, house the homeless, treat drug addiction, and provide community violence intervention are some of the many initiatives that could receive that money. For most activists, the purpose of defunding the police is not to eradicate law enforcement entirely, but to show that there are alternative methods to fighting and preventing crime, especially in neighborhoods that are predominately Black.

While the movement has gained prominence in the year 2020, the concept of defunding the police has existed for many years. That's because the history of law enforcement in the U.S. is inherently racist. 

The history of policing as an anti-Black institution 

Slave Patrols, which many believe to be one of the first forms of law enforcement, began in South Carolina in 1704. Their job, according to the Law Enforcement Museum, was to “Control the movements and behaviors of enslaved populations.”

This means Slave Patrols hunted down runaway slaves, disciplined them, returned them to their enslavers, and invoked fear into any enslaved people who were thinking of revolting.

This practice lasted until the Civil War ended, but terrorism against Black people continued with the Black Codes, local and state laws that restricted where the formerly enslaved could work and live. If African-Americans were suspected of not working or “being in a place they shouldn’t have been” they could be arrested — or worse.

In 1910, scholar and writer W.E.B. Du Bois founded The Crisis, a quarterly magazine published by the NAACP, devoted to telling the stories of Black people and other communities of color. Du Bois wrote many anti-lynching essays highlighting the violent attacks Black people endured from white police officers.

Similarly, educator and journalist Ida B. Wells, co-founder of the NAACP, also reported on the lynching of Black men. Wells, seeing that in the heart of these murders were to “control Black people” and witnessing many of the white vigilantes who were charged in these lynchings be acquitted, urged the federal government to step in and offer protection for African-Americans.

Both Du Bois and Wells argued that policing and white vigilantism targeted Black people and began to propose other solutions, such as Abolition-Democracy about which DuBois wrote, "where a future world in which not only chattel slavery but the structures that continue to reproduce its power dynamics have been not merely reformed, but decisively abolished." Writings and interviews with Angela Y. Davis also further illuminate the subject. 

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As an African-American male who was raised in the inner-city, I have never been able to see police as a force for good.

Friends and family would always recount stories of being pulled over for no reason, searched and profiled because we “fit the description” and sometimes even brutalized.

When you grow up in the hood, it is not a sense of if, but when you will come in contact with the police.

As I would ride my bike through the streets of my neighborhood, I would see cop cars slowly drive past and give me a mean stare. When my friends and I would walk home in the evening, we would tense up when a patrol car rolled past us. There was always a friend who said, “They just started f*cking with me for no reason.”

As we grew older and larger as Black boys, we were viewed as more dangerous. Thinking about that now, it’s as if we lived in occupied territory. 

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When I turned 16 and got my driver's license, my mother gave me “The Talk": a conversation many parents have with their Black children when they reach teenage years.

She knew that since I was driving, the probability of run-ins with the police would be much greater, so my mother gave me advice on how to act when I am pulled over.

“Be polite," she told me, as generations of mothers have told their Black sons. "Answer with a 'yes sir,' 'yes m’am.' Don’t make any sudden moves. Keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times.”

These precautions were designed to reduce the likelihood of her son being killed.

When I would get pulled over, nearly every time I thought, “This could be it.” I cannot describe the fear and anxiety I receive as a Black man being pulled over by law enforcement.

If you're not Black, you should take some time and think about that. If you are stopped by the police for any reason, that could be the last thing you do.

The pushback against defunding the police

It seems to me that the majority of opposition to defunding the police comes from a fundamental disagreement in how different communities view law enforcement.

For many Black communities, the police are an oppressive force that for generations has discriminated, unlawfully arrested, assaulted, robbed, raped, and murdered us. In all of my time on this planet, I have had maybe two positive interactions from police out of dozens of negative experiences.

White communities see the police as protectors and heroes.

They have the privilege of seeing police as a group that exists to enforce laws and maintain order.

That's because police in the United States were created to protect enslavers' rights to enslave human beings. 

These days, the police are designed to shield white people from the Black "thugs" whom white people are conditioned to believe want to destroy their property and attack them.

Police make white people feel safe. Black people rarely, if ever, feel safe.

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Critics of the movement describe a country where police are defunded as one of lawlessness

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson warns that everybody will arm themselves and start hiring vigilante groups for protection. He insists the nation will turn into chaos.

Former President Donald Trump charges the idea as “radical” and “anti-cop.” Another former president, Barack Obama, dismissed defund the police as a “snappy slogan” and said that “You lose a big audience the minute you say it."

Those who champion defunding law enforcement point to improving the conditions of the communities that the police patrol. Job creation, social services, and violence de-escalation organizations would receive the monies that regularly go to police agencies.

The FBI reports that violent crime has fallen nearly 50% since the 1990s, so cities such as Minneapolis are directing funds from the police to create more mental health outreach to respond to various 911 calls.

In the summer of 2020, the City Council of Austin, Texas voted to cut their police budget by 150 million dollars and invest in food access, violence prevention, and abortion access.

Other cities such as Oakland, Los Angeles, and Baltimore are also following suit, slashing millions of dollars from law enforcement and investing in other solutions.

Many African-Americans are fatigued, absolutely exhausted of the policing conversation.

What can be done to reduce the harming and killing of Black men by law enforcement?

Whenever this question is posed, many people point to two things — isolated incidents and bias training.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden released a statement supporting training, body cameras, and community policing.

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But bias training isn't proven to eliminate or even reduce racism, an NPR headline explaining that "implicit bias changes minds, not necessarily behavior."

In that article discussing implicit bias training with police, Joshua Correll, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado commented, “Expecting that we can take people in and train them to reduce their implicit bias — I don’t think that has been supported by the literature.”

In my opinion, what implicit bias fails to address is the systemic over-policing and abuse by the police African-Americans have faced for hundreds of years.

Human Rights Watch, an organization dedicated to investigating abuses of communities around the world, reports that while white people use drugs at a rate of five times more than Black people, Black men are sentenced to the state prison at 13.4 times greater than white men.

Black people are also killed at higher rates than white people by the police, according to a Northeastern-Harvard study.

As LeBron James said, “We live in two different Americas.”

If there was one glaring example of how the system of policing is broken, look no further than the Capitol Hill riot in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. Hundreds of white, pro-Trump supporters descended on the federal building, stealing and destroying property in a protest against the certification of President-elect Joe Biden.

While the world watched the uprising in horror, many of the rioters smiled as they raided the halls of the building and even posed for pictures with some of the police on hand — even after their fellow rioters had beaten and injured over 140 police officers on the site. One officer died as a result of his injuries.

This is a stark contrast to how Black and other people are treated at protests against police terrorism.

Very few photos show the rioters harmed by the police while bloodied bodies and injuries are the norm during marches for the killing of unarmed Black people. Reading the reports of siege, I, along with many African-Americans said, “If this were Black folks, they would be shot en masse.”

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As I grow older, I worry about the generation of Black boys and girls that come after me.

Will they get a chance to live in a world where they don’t have to fear “our protectors?” At this point, I believe that training and looking at the police to fix the issue of discrimination within their organizations is not possible.

We need to try something else. Between 2014 to 2019, nearly 1,662 Black men and 72 Black women have been killed by the police, per PNAS.org, the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences.

Is defunding the police a viable solution? I don't know.

However, what I do know is that the attempts of reform have not worked. Policing in the United States of America is an inherently racist institution. It was born out of slave patrols; you cannot reform that.

I was always taught that when a tree is bad, you rip it up by the root. It won't get better, it will continue to grow rotten fruit.

The trust between the Black community and the police is irrevocably broken and I believe there is nothing that can be done to change that.

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LeRon L. Barton is a writer and speaker who has published essays about race, mass incarceration, politics, business, and dating. His work has appeared in Black Enterprise, Salon, Raconteur, The Good Men Project, Multibriefs, and The EastBay Express. He has also appeared on Al Jazeera's The Stream and delivered a TEDx talk about his childhood stuttering. Find him on Twitter for more.