There have been many studies on the effects of poverty on communities, and rightfully so — the toll on their safety and health is vast and consequential. Less examined is what happens to officers who work 40 hours a week in abject poverty. I’m not saying it’s the same. We officers have homes to go to in places that look much different. But you can’t tell me that there’s not some effect on us. We’re not robots. And every time I’m working — dealing with the terrible things happening to unfortunate people — and someone yells “Hands up, don’t shoot,” it hardens me a little more. I back into my corner with my brothers and sisters in blue, people who understand me.Ironically, about 5 minutes before reading this article Alicia and I were talking about how police officers are bearing the brunt of the blame for our nation's practice of White supremacy. Of course it's unfair. Of course it makes good officers feel badly. But if we were ever going to build a new movement against White supremacy, it was always likely to start here. When agents of the state are killing well over a thousand Americans every year, it's not something people should be able to accept with equanimity. When officers can murder people in broad daylight on video and not be held accountable, (as happened in the Eric Garner case and appears to be happening in the Tamir Rice case) it is right and good for people to be outraged.
And yet, this former NYPD officer's point is important. If it was necessary for the movement to begin here, at the point the trigger is pulled, it is just as necessary that it not end there. Of course policing practices in this country are unjust. But scapegoating individual officers for this misses the point. How can the state's duly constituted enforcers of the law act justly when the state itself is built to advantage Whiteness and criminalize Blackness? Police are acting on our orders!
These killings must stop. I do believe that accountability and retraining, education and reform, within police departments is important. But this movement is incredibly shortsighted if we think it can or should stop there.
Why is Tamir dead? Why is Eric dead? Why is Freddie dead?
It is not only, or even primarily, because renegade officers acted poorly. We must broaden our view to take in the full spectrum of White supremacy that structures all of our lives. How do we get to the point where the trigger is pulled? Every municipality in the country that has exclusionary zoning is culpable. Every big bank is culpable. Did you know that during the housing bubble the banks gave junk loans to people based on their skin color? Employers (who are less likely to hire equally qualified Black candidates) are culpable. City governments that place toxic waste facilities in poor communities are culpable. Landlords who do not bother getting rid of lead paint are culpable. (Did you know Freddie Gray was poisoned so badly as a child he had no chance at a normal life, barring a miracle?) Most realty companies are culpable (on average, they steer people of color away from White communities and show them fewer homes). The chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, who has worked to undo school desegregation, is culpable! Every member of congress who refuses to even consider John Conyers' bill for the study of reparations is culpable.
The White evangelical church is deeply implicated in the pulling of the trigger. Its theological heresy devalues Black life and makes an idol out of Whiteness. Of all religious groups in the United States, the tradition from which I come and which I love is the most ignorant of how the American justice system works. White evangelicalism, because of its exceptional ignorance and unconscious racism, aids and abets injustice. Our norms about how we describe our past and present also help to pull the trigger. When we refuse to acknowledge that American policy has deliberately created White wealth and Black poverty, we naturalize injustice. It is wrong to talk about crime without admitting that American policy has always criminalized Blackness and made "black crime" a self-fulfilling prophecy. (See here, here, here, here, and here!)
All of this is reason to think that the greatest contribution of the Black Lives Matter movement thus far is not specific policy gains--though there have been some--but a general rise in consciousness. More people are realizing that the rule of law in this country is ruptured by the color line. More people (I hope) are realizing that to implicate the police is to implicate ourselves. This is a good time to return to Dr. King's last Sunday sermon, delivered less than a week before he died. Years after the passage of civil rights legislation, Dr. King was still not satisfied:
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt; even the church must share the guilt...The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism.