Holding Hands With The Police May Kill Us
Stories of a Black Lives Matter protest that turned into a barbecue with the police in Kansas went viral just after the police shooting in Baton Rouge. Shortly after the murder of Alton Sterling, a video of a Black man dancing with a Canadian police officer made its rounds. Pictures of Black children hugging police were shared widely after the uprisings in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown — and seem to arise after nearly every moment of increased cynicism around the police.
And this week? Police in Virginia videoed themselves pulling over terrified Black residents only to give them ice cream. These moments, inasmuch as they are a collective response to police violence, send the message that a few kind words and carefully scripted hugs can save us.
But these snapshots of “reconciliation” with the police aren’t just ineffective at ending police brutality — they can actually make our conditions worse.
By creating and perpetuating these “good cop” moments, there is an attempt to salve wounds and relieve ourselves of fear; if we tell ourselves the police are on our side, perhaps it will — somehow — become true.
In reality, the police were created to maintain “order” within poor and marginalized populations, with much of modern policing coming out of the tradition of slave patrols in the south.
As Sam Mitrani writes in In These Times:
The police were not created to protect and serve the population. They were not created to stop crime, at least not as most people understand it. And they were certainly not created to promote justice. They were created to protect the new form of wage-labor capitalism that emerged in the mid- to late-19th century from the threat posed by that system’s offspring, the working class. This is a blunt way of stating a nuanced truth, but sometimes nuance just serves to obfuscate.
There is a reason why the Black people who are dying at the hands of the police are poor, killed as a result of the economic pressures around them. Whether it be supposed low-level theft (the “reason” for Mike Brown’s death), or the loosey cigarettes that killed Eric Garner, or the drug raid on the home of 8-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, or the traffic fines that led to the recent murder of Korryn Gaines in front of her 5-year-old son, these deaths by police arise precisely out of the function of policing itself.
It is a basic impulse to think that there is a simple explanation to the horrors that face us, to reduce the war waged against Black and poor people by police down to a simple matter of ignorance — rather than view it as the targeted and intentional system of control and exploitation it was designed to be. It is even more predictable that many would struggle to understand police violence as a system of abuse given the fact that we have been told that these cases are random acts of violence, or worse, justified.
This tactic — of using symbolic moments to gloss over the depth of issues and distract the public — is not new. It’s what happened when people rushed to share stories of Ahmed Mohamed (accused of bringing a bomb to school that was really just a clock) being invited to the White House and given perks by companies like Facebook and Google, even though the Islamaphobia he faced did not change.
It’s what happened when people cheered the statements of mourning by Republican politician Spencer Cox after the massacre in Orlando, although there had been no policy change and he made no legislative promises. It’s what happens when people changed their profile picture to a French flag in the wake of an attack, though they don’t understand the motives for the attack or how France operates as a colonial and oppressive power throughout the world.
In every instance we rush to the symbolic to treat the deep pain of a world that is an intricate web of violence. Sometimes we even believe that our symbolic actions are effective, without interrogating their efficacy. Rather than sort our way through the messy and painful realities of the violence we face and the violence we engage in, we instead opt for these picturesque, feel-good moments. While they don’t change the realities of the world we live in, they distract us from the pain momentarily — or even longer if we convince ourselves that they are indeed solutions.
The thing is though, they aren’t solutions.
Symbolic gestures in and of themselves, of course, aren’t bad things. There are many reasons why we cling to them and why they may be useful to us. Strategic symbolic gestures, ones that subvert systems of oppression, can be useful for political education and inspiring people towards a particular action. Even forms of symbolism and articulations of hope that don’t have specific aims aren’t entirely bad. The world we live in is an overwhelming one, and one of the most radical things Black people can do is survive.
The oppression we face deteriorates our mental health, and as Black people are in a fight for their lives both physically and mentally, I understand the need for profound and even unrealistic hope. We must keep our spirits alive so that we ourselves may live and all Black people will find their own ways to deal with–and heal from–the pain of our unrelenting oppression.
Once these moments of “reconciliation” between Black people and police become mainstream, however, what was initially an attempt at self-soothing becomes a part of a larger police propaganda campaign to maintain the status quo of policing.
One of these reasons is the obvious: If people believe we can end police brutality through symbolic gestures and place their efforts there instead of other more effective actions, these feel-good moments can reduce or minimize ongoing efforts to combat the violence we face at the hands of the police. The BLM protest in Kansas that turned into a BBQ with the police is a good example of that. A protest — which would ideally raise awareness about the dangers of police and pressure the police department to change its policies — essentially turned into a PR moment for the police. Instead of drawing more scrutiny to the police and honoring the tragic loss of Black victims, any possible resistance was quenched by a few hot dogs and burgers, creating the space for police to once again create a narrative where they, against all empirical evidence, are the heroes.
Not only do these moments distract people from the urgency of police violence, serving as damage control for powerful and unchecked police departments, they actually give police greater access to the people they victimize. The mainstream push towards community policing, “an approach to law enforcement that focuses on the prevention of crime primarily through close interaction and collaboration with community members,” is a proposed solution that actually makes the problem worse by recruiting community members into the already violent work of policing.
In a report back from the meeting between We Charge Genocide (WCG), a grassroots, inter-generational effort to center the voices and experiences of the young people most targeted by police violence in Chicago, and the Department of Justice, they had this to say about the role of community policing efforts:
“Through our independent, collaborative and grassroots research, we found that community policing mobilizes a self-selecting group to work with police and insulate them from scrutiny. It’s a way to generate some support for and increase the legitimacy of the police, not a serious solution to problems with state violence.”
Even more illuminating is what they observed in their participation in community meetings with police:
“During the summer of 2015, RCAPS members [a WCG working group] began observing regular meetings between police and community members. While these meetings are meant to involve the public in collaborative problem solving with the police, we found them to be places where police organize micro-local political power. At community policing meetings, officers set the agenda and determine the appropriate response. Working in concert with a volunteer beat facilitator (a quasi-official position often connected to aldermen), officers organize residents into block groups and phone trees to report ‘suspicious’ behavior. They encourage residents to call the police for nearly any perceived problem they experience, including minor issues such as profanity–providing cover for aggressive policing of quality of life issues. They direct the residents to focus on ‘problem properties’ and build the case for investigation or eviction through their consistent monitoring and reporting.”
Instead of inviting transparency and oversight to police departments (which are known for protecting their own, even amongst corruption) community policing and efforts to build relationships with the police actually increase surveillance of vulnerable minority communities that are already over-policed. Rather than deal with the issues of police brutality, such reconciliation makes it easier for police departments to infiltrate Black communities that strive to shield themselves from police, making active resistance that much more difficult.
WCG sums up the issue of community policing as a dangerous illusion that bolsters police domination of the populations they were designed to control:
“Community policing can coexist with these aggressive police operations because it does not create meaningful public accountability over the police. Instead of creating some kind meaningful involvement of ‘the community’ in the provisioning of ‘security,’ community policing is a liberal euphemism that hides a nefarious purpose–the political work of the police to organize the population and produce order, not just enforce it.”
The reality is this: Increasing relations with the police sounds like a good idea when we want to believe police brutality is an issue of individuals, and not of systems and institutions themselves, but our proliferation of happy moments with police and forced exchanges of intimacy only serve to promote this lie.
It is not the case that some individual police are corrupt and therefore police executions of Black people are random acts of violence as many, including President Barack Obama, would have you believe. The more sobering truth is that the institution of policing is violent and anti-Black in itself; it cannot be redeemed. Far from being a failure of the system, police who kill Black people with impunity are simply doing their jobs.
The conversation around police brutality is not going away — police violence remains consistent, and social media continues to dutifully document it for the mainstream public. Truthfully, more than ever, the evil that is policing is coming to light. But if we truly seek to end violence and prevent further uprisings, we actually have to deal with the root problems of police brutality. No number of police photo-ops will prevent the uprising of a people who have run out of options. The only way to end police brutality — and specifically police persecution of Black people — is to end the police.
Neither barbecues nor community meetings can stop bullets. A Black person can be dancing in a viral video with an officer one day and be brutally killed by police the day after. A photo of a child holding a police officer’s hand may make you feel good for a moment, but it won’t save that child’s life and it won’t prevent that cop from becoming a murderer. The only way to bring about justice in policing is to end policing itself.
Though this is the way forward and it seems logical given the widespread and rampant violence of the police, few people are ready to imagine a world without police. For Black and other oppressed people, this failure of imagination is generally not because police improve our quality of life — especially since every interaction we have with police could be our last.
This failure of imagination is because of the void left when policing is gone, our inability to re-imagine a world where we take care of our own: the good and the bad. In a world without police, we have to deal with ourselves and with each other. No longer would we be able to call in an outside entity to come and forcibly handle those we have disposed of: victims of economic exploitation, those with severe mental illnesses, and those who challenge the status quo of a nation build on domination and exploitation.
So have your barbecues with your cops and break bread with those who would kill your children in the dead of night in the name of “the law.” Share those images on your social media accounts to waves of “likes” and “this gives me hope in humanity again!” comments. That temporary euphoria that comes from seeing images of a safety that does not actually exist may feel good in a world where we are overwhelmed with Black death, but these actions only maintain a society where Black people continue to die for public consumption.
Now is the time to clarify our values. Are we really against police brutality? Or are we only against having to see it? If we are serious about wanting to prove that Black lives matter, then we must talk about serious solutions. We cannot afford to eat hotdogs and “cut it” in PR stunts with police while our children are dying. We cannot afford to sing kumbaya and wish away the problem of the police; our lives depend on it.
Lead Image: Wikimedia Commons