On Police Brutality, Who Are We To Believe?
By Shaun Scott
More than 30 years into an era of policing marred by paramilitary violence and the violation of civil liberties, many still deny that racial disparities in American law enforcement exist at all. To sharers of #BlueLivesMatter memes and hashtags, Black Lives Matter activists are little more than hooded hooligans who commit property violence. And athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Arian Foster are only hogging the media spotlight before their declining abilities force them out of the league. Beyoncé is cashing in on commercialized anti-police sentiments with inflammatory anthems like “Formation,” while the wordy arguments of authors Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates in The New Jim Crow and Between The World And Me are examples of the liberal intellectual tradition’s lack of patriotism.
According to an Associated Press poll conducted in August of 2015, 74% of whites still think race plays no role in police officers’ decisions to use deadly force. Clearly, the cultural chorus that has risen up against police brutality has not been convincing enough to critics. But perhaps cynics will listen to an organization with no “anti-American” ulterior motive, and no incentive to overstate the truth: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
October 17, 2016 marked the 10-year anniversary of a much-overlooked 2006 FBI report titled “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement.” Freely available online, the report’s title leaves little to the imagination — but poor printer quality obscures many of its key passages. It’s also heavily redacted. Nonetheless, the intelligible passages of “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement” should convince any reasonable reader that racism in law enforcement is real. And it’s real because the feds say it’s real.
Setting the stage in no uncertain terms, the 2006 FBI document explains that “white supremacist groups have historically engaged in efforts to recruit from law enforcement communities.” It details the threat of “ghost skins” who are trained to “avoid overt displays of their beliefs to covertly advance white supremacist causes.” The document’s nine pages show no concern for the effects that undercover bigotry has on policing in bodegas and ghettos; it’s primarily concerned with the access that racist ideologues posing as cops have to “elected officials, protected persons, and areas vulnerable to sabotage.”
Indeed, “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement” was produced by the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division — the same branch of the bureau responsible for cracking down on the domestic sleeper cells of ISIS. In other words, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has identified racist policing as a threat to democracy worth mentioning in the same breath as the scourge of international terror.
This can’t be reality. Surely the 2006 FBI report about white supremacists joining American police forces only applies to isolated police precincts in remote parts of the country, right? Surely, in the decade since the report was released, the issues identified by the FBI have subsided?
Unfortunately not. The Washington Post reported in December 2014 that the number of American white supremacist groups increased from 149 in 2008 to over 1,000 in 2013. (Coincidentally, a 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security security explained that the rise of organized racism was in large part the result of white backlash against the election of Barack Obama.) And as writer Samuel Jones uncovered in a 2015 piece for TheGrio, the past 25 years have seen increasingly egregious police behavior reflecting the FBI’s 2006 report about the rising tide of racism in law enforcement.
“White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement” begins by explaining racist policing as an outgrowth of history. But the ugly past it conjured is superimposed on top of the present:
• In 1991, U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter ruled that a clique of deputies at the Lynwood Sheriff’s station in Los Angeles amounted to a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” that committed wanton abuses of power against blacks and Latinos in specific.
• In 1999, the Mayor of Cleveland discovered white supremacist graffiti in three of the police department’s six districts. Nearly 20 years later in Seattle, The Stranger reporter Ansel Herz noted earlier in 2016 that comparable imagery adorns police lockers in the city’s controversial North Seattle Precinct.
• A 2006 investigation by the city of Chicago uncovered that Chicago PD detective Jon Burge maintained ties to the Ku Klux Klan and had been torturing black male suspects for decades.
• In 2015, seven San Francisco cops were fired when texts containing references to lynching blacks and burning crosses were turned up in a probe by the city’s district attorney.
As the facts mount, it becomes clear that these are not isolated incidents, and that no less important an institution than the FBI has identified a truly troubling trend. When Norfolk, Virginia councilwoman Angelia Graves recently proclaimed “yesterday’s Klan members are today’s cops,” few realized that she was only repeating a point that the nation’s prime law enforcement agency had already conceded 10 years ago.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is not the only facet of America’s executive branch that has identified racist policing as a problem. In recent years under the leadership of Loretta Lynch, the Department of Justice has investigated 20 police departments for failing to comply with the country’s civil rights laws. The cities it has engaged know no boundaries of region or size: Seattle, Newark, Miami, Baltimore, and Ferguson, among others, have all — in the DOJ’s words — been guilty of “exacerbating race bias” and “carrying out enforcement activities in a discriminatory manner.”
On Friday, October 14–34 years to the day since Ronald Reagan’s declaration of a “War on Drugs” that disproportionately targeted minorities — the Department of Justice announced a plan to collect data on police shootings and in-custody deaths.
This Department of Justice’s announcement is a major step toward institutionalizing awareness of structural racism. But some will accuse the DOJ of garnering strange fruit from an unfair harvest; maybe Loretta Lynch’s Department of Justice is only finding the “bad apples” because she wants to find them. The irony in this line of reasoning is that it is the same defense that over-policed communities of color use to criticize police that resemble occupying armies in their neighborhoods. The difference is that the police have less of a legal leg to stand on.
For decades, police departments across the country have maintained a heavy presence in predominantly black, brown, and poor white areas on the false premise that “that’s where the crime is.” Not only have federal bodies of law found this approach to be illegal — in 2013, a U.S. District Court judge found New York City’s “stop and frisk” program to be unconstitutional because it unfairly targeted blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims — but the FBI’s 2006 report about white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement also reveals that, all along, it was actually the police who needed to be more thoroughly policed.
None of this is new to the activists, artists, academics, and outspoken athletes that many Americans continue to disbelieve. In the aftermath of Seattle’s 2012 run-in with the Department of Justice, Estela Ortega — the executive director of a local community group called El Centro de la Raza — was quoted in The Seattle Times as saying “We’ve said all along that police use excessive force against people of color.” We could have listened to Ortega before protests wracked the streets of major American cities, and before Americans found themselves bombarded on a weekly basis with black bodies shot dead in the street.
But the intellectual foundations of western society — the same foundations that our notions of law and order are built upon — often uphold discriminatory notions of who a “reliable” narrator of experience is, and who isn’t. Some stories carry more weight than others. Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is only the 63rd Black woman in American history with a Physics Ph.D. She knows a thing or two about racism’s ties to notions of “objectivity.” In an interview conducted via e-mail, Prescod-Weinstein tells me:
“[Society] assigns white observers and their proxy state actors (like the police) a position of objectivity that Blacks are never granted. Thus police narratives about extrajudicial murders are to be believed even when visual evidence contradicts them, and Black testimony is always questionable even when visual evidence and other witnesses confirm it.”
Something similar may be said of the fallout from police brutality. Somehow, the more blacks speak out, the more society sees them as lacking credibility. Following Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett opined that “we need a white guy to join the fight for people to see social injustices. If just one race says there’s a problem, nobody is realistic about it.”
To those who still deny that racism in policing is a pervasive force, there may be little that impacted communities can say. So maybe cynics will listen to The FBI and the Department of Justice. In the culture war between Black Lives Matter and the criminal justice system, the latter has already admitted that the protestors have a point.
An old legal adage goes “when the law is against you, argue the facts; and when the facts are against you, argue the law.” Activists are working with the advantage of both. For those working to fundamentally restructure how America approaches policing, this can be a source of inspiration. When institutions devoted to law enforcement have validated our pain with reports and rulings, we’re emboldened in seizing the mandate for change that even they acknowledge must take place.
In the meantime, the existence of America’s crisis of racist policing will be many things to many people: a tragedy, a political lightning rod, a rallying cry. But if the pillars of American law and order are to believed, there is one thing we can definitely say it is not: up for discussion.