Police and the American Dream
Updated: Nov 16, 2020
Peaceful participants in a Palm Beach County BLM protest, which shut down some major roads and highways, on June 6th.
America was largely founded on the belief in justice and equality. Today’s America looks vastly different than it did a century ago, and now a central component of our justice system is providing equal protection for all citizens under the law regardless of demographic characteristics. The racial injustices that remain deeply embedded in our institutions and which are evidenced by data are now finally placed at the forefront of salient political conversations.
Despite decades of hard work to amend past racial injustices and cure inherent biases, structural racism has very real consequences for some of our fellow Americans. At the center of the current debate is the criminal justice system. How do we ensure that our police are both protecting us equally and pursuing suspects without biased approaches?
As Americans, we share similar dreams and hopes for our lives and our children. In theory, we all deserve equal access to the protections and rights afforded in the Constitution. Though we often overlook it, some of us are struggling to access the same opportunities, and the Constitution and other written laws have not been able to account for the systematic disparities that still occur.
The Black Lives Matter [BLM] movement is asking us to consider criminal justice reform even for those who can’t personally relate to the struggles People of Color have faced. We must listen to their demands and give them serious thought before dismissing them because, as our history demonstrates, racial problems can persist for far too long before the whole country can recognize them collectively. If injustice is infiltrating any of our American communities, then we must all band together to resolve it. Black, white, brown, religious, atheist, left, right, rich, or poor - we are American, and that means pursuing equal opportunities for everyone.
There is one quote from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. which resonates with this historical movement advocating for equal justice: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King’s words unfortunately still apply to our nation today, at a time when we thought that we had overcome so many of the injustices to which he was referring. People of all races, religions, and backgrounds are coming together in communities across the globe to fight a battle that is long overdue.
The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. The movement brought to light the persistence of a centuries-old, systematic problem facing People of Color.
The concept of asking for lives to “matter” enough to be protected equally by the law is almost unthinkable in the year 2020; history books have largely ignored the deeply rooted injustices against People of Color, which often also go unnoticed in the media.
Privilege is being immune or apathetic to the disparities that face some groups to this day, but pleading ignorance is no longer an option. Perhaps this ideal image of the world that past generations should have left us with is what has driven the young generations across the globe and in every single U.S. state to address our sense of betrayal.
That rosy, all-American belief in a just system has been called into question by recent data, camera footage, and pleas for justice expressed in protests, music, and Black communities at large. Racism is as insidious as ever, only more disguised and institutionalized, and less explicit.
The president of the American Psychological Association commented on the “psychological toll on our African American citizens” for which racism of all kinds is to blame. No longer can we celebrate the myth that every citizen benefits equally from the freedoms and protections in our nation.
Steps Toward Change
Experts have said that fighting systemic racism begins with identifying and admitting to one’s own biased tendencies. In his book called, “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” Dr. Ibram X. Kendi describes racism as metastatic cancer in that, in order to be treated, it must first be acknowledged, and treatment must actually be desired.
He also concludes that there is no such thing as being “not racist”; rather, there is only racism and anti-racism. It is no longer acceptable to stand idly by as racism persists, even if we have confronted our own biases.
Of course, being an ally is a helpful step for the movement and for increasing one’s own awareness; working together toward a common goal is what realizes our shared humanity and mutual ideas for the pursuit of happiness. From local and national policy reform to the global movement, and to the personal introspections we must all commit to, there are a variety of pieces that come together at every level to make the promise of true healing attainable.
A crowd of over 1,000 protesters marched peacefully in Gainesville, Fla. on May 30th in the name of those lives lost to police violence, but more largely, out of desperation for truly equal opportunities and protection under the law.
The movement is calling representatives to action and it has developed several trending policy stances that just seem to make sense. Campaign Zero is an organization informed by community demands and research organizations to recommend well-researched police reforms.
One major recommendation is to establish all-civilian oversight groups, specifically a Police Commission and a Civilian Complaint Office. This system would help to increase police accountability and give the people a defense from police misconduct.
Wait, that kinda makes sense…
Another demand is to establish stricter Use of Force regulations, making it difficult for officers to get away with using aggressive tactics unless imminent threats exist.
Hmm...Why wasn’t that already in place?
A big one, which was also recommended by Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), is to implement a Special Prosecutor’s Office to investigate and try police for civilian injuries and deaths. That’s because state attorneys work with officers to prosecute alleged criminals every day, lowering the incentive to actively and dutifully try police when they are involved in civilian harm.
Okay, that actually makes a lot of sense…
The list of demands, including the termination of “Broken Windows Policing,” requiring body cameras for officers on duty, and rethinking police department training, just seems to make sense. In fact, it really makes us question why we hadn’t had these laws in place the whole time.
We might also ask ourselves why we weren’t more aware of the disparities in our policing practices. Most of us are law-abiding citizens, but a lot of us get away with certain rule breaks that others might not. We have to ask ourselves why this is. We have to take the first step and identify this privilege before we can understand the remedy to the systemic discrimination.
One demand that has been circulating through social media, news outlets, and protest chants is to defund the police. At first, due in part to the brevity of such a misleading phrase, it seems a bit extreme; however, upon further inspection, it becomes more convincing.
One argument is that, rather than employing police to handle a vast range of cases alone, from mental illness to homelessness, it may be more intuitive to narrow the focus of their jobs and seek outside help. Defunding the police might look like rolling back on “proactive policing”, which was successful in New York. Doing so would save money which might fund education, housing, hospitals, and other beneficial community entities.
In theory, defunding the police is actually an attempt to alleviate the pressures and demands encroaching on police so that they can do their jobs more efficiently, lawfully, and with the respect of the people they serve. It also serves to reinvest in the community, which has been proven to lower crime rates.
In a recent interview on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” Joe Biden described his thoughts on this. He stated that, as the father of a social worker, he did not intend to enact policy which sends these social experts into the field unarmed. Rather, police should be accompanied by these specialized professionals in order to execute arrests more smoothly and with more humanity.
He also explained that federal funding would be withheld from police departments should they decline to enroll police in sensitivity training or to make police transgressions and misconduct data public.
Learning from Our Past
A circulating Netflix documentary from 2016 entitled “13th” clearly highlights the role that the government and police have had in perpetuating injustice over the course of our history. From Nixon and Reagan’s wars on drugs to Clinton’s crime bill, being tough on crime seemed to win voters. We now reflect on these crime policies and conclude that they were aimed at certain groups and neighborhoods, having lasting effects on the way Black communities are viewed and policed.
In fact, one fact-checking site wrote, “A Government Accountability Office report in 2005 estimated that the 1994 crime bill resulted in 88,000 additional police officers between 1994 and 2001, and that the influx of new police officers resulted in ‘modest’ drop in crime.” In addition, the high incarceration rates which we began experiencing in the 1970s have disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic communities.
Haven’t we received the message loud and clear, that the police cannot appropriately serve their duties to protect and aid all of us under current policies? Doesn't it make sense that trained experts should accompany police in most cases so that fewer people slip through the cracks in the justice system? Why is the issue of holding police accountable a controversial topic?
Another outcry asks police departments to undergo inclusivity training and de-escalation training, which would provide the police with the expertise they would need to serve their role.
This one is a no-brainer, which is why it is surprising that 34 states do not currently require it. De-escalation and inclusivity training would help to remind police that each case involves a human being, rather than a mere criminal, and that bias must be consciously tackled.
Too many lives have been lost at the hands of officers who were not delivering fair justice, and too many lives wasted for the sake of being “tough on crime.” True healing for everybody comes from rehabilitating our community members and inspiring people to be better.
That is why Dr. King’s message still rings true today throughout the marches across the world: injustice inflicted by our police on any of our fellow community members is a threat to our own security and morality. If the nationwide protests have demonstrated anything, it is that unwarranted police aggression can extend to even the most privileged in society.
We have to fight for everyone to be able to achieve the American Dream. There is nothing more American than exercising your First Amendment right to peacefully protest for equal justice for all. When the change finally happens, don’t be on the wrong side of history - listen, vote, educate, and change.
Though our leaps and bounds of progress have no doubt been successful steps forward, we have by no means reached the end of our efforts. Never settle for “better than it used to be”; keep pushing until we get it right.