by Katy Sian (Northern Police Monitoring Project)
Despite white America’s attempts to forget, lynchings of black bodies are not simply part of a grisly and shameful chapter in the history of the US. Lynchings are very much the present, with black body, after black body, after black body, murdered by white supremacists masquerading as police. This is borne out of a system built on racism; a society whose laws, culture, politics, and education, serve white supremacy. The United States, it seems, is only united in its disregard, disrespect, and dismissal of black lives. Police racism and violence knows no bounds in this context, with officers inflicting a regime of daily terror upon African Americans. They do not serve to protect, but serve to kill. They do not serve to keep communities safe, but serve to keep them defenceless. They do not serve for the common good, but serve for the exceptionally bad.
The US has always criminalized black bodies, so much so, that being black is in itself a crime. This is a society that prefers to incarcerate masses and masses of black and brown bodies, rather than afford them the right to an education. Communities of colour are kept in poverty, rather than being provided with the access to healthcare, welfare, and resources that they so desperately need. It is a society that prefers to kill innocent black bodies, rather than see them live, grow, and prosper. The US was built by the hands of African Americans – their blood, their sweat, and their tears – and how are they repaid? It seems that the shackles, chains, servitude and oppression, wasn’t enough, now bullets fired into their backs, chokeholds, and officers kneeling on their necks to the sound of I can’t breathe.
The myth of ‘threatening’ racial ‘others,’ particularly black bodies, has served to legitimize police brutality throughout history right up to the present day. This of course is not unique to the US; it is standard practice across all Western nations. In the UK, as Stuart Hall documents, there was the construction of the mugging crisis in the 1970s, which linked so called mugging to black youth, so much so that, “mugging and black crime are now virtually synonymous”. By falsely equating mugging to black youth, official responses in the form of oppressive street policing in inner city areas i.e., ‘trouble spots,’ were legitimized.
The murder of George Floyd, and the many other black men and women before him, and after him, really has to make us question the role of the police in society. Unfortunately, as so often is the case when these horrific events happen, we see the all too familiar ‘bad apples’ argument being replayed. In this narrative it is the individual officers who are to blame. We must question how many times this claim can be made before we reach a point and finally admit that it is the whole system that is rotten. Recent events have certainly contributed to the opposing of the ‘bad apples’ framework, as more and more recognize that the problems with the police are indeed systemic.
The police for black and brown working class communities have always represented what Sivanandan refers to as, ‘an army of occupation’.[ii] The notion of the ‘bobby on the beat’ who is trusted and supported by the community is therefore a fantasy, and couldn’t be more further away from the realities experienced by communities of colour who remain targeted and pursued in all walks of life, from the war on drugs to the war on terror. Over the decades, the police have become increasingly militarized with tactics being deployed around coercion rather than consent. Equipped with armed vehicles, assault rifles, grenades, and snipers the police continue to spread terror with a state sanctioned capacity to use violence on their targets. They have more and more power, and less and less accountability, often operating with total impunity.
In his 2018 book, The End of Policing, Alex Vitale makes a compelling case for the abolition of the police. He demonstrates that the key purpose of the police is to supress poor, working class, and non-white communities. He argues that more police than ever before are engaged in more enforcement of more laws, resulting in astronomical levels of incarceration and abuse, particularly aimed at black and brown communities. For communities of colour then, the police have an increasingly pervasive, and aggressive, presence. In light of George Floyd we can no longer ignore or deny the toxicity inherent within policing. Reform is not enough, and the mobilizations and campaigns around Black Lives Matter and wider calls for police and prison abolition need to be taken seriously, if we want a better society and future for all.
For too long now we have seen a liberal complacency, and an attempt to weaken anti-racism, prompted by a false belief in the post-racial ideology, i.e. the idea that the West is somehow free from racism. Over several decades, this liberal denial of racism has paved the way for a dangerous unchecking of white supremacy, which has facilitated the landscape that we find ourselves within today. The Black Lives Matter movement is therefore significant to call out and call to account the racism that has been left to fester for far too long. It is an exciting and transformative movement that is rebuilding and strengthening anti-racist and abolitionist movements, allowing voices of the dispossessed to be heard across the globe. From the protests in the US, to the removal of statues across Europe, and solidarity from the Palestinians, these are critical uprisings that are forcing the West to own up to its brutal colonial history, and recognize the way in which those imperial legacies continue to inflict pain and suffering among black and brown bodies throughout the world.
In her book, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Angela Davis alerts us to the necessity of forging transnational and intersectional solidarities arguing that, “we will have to be willing to stand up with our combined spirits, our collective intellects and our many bodies”. This seems symbolic of the Black Lives Matter movement today. It represents a force for real change through its ability to connect so many of us around the world fighting for social justice, allowing our collective demands on the state to be heard. This has to be the start of a new global and hegemonic anti-racist politics, and now more than ever is the time for all of us to be courageous, after all, as W.E.B Du Bois reminds us, the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.