clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The white supremacist history of cops and how structural racism pushed the #DefundThePolice movement

“A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.” – Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. REVOLT breaks down the racist root of the formation of the first police forces in America and what it means for the call to defund the police today.

cops Getty Images

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

Though widespread through much of the country’s foundation, structural racism is particularly stringent in the 1838 establishment of American police forces. Beyond political jurisdiction, these units’ primary predecessors are the colonial night watchmen of the north and the settling slave patrols which traversed the south. And while the latter enforced America’s vilest institution, both orders are rooted in the protection of this nation’s shipping interests, and the economic oppression and control of Black people.

Through centuries of white privilege, Black abolitionists have been on the front lines organizing and advancing essential works for marginalized peoples of all cultural backgrounds. These pioneering efforts made strides toward the aspiration of racial equity. The ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 was swiftly met by Jim Crow laws imposing continued prejudicial Black codes, which were upheld by newly established police forces. Moreover, former watchmen of various public grounds and confederate soldiers began to pivot into altered uniforms — as judges and police officers. These men preserved symbols of white supremacy by maintaining the original form of slave patrol badges, batons, and the Confederate flag of their pre-revolutionary past.

The methodical upholding of white supremacy is filtered considerably through policing and entrenches itself beneath contemporary funding. The subtleties of American police forcesdiscriminatory infrastructure are not inconspicuous to those suffering their consequences. Black people are “incarcerated at a rate about 5 times higher than whites, but prisons are disproportionately located in majority-white areas,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude except as a “punishment for crime.”

This predominantly Black prison population has sustained a multitude of functions such as the manufacturing of products sold to the government including law enforcement equipment and military gear. Ultimately, policing remains one of the grandest catalysts to a capitalistic byproduct of institutional racism: mass incarceration. Chronicling exploitive culture, many have utilized social media, applying the hashtag #DefundThePolice, and extending this dialogue with questions concerning police budgets, and demands for revisions in policies.

With consideration of historical facts, preceding conspirators who led various liberation movements, and eons of resistance through civil rights activists, one can see how abuse from police continues to impede upon Black and Brown communities. In the digital era, it is hard to dismiss stacks of excessive force complaints against cops when present-day videos confirm both police brutality incidents and homicides. In light of the present state of civil unrest, REVOLT contrasts several events aiming to broadened perspectives.

On Apr. 30, American and Confederate flags were hoisted, adjacent to signs etched with words like “Freedom,” by a mostly white assemblage of anti-quarantine protesters outside of the Michigan State Capitol. Several of those rallying against their Coronavirus stay-at-home orders were armed with bulletproof vests, nooses, and rifles, as they pushed through the entrance confronting law enforcement. No one in attendance was killed.

The president posted on Twitter, “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people,” in response to the right-wing insurgence. A few weeks later, across state lines in Minnesota, George Floyd, a security guard, was arrested by a cop — with whom he sometimes worked overlapping shifts at a local establishment. Floyd was apprehended for the minor offense of allegedly purchasing a cigarette pack with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill.

Public degradation from the cop made bystanders grab their cell phones to record Floyd being taken into police custody. In a video, you can hear a woman acknowledge herself as a Minneapolis firefighter before asking the nearby cops to check on his pulse. Three uniformed abettors witnessed the now ex-cop, Derek Chauvin, ignore his urge, “I can’t breathe.”

Chauvin kneeled on the handcuffed man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. He sequentially died of asphyxia, and soon the world knew George Floyd’s name. Even so, the May 25 incident report detailing the atrocity stated Floyd “physically resisted arrest,” which surveillance footage discredited.

The video circulation of yet another white cop abusing his power created complex discourse — on how Floyd’s death echoed the tragic 2014 murder of Eric Garner — and the reaction of law enforcement being much different than those toward the white Nationalist just weeks prior. Anguish surrounding the already disproportionate rate of Black death caused by policing furthered the notion that the system is broken. Despite the Coronavirus pandemic’s surging death toll, protests ensued across all 50 states, D.C., and worldwide before Chauvin was arrested on May 29.

That same day, mostly peaceful protests were greeted with almost “84,000 National Guard members... performing domestic response missions in support of their governors. The number surpasses the more than 51,000 Guard members activated after Hurricane Katrina,” according to the National Guard website. The financing to support this militarization of forces, alongside police, struck some as odd — considering the slew of headlines detailing healthcare workers bleaching and reusing face masks — due to a shortage of resources after COVID-19. Withal, massive movements of solidarity continued beside armored vehicles and riot gear.

Visuals of protesters chanting the names of deceased victims of police brutality spread virally, including the Louisville EMT, who was killed by cops in her sleep parallel to a “no-knock” warrant, Breonna Taylor. The rise of hashtags like #SayHerName and #DefundThePolice overwhelmed social media platforms. Each sentiment reiterated the collective consensus that those who are enforcing laws should not be above them.

The fatal familiarity of policing has roused an outcry that amplifies differently than those of the past. Tamika Mallory’s, a renowned activist, public address in the wake of Floyd’s death rang true to conspirators: “America has looted Black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here. Looting is what you do. We learned it from you. We learned violence from you. If you want us to do better, then damn it, you do better.”

On Jun. 7, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle their local police department in response to the unprecedented uprisings. The news triggered multiple cities to follow suit with their systemic re-imaginings including Portland’s Superintendent, Guadalupe Guerrero, who announced that her state’s largest school district would discontinue the work of school resource officers.

This glimpse of the future promotes an understanding that while it is true not all cops kill, the protection of Black and Brown communities by way of police is questionable with consideration of racial bias statistics and the framework of policing itself originating in Black bondage. There are benefits to defunding the police nationally and developing public safety systems that hold regard for all human life from inception.

George Floyd, Titi Gulley, Breonna Taylor, Pedro Villanueva, Oluwatoyin Salau, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Sean Monterrosa, Natasha McKenna, Rayshard Brooks, Melissa Ventura, and so many others lives’ cannot be reduced to a pool of numbing hashtags. These consistent losses are insufferable and brought the modern movement to a fever pitch. Revolting is a continuation of their names and expresses to supremacists that their whiteness won’t be weaponized without consequences.

Silence is consent. Gen Z is illuminating corruption hand-in-hand with baby boomers. America spends 100 billion dollars upward annually on policing. #DefundThePolice is not abolitionists requesting the same costly reforms of yesteryear. Budgets are a reflection of cultural values, and comptrollers are beginning to use their inside voices when discussing how they intend to yield results to the swells of activists outside of their place of business. After momentous demonstrations, Los Angeles City Council voted to research methods of defunding their Los Angeles Police Department’s budget by $100 million to $150 million.

It is not lost on citizens that in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression — a dangerous period that hindered access to efficient healthcare — bodies nationwide were forced to mobilize against both a regulated quarantine and the exact police brutality they were contesting. The president took to Twitter and urged, “Get tough police!” inciting the continuation of violence. If only he had led by example at the start of this reckoning and came outside.

Instead, we know the president went into an underground bunker when the country began to show its disdain for discriminatory policing. His promises to deploy military forces against citizens exercising their First Amendment rights at protests have not been empty. Tear gas might be banned in international warfare, but it has been used against nonviolent gatherings. Moments such as his appearance outside of St. John’s Episcopal Church stand out — where the president utilized U.S. and military police to remove protestors for a Bible-posing photo op.

Despite teargas, rubber bullets, bloodied batons, and even NYPD kettling in hundreds of protesters on the Manhattan Bridge, dissidents have demanded an analysis of restorative justice on all fronts. Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, noted that NYPD’s annual six billion dollar budget exceeds that of the city’s “health, homelessness, youth development, and workforce development combined.” Coronavirus’ death toll for Black and Latinx Americans — who are a vast portion of the city’s genetic makeup — outpaces that of all other citizens.

New York City, specifically the 14th Congressional District, became the nation’s COVID-19 epicenter with the virus ravaging The Bronx and Queens. As five boroughs simultaneously navigate through three crises, Mayor de Blasio struggled to defend how he “believes all New Yorkers deserve a chance to succeed in the greatest city on earth.” The politician resisted City Council Speaker Johnson’s proposal for a billion-dollar-plus sum package of cuts to the NYPD’s current budget.

#DefundThePolice calls for prioritizing. Beyond state officials advocating for residents with emphasis on regional socioeconomics, backing for locals’ necessities, living conditions, and advancing community programs which promote safer neighborhoods is crucial. In divesting funds proposed for policing, directors can assess individual community needs from their roots, rectifying errors.

Mayor de Blasio received an open letter from hundreds of NYC education department employees, urging him to reduce the NYPD budget and invest in the Black, Brown, and immigrant students’ programming. These children caught the worst of an unrelenting reality. “The priorities of our city and state in this budget are clear. Children last, NYPD first,” it stated. Vulnerable communities like these frequently confront social exclusion.

Much of an organization’s power stems from its financing. When communal budgets, including those of hospitals, libraries, arts, and educational programs, are underfunded, the disparity of now can be anticipated. The majority of American schools do not have any nurses and counselors, per a 2019 ACLU report on the country’s education department as a whole.

Supporting unbalanced budgets without holding municipal government officials accountable can leave communities exposed to over-policing nationwide. Additionally, police departments’ procedural shifts, like those who implemented body-camera equipment, expenditures have the potential to soar into the millions. Ahistorical protocols have become an issue of public safety for numerous reasons. Amidst all citizens taken into police custody, Black people continue to lead in the national death toll and are roughly twice as likely to be killed by a cop than non-Black Latinx people. Besides, the advocacy group Mapping Police Violence’s records indicate an increase of Latinx killings by police, adjacent to the 1,098 citizens they killed last year.

Racial bias influences various schemes and requires funds for improvement. By not redistributing resources, neighborhood administrators miss the opportunity to weigh in on the causes of locals’ overlooked hindrances, such as the effects environmental racism has on mental health and behavioral patterns. Over 1,200 Black people have been shot and killed by police since Jan. 1, 2015; according to The Washington Post’s database tracking police shootings. Adopting unilateral policies has the ability to strengthen prejudicial notions such as those swarming “Black on Black crime” — not considering that crime is ordinarily a direct result of a person’s socioeconomic proximity. Politicians deflecting from policy change does not alter facts.

Mayor de Blasio will bring a “Black Lives Matter” street to each borough. Yes, it is beautiful when public figures symbolically uplift communities. Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Washingtonian herself, both renamed 16th Street N.W., a street leading toward the White House’s front lawn “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” and painted the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in yellow letters down 16th Street N.W. itself following the killing of George Floyd. Regarding representation, Mayor Bowser’s provided imagery was groundbreaking. The world knew an illiberal president would be forced to wake up to it.

Even so, Mayor Bowser received mixed reviews on whether or not her contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement were performative. Questions by local media outlets and activists such as Black Lives Matter D.C. (a chapter of the Black Lives Matter Global Network), challenged her position concerning policy change. The organization even added “Defund The Police” to the street art, claiming the artwork was “fixed.”

There is a distinct difference between Mayor Bowser and numerous other politicians, who are presently being interviewed about the importance of the movement and value of Black lives in their communities. In this case, it is not a contentious “why now?” moment. How can she not care about Black lives? Mayor Bowser lives one. So, with her biographical note, “Like county executives, Mayor Bowser runs the local jail, and, unlike most mayors, also oversees the public school system,” her followers argue that she is in a commanding position to implement change by way of policy. Her proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year estimates to $578 million for the police, which would be a 3.3% increase for the Metropolitan Police Department. The figure brought forth juxtaposing perspectives on her intent for the city.

Our elected officials have seen the power of the revolutionists ahead of contemporary crescendoes of “F**k 12” existing beside “No justice. No peace” the nation had experienced success following a mayor and city council dismantling a city’s police system. In 2013, Camden, New Jersey maintained a homicide rate equivalent to El Salvador’s and was arguably linear in its excessive-force complaints. Camden’s administrators dissolved their force entirely, restructured their funding, and created a new one. Today the city has the lowest homicide rate it has experienced since 1987. The concept is not radial — it has been done.

In reducing police-civilian interaction, marginalized communities are limiting the frequency of violent alterations, which often stem from structural racism. Since 2013, the #BlackLivesMatter mission has partly been to “...build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” What is happening with the police today has been taking place for centuries.

George Floyd’s killing by police has stimulated the most American protests since the ‘60s. There is global fury in the aftermath of generations of white supremacy. A new Defending Black Lives’ petition to #DefundThePolice reads: “Black communities are living in persistent fear of being killed by state authorities like police, immigration agents or even white vigilantes.” At this point, what other proof do you need?

Sign up for the newsletter Join the revolution.

Get REVOLT updates weekly so you don’t miss a thing.