From The Daily: The history of policing and the power of protesting

Wednesday, June 3, 2020 - 4:48pm

Black Lives Matter protest in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Black Lives Matter protest in Ann Arbor, Michigan Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff

On Monday, May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. This incident was a final breaking point and has galvanized outrage from communities all over the country, sparking protests and calls for justice across the United States. The unjust death of Floyd is not an isolated incident by any means, nor is it unprecedented, nor should it be a surprise to anyone who has access to news and media outlets — this is a tale as old as time, one that has happened to an unfathomable number of intersectional Black citizens. Closer to the University of Michigan’s campus, in Ypsilanti, Mich., protesters gathered on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 26, after a video was circulated showing a white police officer punching Sha’Teina Grady El, a Black woman, in the head multiple times. 

Building awareness about and a consensus against these horrific, racist acts of violence has to be a priority. But doing so safely and effectively is important as a pandemic rages on and police departments continue to aggressively crackdown on those who speak truth to their power. 

First, it is imperative to offer a historical context into the nature of policing agencies in America when wanting to approach conversations about the current Black Lives Matter protests occurring across America and around the world. The birth of modern-day police officers in America can be traced to a multitude of political, economic, legal and historical conditions. Most importantly, perhaps, modern policing departments can be traced to slave patrols and night watch groups, which were both maliciously designed to control the behaviors and freedoms of minorities — most notably Black and Native Americans. In the southern colonies of the United States especially, origins of policing were rooted in racialized social orders and in the economy that so heavily depended on individuals that were enslaved. Slave patrols and night watches assisted wealthy landowners and maintained economic order by recovering and punishing both enslaved and freed Black individuals who did not adhere to white societal standards. 

The vicious and abhorrent rationalizations of slavery and racism did not end after the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the U.S. With the rise of so-called vigilante groups who resisted abolition and Reconstruction after the Civil War, America continued to perpetuate deep racism, oppression and injustice toward Black Americans. Due to the traditions of slavery and racism that are, unfortunately, so deeply embedded within this country’s history, these vigilante groups felt it their duty to uphold the narrative that Black individuals were sub-human. 

Coinciding with the onset of the second phase of post-Civil War Reconstruction, the most infamous vigilante group, the Ku Klux Klan, was founded. Notorious for brutal campaigns of violence against Black individuals, “local law enforcement officials either belonged to the Klan or declined to take action against it.” Due to law enforcement’s involvement with the infamous group, Congress eventually passed the Enforcement Act of May 1870 and two more Force acts — also known as the Ku Klux Klan acts — which acted to prohibit the assembly of groups with the intention of violating constitutional rights of minority groups. However, this legislation, along with many more legal events, has not suppressed the inhumane practices of racial abuse and oppression that have persisted in America. 

Today, we are witnessing the continued perpetuation of racial injustices and violence from modern-day institutions against Black Americans. From being disproportionately affected by health inequalities that have been made most apparent during COVID-19 to repetitive injustices perpetuated by the criminal justice systems in America, it is clear that what has been done so far is not nearly enough. During this global pandemic, many disparities and corrupt systems have come to light — ranging from the exploitations of essential workers who are primarily POC to healthcare inequalities and biases to precariously unfair shortages of protective equipment for frontline workers — which has undeniably showcased where the values of our country’s leaders lie.

While our healthcare workers are “at war with no ammo” — forced to use expired masks and perform invasive procedures on COVID-19 patients without any personal protective equipment — local police forces tout a saturation of protective gear and riot gear when confronting protesters. This disparity forces the financial hypocrisy of this country to light. In response to the jarring lack of PPE for healthcare workers, President Donald Trump stated, “the Federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping … we’re not a shipping clerk.” However, he quickly changed tune when American citizens took to the streets to protest, mobilizing nearly a dozen federal agencies to “dominate” protesters. 

Right now, it is most important to stay safe and keep friends, community members and loved ones safe as well. However, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board understands the boundless difficulties of doing just that when our country is fighting both the COVID-19 pandemic and racism. The fact that Black communities are having to gather in large numbers during a pandemic to protest their right to stay alive, all the while being disproportionately disposed to having higher rates of non-communicable diseases is not lost on us. This is why we, as an editorial board, encourage resourceful, respectful and safe protesting. 

Because of the pandemic, many individuals who would normally opt to practice activism in person at protests are not able to. This may be the result of immunocompromised family members, personal health reasons, working essential jobs, etc. If this is the case, there are many ways to protest unjust, racially oppressive systems from home. Considering donating to bailout funds for protesters who have been arrested, boycotting organizations or businesses that continue to perpetuate racism or exploit Black creators, researching ways to stop offering funds to local policing agencies while simultaneously supporting Black businesses are some of the first steps one could make. 

Social media right now is a huge platform for activism, information and resources. It is imperative, however, to utilize these platforms to the best of our abilities. This includes active interactions with the media while trying to educate yourself and/or others about current events and how we can move forward. It is very easy to be passive when dealing with social media activism, a term designated “slacktivism,” which can, unfortunately, block access to important, helpful information. Consider the recent event of #blackouttuesday, where millions of Instagram users reposted a black square with the hashtags #blacklivesmatter, #blm or the aforementioned #blackouttuesday. This quickly clogged the media platform, which is an essential space for many individuals across the country to access real-time updates about protests or from friends or acquaintances, as well as spreading information about resources, safety and what changes are being demanded.

While anyone is free to post what they want, within guidelines, on social media platforms, it is important to pay attention to what Black individuals are saying during this time. If you sincerely want to support protesters and the Black community, it is necessary to examine your role in society and dig deeper into why these racial injustices continue to persist. On social media platforms right now, there are many resources made available and accessible for individuals looking to expand their understanding of topics of anti-racism. This includes education about the differences between structural vs. individual racism; a graphic about how the murder of George Floyd was just the tip of the iceberg; “how to donate to BLM when you have no money;” and comprehensive lists of books, films and podcasts you can invest in for the sake of your own consciousness on the systemic issue and millions of other resources. While the previous examples were all thought-provoking or called for active participation while channeling support (even if that means you just have to go to YouTube or Google and type in the link), many posts are much more performative and allow passive, non-productive activism. While flooding feeds with trending posts may feel necessary to fit in or show your support for the movement, consider the content and the information that you are reposting and whether or not it is helpful to the audience you have on social media platforms. 

Protesting, showing support and activism can all be done in many different ways, especially because of the methods of organizing and communication we have that past generations have not had access to. Some are protesting in the streets, some are educating themselves, some are donating, some are having conversations with family members and friends. Now, we must begin to think about what we can all do moving forward and how we can channel productivity out of all forms of protest. How can we inspire those who are still opposed to the movement to join in? Can we have documented motives going into each protest? What elected officials can we contact to demand reforms? How can we incite change in our communities? These are all valid questions that constitute an institutionally complex, 400-year issue. 

Every successful protest and resistance movement must adapt to address the unique circumstances into which it develops. Today that means meeting the demands of a pandemic that impacts everyone, but particularly exploits and ravages America’s most vulnerable communities. This means continuing to leverage social media campaigns, defunding corporations and communities that are against the cause — a cause that is simply justice and a recognition of humanity in those who built our nation. This means fundraising for organizations that fight for protesters and supplying resources to those who need it most. As we build-up to the 2020 election, that also means registering as many people to vote as possible and encouraging people to vote not just in a presidential election, but in their state and local ones as well. Galvanizing the spirit and power of the protests and converting them into political capital is crucial to passing progressive laws and policies that target corruption in law enforcement. Finally, speaking up about racial injustice, with friends, family and in every community is a must if America is to even begin to purge racism from its ranks.