Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Now Walter Scott. With yet another instance in which a white police officer has killed an unarmed Black man and amid growing concerns about racial tensions between citizens and police, along with the Department of Justice’s report that found the Ferguson Police Department to be guilty of sustaining systemic racism, it is safe to say that we have reached a crisis in our country. Simply put, on average, we have overwhelmingly white police departments in charge of protecting communities of color. But they don’t seem to be doing much protecting.
As an undergraduate here, I took courses in American history and Black studies primarily. My thesis was on the 1967 Detroit “riot.” I put quotation marks around “riot,” because my research concluded that the civil unrest and violence in 1967 transpired because of police agitation and abuse, and longstanding racial divides and hostility between the 95 percent white department and the more than 50 percent Black citizenry. This is a view shared by many in the fields of Black studies and American (especially Detroit) history. In fact, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner and the other 10 members of the investigative commission, whom President Lyndon Johnson charged with understanding the bloody conflict in Detroit, initially forwarded this view in 1967. The racial divide in Detroit between the white police officers with guns and the Black citizens generally without them was potent enough to cause a conflict that resulted in dozens of deaths and millions of dollars in damage.
The police department in Ferguson is disproportionately white. According to The New York Times, the police department in North Charleston is 80 percent white while the population there is 47 percent Black. Historically speaking, it is not all that surprising that there are instances of extreme violence in these places. The fact that this has continued more than 50 years after the Kerner Commission pointed out this problem, is incredibly difficult to stomach.
What are we to do? First, it is probably best to have this discussion and to point out the consistencies in these police-caused conflicts. Hopefully, that can bring about an effort to construct police departments that more accurately reflect the constituencies that they’re intended to protect. Police need to be familiar with and respectful of their communities — not afraid, like Eric Garner’s killers admitted to being. There must be more of an emphasis on community policing. But second, and because that first movement will take a long time to implement (assuming people are on board), it is important that we learn to assess, criticize and hold accountable our police departments.
Evident in the endless acquittals and not-guilty verdicts in Garner and Brown’s cases — don’t forget that George Zimmerman was found not guilty — the police simply have too much power with too little oversight. And really, who can hold the police accountable? I have had interactions with police, and during them all I have felt totally powerless and at the mercy of someone who clearly felt superior and like he had total authority over me. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a Black man interacting with a white police officer. Not only do the police assume authority and superiority over Black people — especially men — but they assume legal use of lethal force with impunity. Walter Scott’s case, for which the police officer is charged with murder, is an exception for now — we shall see what verdict comes — but on the other hand, there is too much evidence.
And people continually and unequivocally come to the defense of police departments in this country, as if they, the ones with guns, are the people in danger, not the people, overwhelmingly Black, who are shot and killed daily it now seems. Police do take great risks in their jobs, but it increasingly seems that they are not more at risk than people. There are no police for the police, only we, the people. If we do not speak up against police misdeeds — which are often criminal misdeeds — and wrest some of the power that they hold, then instances like these will continue. If they continue, it will not only be a blemish in the history of the United States, but it will also be a piece of evidence in the argument that our great nation is descending into the likes of a police state.
Sam Myers is an LSA senior.