The protests and riots happening across the length and breadth of America are challenging systemic racism and police brutality with an intensity not seen in recent times. There were protests after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. There were riots after the shooting of Michael Brown and the beating of Rodney King. What is happening now in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor is at an entirely different level. It almost feels like the brutality of Floyd’s final moments has managed to touch the conscience of this racist nation. But is it strong enough to wake this country up from decades of indifference to systemic racism?
It is important to understand how insidiously widespread racism is in this country. The brutal treatment of black people at the hands of police is a direct consequence of racism that pervades this society. Any solution aimed at ending police brutality executed against black people cannot come to pass without addressing America’s bloody history of slavery and the systemic racism that this not-distant history has morphed into.
400 Years of Anger
The protests and riots are more than an aftermath of Floyd and Taylor’s deaths. They represent an explosive outburst in response to 400 years of oppression of black people. The protests are for the nearly 388,000 Africans who were shipped into America for a life of slavery. They are for the 246 years of inhuman treatment meted out to them, from the time the first slave ship came into Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. With the passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865, three years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was supposed to be abolished. Nearly 4 million black people were freed by emancipation, as per the 1860 census. Surely slavery should have ended there? Sadly, it did not.
The white man found other creative ways to oppress black people. He created Jim Crow laws that ensured their segregation even after emancipation. He created the poll tax to suppress their voting rights. Ironically, Jim Crow was not even a real person. He was an African American caricature created by a white man, to satisfy his perverted desire to dehumanize black people. During the Jim Crow era, white men took sadistic pleasure in lynching African Americans. The protests are for the 3,446 black people lynched to death between 1882 and 1968, and for the many whites who suffered the same fate for opposing the practice. Did the oppression of the black people end with the abolition of Jim Crow in 1968? It absolutely did not.
It happens today in the form of police brutality that is reserved especially for black people, itself a carry-over from the slave patrols. It is present in the form of voter suppression that stifles black voices. It happens in endless subtle ways, denying black people equality. Even among the Asian American and Latino communities, African Americans are viewed with racial prejudice.
As an Indian American, I know how the color of a person’s skin clouds our judgment and vision. During a recent Black Lives Matter protest, when a question was asked how many in attendance have black friends, barely a few hands went up. Had the question been how many white people they have as friends, without doubt every single person would have put their hand up.
When discussing interracial marriage, I have had a couple of Indian American friends commenting that they would be fine with any partner their kids choose, as long as they are not black. It is a tragedy that immigrants come to America with their prejudices on caste and color intact, only to imbibe white people’s racism and become more deeply entrenched in their biases.
The air rings with cries of ACAB today. I did not know ACAB stood for “All Cops Are Bastards” until earlier this week when I saw it on a poster my kid had made. When they asked me what I think of it, I replied that I cannot agree with that sentiment. After all, not all cops are bad. I argued with both of my children hoping that I could convert them to see the logic in my reasoning.
Five days later, it was me who had been converted to seeing their point of view. Later that weekend, I attended two Black Lives Matter protests in the Bay Area, one in Saratoga and another in Palo Alto. When I got a chance to speak at the open mic, I said: “There are many good cops in every police department. But a single bad cop in any PD is one bad cop too many. All it takes is for a single drop of poison to spoil an entire gallon of good milk. When that happens, we discard the entire gallon of milk. It is time to have zero tolerance for bad cops in police departments.”
Cries of ACAB are reverberating at the protests not just against killer white cops like Derek Chauvin, Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson. They are also against Hispanic American cops like Jeronimo Yanez, who shot and killed Philando Castile; against Asian American cops like Tou Thao, who stood by watching Chauvin kill Floyd; even against black cops like Alexander Keung, who has been charged with aiding and abetting Floyd’s killing.
Yanez, Keung and Thao’s behavior shows how broken the law enforcement system is and how it subsumes anyone who enters it, irrespective of their race. ACAB is a cry against all cops who have been complicit by their silence and the morally bankrupt police unions who protect their own even if they commit murder in broad daylight.
In 2008, the United States House of Representatives issued an apology for slavery. In 2009, the Senate followed up with a slightly modified version. These congressional apologies sound empty and hollow, coming across as nothing more than a pathetic effort to shove under the rug the atrocities committed against African Americans and Native Americans and move on.
The House resolution mentions “its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.” The Senate resolution aims to “express its recommitment to the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and calls on all people of the United States to work toward eliminating racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from our society.”
The Senate also went a step further to guard and protect America’s ill-gotten gains from the blood and sweat of African Americans and the looting of the Native American lands with the disclaimer that “Nothing in this resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States.” It is appalling and laughable that the Senate had the impudence to even consider the possibility of America ever being able to offer meaningful reparations to the four centuries of horror it has inflicted and continues to inflict on those whose land it stole and those it enslaved to work this stolen land.
The House resolution promised to “stop the occurrence of human rights violation in the future.” Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castille would disagree. The Senate resolution “calls on all people of the United States to work toward eliminating racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from our society.” Those calls evidently fall on the deaf ears of law enforcement. Had they heard it, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd would be alive to corroborate that sentiment. It is as well that the sham of an apology from Congress wasn’t signed by any president — not even by the first black president of this country. I have said many times that America must genuinely apologize for its bloody past. Today, I know what form that apology should take.
Say It Like You Mean It
With the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter growing louder, three schools of thought have emerged on how to address police brutality. The reformists, led by Campaign Zero, envision a world where the police are more accountable and have better relations with the community they serve. Skeptical of any kind of reform being effective, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants to divert taxpayer money toward social programs and stop the violence before it starts, a policy that is somewhat misleadingly referred to as “defund the police.”
Then, envisioning a world entirely without police, the most radical plan of all calls for abolishing policing altogether. Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of “The End of Policing,” shares in an interview his view of a radically different society.
Politicians talk about criminal justice reform and incremental change to make policing better. Body cams became a requirement in most police departments since 2014. Despite the behavioral deterrent, black Americans are still getting shot and killed by police at more than two times the rate of white Americans. Democrats want to legislate a ban on chokeholds and prohibit certain no-knock warrants, both part of the reform package championed by Campaign Zero. But a racially-biased rogue cop will still manage to kill, even without a chokehold. Such knee-jerk measures are cosmetic and will do little to temper the brutal violence police inflict on black people. Without a strict zero tolerance policy toward rogue cops, none of the reforms will make any difference.
Even with a zero tolerance policy, the current state of policing is so rotten that there is no hope for redemption. I believe the answer lies in rethinking the entire idea of law enforcement by replacing the concept of policing with public service. Embracing the ideas advocated by the ACLU will eventually lead to the end of policing as we know it. Getting rid of policing, an odious concept from the days of slavery, can serve as the first true olive branch America can offer black people as an apology.
Then, with the entire population of African Americans and Native Americans standing tall, every single American should take a knee. Irrespective of their race, each and every cop should kneel, admitting to their complicity in a system so unjust and wrong. Americans must kneel to reflect, repent and reform, and contemplate the magnitude of the irreparable damage they have collectively caused to the lives of black people.
They must repent genuinely, so when they apologize, it doesn’t sound as hollow and perfunctory as political apologies do. They must embrace the reforms that African Americans want with an open heart. They should kneel not just once to absolve themselves of their guilt. They should kneel as many times as it takes to be worthy of forgiveness from black people. Even if it takes 400 years. For that is how long African Americans have suffered.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.