The Unchanging Police: Deja Vu in Blue

In the summer of 1952, protests erupted in New York City following the brutal police station beating of two Black men – one of them required brain surgery. A secret agreement the police and the Justice Department soon came to light, that shielded the NYPD from brutality investigations by the feds. The protest movement led, among others, by NAACP local president Ella Baker, called for resignations, review of pending cases, transparency about brutality complaints and other demands. The police, in the end introduced anti-bias trainings and a ‘human relations committee’ (including non-cops) to oversee it.

Eight hundred miles away and twenty years later I was helping Ninure Saunders, from Chicago’s Kenwood High School’s Black Student Union, crank out copies of their underground newsletter (the BSU was a banned organization) on the school’s ditto machine. I wrote a few paragraphs about racial and class tracking in the public schools. Ninure had an piece – a rant, really – calling out the illusion that Black cops would be an answer to police violence.

Fast forward another half century. We’ve now seen decades of anti-bias trainings, civilian review boards and affirmative action hiring in city after city. The murder of Tyre Nichol by an integrated crew of Memphis police would not have surprised Ninure, if she was alive today. The first Black cops, after all, were specifically hired to police Blacks. That is still pretty much their lane. That would explain the study I saw some years back that showed racial profiling increased after one California city hired more Black officers..

Ella baker would not be surprised by the flood of promises following the murder of George Floyd or by how quickly they evaporated. And no one who’s paid attention to police response to people’s movements should be surprised by the assassination of forest defender Tortuguita in the struggle to stop the dystopian Cop City project in Atlanta. The suppression of political resistance is one of the two core functions of the police machinery – the other being maintaining the country’s racialized class system.

Being unsurprised doesn’t mean we’re unbrokenhearted, unfurious or undetermined. What we can’t afford is to be unorganized. The forces that be are once again calling out for (you guessed it!) more training, more civilian review boards and better hiring standards (they’re quiet about more Black cops, for the moment). They keep insisting on implementing the same treatment plans without ever making a diagnosis. A diagnosis would involve taking a history. And that would reaffirm what history keeps proving – that racist violence and political repression are not failures the police system but its core mission. It is the enforcement arm of an economy of plunder. It may feel like a tall order to take all that on. But given what it’s doing to our planet, we really have no choice.

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