June 2020

How do We Seek “Justice for George”?

Putting a more compassionate and humane face to a grave inhumanity cannot be justice.

by DJ Polite

George Floyd, an African American man, was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Protests have spread internationally demanding “Justice for George.” However, it does not seem as if there is a collective answer to what constitutes “Justice for George Floyd.” It would be as if, in antebellum America, everyone claimed to see the horrors of slavery. Except, after talking we learned some wanted immediate emancipation with confiscated land being given to the freedmen, and others sought gradual abolition, with slave-holder compensated for their loss, and the eventually freed-people being left to fend for themselves. And yet some others wanted to raise standards for the treatment of the enslaved.

Are these all justice? The answer is emphatically no. Putting a more compassionate and humane face to a grave inhumanity cannot be justice.   

Protesters in Philadelphia demand justice for George Floyd after his murder by police in Minneapolis. Activists have since called to defund and abolish police departments. Photo by Joe Piette, May 30, 2020 via Flickr.

Protests against police brutality and police violence are not new, and long preceded George Floyd’s murder. The system of police violence against African Americans has persisted, despite numerous reforms. Reform efforts have added community policing, increased diversity, increased training, increased funding, and yet the issue of violence remained. The injustice here was not just the wrongful death of a single African American man at the hands of an officer. The injustice here is that, in America, this single institution has continued to instill fear and anxiety in, and inflict violence on, the African American community since slavery. The double injustice here is that policing is just one institution of many that has been given institutional legitimacy to inflict physical, emotional, and mental violence on African Americans, as long as the violence remains at some ill-defined level of “acceptable” or better yet, obscured on some data report. But as a Black man, I proclaim to you that this compiled institutional violence is real, far-reaching, visceral, and takes its toll.

The “plantation police” of the U.S. Army reinforced slavery even after the Emancipation Proclamation, terrorizing enslaved people to the benefit of their enslavers. F.B. Schell, “The plantation police or home-guard examining Negro passes on the levee road below New Orleans,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, v. 16, no. 406 (1863 July 11), p. 252, Library of Congress.

Let me briefly remind you what has happened to the Black community so far in 2020. We have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have disproportionately lost the most jobs in the economic fallout. Food access has become scarcer as food deserts spread overnight. Given the reliance on private employer-based health insurance, we have lost access to medical care along with our jobs. We have been blocked out of the small business loans. And as a result, over a third of African American businesses are on the verge of collapse. Yet, we see stock markets soar, corporations bailed out, and the wealthy become wealthier. Meanwhile, working African American families and communities are suffering. We are watching elites prosper as working families and communities are further exploited and ignored.

For myself, every few days my mother or father are calling to notify me of some family member, family friend, or church member who caught the virus. Some recovered, some did not.

Add that to the fact that in recent weeks, we have seen a string of police and civilian violence against Black people. Christian Cooper in New York. Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. George Floyd in Minnesota. The names are piled onto the list of deaths of those who have passed with no justice or reconciliation for those left behind. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Added to the ones whose names are only known to single families whose stories were covered up, never filmed, and never reached national attention. A running list of community grief. Built on the trauma of living families, with grandparents who lived through Jim Crow and are now watching their grandchildren fight the fights some believed already won. Every night, I speak to my 85 year old North Carolina-born grandmother, and she speaks in disbelief that this all can still be happening. Three generations of living pain and fear, conversing on telephone lines of the fights our own family has faced from Jim Crow up to now.

Police violence was essential to maintaining Jim Crow segregation designed by white elites to plunder and oppress African Americans. Here, police arrest a young Black woman for protesting for equality in Brooklyn, NY. Dick DeMarsico, “African American woman being carried to police patrol wagon during demonstration,” World Telegram and Sun, 1963, Library of Congress.

Despite all of this, the best answer that many self-proclaimed liberals, both Black and white, have been able to muster is “go out and vote.” To my ears, this sounds like “persist in your death and suffering, fear and frustration, for five more months, and things will change.” What exactly will change? That answer is unclear or unsaid. That too, is an act of violence. This request to “just vote” requires the Black community to continue to bear the brunt of a pandemic, a depression, corporate malfeasance, and police terror on the gamble that some people, somewhere, will win an election to make some changes. In the end, lives will be lost, businesses lost, homes lost, and dreams lost as seemingly collateral damage for this electoral gamble. As Jackie Robinson wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower, “we cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change.”[1] Asking for people to suffer in silence and peace for five more months, until undefined change maybe comes for some, is a passive form of violence. That is putting equity and justice on lay-away, with full purchase on the condition that your holiday bonus of a November 8th victory comes to pass.

Protesting before the White House, Black activists connected voting with full citizenship and an end to police brutality. As we face increasing voter suppression amid a wave of police violence against protesters, white Americans would do well to remember that these rights are interrelated and produced by generations of organizing. Warren Leffler, “African American demonstrators outside the White House,” March 12, 1965, Library of Congress.

There have been several moves towards improving policing from the current drafted GOP plans, the Justice in Policing Act, the campaign proposals of Julián Castro, to the activism of Campaign Zero. But the two most radical calls for solutions have come in calls to “defund” or “abolish the police.” These demands seem more aggressive most probably because, unlike the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” they cannot be easily co-opted by corporations for a marketing campaign with zero follow through. They place an explicit financial and structural demand that is much harder to misconstrue. However, they get to the heart of the injustice, and together propose a more sustainable and equitable solution to oppression.

There is only one suitable way to seek justice in this instance: pledge to alleviate or remove the source of the Black community’s anger, anxiety, and fear. That is what is at the heart of the movements and the calls to defund or abolish the police.

If at the heart of the injustice is a system, then you cannot simply reform that system or institution to act altogether different from its design. You cannot chip away at the decades of procedure and precedent that have been built into its modern practice. What defunding or abolition ask us to imagine is not a world without public safety. Rather, they ask us to consider that police should not be first responders to all situations to begin with. These demands are a creative mandate to believe that there can exist new structures that can perform much of the tasks of policing more efficiently, effectively, humanely, and equitably. In that regard, they are the most hopeful and optimistic calls at our disposal. They refuse to concede that public safety must come with a body count, or that it must allow for a certain amount of material or psychological damage upon people.

Police have long been used by elites to attack and oppress marginalized workers. Here, Police shoot at protesters during the Bayonne Strike at the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayonne, New Jersey. killing four to protect poor wages and serve elites. “Police, Bayonne strike,” Bain News Service, 1916, Library of Congress.

To that goal of public safety without extra-judicial violence, including murder, defunding and abolition call for new social and political imagination. Together, they can also be understood as accepting policies that fit two categories: mitigation or creation. To defund the police is not a punishment. It is a mission to remove or diminish the tools of violence and aggression that are wielded against communities. Likewise, to abolish the police is not eliminate the investigation or acquisition of the “violent criminal.” Instead, it establishes new models for public safety and the delivering of public services that goes to the betterment of everyone in the community. The goods news? There exist models to do both around the nation. 

Mitigation (Defund)—Reducing harm by removing tools of the most harm, and returning that stream  of funding back to under-resourced communities:

Creation (Abolish)—Creating Alternative Institutions of Public Safety, Improvement, and Service:

  • The CAHOOTS model in Eugene, Oregon established a team of social workers, crisis counselors, paramedic nurses who respond to nonemergency and emergency calls regarding mental illness, substance abuse, basic medical care, public indecency, domestic disputes, non-violent disputes, and non-violent conflicts in K-12 schools.

Restricting the capability of officers to intimidate, abuse, or terrorize, will ensure the promise of public safety officers to protect and serve. Now, doing this will not solve the health or economic calamity befalling many in the African American community. It will not reverse decades of inequity. The rate of Black homeownership will still be near be record lows, with the gap between white and Black families at their widest. African American children will still suffer from childhood hunger and poverty at higher rates than their white counterparts. And the Black community will continue to bear the brunt of this pandemic and the depression that stemmed from it. These myriad forms of economic and social violence will still run rampant. But moves to mitigate harm and create new institutions in those gaps are a concrete first step to the elimination of a persistent source of fear, pain, and anguish.

The protests following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis have shifted the conversation from acknowledging that Black Lives Matter to concrete demands to defund and abolish the police. Photo by Joe Piette, June 6, 2020 via Flickr.

Just a few short years ago, proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter” was a radical political statement. Now, it is a social media photo filter and part of every corporation’s public statement. Even the NFL is proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter” after years of blackballing the same Black players that tried to make that statement. But the time for simply proclaiming the importance of Black lives is gone. In the face of police brutality, the Black community deserves more than just sympathy, taking a knee with us, holding our hands, and singing “We Shall Overcome” with us. And no, using white privilege as a literal shield on the protesting front lines is also not enough. The liberation of the Black community from this form of oppression will not come through singular, or even group forms of momentary heroism. Liberation will come when the system is replaced.

The dismantling of the predatory police state will not equal liberation. Unfortunately, liberation will be harder than just promising to individually “do better.” It is more precise than the goal to “end racism.” These are aspirations and mantras, not plans. A goal without a plan is just a wish. Racist oppression—white supremacy—is a system. This system relies on a series of policies, norms, and institutions. Modern policing is but one pillar, albeit one felt more viscerally now. “Justice for George” will be achieved when Black people are liberated from the numerous systems that serve to inhibit their individual and collective potential. The modern police state can and should be the first chain unshackled.

DJ Polite is a PhD Candidate at the University of South Carolina who researches race, empire, and citizenship. His dissertation topic looks primarily at the mutually reinforcing growth of U.S. Jim Crow policies and empire in the Caribbean, particularly in Puerto Rico. It explores the ways that the solidification of both relied on one other and cemented secondary citizenship status for African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and especially women of both groups. DJ also serves on the Southern Historical Association Graduate Council, holds a Gilder Lehrman Research Fellowship, and serves on the Columbia Police Department Citizens’ Advisory Council.

Further Reading

[1] “Letter from Jackie Robinson to President Eisenhower of May 13, 1958,” Digital Public Library of America, http://dp.la/item/013456168b99c2ced219c2c8fe12b898.

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