Do police in the United States keep anyone safe and secure other than the very wealthy? How do history and global context explain recent police killings of young Black people in the US? And what alternative ways might there be to keep communities safe? These are the questions explored in Truthout’s first print collection, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States. Click here to order the book already hailed as “an invaluable resource” and “an indispensable primer” on the movement against police impunity.
In the foreword to Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza outlines the history and scope of racist police violence in the modern United States, and what has led to the rebellions and protest movements arising in recent years.
Black people are fighting for our right to live while Black.
2010 marked the beginning of a historic period of Black resistance to police terrorism and state-sanctioned violence. Beginning with the murder of Oscar Grant in January 2010 by then-BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, and continuing with the high-profile cases of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice and too many others, police violence, particularly in poor and Black communities, has taken center stage nationwide.
The rebellion that ensued in August 2014 after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was for some a politicizing moment, the defining moment that spurred them into social justice activism and/or organizing. For others, it was yet another moment to advance a demand that has been emanating from our communities since Black people first reached the shores of America — a demand to stop the physical, emotional, economic and political slaughter of Black bodies.
Police violence is not a new phenomenon in Black communities. Modern-day policing locates its origins in the slave economy, which helped build the wealth and the industrialized economy of this nation and of other nations around the world. Policing in the context of slavery was intended to ensure the protection of private property owners — with the private property being Black human beings.
After slavery was “legally” abolished in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment, policing adapted itself to maintain white supremacy through the use of force and racial terror by making slavery and indentured servitude illegal — except for anyone convicted of a crime. The so-called emancipation of Black people from slavery transformed physical bondage into systems of economic, political and social disenfranchisement. The criminalization of Black people and Blackness, reflected in the prison-industrial complex, is an extension of slavery and the slave economy.
Sharecropping, Jim Crow segregation, and other forms of exclusion and exploitation that kept (and keep) Black people from accessing social, economic or political power have been rigorously enforced and maintained with the assistance of police departments. Beginning in the 1930s and throughout the height of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, it was commonplace for a local sheriff, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, or the local mayor to attend an evening meeting of the Ku Klux Klan — not necessarily because they hated Black people (though some certainly did), but mostly because they feared the loss of white power over Black human beings and our potential.
In the above context, police violence was used to reinforce and maintain an economic structure that preys on Black bodies, where those who “owned” the most Black bodies secured the political power needed to control the furtherance of such an arrangement. It continues to be so used. There are now more of us grappling with the contradiction of how to keep our communities safe when those who are entrusted with our protection and safety are rarely (if ever) charged when they themselves are the purveyors of harm.
The rise of prisons as a booming industry has led to entire local economies that are dependent upon police, policing, punishment and retribution, largely against Black bodies—whether they be cisgender or transgender, gay or straight, of men or of women. Furthermore, the security and surveillance industries provide economic security for a group of people that has largely been dislocated from the formal economy. At the same time, those industries target Black people, interrupt Black families, and continue to further the notion that Black people are to be punished and watched, and are certainly not to be trusted.
Inside those cages where we have disappeared more than 1 million Black bodies, many are forced to work for corporations like Kmart and J. C. Penney, who subcontract with the state to manufacture jeans inside the walls of prisons. Others are forced to provide critical public services like fighting fires for less than a dollar a day. The capture of Black bodies to be bought or sold has always been a big business in the United States, and while there may no longer be an overseer with a lash, there is now a deputy with a gun.
Criminalization and police violence do not just impact Black communities, though Black communities are disproportionately affected given our relative population. Latinos and First Nations people are also severely affected by policing that preys predominantly on poor bodies of color.
When Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and I started #BlackLivesMatter — an organizing network fighting back against anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned violence — in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin, we understood that what’s happening to Black people in this country and around the world is much larger than just police and policing alone. Poverty, unemployment, lack of access to quality and affordable education, and HIV/AIDS are just a few of the issues impacting Black people disproportionately to our percentage of the population.
When Zimmerman murdered an unarmed Black child and got away with it, we saw not just an individual act of cowardice and prejudice expressed as vigilantism, but also the effects of a highly racist society that sees Black bodies as disposable. Even Zimmerman’s defense — claiming he was scared for his life and forced to act in “self-defense” — reflects the deeply ingrained fear of Black bodies, particularly Black male bodies, in a society shaped by the largely racist war on drugs, which demonizes Black men and portrays them as a potential threat that must be eliminated.
Of course, police violence and state-sanctioned violence do not just impact cisgender Black men. Black women like Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride and Mya Hall are also caught in this web. Roughly 35 percent of Black trans folks have been arrested or held in a cell due to bias at some point in their lives, and more than half of Black trans folks report discomfort seeking police assistance, according to the National LGBTQ Task Force.
Just last year, a police officer was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting Black women during traffic stops in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In fact, Black women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by the police than we are to be killed by them. Yet police kill us too: Natasha McKenna and Sandra Bland were killed while in police custody, and questions still remain after their deaths.
Black people are being disappeared at the rate of one every 28 hours by police or vigilante violence, yet those who are taking their lives are rarely (if ever) held accountable.
Many living in America might never have thought to question the need for police — and in particular this style of punitive policing — were it not for the social uprisings that have taken place over the last five years (most notably the last year and a half ).
What can and will be done to hold police accountable for the violence that they enact in our communities? What happens when we question the fundamental assumption that police and policing are our only option for community safety? These questions are far from theoretical. A vision for a new world in which police and policing are replaced with new ways of keeping each other safe and holding each other accountable is already brewing. The articles in this collection are meant to further this crucial discussion, describing the challenges that we face in a society that is increasingly over-policed and offering provocative ideas for what a new world might look like.
1. See Adam Hudson, “Beyond Homan Square: US History Is Steeped in Torture,” originally published at Truthout on March 26, 2015 and collected in Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?
2. See John Arvanitis, “The U.S. Prisons Network: A Cheap Supply Chain With No Checks & Balances?,” CSRwire, June 11, 2014, available at https://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/1383-the-u-s-prisons-network-a-cheap-supply-chain-with-no-checks-balances.
3. Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, “Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by Police, Security Guards and Vigilantes,” updated edition (October 2013), available at https://mxgm.org.
Copyright (2016), Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission of Truthout and Haymarket Books.