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The System That Killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile Cannot Be Reformed

As the killing of Black people continues, the challenge is to question the role of police in society and ask why the system requires such violence in order to exist.

There are moments when atrocities are so horrendous that they paralyze. I am feeling that sense of immobility now.

I already knew that on average, a Black person is extrajudicially murdered by the police or a vigilante every 28 hours in the United States, thanks to a study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. I had yet, however, to witness this fact in real time, until yesterday.

Yesterday, the world watched the horrendous police murder of Philando Castile take place mere hours after the videotaped murder of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, became public. For the first time, a police murder was livestreamed on Facebook. That reality is simultaneously astonishing and sickening.

President Obama responded to both killings with a statement that included mention of his task force on policing. He said:

… two years ago, I set up a Task Force on 21st Century Policing that convened police officers, community leaders and activists. Together, they came up with detailed recommendations on how to improve community policing. So even as officials continue to look into this week’s tragic shootings, we also need communities to address the underlying fissures that lead to these incidents, and to implement those ideas that can make a difference.”

This statement exemplifies how incapable the government is of ending police killings. It problematically tasks communities with finding the solutions to a state-created problem, while tacitly implying that the issue of racist police violence is rooted within our communities themselves. The culminating assertion is that it is the community’s responsibility to implement answers to these “underlying fissures” in order to “make a difference.” While this is true, it is true for reasons not intended by the president. It is always our duty to free ourselves. Our freedom will not be willingly granted by the state. Freedom is always forced. It is always asserted and taken. However, the president’s statement tacitly implies that communities experience this level of police violence due to conditions for which they are at fault, thus criminalizing and blaming victimized communities.

The government’s response to this crisis of public disapproval at police violence and killing is to convene a study/task force/benign body of appointed persons, release findings and then assert that change has occurred. This method of performance is used to ease mass anxiety because it appears to be “doing something.” But we must ask, what is the government doing? What have such appointed bodies accomplished? Have they ended police killings? Have police been held accountable for murder?

We can look to Rekia Boyd, Justus Howell, Ronald Johnson, Freddie Gray and Mike Brown for those answers. No. The killings have not ended. Police have not been held accountable for murder.

Why is violent policing a seemingly necessary component of the functioning of the United States?

We must face these hard truths if we are serious about ending this misery. If we understand that the US police evolved from slave patrols, then we can understand how police became the violent state units they are today. The police were formerly the protectors of the slave system, and they are now the protectors of the ruling powers. Their main societal role is to keep order against the reactions that inequalities produce within our society. What this means is that poor communities that are disenfranchised by high unemployment, lack of access to quality education, health care and affordable housing are violently patrolled because these conditions produce social unease. The police’s role is to contain this unease. This unease will increase where the gap between the haves and have-nots is widest. The question then becomes not how do you reform a system that is meant to suppress, but rather, can it be reformed at all?

Proposed solutions that exclude envisioning a world without police and their accompanying violence, terror and murder must be challenged. What sense would it make to ask for a kinder slave patroller when the problem is slavery itself? The same is true of US policing now. US policing has always included the violent suppression of poor people, Black people and those most marginalized as part of its inherent functioning. We must challenge ourselves to imagine a society in which this is no longer true. We must challenge ourselves to connect the role of police in society to the system in which they are called to operate and then ask why this system requires such violence in order to exist. Why is violent policing a seemingly necessary component of the functioning of the United States? We must remove the masks, the distractions, and we must get to the root. Our blood will continue to be shed until we are able to answer these questions collectively.

What societal changes are needed in order for Black people to be free from state violence in any capacity, be it slavery, prisons, police or any other apparatus, in the United States? Having a Black president is not enough; we can see that now. What is needed is not merely an increase in Black politicians; we now have the most Black representation in power in US history. It is not Black cops; we can look to Freddie Grey’s death. It is not body cameras; we can see how the use of body cameras did not save the life of Alton Sterling.

It is a question of power and who has that power. Police kill because they are being allowed to kill. Police kill us disproportionately because Black life is disposable.

Can we challenge our imaginations to picture a country that does not require our blood and our death as an inherent part of its structure? Can we organize to end the systems that work against our lives? Can we create a new society?

We must move forward with an honest assessment of why this country requires Black death as a part of its functioning. We must be courageous enough to question the roots of US capitalism, which for 400 years has used Black subjugation to build and maintain its wealth, even with a Black president in power. As Martin Luther King Jr. instructed us, we must question the very foundation of this society:

And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there 40 million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.

We must move forward with an honest assessment of why this country requires Black death as a part of its functioning.

Our goal needs to be ending the structures and systems that are producing more needless death, misery and pain — from cash bail, to prisons, to global warming and pollution, to high-priced health care. Police violence and mass shootings are symptoms of a sick society. We need courage to imagine justice beyond the confines of what currently exists. The justice we call for must not only free ourselves but create a new world in which the full human potential of us all can be nurtured and realized and where the violence that inhabits our planet is eradicated. This requires, at minimum, livable wage jobs, full education and a society free from violence and senseless killings — a society not organized around greed and profit, but around caring for the people and the Earth as a whole. We get there by remaining steadfast in our conviction that justice is on the side of the oppressed, and it is through our fight that we make it possible to create a society which enables liberation for all.

We are fighting for a world in which death at the hands of senseless violence — including the violence of the state or vigilantes, and the poisoning of the planet by pollution and war — is a distant memory of an antiquated society long ago. Understanding that our liberation is key to the larger fight to end all suffering is how we may save ourselves. It is how we may save our world. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

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