“Black Lives Matter” dealing with police abuse that is anything but new

There has never been a time that I remember that African-Americans and other minorities were not in the sights of racist policing practices and individual racist police officers.

When I lived in Delaware and Maryland in the 1960s, societal racism was ugly and obvious to all who had eyes to see.  And it often wore a police uniform. 

Shortly after I moved to the Chicago area in 1966, the Puerto Rican community on the northwest side of the city protested angrily after police shot and killed a young Boricua during the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade – this was known as the “Division Street Riot.”

In 1969 Chicago police, at the instigation of Cook County State’s Attorney Ed Hanrahan, murdered the leadership of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, in cold blood.  Soon after I became active in the social justice movement on the Southwest Side of Chicago, immigration cops gunned down an unarmed Mexican undocumented immigrant in  broad daylight, for no reason other than that he was trying to evade their clutches.  This led to angry protests too.

This was the tip of the iceberg, and was a national disgrace of horrific proportions.  In addition to killings and beatings, there were the frame-ups, some of them engineered by J.Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO, which sent numerous African-American men and women, including many anti-racist activists, to prison based on falsified evidence and perjured or coerced testimony. Some of them are still being exonerated and released to this day.

This has continued for a long time:  Think of Mumia Abu Jamal, Leonard Peltier and many others.  I have no doubt that innocent people still sit in jail, or that some, at least, were executed.  Not all have been African-=American or minority, but the proportions tell the tale.

Recently I have been asking friends who follow issues of police abuse if they think that the current spate of atrocities against young black and Latino men and women (and Native Americans, too, which is too little publicized) is something new, a new spike.  Or rather is it that the explosive growth of the use of social media is revealing, as never before, what has been going on for years – for centuries, in fact?

Answers vary but most people I talk to conclude that in fact this has been the situation for a long, long time-it is nothing new.   It is a continuation of the violence of slavery, of the era of the Ku Klux Klan and lynch law, and of similar brutality aimed at Native American and Latino folk.   That this is not a new phenomenon should not cheer or comfort anybody.  It shows how deeply institutionalized racist violence is in this country.

This, I suspect,  is why there was such an exasperated reaction to the clueless response of some white politicians to the slogan “Black lives matter,” namely to sententiously intone “ah, but all  lives matter, my friends.”  That is a wrong response on several levels. First of all, it is insulting because it sounds as if the speaker thinks that African-Americans  don’t  think that all lives matter.  I have never heard anybody in the Black Lives Matter movement say “white lives don’t matter” and to imply that such is the thinking is offensive.  It also comes across as an effort to distance the speaker from the urgent and justified protest messages, perhaps to pander to the backwardness of sections of the white electorate. 

The point is that white people are not being profiled and hunted down by racist cops and crackpot vigilantes because they are white, while African Americans obviously are, with a new horror hitting the news at least every week.  So the “Black lives matter” slogan is a call for action and focused, urgent attention to specific abuses which reveal a widespread and deeply rooted pattern of institutional and ideological racism.  And as we hear of a new horror every week, this action is of the highest urgency, literally a matter of life and death.

Many different ideas are being put forward, also, on what, specifically, to do.   Many have some merit:  Better supervision and discipline of police, videocams, better education and training, community control of police and so forth. 

There are more questions we need to be asking, however, before we can tackle the totality of this monstrous situation:

Given that racism, both institutional and as mass ideology, is the root cause of police brutality toward African-Americans and other minorities, why is it so difficult to control? 

Is the political will to control it missing?  Obviously yes, but this should be the focus of more attention. The most powerful people in the country should not be let off the hook while we focus on individual police officers.

What it is about the motivational structure of gatekeepers in the criminal justice system that encourages police misconduct?  What about the fact that prosecutors advance their careers by getting many convictions and not by promoting justice?

What about the political leadership?  We know that massive incarceration of African-Americans and other minorities has a political impact by reducing the African American vote.  To what extent is this done on purpose to suit the ends of the political right and the economically powerful?  

And to what extent are abusive police deliberately used by political and economic elites-by the ruling class, or segments of it– to intimidate minorities for purposes of control?  This has certainly been the case in the past, in the slavery days, in the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan and the Texas Rangers, and under J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. Is it also not the case with today’s mass incarceration phenomenon, which is so heavily focused on minorities?

Every year major cities pay out millions of dollars in judgements and settlements of police brutality and abuse cases.  This comes out of taxpayers’ pockets, so why is there not a taxpayers’ rebellion against abusive policing?  Are the fines, judgements and settlements too low? Or perhaps should we fight for jail time not only for abusive police officers but also for corrupt and abusive prosecutors?

We hear of many cases in which prosecutors commit the offense of withholding exculpatory evidence from criminal defense attorneys.  This is a factor in many of the cases in which prisoners, after spending years or decades in prison, are exonerated by DNA or other evidence.

How come the prosecutors who stole the lives of these people are not charged, convicted and imprisoned?  They seldom even lose their jobs. Why not?  Who and what protects them from suffering the consequences of such criminal behavior?

How about the substitution of police intervention for mental health intervention?  We hear of many tragedies that occur when an individual goes into a psychiatric  crisis, perhaps entailing florid hallucinations and delusions that completely distort his or her grip on reality,  and the family, unable to cope, calls the police, who end up killing the individual they were expected to help.

Police are absolutely not trained to deal with psychiatric cases and their first impulse is to raise their voices and otherwise escalate the situation.  The ill person then becomes even more agitated instead of calming down, and tragedy ensues.

Why are there not other agencies that families can call in in these situations?  Should we not look at the way budget cuts have hollowed out systems of psychiatric intervention?  What about the thousand other ways in which the shredding of the social safety net contributes to the criminalization of poor minority youth?

All of these questions have answers and solutions, but none of this can be resolved outside of the context of a militant mass movement.  A new law here and there, another social welfare agency, are all very well but there has to be a political mobilization behind such things or they will fail as they have in the past, and the status quo of institutional and ideological racism will simply reassert itself.

The African American and other minority communities are mobilized behind the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. It behooves progressive whites to get behind this struggle and not to “backseat drive” it, and especially not to try and tone down the message.

Photo: AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.