I am more frightened of a policeman than I am of a large black man. For me, this has always been the case. The role of police in society, as the American theory of justice goes, is to execute the law according to the will of the people. The role of the people, in turn, is to communicate its will through civic participation. The police are not doing their job. But neither are citizens.
Even the most dangerous large black man—or any regular citizen for that matter—must act while conscious of the repercussions for his actions if caught. Any criminal urges he may have are often suppressed by the threat of justice. Why is this not true for policemen like the one that shot John Crawford dead in a Wal-Mart while holding a toy gun? Why is this not true for the officer(s) responsible for the death of Eric Garner, who was choked to death after breaking up a fight? Or for the policeman that shot the unarmed Michael Brown dead in the streets of Ferguson in broad daylight, called for crowd control back-up before calling an ambulance or reporting the shooting—whose name has still not been revealed? Or the policemen that arrested journalists reporting on the Brown tragedy for taking pictures of them while in a Ferguson McDonald’s without any explanation?
We are a far cry from the ideal of true law enforcement—the concept of policemen serving a community collaboratively, and removing the cancer that breaks its harmony. Across the United States from Staten Island, NY to Ferguson, MO, police are terrorizing and too often killing citizens of the community they are tasked with protecting—citizens who are unarmed, and according to either witnesses or cell phone footage posing no legitimate threat. For a regular citizen, the charge for murder committed not in self-defense is extensive prison time and in some states, death. Why don’t police operate with very real fear of this same consequence?
A land where the police force defends the civil liberties of its citizens, its actions adhering to the law no less than the citizens it serves—this is called a democracy. A land where the police preside over its citizens, dictating what behavior is and is not acceptable using intimidation and suppression of civil liberties—this is called a police state. In communities like New York City and Ferguson, we exist in the latter. The police keep us safe as long as we comply with their version of peace—and even if we are found innocent in the court of law after challenging a policeman’s version of justice, it will only come after a lengthy bout with the court system, expensive legal fees, the threat of violence, and social stigma. They decide what gets reported, how it gets processed, and how a cop is penalized, if at all. The only instances we’ve seen of police being held duly accountable are when the public reacts with such abhorrence that you can taste dissonance in the air.
Reactionary protests alone will not remove our police state from power. Protests call for a response to a situation that’s already happened, and only occasionally do they force a politician or police commissioner to push through a pet policy to appease the demonstrators. When they do, the crowds disperse until another innocent unarmed man is shot, and the cycle starts again.
I am proud of the citizens of Ferguson for assembling in response to Brown’s deplorable public execution, but we must be careful not to let them off the hook. How many of them voted in the last election to determine their local public officials—some of the few people that can take the town’s task force to task? How many have attended a town hall meeting to address police tension, or organized a periodical check-in between citizens and precinct captains to draft community solutions? How many have canvassed around the city in order to gain the necessary number of signatures to force a public ballot vote on stripping the local police force of its unjustifiable military artillery, selling it back to its suppliers, and using the profits to fund peaceful resolution trainings for the police department? Voter turnout for the Missouri primaries among registered voters in St. Louis County (to which Ferguson belongs) was projected at twenty percent last week. As much as we live in a police state, we also live in a state of civic apathy.
The original vision of the American police system was to enforce the laws of the land—laws of the land that were supposed to be decided by its common citizens. Whether it is righteous or not, we must participate in the political process or the police stop serving us. It is the citizen’s right and duty as members of a democracy to hold its government accountable, and the only way to do this is to engage in local politics. Each time a disgusting incident like Michael Brown’s murder occurs, there is palpable fury that could be channeled into a community meeting where citizens draft a resolution to police violence and propose it to local political leaders. They don’t accept it? Vote them out next election. Vote in someone who mirrors the concerns of your community. Hold your public servants accountable.
It sounds hard, and it is hard. But it is much harder to process the loss of life over and over when it could be avoided. I am not blaming the victims here—there is no justification for police brutality or excessive force, regardless of how low civic engagement is in a given community. But pragmatically, civic action is the solution. These police officers that have murdered defenseless, innocent citizens are in the wrong—but without accountability, there is no way to ensure the just behavior of the police force. Go to your community meetings, call your legislator, talk to your neighbors and build a coalition that can use its force to keep the task force in line. Power is a vacuum; someone will always hold power. America was born under the premise that the People hold the power, and are the vanguard of their own civil liberties. By opting to not participate in the political process the People have forfeited this power, and in many communities the police have seized it.
The police have forgotten who is in charge—We, the People, are in charge. The police work for us, but it’s up to us to remind them.
Drew Lombardi, NYC Program Associate
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