NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, May 27th, 2020

To ensure Black Lives Matter, we must scrap oppressive systems for equity-based ones

There are no words to ade­quate­ly describe the anger and grief that our team is feel­ing in the wake of the mur­der of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of a group of peo­ple who were sworn to pro­tect Min­neapo­lis fol­lowed the equal­ly hor­rif­ic mur­ders of Bre­on­na Tay­lor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County.

As an orga­ni­za­tion, we have always been com­mit­ted to the val­ues of empa­thy and mutu­al respon­si­bil­i­ty. We believe that Black Lives Mat­ter, and we have sup­port­ed that cause through­out our his­to­ry. In addi­tion to advo­cat­ing for social jus­tice here at home in the Pacif­ic North­west, NPI staff and board­mem­bers have marched to #TurnOn­The­Wa­ter in Detroit, to protest Joe Arpaio’s hor­ri­ble regime of cru­el­ty in Phoenix, to sup­port the efforts to reform polic­ing in St. Louis, and to denounce white suprema­cy and fas­cism in all their forms in Atlanta.

Today, we recom­mit our­selves to the work that we know must be done to stamp out racism and oppres­sion. Fury must be chan­neled into action. Grief and mourn­ing must be the pre­cur­sor to orga­niz­ing and mobi­liz­ing for change.

For if we do not dri­ve change — if we do not dis­man­tle the sys­tems that do not val­ue BIPOC lives — then this cycle will sim­ply repeat and the list of names that now includes George Floyd, Bre­on­na Tay­lor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Gar­ner, Michael Brown, Fred­die Gray, and San­dra Bland will grow even longer.

Struc­tur­al, sys­temic change may seem out of reach, but that does­n’t mean it is not attain­able. As the inter­na­tion­al civ­il rights icon Nel­son Man­dela once observed: “It always seems impos­si­ble until it is done.” 

He’s right. A dif­fi­cult task may be dif­fi­cult, but it’s not impossible.

We must come togeth­er in the after­math of these recent ter­ri­ble events to secure the change that we know we have long need­ed. We must rec­og­nize our com­mon human­i­ty and unite more peo­ple around our finest tra­di­tion­al val­ues, which have inspired gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans to pre­serve in pur­suit of a more per­fect union.

Jus­tice for Ahmaud Arbery, Bre­on­na Tay­lor, George Floyd, and oth­ers like them isn’t enough. We must replace the oppres­sive sys­tems that don’t val­ue Black lives or indige­nous lives or any oth­er lives besides white lives with sys­tems that are root­ed in equi­ty. It is these rigged sys­tems that per­pet­u­ate the vicious cycles of vio­lence that peo­ple of col­or have become accus­tomed to.

This coun­try’s recent efforts to build a net­work of mil­i­ta­rized police forces have result­ed in the cre­ation of one of the oppres­sive sys­tems that I’m talk­ing about. In his book Rise of the War­rior Cop, Radley Balko writes at length about the destruc­tive trends that have reshaped police depart­ments, noting:

If even the ear­li­est attempts at cen­tral­ized police forces would have alarmed the Founders, today’s polic­ing would have ter­ri­fied them. Today in Amer­i­ca SWAT teams vio­lent­ly smash into pri­vate homes more than one hun­dred times per day. The vast major­i­ty of these raids are to enforce laws against con­sen­su­al crimes.

In many cities, police depart­ments have giv­en up the tra­di­tion­al blue uni­forms for “bat­tle dress uni­forms” mod­eled after sol­dier attire. Police depart­ments across the coun­try now sport armored per­son­nel car­ri­ers designed for use on a bat­tle­field. Some have heli­copters, tanks, and Humvees. They car­ry mil­i­tary-grade weapons. Most of this equip­ment comes from the mil­i­tary itself.

Many SWAT teams today are trained by cur­rent and for­mer per­son­nel from spe­cial forces units like the Navy Seals or Army Rangers. Nation­al Guard heli­copters now rou­tine­ly swoop through rur­al areas in search of pot plants and, when they find some­thing, send gun-tot­ing troops dressed for bat­tle rap­pelling down to chop and con­fis­cate the con­tra­band. But it isn’t just drugs.

Aggres­sive, SWAT-style tac­tics are now used to raid neigh­bor­hood pok­er games, doc­tor’s offices, bars and restau­rants, and head shops, despite the fact that the tar­gets of these raids pose lit­tle threat to any­one. This sort of force was once reserved as the last option to defuse a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. It’s increas­ing­ly used as the first option to appre­hend peo­ple who aren’t dan­ger­ous at all.

Balko wrote those words in 2013. Near­ly sev­en years lat­er, I recalled them when I heard about the deaths of Bre­on­na Tay­lor and George Floyd.

Both lost their lives at the hands of indi­vid­u­als who had tasked with uphold­ing the law, but end­ed up com­mit­ting mur­der instead. Those indi­vid­u­als had been rad­i­cal­ized by a bro­ken polic­ing sys­tem that encour­ages law enforce­ment per­son­nel to behave more like sol­diers than keep­ers of the peace.

The use of choke­holds, tear gas, rub­ber bul­lets, pep­per spray, and the like does not make our com­mu­ni­ties safer. More­over, police offi­cers are not made safer by wear­ing body armor, tot­ing mil­i­tary grade weapons, and dri­ving around in for­ti­fied vehi­cles to car­ry out their duties. Nev­er­the­less, espe­cial­ly since Sep­tem­ber 11th, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has doled out enor­mous sums of mon­ey to police depart­ments in an attempt to get them to militarize.

This mil­i­ta­riza­tion trend — com­bined with the latent racism sad­ly still present in many police forces — has been a dis­as­trous and dead­ly combination.

It is there­fore of vital impor­tance that we demil­i­ta­rize the police. This is not the only sys­temic change we need, but it is one of them, and it’s an impor­tant one.

Our soci­ety needs police, but we need all who choose a career in law enforce­ment to actu­al­ly serve as police and not as part of a pseu­do-mil­i­tary force.

How the law is upheld mat­ters. If offi­cers are trained like sol­diers are, we can expect them to behave like sol­diers, which is not what we want.

Demil­i­ta­riz­ing the police will entail chang­ing our laws… and our bud­gets… and our norms. It won’t be sim­ple or easy but it has to be done. If Black lives are to mat­ter, then we must do more than march and protest and hold vig­ils. We must change who rep­re­sents us and what deci­sions they make.

In the dif­fi­cult days ahead, we will pri­or­i­tize empow­er­ing those who want to do this work. At NPI, we make a dif­fer­ence through research-dri­ven advo­ca­cy; we believe that research yields data and insights that are need­ed for devel­op­ing win­ning strate­gies for elec­toral and leg­isla­tive success.

We are proud of our past research sup­port­ing the abo­li­tion of the death penal­ty and De-Esca­late Wash­ing­ton’s Ini­tia­tive 940. And we’re ready to build on that past work.… because we know how much it is need­ed. Lives are at stake.

In the weeks, months, and years ahead, we will con­tribute our time, tal­ent, and trea­sure to ensure that Black Lives Mat­ter. We rec­og­nize this is a cause that will need our con­cern and resources on a long term basis. Head­lines fade; the mass media can be expect­ed to shift its atten­tion once it has tired of report­ing on this sub­ject, like it has in the past. But NPI’s com­mit­ment will remain.

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