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.