Department of African American Studies statement on policing in the U.S.

The Department of African American Studies condemns the callous disregard for human life demonstrated in the actions taken by the Minneapolis Police Department during and after the arrest and murder of George Floyd. We stand with protestors across the country and around the world who are declaring the sanctity of his life and the lives of Black people everywhere. We call for meaningful systemic changes to policing in this country, an end to police violence, and we applaud protestors who are putting their lives on the line in pursuit of a better world.

In particular, the department commends and stands in strong solidarity with Nakia Wallace-a dual major in African American Studies who will graduate from Wayne State this summer-who has brilliantly and courageously helped lead Detroit's movement. She embodies the very spirit of African American Studies and the Black radical tradition and has our full support. People often ask us: "What can you do with an African American Studies major?" The answer, as Nakia's actions have shown, is that you can change the world.

The sheer number and scope of protestors around the world signals the level of outrage we are experiencing after witnessing asphyxiation and the subsequent efforts of the system to justify the killing like a modern-day lynching. We share this anger and demand change.

Locally, the mainstream media in Detroit-replicating the fear-mongering role it played in 1967-has done all it can to depict militant, non-violent protests as "violent protests" or "riots." They have done so by lumping the actions of people downtown, including an unrelated murder to the protests, and created a false narrative of violence and nihilism that stoked fear and misrepresented facts. Yet there has been no looting and minimal violence towards police in Detroit. In fact, the only riots that have taken place this past week have been police riots. The media, though, has continually praised the DPD despite its utilization of military equipment and tear gas on protestors for violating curfew. In truth, Detroit has experienced a series of protracted, non-violent protests that have been followed by police riots on several occasions.

We object to the militarization of the police everywhere, including Detroit, as it has led to increased violence against protests and has emboldened racist vigilantes across the world. In the U.S., hyper policing has disproportionately impacted African American communities who were already suffering from the various impacts of the crime against humanity that was and is the Trump administration's handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Even as citizens of this country gathered to protest the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many more, the police department of Louisville, Kentucky recently perpetrated yet another senseless killing of a Black man. David McAtee was beloved in his community and if not for the massing of a heavily armed and violent police presence in a black neighborhood miles away from protests, McAtee would still be alive.

Rather than an intense media focus on "riots" or so-called "violent protests," we stand in solidarity with protestors everywhere and demand a reexamination of policing more broadly. We support calls to demilitarize and defund police departments, as well as enforceable and independent civilian oversight. Race and racism are obviously significant components of the issue. The police in America operate as an armed wing of racial capitalism designed to protect the interests of the few at the expense of the many. While abolition is necessary, reforms are needed now to literally get the foot of white supremacy off of the collective necks of Black people.

The combative nature of police officers is further complicated by the fact that pursuing people for presumed minor infractions -- be it George Jackson in the 1960s or George Floyd today -- generates revenue for local jurisdictions. What's more, having to maintain a large fleet of squad cars is an expensive use of tax dollars and the apparent need for muscular cars increases the carbon footprint of police departments.

People are tired and angry, and rightfully so. After days of peaceful protests, too often followed by nights of looting, it is understandable that people want signs of change. We are tempted to find solace in images of kneeling police officers or officers hugging protestors, but we know that these rather symbolic gestures do little to solve the enduring systemic problems.

When you see pictures of the cops kneeling or standing peacefully with protestors, remember we've seen this before. With each spectacular revelation of the quotidian violence faced by Black people of the last several decades, we've been offered images of cops smiling, hugging, dancing, and kneeling with African Americans. These pictures are used to argue that not all cops are bad, suggesting that there are only a few bad apples. The problem, however, isn't with individual cops (although these problems certainly exist), but with the historic and ongoing linkage between policing, white supremacy, and socio-economic inequality.

If these photos give you comfort, we ask you to consider why. What are the police doing in these pictures that ensures or even hints that police violence against Black and brown people will stop and that justice will take root? Are they removing and relinquishing their guns? Their tasers? Their handcuffs? Their batons?

Are they demanding the firing of the so-called bad apples and calling them to account? Are they shunning their coworkers who are members of white supremacist groups? Are they willing to lay down their shields and serve the people rather than attack them? Are they refusing to Stop And Frisk? Are they demanding new forms of justice beyond prison and punishment? Are they demanding training in restorative practices? Are they demanding that cities reassign their bloated police budgets to schools, teachers, social workers, or social services?

Better background checks should be done on people who want to become police officers that include psychological as well as social assessments. Their names should be posted in local papers before they are hired so that community members have an opportunity to lodge objections.

States should not automatically press charges for civil disputes, violent or otherwise. The objective is peace-making. That end can be better met by means other than rigid adherence to penal codes, which has overloaded courts and prisons.

Police tactics need to be reimagined and the entire penal system in the United States should be overhauled. We stand in solidarity with those doing this work, either in organizations or on the streets.

Additional readings:

  • President Wilson's message regarding the death of George Floyd
  • What's Going On?: Office of Multicultural Student Engagement hosts a series of workshops, dialogues
  • Wayne State University Police Department establishes headquarters of the National De-escalation Training Center
  • JSTOR's Institutionalized Racism Reading List
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