About police brutality in the United States of America

This is the first article in a series focused on understanding the racist history of the police in Oregon.

“In this individualistic nation we like to believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist. We like to believe that if there are racist cops, they are individual bad eggs acting on their own. And with this belief, we are forced to prove that each individual encounter with police is definitively racist or it is tossed out completely as mere coincidence. And so, instead of a system imbued with racism and oppression of greater society, instead of a system plagued by unchecked implicit bias, inadequate training, lack of accountability, racist quotas, cultural insensitivity, lack of diversity, and lack of transparency — we are told we have a collection of individuals doing their best to serve and protect outside of a few bad apples acting completely on their own, and there’s nothing we can do about it other than address those bad apples once it’s been thoroughly proven that the officer in question is indeed a bad apple.

So, acknowledging us, believing us, means challenging everything you believe about race in this country. And I know that this is a very big ask, I know that this is a painful and scary process. I know that it’s hard to believe that people you look to for safety and security are the same people who are causing us so much harm. But I’m not lying and I’m not delusional. I am scared and I am hurting and we are dying. And I really, really need you to believe me.” [italics added for emphasis]

— Ijeoma Oluo, “Is police brutality really about race?,” from her book So You Want to Talk about Race, p. 89

Since So You Want to Talk About Race was first published, we have witnessed the murder of George Floyd by then-police officer Derek Chauvin, now an ex-cop on trial for murder charges, who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck with his full weight for 9 minutes and 29 seconds as a crowd gathered, urging him to stop, and as other cops stood by. With Floyd pleading for his life, repeating that he could not breathe until he fell silent and unresponsive, Chauvin calmly kept his knee on Floyd’s neck, a hand in his pocket, as if he were just passing the time.

Chauvin’s detachment about the agony he was causing is pathological and chilling. What must be understood is that this cop, even as he is now rightly condemned by other police officers for his excessive use of force, is a product of the system of policing. Part of a deadly pattern now being exposed.

When I first read Oluo’s words, quoted above, I was becoming aware of systemic racism as a white person, alarmed and sickened by the murders by police of unarmed Black people, including 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

How many times had I felt physically threatened by police in my life, as a white person? Exactly one time. In my life. A cop shocking me by violently kicking a car door closed when my companion, the driver, also white, started to open it after we were stopped because we were going the wrong way on a one-way street in Washington D.C. during daylight hours. The experience was unnerving, caused by one bad cop. It never occurred to me that I should fear police in general. I was unaware of the privilege such an assumption demonstrates.

I had been spared police violence throughout my life, though I didn’t know I was being spared, and I had very little fear of police. I assumed their main job was really and truly to keep the peace. And maybe it is, but not “peace” for all.

The question, the urgent question, regarding the purpose of policing has become: peace at whose expense? Exactly who is being served and protected? What does peace mean in a system of double standards for justice? That cause perpetual fear of police for Black and Brown people because the danger is real, and it is daily present?

We must demand a system of justice for all, not just some, community members. Not to do so just because you can if you are white, is to be complicit in perpetuating a system of violence that threatens BIPOC communities, whether you want to or not.

Everyone has a neck. Everyone has blood flowing through veins, and a heart that beats. Everyone needs to breathe.

Black Lives Matter.

Article authored by Carter, LTE/Messaging Committee

Springfield-Eugene Oregon chapter of Showing up for Racial Justice, a national network of groups and individuals working to undermine white supremacy.