Police brutality is without a doubt, one of the most important social justice issues of our time. With the combination of social media, cell phone recordings, and a decentralized movement in Black Lives Matter, it has become quite clear that the state-sanctioned terrorism that has longed plagued the country has mobilized a new generation as it hits closer to home.
Many identify the Ferguson uprising and the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson in 2014 as the source of the Black Lives Matter’s focus on police brutality. A month later, the death of Eric Garner, also by a police officer in New York City, would further cement the group’s focus.
Black Lives Matter, however, had originally come about as a response to the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2013, who was acquitted on all charges. Zimmerman, of course, is not a police officer, but his actions of killing a young Black boy and facing no repercussions because of it, mirror that of many police officers in this country.
Police brutality has come under scrutiny in a way that is nuanced. For many Black Americans, however, the notion of unjust, oppressive and fatal police actions are not new. Black Americans have been saying this for years, and oftentimes in the political and social climate, their cries have fallen on deaf ears. What has changed?
For one thing, technology has changed our social consciousness entirely. The traditional media used to act as a gatekeeper for what was newsworthy and what wasn’t. That means most people only knew what they saw on television. Now, thanks to the technology of recording devices on cell phones, and through the ability to reach millions of people in the form of social media, social awareness is brought directly to the public — no gatekeepers needed.
What does this mean? This means that we know of Sandra Bland and we can speak her name. This means we know of Walter Scott and Freddie Gray and we can fight for justice for him. This means we know of Laquan McDonald and we can demand that he rest in power. But there are too many names.
Unfortunately, however, we know that as much as the scrutiny of police is an ongoing national observation, it is still anything but a deterrent in the use of excessive force. USA Today gave a tragic report on their research on police brutality earlier in the year: at least twice a week, an African-American was killed by a police officer in a seven-year period, from 2005 to 2012. This research was based on “justifiable” deaths reported to the FBI. Knowing enough about the insidious reality of the system, it is fair to say that “justifiable” is often used broadly among law enforcement.
In 2015, according to the “Killed By Police” database, 1107 people were killed by police as of December 6. Last year, around the same time, that number was 1032; and in 2013, it was 712. Not disputing that these raw figures don’t tell us enough about population, and whether the deaths were out of self-defense (which may be questionable as this is often self-reported, and as we’ve seen in the last two years, unreliable), and a host of other factors that have to be considered. But what we do know is that the number of deaths by police officers has increased.
In 2015, it seems we’ve learned that police brutality has continued to be a deadly reality of American society. While the technology has aided us in awareness, and social movements has raised our consciousness, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of the institution of the police as it functions in a racist society, as well as the interactions between Black people and the police.
We know from several examples such the Planned Parenthood shooter mere weeks ago in Colorado, that even in dangerous situations, police officers can bring unarmed White men alive when they have committed grave crimes. But it still seems a huge difficulty to keep unarmed Black men and women alive in interactions with police.
We know that the police are engaged in a useless drug war that has done nothing but proliferate crime while targeting some of the most vulnerable groups in society. We know that police brutality is racialized and deep-seated and such a part of American society that even when we have recordings of police, people choose not to believe their eyes or their conscience, and still demand the oppressed be silent. It is almost unbelievable until you read history and realize that power and resistance has always worked this way.
In analyzing American history and how social movements affect change, the reality is until we can find a way for police brutality — particularly targeted at Black Americans — to economically affect all Americans, especially White Americans, the change will not come fast enough. And as Black people, we will far too often continue to hold our collective breath, hoping that us and our loved ones and those we advocate for, are not at the wrong place at the wrong time. This is not good enough.
So I urge you in 2016 to vote with your dollar whenever you can. Because if the only way for Black lives to matter is to show Black dollars matter, then we must put our money where our mouths are.