Allies vs. Victims: The Police Reform Movement is Missing a Huge Opportunity

A couple of days ago was the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson Missouri. We all remember the images that came out of that event. The chants, the crazy police response, firing gas canisters into groups of protesters. Personally, my most visceral memory is of sitting with my wife, watching the announcement that the officer who killed Michael Brown wouldn’t be tried. Not that he was found not guilty, but that he wouldn’t even be brought to trial. I mostly remember feeling a deep, visceral anger, mixed with hopelessness and frustration. I sat there shaking and screaming at the “prosecutor” on the TV screen, who sounded more like a defense attorney for the cop. I think my wife was shouting louder than me. I think we both wanted cry. Maybe we did.

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders in Ferguson, Aug. 13. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

In the year since a lot has changed, some for worse, but a lot for the better. The bad news is there have been over 1,000(!) police killings in the year since. The better news is police brutality, especially as it relates to the mistreatment of African-Americans, has become heavily scrutinized at a local and national level, like never before in my lifetime. Even more hopeful is that there is a growing movement calling for police accountability, and the prevention of deaths at the hands of cops, across the country. This movement has drawn the attention of mayors, governors, and presidential candidates, and has already won some important reforms. But there is more work to do. And the left leaning movement for police accountability is making some big mistakes.

Strategic Mistakes

Before you read this next paragraph I need to be very clear about something. There is systemic racism in this country when it comes to police behavior. African-Americans are disproportionately targeted by police, and treated with disproportionate violence by police. Statistics bear this out, and I believe it to be true. Calling attention to it is important.

THAT BEING SAID. Casting the movement against police brutality in exclusively racial terms is a huge mistake.

According to the (left-leaning) Washington Post, over the past 5 years 60% of people killed by police have been white. The other 40% has been pretty evenly split between Black and Latino. In a country where only 12.5% percent of the population is black, this is disproportionate and deserves a response. The fact remains however that well over half the people killed by police are white. And let me tell you something. They’re not upper-class suburban people, they’re poor and rural (Here’s the map of police killing’s in the last year. See for yourself).

“It’s not about Race it’s about Class” (and vice versa)

Right after Ferguson, I heard a conversation on NPR that exemplifies the liberal response over the last year. A white man called in to a panel of black intellectuals (I think it’s important to note that they were all presumably upper class) discussing the issues of police brutality etc. He was quickly dismissed and hung up on after saying something along the lines of “it’s not about race, it’s about class”. The panel mocked him gently for a moment then moved on. The first thing that popped into my head was “what a missed opportunity”.

See, when all the Ferguson stuff went down I was appalled, but in looking for the silver lining, I found something to cling to: this was a great organizing opportunity. This was the type of issue that could actually bring together rural whites and urban blacks. I know plenty of people that have been horribly mistreated by police in my hometown, all of them young white men. Some have been beat up. Luckily, no one I know has been killed yet. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, or it won’t. In the absence of a statistically significant black population, the police target the poor, and those they perceive to be dangerous: young men. This is why, perhaps more than any other, the sentiment generally captured by the phrase “Fuck Tha Police” is shared by young redneck men and young black men alike. Obviously, most cops are good people doing a tough job, and “FTP” is not a constructive sentiment. Regardless, there is a need for reform, and the last year could have been a huge opportunity to organize rural whites and urban blacks together. It would have led to important cross-cultural sharing and learning. The man that called into NPR probably didn’t have any close black friends that he could learn about systemic racism from, but I guarantee he didn’t trust cops. By hanging up on him instead of attempting to have a conversation that made the obvious clear–it’s about race and class– the panel turned a potential ally into a potential enemy. This is not good organizing for a movement that needs all the allies it can get.

Sherriff Buford Pusser, and the stick he used to turn people into vegetables for the crime of drinking alcohol

Sherriff Buford Pusser, and the stick he used to turn people into vegetables for the crime of drinking alcohol

Instead of seizing this opportunity to organize two divergent groups of people into a winning coalition however, as a movement, we have painted ourselves into a corner. Any time anyone suggests that there might be a class component to police brutality, they are either shouted down or dismissed. The people doing the dismissing and shouting down typically–and I can’t stress this enough–are not poor. They are almost always either black intellectuals, or even more often, white suburban liberals seeking to be “good allies”.

Meth Labs and Teens with Weed

Two things happened over the last couple weeks that crystallized this for me. First, I was driving up north for a visit. In a tiny town, on the side of the road were upwards of 20 police cars at one house. For the rest of my drive, I rolled around a series of WTF? themed questions in my head. When I got to my parents house I searched Google and Twitter to figure out what had happened. Finding nothing on any of the newspaper or TV station’s websites I finally found it on some “alternative up north news” blog. Someone had been running a meth lab, and the police kicked down the door and shot him. He died. Because it was out in a field, there were no witnesses. We’ll never know whether the police account is true or not. And because small town journalists with drastically limited resources typically have an easier time covering the county fair than any crime, it will never be investigated. Just a poor person dead at the hands of the police.

A few days later, scanning through Twitter, I came upon the story of Zachary Hammond. A small town, white, teenage boy, Zachary Hammond was out on a date with a girl. The girl had a bag of weed on her, so the cops shot Zachary in the back, killing him. Interestingly enough, I didn’t see any white liberals tweeting about Zachary. In fact, the tweets I saw were all from black folks affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The white “allies” were silent. This illustrated an important fact to me. The lack of attention paid to police misconduct in rural communities isn’t on the BLM movement. They are rightfully worried about their own communities. They don’t have time to worry about the classist aspects of police brutality AND draw attention to the racism. But white liberals don’t have that excuse. There’s no reason white liberals couldn’t be good allies for the BLM movement and also draw attention to the instances I’m talking about. All it takes is some courage. There’s a great opportunity to build broad support for police accountability and we’re dropping the ball.

A Movement of Our Own

Maybe it’s time we formed our own movement, in concert with BLM. Maybe working together we could win. White suburban liberals could bring a lot of resources and expertise to it, but that would require them to develop a narrative analysis based on something deeper than embarrassed clucking at their fellow white citizens, or dislocating their shoulder in an attempt to pat themselves on the back for being the “right kind of ally”. So I won’t hold out hope for that.

Us rural folks, however, know the oppression that’s happening in our allies and two-tracks. We can start talking about it openly. We can refuse to be profiled for being a townie not a vacationer. Maybe we can even build a space where it’s OK to say “what about me? what about US? What about better training and body cams for OUR police force?”. Hell, maybe someday, in the not too distant future, under a hot sun, shoulder to shoulder with our black and brown brothers and sisters, or under the watchful eye of a small-town cop with time on his hands and a grudge in his heart, or with our face mashed against his hood for talking back, we can say it in solidarity and say it loud:

Redneck Lives Matter.


One comment

  1. pete da silva · August 21, 2015

    Two brilliant posts, Luke. Something GOTTA be done here.


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