Staying Focused in the Movement for Racial Justice
Opal Tometi, Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter
In this 24-hour news cycle — we continue to be concerned about how #BlackLivesMatter is covered and we challenge the ways in which a senseless tragedy, an isolated incident, is being used to send a chilling message to protesters and to shape a dangerous narrative primarily by the Patrolmen Benevolent Association’s Patrick Lynch. Mayor de Blasio and Chief Bratton have not pushed back on the newly shaping narrative. Our hearts go out to the families of officers Liu and Ramos. We ask the media not to erase from these tragic events that the shooting of Shaneka Nicole Thompson in Baltimore, is where these unfortunate events began, ending with the alleged shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsleyn, taking his own life. According to his own family we know he had a history of mental illness and instability that was not properly addressed. Our hearts go out to all of the families that have suffered violence and loss connected to these events. In light of all we know, and with respect to all who hurt most now, we must not let misconceptions prevail.
This is a challenging moment, but we must maintain the integrity of our message and moral movement. We still have the moral high ground, and we cannot allow for it to be undermined. In 2011 when I was still in Arizona, I saw a similar dynamic play out with Sheriff Joe Arpaio. While human rights activists were clear and backed by evidence of racial profiling inherent in the “Show Me Your Papers” law, Sheriff Arpaio was intent on mocking and villainizing protesters and the communities that were suffering the most. He helped to set up a false dichotomy about how he was protecting “law and order” and the community was lawless. He stoked racial hatred and used his power and platform that helped build a base of extremists and positioned them to speak, in effect positioning politicians, lukewarm reformers, as having a moral center with “common sense” and “practical” solutions and proposals. We cannot allow that to happen. We do not have time for the platforms of people who stoke hatred or confuse the debate, and we cannot be satisfied with politicians telling us what is or is not possible.
The energy on the street is about justice and accountability — the system of policing is what is making us unsafe. With months of protests and organizing, we are finally at a moment where more people are newly open to understanding the institutional and systemic problems with policing that hurt communities of color and disproportionately black people. Policemen and young people who are considering joining the police should understand this too — it’s the system. Despite claims that there are good and bad cops — we know that the system is failing everyone, including the police. That’s why Lynch’s inflammatory rhetoric is alarming. For one, it continues to pit the police against the communities they serve in, fueling distrust further on both ends. Secondly it derails an important conversation. Thirdly — it serves to consolidate a base of people like those wearing “I can breathe” shirts and the teachers wearing NYPD shirts to school — and our energy is sucked into addressing their defensiveness and derailing difficult and courageous conversations about race. Conversations on how this is not about interpersonal racism — and police, even good-hearted ones, can unintentionally hold up a racially biased system that has damaging and dangerous life-changing outcomes for communities of color. According to the Stolen Lives Project, at least 265 people have been killed by the NYPD since Amadou Diallo, 133 since Sean Bell. The does not even get into the incidences of unnecessary use of force and police brutality and mistreatment on the street.
In addition to that, it is the everyday interactions and overwhelming police presence in our neighborhoods that also wear people down. Due to broken windows policing, the following interactions can lead to tickets, arrests and summonses, warrants if tickets go unpaid and in some cases, violence: jaywalking, sleeping on a park bench, spitting, putting your feet up on the subway and more.
The following data is from a November 2014 report from the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) — Over $410 Million A Year: The Human and Economic Cost of Broken Windows Policing.
*For the first 8 months of 2014, at great expense in city dollars, de Blasio/Bratton’s NYPD has continued the same focus as the Bloomberg/Kelly administration on arrests for misdemeanors and other low-level infractions. From January through August, 2013, the NYPD made 155,831 misdemeanor arrests – nearly 20,000 per month. During 2014’s same 8-month period, the NYPD made 156,572 misdemeanor arrests, also nearly 20,000 per month.
*A stark racial bias marks the NYPD’s petty arrest practices. In 2013, 87 percent of the individuals charged with misdemeanors were people of color; in 2014, the figure has been 86.3 percent.
*At the conservative estimate of $1,750 per arrest, NYC will spend over $410 million in 2014 on arresting people, mostly low-income individuals of color, for misdemeanors and other minor infractions. For the 5-year period from 2009 to 2013, an annual average of 90 percent of the people arrested for misdemeanors walked out of the courtroom.
What Mayor De Blasio does remains to be seen, but he already brought back Chief Bratton, the architect and first person to implement broken windows/zero tolerance policing. In a piece paying tribute to Ella Baker, Marian Wright Edelman said something that I often recall these days when thinking of policing in New York: “Policies are no better than the people who are implementing them and their commitment to just treatment of the children and the poor.” How can we dismantle broken windows with Bratton, its chief proponent still at the helm? De Blasio must change that. Some of us have held the hands of friends or brothers as they struggled with military and police academy recruiters and though many of them never dreamed of being policemen, a lack of opportunities led them to those positions. That is a reality in our communities. We have to start imagining a new reality — this will mean fewer police and more social workers and teachers. This will mean creating more economic possibilities and investment that preserves and does not displace our communities. This will mean confronting decades of disinvestment in our communities.
It will be challenging to make changes at the core of what policing looks like today, but its clear that what we have today does not work and that the solutions must come from the community. In New York City, as the Coalition to End Broken Windows has made clear — we don’t need 1,000 new policemen in the new year, and we must ensure that does not happen. Rinku Sen, the President of Race Forward, has written about how police departments will need tailored, holistic, evidence-based change that gets to the heart of not just systemic racial bias, but a “race and …” approach to get at the totality of what may be causing harms which is only possible with evidence-based interventions. In Los Angeles, my Black Lives Matter sister Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac has helped lead an effort with Dignity and Power Now and The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence to establish a civilian review board for independent oversight of sheriffs — it’s a major victory.
We already have the energy and people’s attention in a way that we have not had it in a long time — but most importantly we have one another — the time is now for real, deep, substantive change.