What shall virtue do to meet brute force?
The great scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, reflecting on the plight of black people in America, posed this question more than 60 years ago. It hangs in the air today as we mourn the latest in a seemingly endless line of black lives violently snuffed out.
The American state has been brutalizing black bodies with impunity from the moment that they first appeared on this continent 400 years ago. If that statement makes you anxious or strikes you as hyperbolic, I encourage you to interrogate the impulse and commit to deeper study of the racial history of this country. I will not revisit that history here.
There is already so much to say of the present.
In the past month alone, we first learned of Ahmaud Arbery, executed in Glynn County, Georgia for the crime of jogging while black. Then came the story of Breonna Taylor, gunned down in her home by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky serving a no-knock warrant. And most recently, we were presented with a video of George Floyd, handcuffed and lying prone on the street in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a police officer kneeling with full weight on his neck through gasps and protestations until Mr. Floyd was no longer breathing.
Like many others, I have felt at a loss as to what to do or say in the wake of this brute force, as DuBois aptly described it. However conditioned we may have become to giving and receiving instant feedback and analysis, there is sometimes nothing more to do in the moment than to keep breathing oneself.
But I have also struggled with how to interpret the outpouring of sadness and sympathy. I find myself, somewhat guiltily, growing tired of the ritualistic expressions of woe in place of demands for, and commitment to, meaningful transformation. Just as offers of “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting serve to circumvent accountability for the ubiquitous presence of guns on our streets, recitations of “Black Lives Matter” without action ring hollow.
In the face of routine police killings, notes of sorrow disconnected from systemic change make for avoidance of a stubborn truth: American policing is and always has been a system of authorized, if not incentivized, violence against black people. This truth is borne out in cities and states all across the country, including our own.
The list of people who have been killed by police in the St. Louis region is truly too long to enumerate here. Circumstances and locations vary, but the pattern is enough to give St. Louis the dubious honor of having the highest rate of fatal police shootings of any city in the country.
When those shootings beget protest, the abuse continues. Following the Ferguson Uprising, the nation was gripped not only by the incredible exploitation to which poor black residents of our region had been routinely subjected, but also by the militarized response that greeted protesters in Ferguson and across the St. Louis region. This dynamic repeated itself years later following the acquittal of Jason Stockley for the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, when St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers trapped and battered peaceful protesters in downtown St. Louis. (Full disclosure: at the time of this writing, ArchCity Defenders is litigating more than a dozen cases involving these kettling arrests.)
And then there are the daily indignities to which black people in St. Louis and across the state are subjected by police. Each year, we get a reminder of the gaping racial disparities in police stops, searches, and arrests from the Attorney General’s Vehicle Stops Report. The 2020 report was issued just days ago, with the same disparities. The results have come to be so expected that barely anyone even noticed.
As a police station in Minneapolis burned last Thursday night into Friday morning, countless commentators remarked that this conflagration was the result of the masses having been dissatisfied and outraged by the failure of the local prosecutor to charge the officers responsible for the murder of George Floyd. I am sure that is true for some.
For many others, however, there is a growing realization that such a reliance on the very system of criminal punishment that enables state-sanctioned homicide is a futile and self-defeating approach. Instead, if we truly believe that Black Lives Matter and that the consistent pattern of police violence and killings are unacceptable, we must end our reliance on policing itself. We must reduce the role of policing in our society and in our lives. We must defund the police.
That does not mean no accountability. It does not mean we go without response to or repair of harm. And it certainly does not mean we abandon any commitment to justice. But policing does not provide us with those things. It never has, and it never will. Believing that policing is what preserves accountability and justice is as fantastical as believing that Second Amendment gun rights are what protect ordinary people from tyranny. It is a familiar and deeply-rooted claim, but it is a lie.
Nor does understanding that we need to divest from policing require you to believe that all police are bad people any more than understanding the existential threat of climate change requires you to think that coal miners and oil workers are evil. Appeals to the “brave first responders” miss the point entirely.
We have a system. It is called policing. And the violence we so often mourn is an intrinsic part of that system.
Now is the time to defund policing and instead fund alternative, more-effective systems of safety and justice. We see in practice that robust investments in education, jobs, healthcare, stable housing, and public infrastructure are the only real antidotes to crime. All over the country, communities are building networks of mutual support and accountability to respond when harm occurs. The options are plentiful, from social workers to community organizers to crisis response teams. We must develop and embrace practices that prioritize our health, humanity, and collective wellbeing.
If we really want to do something to honor the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, we need to do something about policing. Otherwise, all those tweets of solidarity and solemn remembrance are just tweets.
Blake Strode is executive director of ArchCity Defenders.