Policing in the US is Not About Enforcing Law. It’s About Enforcing White Supremacy
If we had something approaching equal justice, would we still even be the United States?
“Mr. Floyd was not human to these officers.”
On Friday the CNN journalist Omar Jimenez was arrested on live television as he covered protests of police brutality in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jimenez identifies as African American and Hispanic, and when the cops confronted him, he did just what minority parents tell their kids to do. Jimenez cooperated; he was respectful, deferential even. He said “we can move back to where you like … We are getting out of your way … Wherever you want us, we will go.”
It didn’t matter; the police officers put handcuffs on him and led him away, and then came back to arrest his crew. Jimenez narrated his arrest as they led him away. His voice is steady. His eyes, though. Jimenez is masked so his eyes are the only clue to what he’s feeling. His eyes are perplexed and terrified. I get it. When a black or brown person goes into police custody, you never know what is going to happen. You just know that when you leave police custody, if you are lucky enough to leave, you will be diminished. That is the point.
What’s most interesting is not that Jimenez and his colleagues were released shortly thereafter without any charges filed (or even being told why they had been taken into custody). That’s what class will buy a black man in America. You don’t get it quite as bad as your lower-income brethren. Jeff Zucker, the CNN president, talked to Tim Walz, the governor of Minnesota, and the crew was quickly released. With an apology from the governor, not the cops. Cops rarely apologize, especially to black men.
“When a black or brown person goes into police custody, you never know what is going to happen.”
But what’s most interesting is what happened to Josh Campbell, a white CNN journalist who was in the same area as Jimenez and not arrested. Campbell said his experience was the “opposite” of Jimenez’s. The cops asked him “politely to move here and there”. “A couple times I’ve moved closer than they would like. They asked politely to move back. They didn’t pull out the handcuffs.”
It’s a cliche that the US has two systems of justice, separate and unequal, but I prefer the word Campbell used. The US has “opposite” systems of justice – one for white people and another for racial minorities, especially African Americans, Latinx and Native American people.
White progressives love to focus on class subordination (I see you, Bernie Sanders!) but there is something sticky about race. Jimenez’s professional status and calm demeanor did not stop the police from treating him like a regular black dude – the subject of their vast authority to detain and humiliate. They didn’t have an actual reason and they didn’t need one. Jimenez’s dark skin was the offense.
This is how powerful a drug white privilege is. Here we have the cops policing a rally protesting police brutality against a black man. Even in that context, when the whole world is watching figuratively, and CNN’s audience is watching literally, the cops can’t help themselves. They go all brutal lite. They play “who’s the man” even when the black man, like Jimenez, goes out of his way to show he already knows who the man is. “You are, officer, Sir.” What the cops round up are the usual suspects and the usual suspects are always black and brown.
“The cops didn’t have an actual reason and they didn’t need one.”
The whole world has seen the sordid violent recording where George Floyd narrates, over 10 minutes, his own demise. Actually, there is not 10 minutes of narration because Floyd goes limp and silent after several minutes, but that does not cause former officer Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck. The officers had received a radio run to go to a local store, where Floyd had allegedly tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd is across the street from the store, chilling in his car with a couple of friends, when the officers approach like they are apprehending violent offenders. They order Floyd and his friends out of the car, put Floyd in handcuffs, order him to lie face down on the ground, and pin him down with their knees and hands. Floyd complains he can’t breathe. A cop responds: “Well, get up and get in the car.”
I guess that is what you call police humor.
People ask why would the police treat another human being like this, and the answer must be because they can. There are rarely consequences. US police officers kill about 1,000 people a year (compared with the UK, where in 10 years, law enforcement took a total of 23 lives) and there are rarely consequences. Since 2005, when roughly 15,000 people have been killed by US law enforcement officers, fewer than 150 have been charged with murder.
True, the officers in George Floyd’s case lost their jobs, and now face or will face criminal prosecution. This is only because of the video evidence and the high-profile protests. The reality is that, statistically, even these officers are likely to escape conviction. Of the 150 officers charged with homicide in the line of duty, the majority have been found not guilty or had charges dropped.
For the moment, we who believe in justice are supposed to be satisfied that one cop, four days after the fact, has been taken into custody, when there are multiple videos of that officer with his knee on the victim’s back as the man complains he can’t breathe.
As a black man, and as a former prosecutor, I had no idea it was so difficult to get arrested. US cops arrest about 12,000,000 people a year, but not usually each other. For the rest of us – I mean the rest of us black and brown people – we usually get arrested and charged the same day the cops decide we are guilty. The talk our parents give us about how to act around armed agents of the state is designed not so much to prevent arrests as to preserve life. It worked for Omar Jimenez.
But not for George Floyd. On the ground, dying, George Floyd pleads for his life, respectful as a person can be when he is asking for mercy from the people who are literally crushing the life out of him. He says “please”, “officer”, and calls out to his dead mother.
But the police do not remove their knees and feet and hands from Mr. Floyd’s body. They don’t even stop restraining him when his body is limp and silent.
“US cops arrest about 12,000,000 people a year, but not usually each other.”
What’s to be done? Tinkering with the system makes a difference here and there but it is not enough. If a white woman was thought to have tried to use a fake $20 bill, it’s impossible to imagine the police storming her vehicle, ordering her and her friends out, placing her in handcuffs and ultimately her winding up dead. But as long as cops have that kind of power, people of color will bear the brunt. So one simple reform would be to not allow the cops to make arrests for any non-violent crime. It’s a power they can’t be trusted with, because they will abuse it.
In the end, this is not about law enforcement. It’s about enforcing white supremacy. There’s no tinkering with that, what with white supremacy being the foundation on which the country was built. The consistent big question in the quest for racial justice has been how much white supremacy is central to the identity of the US. This is what Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates argued about. If we had something approaching equal justice, would we still even be the United States? In order to accomplish that we’d have to change the constitution, which authorizes much of the police violence that communities of color complain about, and the politics which exploits white anxiety about black and brown men.
What does it mean for people of color to live in a country where, for them to have a fair shot, law and government have to be transformed? It means that we should expect more cases like Omar Jimenez and George Floyd, regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins in November.
The real problem, ultimately, is not bad apple cops, even though these four officers are rotten to the core. The real problem is demonstrated in what a bystander told the officers as they restrained him to death. “He’s human, bro.” But Mr. Floyd was not human to these officers. Enforcing the dehumanization of people of color has become, in the United States, what you call police work.
Paul Butler is the Albert Brick professor in law at Georgetown University. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men
This article previously appeared in The Guardian and Portside.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]