Skip to content

No More Of The Master’s Tools

December 4, 2014

For the second time in two weeks a grand jury voted not to indict a police officer for killing an unarmed black man. Last week it was Darren Wilson who got a pass in the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and this week a Staten Island grand jury gave a pass to Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner.

Eric Garner was being questions (i.e., harassed) for selling loose cigarettes near the ferry terminal on Staten Island when Pantaleo killed him using a chokehold that is banned by NYPD policy. Garner was arguing with the police officers who were trying to physically detain him, and swatting their hands away from him, when Pantaleo put him in the chokehold that killed him. He was killed for resisting arrest for a minor quality-of-life incident. Pantaleo was placed on “modified assignment” during the investigation and could still face other discipline, but he won’t be charged with a crime or subjected to a trial. But this is not really about Pantaleo or about Garner. This is about how white allies need to understand that these incidents can’t be fixed just by holding the “bad cops” accountable (even though we should be able to do that), or just by monitoring the actions of police more closely. While those two steps would perhaps help us respond to specific abuses after they occur, they won’t have an impact on the iceberg of structural injustice of which these deaths are the cold, hard, and increasingly visible tip.

Prosecutors who bring police violence cases to grand juries need to act like prosecutors, not like judges impartially weighing evidence or defense attorneys protecting clients, and grand jurors need to be willing to send police to trial when the available evidence is sufficient to indicate that a crime might have been committed by the defendant. But grand jury injustices in the deaths of Garner and Brown are, too, only visible parts of the much larger iceberg.

If we got every “bad cop” off the street we’d still have a system of policing that feels more like an occupying force than like an organization whose mission is to promote public safety. The placement of too many police who are too focused on too many minor issues concentrated in areas of poverty and racial isolation will not stop because of the introduction of body cameras or better training. The siege mentality supported by the militarization of police forces will not end because of body cameras or better training. What lies behind the numerous killings at the hands of bad cops is a system of stunning inequality maintained by racism, a culture of fear, incarceration, and segregation.

It is a system built on racism, fed by incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, a separate-and-unequal system of public education, an irrational war on drugs, a system of debtors’ prisons and civil forfeiture, and broken windows policing. When Akai Gurley was shot and killed by rookie police officer Peter Liang in an unlit stairwell of a segregated urban housing project in November, we saw evidence of just about every piece of this puzzle locking into place.

Police body cameras are just more surveillance. Sure they will create a record of interactions police have with the people they are policing, but those records are far more likely to be used against the people being policed, and in the case that they document an act of violence by a police officer, they will no more likely lead to an indictment than did the video recording of Pantaleo’s killing of Eric Garner. Akai Gurley would not have been saved by a body camera nor would his death have been recorded by it. But every single action of every person passed by Officer Liang in the corridors of the building that makes up their home would have been. Perhaps they will do more good than harm, but I’m skeptical given the nature of the system in which they are being used.

Activists from Ferguson Action, most of them young people of color, who met with President Obama at the White House this week, presented a list of specific demands. Their national demands include

  • demilitarization of police across the country,
  • comprehensive review of systematic abuses by local police department, including publication of data relating to racially biased policing, and the development of best practices
  • repurposing of law enforcement funds to support community based alternatives to incarceration, and the withholding of federal funds from local police departments that fail to adopt DOJ best practices
  • a Congressional hearing investigating the criminalization of communities of color, racial profiling, police abuses and torture by law enforcement.
  • Support for the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act
  • Development by the Obama administration of a National Plan of Action for Racial Justice.

These are clear, logical, and essential demands. The vision that guided the development of these demands is one grounded in economic and social justice: full employment, decent housing, alternatives to incarceration, quality education, and an end to discrimination.

Nothing I am saying is new. What is happening today has been predictable for decades. Audre Lorde reminded us in 1984 that the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house, and nor will the master’s friends or neighbors or second cousins twice removed. But the house must come down. Moving new people into the house won’t solve the problem. Updating the exterior or renovating a few rooms won’t solve the problem. The house needs to be scraped and a new dwelling needs to be built. This is going to mean radical social change. Sustained protest will be essential. Pressure on politicians and on the media is imperative. And change is possible, especially if it is driven by power built up within communities of color.

We white allies can and should support that organizing, but we must not try to direct it.

If you are a white ally looking for a way to help, one thing you can do right away, if you haven’t done it already, is to inform yourself. Here is a short list of readings to start with:

This is just a starter list. I encourage you to read the links embedded in the post as well. If you’d like me to add other items that are useful in educating people about systemic racism and structural inequality, I invite you to leave them in the comments. I’ll add them to the post as they come in.



Back To Top