Donald Earl Collins
There are two approaches to law enforcement encounters in the United States, one Black, one white – separate and inherently unequal. There is the all-too-frequent deadly overreach of police with Black men and women, like in Akron, Ohio, in June – when a group of cops shot at the back of Jayland Walker, drilling him with 46 bullets. All for a minor traffic violation in which Walker ran away from the police.
There’s also the drumbeat of white men orchestrating mass shootings, including the one at a July 4 parade in suburban Chicago. In that case, police searched for and found the armed alleged murderer, Robert Crimo III, and took him into custody without firing a single shot.
However, some US leaders, including President Joe Biden, actually want to increase funding for law enforcement and put 100,000 more police officers in schools and communities.
Even as many in the US and across the globe continue to reel from the revelations of the cowardly inaction of police in Uvalde, Texas. Even with police frequently getting it so wrong, as they did in Albuquerque, New Mexico in July when 15-year-old Brett Rosenau was killed during a raid at his home. Even as the US Department of Justice recently charged four current and former Louisville, Kentucky, police officers for their role in killing Breonna Taylor in 2020.
The dissonance between the deadly racist realities of policing and the American leadership’s firm stance in support of police lethality is breathtaking.
The simple truth is law enforcement as a US institution does not treat Black Americans as people worthy of humane treatment. They reserve their “to serve and protect” mottos for white people committing the most inhumane of crimes. It is ingrained, it is institutional, it is personal, and it may be universal. All of this is key to why law enforcement in the US must be defunded and needs to be abolished. A system designed to allow cowardly actions and near sociopathic behaviour in the name of “law and order” is too deadly to remain intact. Unless that is the point – to cower Black Americans into accepting oppression – which it may be for people like Biden.
It’s probably evident: I don’t like cops. I’ve felt threatened by them since I was five.
My first encounter with law enforcement in action was in July 1975. I was half asleep when awakened by a fight between my mom and dad. When my intoxicated father lunged at my mom with a dull kitchen knife, my mom used her arms and legs to deflect the attempt, right into the left side of my father’s stomach. Back then, we lived on the second floor of a duplex six blocks from the Bronx border in Mount Vernon, New York. My father stood in the stairwell outside the door to our flat, bleeding and moaning softly.
A few minutes later, two of Mount Vernon’s finest showed up – one white man and one Black man – along with an ambulance. After peppering my mom with questions, and then checking out my father’s stab wound, the two cops idly stood by and laughed as two EMTs put my father on a stretcher. I will never forget that they found my mother fighting off my dad funny, because he ended up stabbing himself. I have never not remembered the look of stunned hurt in my traumatised mother’s eyes.
It wasn’t a joke to me. Yet, somehow, the two officers found domestic violence humorous. The Black cop patted me on my head like I was some lost cat or dog. This was the first lesson in racism, patriarchy, misogynoir and policing I received, long before I had learned any of these words or what they meant.Two months later, in first-grade class, my teacher Ms Griffin dedicated a show-and-tell day to careers, with pictures of doctors, lawyers, firefighters, nurses, postmen, shopkeepers, ambulance drivers and policemen on display. When she asked how many of us wanted to be police officers, nearly every boy and girl raised their hands. I yelled “No! No! No!” while shaking my head, hurt and angry. Ms Griffin asked if I was all right. I wasn’t, but I didn’t know how to express why I felt the way I did about policemen.
When the moments came when I should have called 911 in the 1980s, whether it was me witnessing domestic violence at home or me being the object of physical abuse, I never picked up the phone. I knew the police were untrustworthy. The killing of the 25-year-old graphic artist, Michael Stewart, in 1983, and of the 66-year-old grandmother Eleanor Bumpurs, in 1984, by New York officers helped reinforce a few things. One, that it’s rare for law enforcement to stop a crime in progress. Two, that police often end up committing a crime for no good reason. And three, that the penalty for Black folks having a mental illness or a bad day is often death.
Since my 17th birthday at the end of 1986, I have been accosted, stopped, frisked and followed by police in different parts of the country – whether for walking while Black in Beverly Hills or driving while Black in Pittsburgh and in Silver Spring, Maryland. I was held at gunpoint by a shaking 60-something white policeman on my own campus at Carnegie Mellon University in 1994.
All these encounters involved either “fitting the description” of someone much shorter than my 190cm (6-foot, 3-inch) frame or for a minor traffic violation. Each interaction brought on anxiety that could have left me vulnerable in the hands of police all too willing to beat me into a hospital bed or shoot me into the afterlife.
Farmington Hills, Michigan, is one example of how easy it is to build a police force that will shoot to kill a Black person for anything. As of this spring, they used pictures of Black men with guns as target practice training for their mostly white police officers. Irrespective of an officer’s race or ethnicity, white supremacy is the default position of law enforcement.
To both-side apartheid policing is ridiculous. Yet that is what mainstream news coverage often does. Even if Black anxieties when encountering law enforcement and the urge to flee are acknowledged, that is accompanied by suggestions that the victim, by running away, made things worse. So, following this logic, are police free to hunt Black people down like animals in the wild if they flee the scene for whatever reason? Tell that to Crimo and the police in suburban Chicago. Except that Crimo is a white man, of course.
African Americans especially know the police have always erred on the side of maiming and killing Black and Indigenous people and folx perceived as different and queer – while humanising white violence and perpetrators as much as possible. That white Americans are just now beginning to catch on to the dangers of militarised police forces shows just how separate and unequal law enforcement has been in meting out its lethality.
As so many have said in Black Lives Matter protests, it is time to defund the police on the path to abolishing it altogether. This isn’t a broken system. It’s a deliberately corrupt and rotten one.