On Sunday, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed by police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. This, as the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck in the city that is less than 15 miles from the latest shooting, casts an ominous shadow.
In the past few weeks alone, the nation has been rocked by shocking reports of police violence. Adam Toledo, a Latino 13-year-old, was killed by Chicago police on March 29. Police video of the incident is slated to be released this week.
And a military officer recently filed a lawsuit over a horrifying gas station stop that happened in December. Virginia cops threatened, drew guns on and pepper-sprayed Army Lt. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino. The lieutenant is suing the cops, one of whom was fired.
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Aside from a brief statement Monday by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, we’ve heard little from the administration over the past months on policing reform. Instead of coming out strong with a task force or commission (a Biden campaign mainstay), they’ve opted to passively support legislation that is doing little in the Senate.
Psaki’s statement is a first step, but we need leadership and bold action from the White House.
On the campaign trail, Joe Biden called the 2020 election a “battle for the soul of the nation.” The president campaigned heavily on his empathy and knew the country was hurting. His administration, he posited, would be a balm the nation needed to heal from a year of pandemic crisis, four years of a divisive White House and generations of systemic oppression and inequality — including unequal justice as seen through biased policing.
In many ways, the president and his administration have not shied away from issues for racial justice. There were a series of early executive actions that put equity front and center. The commitment didn’t end there, as the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package offered substantial aid and redress for past wrongs committed against Black farmers. The upcoming infrastructure bill also promises to address more of the nation’s racist past.
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But while some of the White House’s words and deeds have been promising, the legacy of this administration will be incomplete without action, and overhaul, on the culture, policies and practices of policing — an issue the president has been slow to act on.
On Monday, he lent a few minutes to the issue, which included words of condolence to the Wright family and then a tepid call to wait for an investigation to see whether it was an accident. He also admonished folks not to commit violence and looting in response. A topic this weighty deserves more.
In spite of a global pandemic, police killings have remained steady. To put it mildly, America has a police violence problem. To put it explicitly, America has a police brutality with impunity problem.
This is not just about consequences or convictions. This is also about culture. The officer who pepper-sprayed Nazario has been fired, Chauvin may be convicted. And officers are distancing themselves from the most egregious acts and painting the worst of the bunch as “bad apples.” However, just like the science behind the impact of bad apples, there is no denying the rot that has infested the barrel that is policing — where even good apples are under pressure to remain silent in the face of bad behavior.
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As Biden himself noted after Floyd’s killing, this is a “tragic reminder that this was not an isolated incident, but a part of an ingrained systemic cycle of injustice that still exists in this country.”
Decades of pro-police entertainment have allowed officers to cloak themselves in an almost Steve Rogers/Captain America-esque garb of superheroes protecting our streets from the bad guys. The reality, for Black and other communities of color, is that policing is so often more resemblant of John Walker/U.S. Agent, the antagonist in this season’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” Like the conclusion of so many police violence videos, Walker crushes opposition under the weight of the shield, the flag and the silence of bystanders.
Coming into office, Biden pledged to have the backs of the Black community that propelled him there. Any White House action must be weighed against that promise.
Biden’s punting to Congress while icing the idea of a White House-led policing commission is insufficient. If the administration is determined to champion the legislative route, however, it could throw its full weight behind the Movement 4 Black Lives’ BREATHE Act, a bill that divests from policing and invests in communities and a new vision of public safety. Pushing the Senate to follow the lead of the House, which voted to end qualified immunity for officers, would also be significant.
It’s time to reimagine a country where we put at the center community well-being to make our neighborhoods safe, not an increasingly militarized and fatal police force; a country where school interactions, mental health calls and routine traffic stops don’t end in death sentences — or even the fear of death sentences.
It will not be good enough for the administration to make strides in infrastructure, farming, jobs and the environment while leaving policing unchecked. Our neighborhoods shouldn’t kill us.
Neither should our police.
Maurice Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party.