Police brutality: one symptom of a broken system

I am writing this on Martin Luther King day (far past the due date of first drafts), in part because I have struggled to put into words what I want to convey, and in part because there is a particular poignancy to his memory today in light of recent events.

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice were not so long ago.

Also not so long ago, as the release of the film Selma reminds us, was stark opposition to basic American rights.

“I am the unarmed black kid, who maybe needed a hand, but instead was given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers, murdered in the line of duty,” John Legend said, accepting the award for Best Original Song alongside rapper Common their work on “Glory,” from Selma’s soundtrack.

Legend has attracted controversy over his vocal (no pun intended) support of protestors marching against police brutality on twitter, and on the streets (he and his wife, food blogger Chrissy Teigen, hired food trucks to feed crowds at an NYC demonstration).

The popular hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which trended on twitter and made its way to protest signs, implies that the string of police brutalities were not outliers of a functioning system; rather, that they were indicative of an anti-black sentiment that law enforcement is not exempt to. I agree, and so do the numbers, it seems.

Political scientists and authors Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley put this to the test. In an interview with the Washington Post, they revealed that approximately 70 percent of black people considered racial bias in the justice system to be a “serious problem,” while only 17 percent of white people agreed: a sentiment mirrored in the police force.

According to the New York Times, approximately 5 percent of white officers believe that blacks and other minorities receive unfair treatment from the police, compared to 57 percent of black officers.

The fact that racial perceptions translate into professions is unsurprising. After all, police are real people.

As such, they should not go unchallenged.

Yet police brutality has become a set of two distinct realities.

Either you believe the justice system has an inherent racial bias, or you don’t. Challenging the status quo is equal to challenging law enforcement as a whole.

This was the case for a white police chief in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was chastised for holding up a sign that read: “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #EndWhiteSilence.”

The message is harmless enough. It’s a call to object to racism when racism is apparent. Simply put: racism is bad, speaking up is good.

Racism does exist, and to argue otherwise is naïve. Specific to Virginia, 51 out of 68 racially motivated hate crimes in 2012 were categorized as “Anti-Black,” according to the Virginia State Police Report. Of the reported “bias-crimes” in Fairfax County, the most recent Fairfax County Police Report recent report indicated that an overwhelming two thirds were “Anti-African-American.”

So offering the idea that one should be on the lookout for racism, even among one’s peers, is a given.

The response?

“The chief is calling us racists. He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist. This has angered a lot of officers,” said Fraternal Order of Police President Howard McQuillan, who spoke on behalf of the local police union.

Among his “serious concerns” was a disruption of officer morale.

McQuillan reflects the dangerous tendency of addressing racism and officer morale as two mutually exclusive issues: an age old idea reflected even in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables

Adapted to a 2012 movie, among various other film and theatre interpretations, Les Miserables remains relevant because it reflects ongoing class struggles.

In it, Javert is plays the dual roles of a stubborn police officer and a paradigm for fatal intolerance. After he faces the prospect that he may have been fighting the wrong battles for his entire life, (spoiler alert) Javert chooses death over confronting his errors.

In present-day reality, police officers face the same dilemma. Whether they will embrace change or let it lead to their demise is a choice that is up to them.

February is Black History Month. I urge everyone to educate themselves on the history of legal violence against black people, to educate others, and most of all listen to those who are voicing injustice.