Discussion of Police Shootings Ignore Need for Systemic Change
Before President Obama’s Dallas address, author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says mainstream discussion ignores the root causes of violence
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
President Obama is speaking in Dallas on Tuesday at a memorial service for the 6 officers killed after a Black Lives Matter protest against the killing of 2 black men by police last week. This comes at a time when the issues of police brutality and accountability are at the forefront of popular discussion but seemingly lacks any meaningful insight and analysis.
Well, to give us some of that, we are now joined by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor from Philadelphia. She’s a writer, public speaker, and activist. Author of the acclaimed book, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation. Thanks so much for joining us.
KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Thanks for having me.
NOOR: So let’s start off with some of President Obama’s previous statements and he’s speaking later today but here’s a clip of what he said on July 10th addressing the Dallas shootings and the role of protests.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Whenever those of us who are concerned about fairness in the criminal justice system attack police officers, you are doing a disservice to the cause.
NOOR: And so, you know, we’ve seen President Obama and a lot of mainstream figures of course, you know, speaking out against the attacks on the officers. But also sort of scolding protesters for–you know, we’ve heard it from Rudy Giuliani and others, former New York Mayor, that Black Lives Matter protectors are creating this climate in which police officers are afraid and some even go as far to blame protesters for the attacks on those Dallas officers. What are your thoughts?
TAYLOR: Well, I would say two things. One, in terms of the way that particularly the right wing has tried to mobilize and used statements, reported statements by Micah Johnson, the lone gunman who shot and killed 5 police officers in Dallas, Texas who said something to the effect that he wanted to kill white cops, or he wanted to kill white people. That there’s been a concerted effort from conservative politicians but also fraternal order of police unions, different representatives, around the country who have tried to use that as a way to somehow connect Micah Johnson to the Black Lives Matter movement.
And to say that the protests and demands that activists have been making for more than 2 years now, for almost 2 years now, are to have police held accountable for their illegal conduct and to demand an end to extra judicial killings by the police, that somehow that has created an atmosphere where police are at harm. I think it’s completely erroneous and I think that has to be challenged outright. I would also say that some of these efforts have also been intended to create an impression that if Black Lives Matter activists weren’t protesting or weren’t talking about racism and justice with policing that somehow people would not be mobilized on the streets and somehow there would not be protests.
I think that it’s important to clarify that the movement exists not because pf personalities or spokespeople of different organizations are talking about these issues. The movement exists because of the behavior of the police. Because of the generalized pervasive experiences of black people in this country being brutalized, harassed, and sometimes killed by police. That is why people are in the streets.
The second thing I would say in response to what Obama says about attacking police. I think it’s important to be clear. There was a lone gunman who went and shot 5 police in Dallas, Texas that had absolutely nothing to do with the movement. And then there have been protests that began before events in Dallas in response to the police killing yet again 2 black men for absolutely no reason. And so in general I think that we would say that people have been protesting peacefully. That it has been the police that have shown up at demonstrations in jack boots looking like they are prepared for war.
In Baton Rouge, in Minnesota, in Minneapolis in particular, they are the ones who have looked like they have come to peaceful demonstrations like they are ready for combat. And I think that this is indicative of President Obama who regularly attacks–and in many ways even this conversation is an attempt to demean and smear the movement while saying precious little about the way that police are behaving. He even went so far as to say, I think in that same speech, that the police were going out of their way to protect people’s right to protest, which could not be further from the truth. So we actually have an obligation to continue to speak out. To tell the truth about what is happening and to really keep the movement on the streets and to keep the pressure on.
NOOR: Well, I think the streets have spoken in a lot of ways because over the weekend, and including yesterday, hundreds of people have been arrested in protests all over the country. So certainly people are not backing down and we are just showing images of the military-like response that police used in places like Baton Rouge where they stormed people’s houses that were allowing protesters to be there and did mass arrests, hundreds of people were arrest over the weekend. But I wanted to talk also contrast Obama’s comments with that of right wing Republican politicians like Donald Trump who have focused on the issue of black on black crime. Here’s clip of Donald Trump speaking.
DONALD TRUMP: We must remember the police are needed the most where crime is the highest. Politicians and activists who seek to remove police or policing from a community are hurting the poorest and most vulnerable Americans. We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country, 100%. We will cease to have a country. I am the law and order candidate.
NOOR: So it’s actually really interesting that that is the spectrum of between President Obama and the Republican nominee Donald Trump. Talk about what is–talk about the range of discourse we’re seeing in this country today.
TAYLOR: Well, first I would say that Donald Trump is a discredited racist who is only in this election because of the complete debacle of the Republican Party. So no one has really solicited his opinion about how to deal with the issue of police brutality and police murder in the United States. But what he says certainly has a resonance with not only racist Republicans who would like to sort of bury their heads in the sand about any issue concerning the police but also with I think you know the establishment of the Democratic Party who also invoke [inaud.] like black on black crime as some sort of explanation for problems that exist in urban areas. I would say just in terms of where the discourse is, I think that we have to look at that in 2 different ways.
One is what is happening in the mainstream which I think is from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party they don’t have much of any import to say because they don’t actually have any solutions and I think that’s one part of it. The other part is what is being pushed and put forward by the movement itself. So in that regard I think the existence of the movement is why we are even having a discussion about policing in the United States.
Police brutality is not new, but the fact that people have been out on the streets for almost 2 years, have forced an understanding that this is not just about rogue cops, this is not just about bad apples, but there is something deeply systemically wrong with policing in the United States that has led to this kind of eruption.
Not once but we had the rebellion in Baltimore. We had the uprising in Ferguson. And we’ve had all number of kinds of demonstrations in places from Rayleigh, North Carolina to San Francisco, California in the intervening period. And so that is what has changed the dynamic is the movement itself. But in terms of the political establishment, they have no solutions because to legitimately deal with the issue of racist and brutal policing, you would have to deal with the much larger issues of what creates the excuse for police to come into black neighborhoods in the first place.
For activists, I think it’s important not to deny that there’s crime that happens in poor and working class neighborhoods but it’s to understand why. It’s not because of some sort of defect in the people who live in these neighborhoods and communities. But it’s really about understanding the consequences of inequality in this country and the way in which poverty creates situations that provide excuses for police to come into those neighborhoods. Police don’t actually address crime. Police don’t stop crime. And so when we have a situation of pervasive economic inequality and we have a welfare state that barely exists, then police really have been called in to deal with the consequences of that. And as long as elected leaders and the political establishment in general have no plan to deal with those issues, have no plan other than repression, then we’ll continue to see this dynamic.
NOOR: Well Keeanga, we have to wrap up the first part of our conversation. We hope you can stay for part two, and we will talk about what some of those solutions actually look like.
NOOR: Thanks so much for joining us.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
JAISAL NOOR: I’m Jaisal Noor for the Real News Network in Baltimore and we’re continuing our discussion with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. She’s a writer, public speaker, and activist. Author of the acclaimed book, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation.
So Keeanga we’ve been talking about–we’ve been kind of just breaking down where popular discussion, discourse, is right now about the issue of police brutality and even the issue of–the conditions that exist in urban communities. We’re talking about black communities really. Poor communities, Latino communities in cities around the country. So as you were saying, the issue is of power, economic power, political power poverty. Talk about what the solutions are to these problems because that is something that is not being discussed. Occasionally you’ll hear the issue of poverty being discussed on mainstream media but not the issue of how we got there. This must also be discussed and addressed if we’re going to deal with issues of policing.
KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well there’s short term and then there’s long term solutions. And we have to have long term solutions because I don’t think the institution of policing in our society can actually be fundamentally reformed because it requires understanding. And I say that because it requires understanding the role of police in the role that they play. So that’s one thing. Which is to sort of maintain the status quo. But in the short term because that doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything.
In the short term I think that we have to have a campaign of intense decriminalization and by that I’m talking not just about drugs, which has become popular in some discussions but we have to decriminalize hundreds of laws that are used to basically harass and steal money from working class and poor people. For a country that claims to worship small government, we have turned into a society that criminalizes almost everything and so that just leads to–creates the pretext for wider and wider engagement with the police. And so we have to change that.
NOOR: So an example of that is [Fernando] Castillo was stopped over 50 times the past few years alone.
TAYLOR: Right [inaud.] fines of $6,500.
NOOR: Yea and for infractions like a missing taillight or you know just without even an articulable reason often times and this is common around the country.
TAYLOR: Exactly. And so that’s a main issue. There’s also the demilitarization of police forces. Once again in similar vein to what we saw in Ferguson. We see an over weaponized unit of police, particularly in Baton Rouge who again look like they are engaging in combat with a civilian population. And beyond that we have the situation in Dallas, where police use a land drone, a robot, to deliver a bomb to a suspect and summarily execute him in doing so. So we literally have tactics from the U.S.’s “war on terror” being brought into domestic policing.
NOOR: And Keeanga, the Dallas Police Force, they–sort of in their defense, they would argue that they were in this firefight for hours, they didn’t want to put more police in danger; 12 had been shot. How do you respond to that? That they didn’t want to put further lives in danger. That they had him cornered and he refused to give up.
TAYLOR: Exactly, they had him cornered. And part of the scope of their responsibilities is to detain cornered suspects, not execute them. And I thought it was interesting that when the Dallas police chief Dave Brown was giving his first comment, he referred to Michael Johnson as a suspect. And the last I checked, the law does not actually allow for the summarial, for the summary execution of suspects. And so to make excuses for the use of this kind of military hardware in a domestic policing situation is really to open the door to all sorts of types of military interventions and domestic policing situations.
Are we going to allow for drum bottling from above of suspects–of people who are engaged with police in some sort of way. Are we going to allow for any number of military tactics or hardware with dealing with domestic policing situations? So this incident opens the door for that. And that’s something that the movement has to address and has to take up and has to put on the table as something to demand answers for and to call for an end to.
But also I would say in terms of solutions or short term reforms rather is that we have to go after the budget for police. In a city like Chicago which is under tremendous fiscal strain, so much so that in 2012 public schools were closed. Well the Chicago police department gets 50% of the operating budget for the entire city which is outrageous when you think about it. In the last 10 years, the Chicago police department or the city of Chicago has had to spend 500 million dollars to settle cases of police brutality and wrongful death lawsuits connected to the Chicago police. I think in the last 12 years it’s been $640 million.
And so any other public institution incurring this kind of debt, people would be fired or the institution itself would be shut down. And so we have to cut the budget of the Chicago–or of police departments across the country. And I think that connected to that is that we have to do something about police union and the contrast that they have with these municipalities that they serve. Because what we’re coming to discover is that police unions really act to institutionalize and even codify police misconduct. So again, Chicago for example, it is part of the police union’s contract that officers are not allowed to make anonymous complaints about other officers. Which if you think about it, is completely obscured and works to institutionalize police misconduct. And so these are I think just some of the things that we can talk about and think about is demands that can be a part of the movement is immediate ways of what we could put a clamp on the activities of the police and try to curb some of their behavior.
But I think in the larger scope of things, that we actually have to deal with the reasons why police are allowed to come into working class and poor neighborhoods in the first place. And that means dealing with the social issues that allow–that give rise to crime in the first place. That means we can’t close public schools, mental hospitals, it means we have to have meaningful employment. Not just minimum wage jobs. Even a $15 an hour minimum wage job is not enough to actually cover the needs of your average family. So we have to think about all of those things and not just how do you tinker with this or that police force to stop the issues of brutality and in some cases police murder. We have to have a much broader understanding of why these issues exists.
NOOR: Well Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, thank you so much for joining us and we’ll certainly have you back on to continue this discussion.
TAYLOR: Thank you so much for having me.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
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