In April, as I shuttled between cities, job and home, juggled personal obligations and student expectations, the pressures publish or perish, I looked at the Baltimore uprising and all I could think was, “I feel you. I got a Ph.D. and disposable income and I am five minutes from tearing ish up.” I felt like that after Freddie Gray, after Tamir Rice, after Renisha McBride, after Michael Brown, after Trayvon Martin, after Aiyana Stanley-Jones, after Oscar Grant, after Eric Garner, after death, after death of a Black person, young and old, male and female, by police and citizen vigilantes. Now I know I am not supposed to say that, I am supposed to ask for calm, peaceful protest and reform, but instead I say fuck tha police, people over property and heed the call for abolition.
Fuck tha Police
Over 25 years ago, the hip-hop group N.W.A. released the now infamous song Fuck Tha Police, which is a mock trial of the police and features witness testimony by group members Ice Cube, MC Ren and Easy E. Each account details consistent forms of racial profiling at the hands of police. Ice Cube explains that police harass young Black men because the police “think every nigga is selling narcotics.” These lyrical testimonies, which preceded the police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent Los Angeles rebellion in 1992, describe the criminalization of Black people in the United States. Criminalization binds race to crime. It advances the false idea that Black people commit more crime than other racial and ethnic groups and that this is a result of a biological predisposition or a cultural tendency, i.e., Black cultural values encourage criminal behavior. Criminalization sees the potential for criminal behavior in everything a Black person does, says or even wears. Renisha McBride knocked on a door for help. Trayvon Martin wore a hoodie to the store. Eric Garner said he was tired of being harassed. Freddie Gray made eye contact with a police officer. Aiyana Stanley-Jones was sleeping.
When every action a Black person engages has the potential to be dangerous, then Black life itself intrinsically poses a threat. This justifies police and citizen vigilantes who respond to any act by a Black person with force. And when the dust settles and another Black life is taken, the perpetrators get off with impunity. Thus, criminalization fuels and excuses violence against Black people. At a school tucked in a corner in the middle of nowhere, I heard a young White college student comment on Mike Brown: “Well, I heard he was in juvie [juvenile detention] so I’m glad he’s gone.” This comment shows that the dangerous logic of criminalization is pervasive and not just the purview of police and vigilantes.
Alleged past criminal behavior made irrelevant the actual circumstances surrounding Brown’s death — he was not committing a crime nor was he armed. The claims of Brown’s criminal past were proven to be salacious rumors, but even if Brown had committed a crime in the past, why would that justify his killing? Why didn’t this student see Brown as his peer and consider that rather than being shot to death, Brown deserved a second chance. But there is no redemption for Black life. Blackness is bound to criminality, so had Brown lived, he would only continue to be a menace to society.
According to “Operation Ghetto Storm,” a 2012 report released by The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, every 28 hours, a Black person is killed by state-sanctioned violence — by police, security guards or citizen vigilantes. The fact that police, whose mantra is “protect and serve,” is included in that statistic should be alarming, but for anyone who lives in a Black (as well as Latino and poor) community in the United States, it is of little surprise.
In Ferguson, Missouri, Blacks are disproportionately ticketed and fined to generate city revenue, making racial profiling a modern form of debt-peonage. In Maryland, 109 people died after police encounters between 2010 and 2014, with Baltimore having the highest number of incidents, according to an ACLU study. In Chicago, for almost 30 years, scores of Black men were tortured during covert police investigations that often resulted in false confessions, falsified evidence and unjust imprisonment. These are just a few examples of the ways that, in Black communities, the police function more like a death squad than anything else. I repeat the mantra “fuck tha police” because in my communities, the police do not protect and serve, rather they target, terrorize, torture and kill.
People over Property
Mainstream media coverage of the Baltimore uprising, as well as Facebook and Twitter feeds, displayed a lot of outrage over the destruction of private property. In fact, for many, the burning of a CVS pharmacy store seemed to generate more outrage than the death of Freddie Gray. I remember the same misplaced outrage during the Ferguson unrest. With each uprising against state violence, there are repeated calls from all corners for calm that are sutured to “sanctity” of private property. Protesters must be denounced because they burn a car, but what of the police who killed a human being? Shouldn’t our outrage be reserved for the loss of life? Shouldn’t people be more important than property? A building can be made anew, but death cannot be undone.
This disproportionate outrage highlights a link between policing and the protection of private property that goes back far into U.S. history. The United States began as a slave society, which meant that the rules that governed the relationship between free and enslaved shaped all aspects of society, from economic and political to cultural and intimate. Property in a slave society included land, buildings and other inanimate objects one might possess as well as people. In the United States, this meant Black people, and as a result, the preservation of private property necessitated the control and regulation of Black life and death.
Beginning in the 18th century, groups of White men would form slave patrols and monitor the life and mobility of Black people (as well as native populations). They would track runaway slaves and check that any Black person unaccompanied by a White person carried the right ID: a pass from their owner or a pass declaring their status as free. Patrols also ensured that free Blacks did not break any Black code of the time, such as being “idle” in public. They would search the quarters of the enslaved and break up any gatherings of Blacks to guard against slave uprisings, which would entail the liberation of enslaved Blacks, i.e., the destruction of private property. This garnered outrage by White populations at the time and the threat of an uprising and destruction of private property was met with brutal force and violence. The end of slavery did not mean the end of these practices. After Reconstruction, statutes like pig laws (which made it a felony to steal a pig) were erected to specifically target now-free Blacks to continue to benefit from their labor. Police forces were formally established to enforce these laws and others that reinstated the racial status quo.
Accordingly, scholars argue that contemporary police forces have their roots in the Southern slave patrols (and Northern watch groups) of pre-Civil War United States. Today’s police practices echo the actions of slave patrols. “Stop and frisk” policies make it a crime to just be young, Black and Latino and “idle” on a street corner. Driving while Black necessitates a stop, search and check for ID. And when Black people take to the streets to rise up against systemic racial inequality, the incessant destruction of Black life by state violence is overshadowed by outrage over the momentary destruction of private property, and uprisings are met with the full force of a militarized police.
The Call for Abolition
As I watched events unfold and participated in actions where I live, I, like many others, began to look for ways to systematically end systemic Black death. One tactic that resonates with me is the call for abolition, which I first heard about from the writings of Angela Davis (Are Prisons Obsolete?) and the broader prison-abolition movement. Prison abolitionists argue that while incarceration rates have skyrocketed over the past 30 or so years, crime rates have actually gone down. They also point to the way mass incarceration is highly racialized. The overwhelming majority of the imprisoned are Black and Latino. These men and women are not locked up because they are biologically or culturally predisposed to crime, but because they are targets of racialized policing and laws. Further, they have shown how the web of the prison industrial complex makes incarceration a big business. The way forward, they argue, is not through fixing prisons but eliminating them.
At first the idea of abolishing the police as well seems fanciful at best and irresponsible at worst. A world without police is scary but only if we continue to consider crime as solely the acts of individuals who are deranged and/or lack self-control, and continue to be invested in the fallacy of Black criminality. However, if we consider crime within its systemic context, the convergence of many factors from racialized policing and laws to economic inequality, the call for abolition is neither fanciful nor irresponsible.
Abolition is not reform and for good reason. Reform begins from the supposition that prisons don’t work but can be made to work better, whereas abolition begins from the supposition that prisons do in fact work — they effectively control and regulate Black life and death and police are central to this work of regulation and control.
The call for abolition may seem like it goes too far. Yes, there are some bad police practices, but there are good cops, so some say that what we need is reform. However, I would argue that rather, there are good people who become police officers, just like there were good people, Black and White, who owned slaves — good people who worked within a bad system. All their goodness did not change the fact that slavery was a violent system of racial inequality that could not be reformed but had to be abolished. Likewise, the police, even good ones, cannot protect and serve when the logic of Black criminality is at the very root of the institution. The police system cannot be reformed but must be abolished.
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.