Currently, we are getting two starkly opposed views explaining the unlawful, often violent behavior in American policing that we are seeing these days, nearly every week: one explanation — that it’s simply the presence of “a few bad apples” and that the majority of police actually work to serve and protect and aren’t representative of all policing; the other explanation — that violent policing is a matter of engrained, systemic racism.
Let’s consider the “few bad apples” metaphor first. How deliciously and unintentionally ironic it is, expressing, in the context of policing, the exact opposite of what its users intend it to mean.
Let’s reflect a bit on what happens when you put some actual rotten apples into a barrel of healthy ones. Sooner or later, the whole barrel will be really . . . ugh! And if you don’t throw the bad apples out – which American policing has been loath to do — the infection cannot help but spread, maintaining infection of the whole batch.
Of course the “bad apples” excuse is simply a lazy cliché, similar to the frequent mantra that “boys will be boys,” used to excuse the sexual abuse of women. It’s no big deal, something natural that we just have to put up with, so not constituting any real problem at all.
But the infection spread by the bad apples is just one aspect of the overall racism demonstrated in national policing, created by a whole range of other circumstances:
– that white Americans are currently terrified that they will lose their majority status and the power this gives them;
– that the majority of cops — generally younger and testosterone-fueled — are recruited from this frightened white population;
– that when you give young white men broad power over others, and bolster it with immunity that shields them from accountability, their power becomes a form of schoolyard bullying;
– that this bullying power easily turns into racial profiling and the excessive use of force;
– and that the excessive use of force can become lethal when weaponized, the weapons ranging from beanbags and rubber bullets to military-grade armament.
Combined, the result is a symptom of racial animus playing out daily.
Oh, wait, you’re going to argue. Yes, there may be a few misbehaving cops, but you can recount many examples of good works by upstanding police officers, many of them your neighbors, your friends, maybe even your relatives. You can go on and on about the many instances of these good cops – often even heroic – assisting others, actually serving and protecting Americans to the best of their ability.
Yes, but these upstanding, helpful, empathetic police officers have historically huddled behind what is known as the “blue wall,” the broad agreement among the rank and file that a cop does not provide evidence against another who has violated the law, and further bolstered by police unions.
However much they may want no association with bad cops, good cops are part of a system that protects and even enables bad behavior, brutalizing suspects, to the point of injury and death.
The presence of systemic racism among the country’s police was recently put even more succinctly by a New York Times writer. She argued that American policing has not run off the rails at all, nor can be faulted for failing their true role in America.
Rather, she says that police forces are doing what they have always been authorized to do: to support, protect and bolster the status quo and those in charge; to break unions; to attack peaceful protestors; to profile those of color; to support “law and order” in a way that puts more people in prison than any other country on the planet; to guarantee the continued dominance of white supremacy.
Given the entrenched role of police forces in America, we are currently in a literal life and death struggle to reduce their unfettered power. And given the ability of video to reveal the abuses of this power, we now have the tools that might curtail the lethal propensities of both the “bad apple” cops and those protecting them.
But it will take more than changes in the law. It will take a continued grassroots effort to make sure that any reforms aren’t just words, but are the basis of a cultural revolution that produces real equality under the law for all races, for all people.