To Serve and Protect?

Again? The New York Police Department has killed another young person of color? Last week, the NYPD murdered Noel Polanco, just 22 years old. He was unarmed. He was driving home from work. The police say he was speeding and driving erratically, but news reports and the witnesses in his car point to a different story; the NYPD had road rage and took it out on this innocent man. And why not? The NYPD has already murdered over a dozen young people of color this year, and the police involved have not been disciplined in any way. This sends a clear signal to police. Carte blanche. Open season. Do what you will.

Ramarley Graham, shot in his own bathroom in front of his grandmother and 6 year-old brother. Tamon Robinson, rammed by NYPD in their car for “stealing” bricks, handcuffed to his hospital bed as he died. Walwyn Jackson: His family called 911 because he was threatening to kill himself. Kill himself. His family called the police for help in stopping their loved one from committing suicide. Walwyn was depressed that he couldn’t get a job to support his 2-week-old son. They stopped him from committing suicide by murdering him.

Is it just a few bad apples? Keeping in mind that at least a hundred officers have been involved at the scenes of these murders, is it just that these hundred officers and their sergeants are stepping out of line? Accepting that hundreds more officers and higher-ups cover up these cases, lose evidence, turn out to applaud their colleagues at their court dates, contribute money to post bail, and intimidate the grieving families, is it just that these officers are the most visible for being bad while the good cops are invisibly protecting us? Given that tens of thousands of cops routinely stop and frisk innocent civilians in one of the largest systems of racial profiling in the country, well, what then?

When the NYPD sends the bill to Tamon Robinson’s mother for the $710 to repair the car they rammed into and murdered her son with, it begs the question, is this the whole system? At least 220 people have been killed by the NYPD since they murdered Amadou Diallo. And this month, Commissioner Kelly gave the officer who killed Diallo his gun back. It’s not just New York. Across the land of the free, in the year 2012, the police and a much smaller number of security guards and vigilantes have killed one black woman or man every 36 hours. At the height of lynching, in 1892, one black woman or man was killed every 54 hours.

Police still drive by Ramarley Graham’s home making guns with their fingers and point them at the family sitting outside.

At the root of these killings is the racist view that all people of color are suspicious, criminals, disposable. The incredible audio & video released earlier this week by The Nation showcases this mentality. A young man asks why he is stopped; the police respond, “Because you’re a fucking mutt.” The video also features anonymous veteran police officers listening to the audio; they confirm that they are being trained to “hunt”—their own words—and that they are forced to make quotas. Quotas are not only illegal; they are the opposite of justice.

Their testimony proves yet again that this is a systemic issue. Some folks go into the police force genuinely wanting to protect and serve, but it’s not just that those good apples are overshadowed by the bad ones. The institution itself is rotten to its core. A report by Harvard faculty and Department of Justice officials traces the oppressive and racist history of the police—in fact, the first police in the United States were the slave patrols. Now, in the age of “colorblindness,” the police continue to oppress and prop up racism, sexism, and transphobia.

Police have a distinct role in our society. History has many examples of rank and file soldiers refusing to shoot at innocent people, whether their own citizens or the people they are told are their enemies. It’s not automatic, but it happens in Vietnam or in the initial weeks of the Egyptian Revolution.

It’s not impossible, but it’s extremely improbable. Police and the military have different roles. The police are trained to repress and kill their own fellow citizens. Not just the bad apples, but the good apples too. They become bad apples. The two anonymous officers in The Nation’s video are courageous, and doubtless there are police who might stand up against these injustices and are threatened with repression by their own bosses and peers. But “just following orders” has not been an acceptable justification for decades. When the good apples stand up and fight back with us, we will work together.

Until then, it’s clear the institution is too powerful and corrupt to dismiss as just a few bad cops here and there. The only way to stop the killings is for regular people—like the families of Ramarley, Tamon, Walwyn, and too many others—to stand up, stand together, and fight back.