Why We Must Hold All Those Complicit in Police Brutality Accountable

by Marena Bridges

One of my favorite moments in The Simpsons comes when Lisa is forced to join a cult by her dad and attend school at their headquarters. She becomes so fed up with the propaganda she endures that she stands up and declares, “The whole damn system is wrong!” as she kicks over her desk with a scream. Why am I talking about The Simpsons in an article about anti-Black police brutality? Because, lately, I’ve often felt like Lisa Simpson must have in that moment; fed up knowing that every day it’s different actors following the same script. A police officer brutalizes and/or murders one of us. That specific officer faces backlash. And we either feel we’ve been denied justice if they get off scot-free or served justice if they’re indicted.

But does an indictment really mean justice?

Take University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, who recently shot and killed an unarmed Sam Dubose. Tensing was indicted for murder for his actions. Many rightfully consider this a show of justice on behalf of not only Sam Dubose and his loved ones, but for all Black people who disproportionately experience police brutality. But Tensing didn’t act alone when he murdered Sam Dubose. Other officers at the scene corroborated Tensing’s lie that Dubose’s car dragged him, and thus he had no choice but to shoot Dubose. These officers have yet to be charged with a crime.

All too often, those officers and state agents complicit in the deaths of and violence perpetrated against Black people face limited calls for accountability because they didn’t pull the trigger. But in order to truly confront anti-Black state violence, we must expand our calls for justice to include all of those who are involved.

We already know that too many Black people die at the hands of police officers every year and many more experience non-lethal police brutality. In 2015 alone, we’ve borne witness to the deaths of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Sam Dubose, Jonathan Sanders, Freddie Gray, Tony Robinson, and many, many more. We’ve also witnessed Black girls and children brutalized by police officers for the terrifying crime of going for an afternoon swim at their local pool, among other startling moments of violence caught on camera. Clearly, state violence and state sanctioned murder against Black people is a very real problem, and it’s a problem we’ve been challenging and analyzing. Many of us have called for justice for those lives lost and those who’ve been traumatized. But it’s time we take that call for justice a step further.

We must also hold accountable the officers who lied on behalf of Ray Tensing; the officers who stood by while Eric Garner was choked to death and those helped hold him down; and the judges and attorneys complicit in keeping Sandra Bland in a dangerous situation. This should include prison and jail guards who attempt to cover up when inmates experience assaults or life ending violence. It should include stakeholders in the prison industrial complex who make bank on large numbers of inmates. It should include anyone and everyone who actively or passively upholds state violence. A system that continues to brutalize us, that poses the threat of life-ending violence, should be held accountable for its actions.

For every Ray Tensing who’s actually charged for their crimes, there are countless other police officers like him who never face any serious consequences. They are essentially allowed to murder Black men, women, and children with impunity. These officers wouldn’t be able to do this without the complicity and protection of those around them. Indeed, all too often officers who do choose to speak up when they witness unjust practices by their colleagues face harsh consequences, thus confirming our suspicions about how police within the U.S. routinely operate. This has to change.

It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see that our legal system is structurally anti-Black and thus, applied unfairly and unjustly. From the disproportionate amount of Black people targeted by discriminatory practices like stop and frisk, to the disproportionate amount of Black people sent to prison, to the high numbers of us who are victimized by violence at the hands of officers (which are often times lethal), we often fail to see any justice from those agents responsible for maintaining the “justice” system. We must realize that any remedies based solely on holding only individuals accountable—even when they are directly responsible—will not bring about the long-lasting systemic change we need. We must dismantle and restructure the whole of these systems to end state violence, and that requires holding every actor accountable for their complicity in the terrorism perpetrated against Black people in America.

Ultimately, true and lasting justice means that, rather than watching the same scenes of anti-Black police violence and murder unfold again and again, we must rewrite the entire script.

Photo: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock

Marena recently earned her Master’s degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular media. When she’s not writing essays, you can find her creating fan works, beading, flailing over fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory, or watching low budget sci-fi. You can visit her blog at Marena ni yukyats.

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