Police Reform Will Not Save Us

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by Farah Tanis

The Shooting Range:

On the day marking the first anniversary of the hanging death of Sandra Bland, as a Black woman mourning another, and brothers, I remembered that I held a gun once. I held it in an event involving a trip to an indoor shooting range meant to be a gift from friends. It was a kind of hell. I’m not sure what kind of gun it was. I didn’t care. With my fingers on the trigger and shaky palms drenched in sweat, I thought either this thing will slip from my hand or I will slip into unconsciousness. I tried to focus on the voice of a friend standing behind me with what was meant to be supportive instructions, and I prayed and waited for it all to end. In that brief moment, in a darkened room exploding with shattered air, shattered paper targets, no breath entered my lungs, only gun powder, domination, smoke, war, only gun powder entered my nostrils, my mouth, my tear ducts and my eye sockets. In a state of slow-motion, in a space crowded with “regulars” who later talked of their guns as extensions of their arms and bodies, I felt no limbs, no bones, no muscle, no skin except the one covering the hand in direct contact with the gun. Hyper-focused and simultaneously absent, I didn’t even feel the spots on my body where the shell casings flying back at me hit me before landing on the ground. This was a kind of hell.

Scientists talk about a biosphere—the zone of air, water and land where all life exists, but there is another layer that humans have created which the ethnographer and philosopher, Wade Davis calls an ethnosphere or “the sum total of all of the ways we as human beings have imagined this world into existence”.

How many times do you imagine a human being has to pick up a gun and pull the trigger before it begins to feel like an extension of who they are?
In this statement about our collective grief, the recent police murders, the funerals of loved ones and the arrests of sisters and brothers in protest, in the movement for basic rights in this country, I can talk about prayer, meditation and healing. I can talk about racism, sexism and a capitalist status-quo which undergirds these structures, but instead I want to contribute a new sound to the chorus and the chants of comrades. I want to begin by striking an additional chord and affirm what is yours and our righteous anger about the many ways we know the spirits of Black and Brown people have always been intended to be torn apart—as sacrificial—in order to keep white supremacist ideologies alive. Ideologies about war and power, about who is separate from whom and who is superior, who is beast and who is human, who is worthy to live or worthy to love, all of the above, and more about Black and Brown people have always required the shedding of our blood. Power over, absolute rule, killings and other violence, as well as the impunity that often follows are not new, but what we do about them has to be new.

The Waymakers and the Harmdoers:

One time the Dalai Lama was asked what is the most important mediation we can do now in these times? his answer: “critical thinking, followed by action. Discern what your world is, notice the plot, the scenario of this human drama and figure out where you can make things better”.

The choice is ours to determine how we evolve so that four hundred years into the future, the 20th and 21st century are not remembered for this hell—the various wars waged on communities of races and genders and ethnicities. It is our choice whether our days are remembered as the era where power and a culture of white supremacist, patriarchal, political and cultural domination was enforced through various forms of violence.

I believe the plot and the scenario we are charged with discerning is the kind of hell where young men and women enter a police force, are trained and still, some enter our communities as killers. I believe the plot and the scenario we need to see is the kind of hell, a kind of culture where it is acceptable for a gun to become an extension of the human body. The hour is late and no amount of telling them to “stop killing us” will stop them from killing us. As critical and real as our victories have been, no new policies about stops and frisks, no new body cams, right to know acts, no guarding of the guardians or reactive accountability measures will end what many of us know is and has always been a war on Black and Brown people. I believe the plot and scenario we need to see is a hell where officers whether armed with batons, military grade fire-arms, or emboldened by a badge are made to believe they are more superior than the communities they are meant to serve in a culture which propagates a politic of violence as human nature, and an ideology of “us against them”. The reinforcement of the idea of Black and Brown people as the enemy, as subhuman, as suspicious, as criminal, as not worth breath or life is not new. What law or policy can reverse this indoctrination?

As articulated by ex-police officer Norm Stamper, in his book ironically titled “To Protect and Serve: How to fix America’s Police”, police programs if not the institution of policing itself, was “doomed from the start, ...as long as we insist on pressing cops into military mold and deploying them as foot soldiers in war[s]” against people of color. Military vernacular turned “police patois” is rife with dehumanizing terms such as “they’re animals”, and “they’re savages.” Even the branding of human-beings as “perpetrators” is a brand I intentionally stopped using in 2011 when I came into contact with a Native-American comrade I consider a waymaker, a teacher of bystander intervention who taught me to use “harm-doer” for myself and within my organization until an even more human term could be determined.

Moreover, Stamper asserts that the labeling of the general population as “civilians” supports a paradigm which frames police as military combatants, all against the backdrop of white supremacist social and economic ills, the proliferation of firearms, and the disintegration and displacement of many of our communities significantly due to the prison industrial complex. I believe the scenario we need to see is a hell where policing is for profit and where police too often serve as judge, jury and executioner. Police history and culture provides foundational examples of how social isolation is sustained in what Norm Stamper calls “cop-culture”. Within the context of “police organizational pressures to act with hostility towards outsiders, to socialize exclusively with one another, to lie for one another”, it is not surprising that a police officer can gun down Philando Castile or Alton Sterling, or the five Latino brothers and sisters shot these past two weeks we have yet to hear about in mainstream media.

Within such a culture Sandra Bland died a year ago today, hanged, while in police custody.

All of this begs the question, should policing as an institution be abolished entirely in a culture so deeply ingrained with brutality and a paramilitary structure which breeds violence against those whose lives are considered not to matter?
If Every Police Officer Tendered Their Resignation:

For a long time, the backlash has been “all lives matter.” If the police truly believe all lives—thus inherently that Black lives matter, then we challenge each one to tender their resignation today. We challenge each one to create an amazing example of how the nation-state can seek restitution with its Black and Brown people. We challenge each one to create a new paradigm where in their new roles, they wholeheartedly and intersectionally support the collective well-being of Black and Brown people. We challenge each one to end this hell. End this war and do honor to the human heart by driving home the message that neither of us has to die for any of us to survive.

As Black folks we have responded with our marches and with our stories, with our documentation, with a thousand and ten thousand voices. We have asked for this entire nation to reject the practices of their European ancestors—mainly the creation of dominating power structures, and what ethnographer and philosopher, Wade Davis refers to as “the proliferation of colonial ambitions, and the noose that spread around the world and strangled the heart of countless civilizations”. End the war against Black and Brown bodies and change the course and discourse around power. Begin a new struggle to restructure the cognitive frame of the many officers now regarded by our communities as criminally insane. For many of us, the words “police” or “policing” have become triggering, so retire these terms altogether. We ask that officers direct their actions against “cop-culture” which is dehumanizing both to cops and community. End “cop-culture” where some take pleasure in causing harm, and where the suppression of emotions and empathetic human expression is often the expectation.

Though policy and training are extremely needed in these times, what is required to occur for police to “stop killing us” will need to go beyond new policy and new proposals for meaningful reform. There needs to be an imperative of never-again, and other ways of thinking and other ways of being in the world, all of which can flip the current script and fill us with hope.

This is the frontier, and I believe many of us are already bravely at its edge. We are reshaping a new ethnosphere “as humanity's great legacy—the product and the sum total of our thoughts, dreams, ideas, beliefs, intuitions, and inspirations brought into being by our human imaginations since the dawn of consciousness.” What we do now to strategically dismantle the old police regime and reshape a new culture where the killings stop has to be radically different in words and in action, thereby fulfilling the vision of all that we are, and all that we can create, as an incredibly determined and magnificent people.

Farah Tanis is a historian, critical futurist and co-founder, Executive Director of Black Women’s Blueprint working nationally and internationally. Her anti-violence work also focuses on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Tanis chaired the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S. ever to focus on Black women and their historical and contemporary experiences with sexual violence, founded the Museum of Women's Resistance, is part of NoVo Foundation's Move to End Violence Program Cohort 3, the U.S. Human Rights Network-Task Force on the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

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