An Anti-Racist Vision of Police Accountability

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Photo by Jason Hargrove via Flickr

In the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of us took our grief, trauma and rage onto the streets, online, and into public hearings to protest the ways that this nation devalues, demeans and destroys the lives of Black and Brown people.

Violence against people of color is at the core of U.S. history. From the genocide of Native Americans to slavery and Jim Crow, to today’s Black Americans who live in fear every day — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Nina Pop are just a few recent victims of our national epidemic of violence and racism.

Policing’s role in this brutalization is not new.

Police enforced slavery, enabled lynchings by white mobs, enforced Black Codes, and continue to criminalize Black and Brown kids in our schools for the same behavior that gets white kids a mere warning. In short, policing as a system has always upheld white supremacy, no matter how many individual officers act in good faith.

By now, it is clear that our justice system, including policing, must transform. Transformation cannot happen without accountability—for the present and the ugly past. But what does that look like in practice?

Most people use the term “accountability” to mean punishing people for doing something wrong. Our legacy of racism positions Black and Brown people as always suspect of wrongdoing. This leads to over-policing, mass incarceration, and devastation and trauma for communities of color.

At the same time, this model of accountability almost never applies to police violence. In most of those cases police don’t even lose their jobs, much less go to prison.

An anti-racist vision of accountability repairs harm instead of causing more of it. This process, modeled on restorative justice, begins with the essential step of acknowledging and taking responsibility for the harm. From there, accountability continues with additional steps to make things right and prevent future harm.

Owning the full weight of hurting another sounds so simple. But it is, in fact, terrifying.

Humans avoid it with all kinds of mental and verbal gymnastics. How many times have you heard someone downplay slavery as a thing of the past? Our nation has never fully acknowledged the centuries-long impact of slavery and its corollaries on the health, socioeconomic status and safety of Black Americans. We must fully name what happened— without defending, excusing, or downplaying it—before we can truly move forward.

Baton Rouge, La., exemplified this kind of acknowledgement last summer.

As the city still grappled with the 2016 police murder of Alton Sterling, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul apologized to the city for the killing. He then went significantly further, apologizing for the trauma that policing has inflicted on communities of color for decades. It was a stunning moment. He unflinchingly carried the burden of historical harm caused by his profession and committed to change.

Acknowledgement creates space for repair, the second step in accountability. This is critical in communities of color, where the long history of police violence means that the police badge and uniform are traumatizing.

Equal Justice USA works to create a space for healing and build this understanding among police officers through a program in Newark, N.J. For three and a half years, community residents have sat across from police officers and recalled the times they were victims of police violence or other mistreatment. They explain how those experiences changed the way they live and the trauma they feel when a patrol car comes rolling down their block.

Police officers learn about the links between slavery, mass incarceration and policing. These painful yet powerful exchanges have helped hundreds of community members and police officers lift up each other’s humanity and fully hear each other’s pain.

Participants have described the healing that comes with being able to tell their story of police violence directly to a room of uniformed officers, to be heard and acknowledged, and to share in an examination of oppression.

At the end of the process, the group comes together to envision new approaches to healing and safety and a more collaborative, community-centered relationship. This process, of working through the pain together to arrive at a new way forward, is the beginning of repair.

Acknowledgement and repair address the past and the present. But these steps are meaningless without behavior change—concrete changes that ensure the harm is not repeated in the future.

Behavior change in the case of police violence means more than preventing individual officers from harming again. It also means systemic change—specifically defunding the police and stopping the endless feeding of a system that has inflicted harm and pain on generations of Black people.

When we call for police to be defunded, we are not calling for an overnight eradication of law enforcement. We are recognizing that there are more effective ways to address the majority of problems that currently fall to police to handle.

We are calling for a balance of the scales between investments in policing and these alternatives, to ensure not just community safety, but community healing and well-being.

Cities like Oakland, St. Louis, and Newark have made historic investments in violence prevention in the past few years. (Most recently, Newark voted to reallocate 5 percent of the police budget toward an Office of Violence Prevention.)

Among other things, these programs fund highly skilled community outreach workers and violence interventionists, who come from the communities they serve, to mediate and deescalate conflicts and reduce violence without police.

These approaches don’t rely on punitive justice. Instead, they lean on relationships built on trust and an understanding of the social and health-based indicators of violence and harm.

Activists and lawmakers are fighting to protect as much violence prevention funding as possible even in the face of an economic disaster. But no investment has been made at the scale necessary to sustain the systemic change needed to actually make Black and Brown people safe in their communities.

As a society, this is our collective behavior change to make. We must stop endorsing the militarization of police by objecting to an overall budget that has quadrupled over the last 30 years. We must demand change in the many systems that oppress people of color.

We must live anti-racist lives.

Acknowledge. Repair. Change.

Shari Silberstein

Shari Silberstein

Any one of those steps without the others fails to create accountability that repairs. It fails to recognize that white supremacy is real, that it’s everywhere, and that we must actively and forcefully dismantle it.

This is the way we battle racism. This is how we can stop violence. This is the way we flip the page on a history that is shameful and begin a new accounting of what justice really is.

That’s justice, reimagined.

Shari Silberstein is executive director of Equal Justice USA. She welcomes comments from readers.

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