By Bilal Dabir Sekou
The city was devastated by fire, looting, and violence. Federal troops were called in. The year was 1967. The place was Detroit. Forty-three people died, most of them African American. As the embers cooled, President Lyndon B. Johnson established an 11-member commission chaired by Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., of Illinois. The job of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (popularly known as the Kerner Commission) was to find out “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”
The commission investigated 24 disorders in 23 cities and determined that poverty and racism created the conditions for urban unrest, and police actions triggered the outbreak of violence in half the cities. The report identified 12 grievances: police practices; unemployment and underemployment; poor quality housing; inadequate education; ineffectiveness and underrepresentation in the political system (the proportion of black representation in local government was substantially smaller than the black proportion of the population); and discriminatory administration of justice. Sound familiar?
After the fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown last summer by a white police officer led to demonstrations and unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (the “Ferguson Report”) found that the Ferguson police department repeatedly violated the constitutional rights of African Americans by engaging in “revenue-driven policing.” This meant “a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
The municipal court exacerbated the harm. According to the report, “Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”
The unrest in Ferguson, a string of police killings of unarmed black people, and uprisings in Baltimore, Md., have sparked a national debate about race and law enforcement. The “separate and unequal” societies identified by the Kerner Commission still exist. Bringing about change will not be easy.
The key historical role of the police has been to regulate class conflict by preserving the access of elites to basic resources, protecting private property, and controlling the labor force. In African American communities, the police have always been the coercive arm of the government charged with the responsibility of social control, not with the duty of serving and protecting them.
What is needed is an entire reorientation of law enforcement in the United States. The first step is to hold police officers accountable when they break the law. In cases involving a police shooting, a special prosecutor should be appointed to conduct the investigation. Civilian review boards should be independent and have authority. Second, police departments should demilitarize. Third, we should replace the war on drugs with a war on poverty and inequality. Police disproportionately harass and arrest black and brown women and men for largely nonviolent offenses. We should invest in job training and job creation, provide equal educational opportunity, provide a guaranteed minimum income, assure the right of workers to organize into unions, make available universal childcare, and stabilize and strengthen neighborhoods by eliminating post-industrial blight.
Socialists must continue to march alongside social movement activists under the banner of campaigns such as #Black Lives Matter and #We Can’t Breathe and support groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU, and Color of Change. White people must make these campaigns a priority. Majority white organizations such as DSA should partner with groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), “a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice.”
|Bilal Dabir Sekou is an associate professor of political science at the University of Hartford, Department of Social Sciences, Hillyer College. He can be followed on his blog, Racial and Class Discourse from an Ivory Tower in Connecticut. (www.racialdiscoursect.com).|
This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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