One of Bree Newsome Bass’s gifts is making connections. In our recent conversation with Bree, she helped make connections between policing, the commons, and private property. Bree’s analysis is relentless, looking into every crevice to root out the things that hurt. So is her imagination, which remains unbound and ready to create new ways of being that can create life.
Black Cops Don’t Make Policing Any Less Anti-Black
by Bree Newsome Bass
Amid recent growing calls for defunding police this summer, a set of billboards appeared in Dallas, Atlanta, and New York City. Each had the words “No Police, No Peace” printed in large, bold letters next to an image of a Black police officer. Funded by a conservative right-wing think tank, the billboards captured all the hallmarks of modern pro-policing propaganda. The jarring choice of language, a deliberate corruption of the protest chant “no justice, no peace,” follows a pattern we see frequently from proponents of the police state. Any word or phrase made popular by the modern movement is quickly co-opted and repurposed until it’s rendered virtually meaningless. But perhaps the most insidious aspect of modern pro-police propaganda is reflected in the choice to make the officer on the billboard the face of a Black man.
This is in keeping with a narrative pro-police advocates seek to push on a regular basis in mass media — that policing can’t be racist when there are Black officers on the force, and that the police force itself is an integral part of Black communities. When Freddie Gray died in police custody, police defenders quickly pointed out that three of the officers involved were Black, implying that racism couldn’t be a factor in a case where the offending officers were the same race as the victim.
When I scaled the flagpole at South Carolina’s capital in 2015 and lowered the Confederate flag, many noted that it was a Black officer who was tasked with raising the flag to the top of its pole again. When an incident of brutality brings a city to its brink, Black police chiefs are paraded to podiums and cameras to serve as the face of the United States’ racist police state and to symbolically restore a sense of order. One of the most frequent recommendations from police reformists is to recruit and promote more Black officers. This is based on an argument that the primary problem with policing centers on a “breakdown of trust” between police forces and communities they have terrorized for decades; the solution, then, is to “restore trust” between the two parties by recruiting officers who resemble the communities they police. Images of police officers dancing or playing basketball with Black children in economically deprived neighborhoods are often published as local news items to help drive this narrative home. The idea gained traction in the aftermath of numerous urban rebellions in the 1960s and has seen a resurgence in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson uprising.
When protests broke out in Atlanta this past summer in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the city’s Black mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, held a press conference flanked by some of Atlanta’s most famous and wealthy Black residents. Together they pleaded for protestors to go home and leave property alone. Soon after, Rayshard Brooks was killed by white police officers in Atlanta. The moment exposed a class divide that exists in cities all over the nation: A chasm between the image of Black affluence promoted by Black politicians and the Black petite bourgeoisie (middle class) and the lived realities of the majority of Black residents in those cities, many of whom still face disproportionate unemployment, displacement by rapid gentrification, and policies that cater to white corporate interests. If the solution to racism were simply a matter of a few select Black people gaining entry to anti-Black institutions, we would see different outcomes than what we’re witnessing now. But the idea that we can resolve racism by integrating what is perhaps the most fundamentally anti-Black institution in the U.S. — its policing and prison industry — is the most absurd notion of all.
Part of the reason why calls to defund police have sent such shock waves through the nation, prompting placement of pro-police billboards and pushback from figures of the Black establishment, is because it cuts right to the heart of how structural racism operates in the United States. At a time when the Black elite would prefer to measure progress by their own tokenized positions of power and symbolic gestures like murals, the push to defund police would require direct confrontation with how the white supremacist system has been organized since the end of chattel slavery — when the prisons replaced plantations as the primary tool of racial control. Actions that may have been widely seen as adequate responses to injustice just a couple of decades ago now ring hollow to many observers who see that Black people continue to be killed by a system that remains largely unchanged.
Police forces represent some of the oldest white fraternal organizations in the United States. The rules of who is empowered to police and who is subject to policing are fundamental to the organization of the racial caste system. Even in the earliest days of integrating police forces, Black officers were often told they couldn’t arrest white people. The integration of police forces does nothing to alter their basic function as the primary enforcers of structural racism on a daily basis, and the presence of Black officers only serves as an attempt to mask this fact.
Actions that may have been widely seen as adequate responses to injustice just a couple of decades ago now ring hollow to many observers who see that Black people continue to be killed by a system that remains largely unchanged.
Police forces in America began as slave patrols, and their primary function has always been to act in service of the white ownership class and its capitalist production. In one century, that meant policing and controlling enslaved Black people, with the purview to use violence against free Black people as well; in another, it involved cracking down on organized labor, for the benefit of white capitalists. Receiving a badge and joining the force has been an entryway to white manhood for many European immigrants — providing them a sense of citizenship and superiority when they would have traditionally been part of the peasantry rather than the white owner class.
That spirit of white fraternity remains deeply entrenched in the culture of policing and its unions today, regardless of this new wave of Black police chiefs and media spokespeople. Police forces became unionized around the same time various other public employees sought collective bargaining rights — however, under capitalism, their role as maintainers of race-property relations remains the same. The most fundamental rule of race established under chattel slavery was that Black people were the equivalent of white property (if not counted as less than property). This relationship between race and property is most overt during periods of open rebellion against the police state, where officers are deployed to use lethal force in the interest of protecting inanimate property. We see swifter and harsher punishments handed out to those who vandalize police cars than to police who assault and kill Black people. (This is a major reason why the press conference in Atlanta with T.I. and Killer Mike struck people as classist and out of touch with the majority Black experience.)
This same pattern extends throughout the carceral state. Roughly a quarter of all bailiffs, correctional officers, and jailers are Black, yet there’s no indication that diversifying the staff of a racist institution results in less violence and death for those who are held within it. That’s because the institution continues to operate as designed. It is not “broken,” as reformists are fond of saying. The fallacy is in believing the function of police and prisons is to mete out punishment and justice in an equitable manner and not to first and foremost serve as a means of maintaining the race, gender, and class hierarchy of an oppressive society.
Believing that the system is “broken” rather than functioning exactly as intended requires a certain adherence to white supremacist and anti-Black beliefs. One has to ignore the rampant amount of violence, fraud, and theft being committed by some of the most powerful figures in society with little to no legal consequence while massive amounts of resources are devoted to the hyper-policing of the poor for infractions as minor as trespassing, shoplifting, and turnstile jumping at subway stations.
The Trump era has provided some of the starkest examples of this dynamic. The most powerful person in the nation and his associates have been able to break the law and violate the Constitution — including documented crimes against humanity — in full view of the public while he proclaims himself the upholder of law and order. Wealthy celebrities involved in the college admissions bribery scandal have gotten away with a slap on the wrist for orchestrating a multimillion-dollar scheme while a dozen NYPD officers surrounded a Black teenager, guns drawn, for the “crime” of failing to pay $2.75 for a subway ride.
The propaganda that depicts this type of policing as being essential to public safety and order is fundamentally classist and anti-Black. It traces its roots to the Black Codes that were passed immediately after the Civil War to control the movements of newly freed Black people. It relies on the racist assumption that Black people would run amok and pose a threat to the larger society if not kept under the constant surveillance of a police force that has authority to kill them if deemed necessary, and with virtual impunity. That’s why we are inundated with a narrative that depicts the police officer who regularly patrols predominantly Black communities as being an essential part of maintaining order in society.
One of the primary talking points against calls to defund and abolish police is that Black communities would have no way to maintain peace and order, and that a state of chaos would ensue. In wealthier neighborhoods, if an officer is present at all, they’re most likely positioned by a gate at the top of the neighborhood to monitor who enters. Meanwhile, the officer assigned to the predominantly Black community is there to keep a watchful eye on the residents themselves, and to ensure they are contained in their designated place within the larger city or town.
The current political divide on this issue falls exactly along these lines, separating those who think the system is simply in need of reform and those who correctly define the problem as the system itself. The reality is that Black people fall on both sides of this divide, which is why we find so many Black officers in uniform arguing for a reformist agenda even as every reform they propose is vociferously opposed by the powerful, majority-white police unions and most of the rank and file. Reformists remain committed to preserving the existing system even though the idea of reforming it to be the opposite of what it was designed to be is an unproven theory that’s no more realistic than the idea of abolishing police altogether.
The most pressing question remains: Why are we seeking to integrate and reform modern manifestations of the slave patrols and plantations in the first place? In Mississippi and Louisiana, state penitentiaries are converted plantations. What is a reformed plantation — and what is its purpose?
We must remember that many of these so-called “reforms” are not new. For as long as the plantation and chattel slavery systems existed, there also existed Black slaveowners, Black overseers, and Black slave catchers who participated in and profited from the daily operations of white supremacy. The presence of these few Black people in elevated positions of power did nothing to change the material conditions of the millions of enslaved people back then. And it makes no greater amount of sense to believe they indicate a shift in material conditions for Black people now.
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.