Many years ago, I was leaving work from the American Civil Liberties Union to go to lunch and walking through Times Square in New York City around noon. It was a busy day, full of people, yet three police officers singled me out and stopped me. One of the officers, who looked like he was barely out of high school, took out a gun. I remember his hand shaking as he held the gun and the other two pushed me up against the wall.
This story is hardly unique. But what struck me at the time was the police officer’s fear. Why is this guy afraid of me, I wondered. I’m the one being frisked by three armed cops for no reason. I could argue that my safety and life were truly at risk, and the threat to this man’s safety was imagined. Yet it doesn’t really matter: To him, his fear was very real. And in split seconds, fear pulls the trigger.
We all share a desire for safety. We all want to live in safe communities, no matter your color, class or profession. Black communities want safety from the violence they experience, often at the hands of people sworn to protect them. White communities, while often better resourced and less policed than Black communities, want and deserve safety too. And yes, police need to feel safe on the job.
But what we’ve allowed to happen is for safety to be presented as something finite and afforded only to some groups or communities, particularly whites. Not only are other groups, particularly Black and Latinx people, undeserving of safety, but they themselves are presented as threats to the safety of others, especially white people. This isn’t just a reflection of our feelings. It’s also the way we organize our institutions and our stories. It’s the way we organize our spaces and our politics.
That’s the basis of our current system, played out in real time.
For example, when President Donald Trump promises to save the suburbs from the “hell” he claims they are experiencing due to the presence of low-income housing, he fans the flames of racial anxiety. I can relate to this. I grew up in Detroit, and after coming out to California, I was informed I had grown up in not the city, but the inner city. “Inner” meaning dangerous and Black. It was Blackness that made Detroit dangerous — or more accurately, the fear and the need to protect whiteness.
And when Trump sends military forces to American cities to intervene and sometimes violently suppress largely peaceful protests, he does it under the guise of protection for, what he calls, “our people,” creating violence where there was none and clearly showing who is worthy of protection.
Yet it is nonwhites who are most in need of protection from them.
The case of Breonna Taylor in Louisville earlier this year exemplifies many of these ideas: the desire for safety, the othering and racism Black people experience and the biased institutions that dictate who is protected and who is criminalized.
When the police banged violently on the door to her apartment after midnight without announcing themselves, she and her boyfriend feared for their safety. And when the officers busted through the door, the boyfriend fired a shot at the plainclothes intruders, striking one of them in the leg. He was trying to protect himself and Taylor from violent home invaders in the night.
Fearing for their safety, officers unloaded their guns, killing the young medic, Taylor.
Many people were outraged when a grand jury failed to pursue murder charges against the officers who killed her. This outrage has a righteousness to it. It has a humanness to it. But technically — and this is where the problem lies — the law makes it very difficult to charge police officers.
Many of our laws allow police to get away with excessive and repeated incidents of violence, especially when they are committed against people of color. The law implicitly says that Black people are dangerous and that not only must we protect white people from them, but we must also protect heavily armed police from Black people even if they’re sleeping in their beds, driving in their cars, walking in their neighborhoods or just being Black.
In the minds of, not all, but still too many, whites, and in the system itself, Black lives do not matter. Indeed the claim of white purity, of white America, projects that white fear onto Black people at any cost.
Black people are not harassed because of the color of their skin. They are harassed and killed because of the ideology of whiteness.
In Taylor’s case, all the police had to say to justify their use of force was that they feared for their safety. The fact that she and her boyfriend had also feared for their safety isn’t even a consideration, according to the law.
The police were following the rules. But what’s not examined is the question, what are the rules? The rules, we often wrongly assume, are relatively fair.
So the problem is not merely that those officers are bad apples in a police force. The law itself is wrong. And the police have many resources at their disposal, including qualified immunity, powerful unions, the courts, the press and even Trump, to shield themselves.
What resources can the victims of police terror rely on?
We are right to be collectively concerned about the safety of police officers. But we are wrong in our inadequate concern for the safety of Taylor, George Floyd and the countless other Black, Brown, Native, Asian and transgender people who are abused or killed, not by a violent person in the night but by the state, and never see justice.
The state should not only care for some people. It needs to care for all of us.
Trump does not want people, especially white people, to learn about this racism or how these killings constitute a form of terrorism. This might make white people uncomfortable.
A terrorist attack, like a hate crime, is when you kill someone to inflict an injury on them and the group they belong to. There have been whites killed by the police, but not because they were white. There are many people in power who cannot bring themselves to say Black Lives Matter. Maybe because in their world, Black lives do not matter.
A part of the task ahead of us will thus be figuring out how we create a society where every group feels safe. We know we need to change rules and culture, but how?
One thing we need to change is our relationship with the police. You can’t effectively police unless you have the trust of the community, and what we have now is a system in which the Black community has little trust in the police.
The police also have to learn to see Black and Latinx people not as threats, but as human beings. This will take a concerted effort of psychological assessment, bias training, real relationships within the community and possibly having police officers live in the neighborhoods where they work.
It is not just the police that is the problem; it is the systems that say the safety of Black people does not matter. When is it appropriate to pull out a gun? When is it appropriate to choke someone? I am willing to afford white people and the police safety, but I am not willing to pay for it with the continued loss of Black lives and dignity.
Some of these changes are already happening at local, state and federal levels. The House’s June passage of a police reform bill to limit qualified immunity is a step in the right direction, even if it doesn’t end up going anywhere due to the current leadership in the Senate.
Virginia’s state legislature also recently passed a police reform bill that offers some improvements, such as a ban on no-knock warrants and chokeholds. But an effort to ban qualified immunity failed there.
And here in California, the governor recently signed a few bills into law with some modest police reforms, but the most meaningful ones, such as those that would have permanently revoked the badges of officers who commit serious crimes and provided the public access to police misconduct records, never made it to his desk.
With our shared need for safety, there are opportunities to bridge across the racial and political spectrum. Even where there is disagreement, there is space for us to talk to one another. But we have to realize that the role of the government is not to secure your safety at my expense or my safety at your expense but to ensure all of our safety.
Some may take exception to what I’m saying in this piece. They may feel like I’m criticizing their country. But the fact is, the United States is not only their country. It’s our country, and we need real changes to make it the country it needs to be.
By grappling with these complicated issues and seeing the humanity in one another, we can find a path forward and ensure safety and belonging for all.
john a. powell is a professor of law and ethnic studies at UC Berkeley and the director of the Othering and Belonging Institute.