To Protect and Serve?

The same cycle of brutality needs more than the same old reaction. It's time to cut the bush, thorns and all.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Even before the car stopped, the police officers began swarming out of their own cars. They snatched the three young black men out of their vehicle, threw them onto the ground in the streets of North Philadelphia, and for more than 30 seconds kicked and punched and swung billy clubs, brutalizing, torturing and dehumanizing the three young men.

As I watched this latest installment in the saga of police brutality in America, several familiar feelings rushed to the fore: anger at the 15 police officers, sympathy for the victims, bewilderment about when the brutality will end and, of course, an overriding emotional demand that the brutal cops be fired and imprisoned.

With my feelings swirling like so many times before, I began to experience some different and unusual thoughts, maybe because the brutality literally and figuratively hit close to home. I began to peel the layers of emotions off of my demand for justice—a demand made by Philadelphia activists in reaction to the airing of this video, the demand that continues to be pushed by New York City activists for the murderers of Sean Bell and the demand historically made by blacks in reaction to police brutality.

As I peeled away the emotions, I realized that police brutality is not a pathology or an abnormality, but an innate part, a ubiquitous element, a normalized practice, a habitual tactic of police departments across urban America. They can maul and mangle us because they are only accountable to themselves.


Police departments are like thorn bushes in these urban black communities. And black America calling for the jobs of just the brutal cops is like demanding the removal of just the thorns that continue to prick us. What about the bush that still remains?

Calling for the jobs and imprisonment of the offending officers should be only one element of our activism. We should also be shouting even louder for fundamental changes in accountability standards for urban police departments across America. That’s the only way the brutality will end. There aren’t just bad apples. The apple tree itself is bad. I am not saying that all police officers in America brutalize and abuse us, but that the lack of accountability breeds too many brutal and abusive police officers. All dismissal and conviction does is remove the cancerous finger, as if the cancer hasn’t already spread to the hand—to the arm—to the shoulder—to the chest—to the entire body of urban policing in America.

I wish we had an accurate set of statistics that could disprove the idea held by too many Americans, that only a fraction of the 800,000 police in the nation actually brutalize and abuse us. But the reporting of police brutality is primarily left up to the police departments themselves, and the chances of them reporting accurate figures is about as likely as the serial killer charged with manslaughter confessing to his other murders: It’s not going to happen.