Last week, young black organizers across the country took to the streets to demand that the U.S. government, unions and police officers divest from the Fraternal Order of Police and declare #FreedomNow.
We know that police unions can overwhelmingly further a culture of toxic policing that protects, pays and exonerates killer cops. What we may not know is that when police find themselves in trouble, no matter how heinous the crime committed—such as killing black people and leaving them in the street—they call the FOP for help. That’s because the FOP works to bury investigations and supports officers no matter how heinous a crime they have committed.
If that isn’t bad enough, the FOP also provides significant lobbying dollars behind “Blue Lives Matter” bills that make a career akin to being a historically marginalized person. It’s a move directly out of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators—playbook. This means circulating bills at the local level, like the bill that just passed in Louisiana providing hate-crime protections to police officers, while also having national legislation readily in the pipeline.
Across the U.S., campus fraternities get light—and, in many instances, no—penalties for what is regularly gross misconduct. The same could be said for the FOP, with its 325,000 members of law enforcement. It’s the FOP that decides if an officer gets fired for misconduct or gets only a slap on the wrist. The FOP has proved that its primary commitment is to protect the worst of its members behind the “blue wall of silence,” even in the most gruesome of circumstances. The Oakland, Calif., Police Department, for example, has come under scrutiny after it was revealed that almost two dozen officers were having relations with an underage girl whose mother worked as a police dispatcher. Ironically, many of these officers involved were tasked with ending sex trafficking in the Oakland area.
This behavior speaks to more than officer misconduct; it indicates a much larger culture endemic in police departments across the nation—one in which officers know that they can act recklessly and exist above the law and behind the blue wall of silence.
And this gross policing translates to the literal lost of black people. In 2015, in fact, 258 black people died at the hands of the police, with the vast majority being between the ages of 18 and 29. When Akai Gurley was killed by Police Officer Peter Liang in the Pink Houses in Brooklyn, N.Y., the first thing Liang did was call his union rep, not an ambulance. It’s similar to when affluent college students assume that they can simply call their parents when they commit a crime because of their wealth and legacy status. And like the police, they do.
Black officers should especially not support an institution that makes it harder for black people to live.
Montrell Jackson—one of three Baton Rouge, La., police officers fatally shot recently, and the only black person to die that day—had written on Facebook about what it was like for him as a black cop, saying, “I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat.” He was paying into a system that he knew could take his life once he took his badge off. This is crucial to the argument against these “Blue Lives Matter” bills. Montrell Jackson could take off his badge, but none of us can remove our blackness.
So, then, what is our alternative? Our society can’t seem to see a reality without police, but it is entirely possible. We need systems to respond to crises without violence and aggression, especially in the case of mental illness. Police are often responding to 911 calls that include a person with mental-health issues and are not trained to do so. It’s clear that resources would be better spent finding other alternatives. This has been done before.
In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser recently passed the “Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Amendment Act of 2016 (NEAR Act)” (pdf), which includes a public health approach that requires a collaboration of the local police and health-and-human-services agencies. But while this bill was passed, it was not funded, highlighting another serious problem.
This investment is critical because we know that in recent shootings of police officers, the alleged shooters were either veterans or suffering from mental illness, or both. As the mainstream white media would have it, though, these were framed as individuals who were just as hateful as—if not more hateful than—the cops who kill black people and get away with it. It’s that framing that ignores a very real public health crisis that persists across this nation.
This is why black organizers all over the U.S. are trying to shut down the FOP, to shine a light on an institution that works to erase accountability, especially when it comes to police brutality. Organizers are trying to shut it down because we are tired of living in fear, tired of waiting for change, tired of being told to wait our turn and tired of the hashtags. We need to live freely. Freedom from systemic violence, freedom from an oppressive police state, freedom to live.
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Preston Mitchum and Biola Jeje are based in the Washington, D.C., area and are the policy and communication co-chairs of BYP100’s D.C. chapter, an activist member-based organization of black 18- to 35-year-olds dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all black people.