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.
Since the statistics are not there to either confirm or dispel the notion, it becomes a question of beliefs. Do you believe police brutality is a deeply-embedded problem of urban police departments or not? I am sure that those of us who have been victims of police brutality and abuse believe it.
But for those of you who don't, history should be a guide: There were more than 4,000 reported lynchings in a span of 50 years. The vicious execution of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago in 1969, the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the 41 bullets fired at Amadou Diallo, and the 50 bullets shot at Sean Bell. The more than 2,000 cases of killing by law enforcement in the 1990s chronicled in The Stolen Lives Project should show you that this is a ubiquitous, malignant cancer. The more than 4,000 and 2,000,000 results for police brutality videos on YouTube and Google, respectively, must finally reveal to you that merely calling for the cops to be fired and prosecuted is not nearly enough.
But that's what continues to happen. Activists still keep making the same short-sighted demand that only serves as a Band-Aid as young, black males in America continue to bleed profusely from police cruelty. In Philadelphia, after four of the police officers who brutalized the three black men were fired on May 20, one Philadelphia activist told the New York Times, "The position of the citizens of Philadelphia is that the response…was not enough. We want all of the officers prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." Understandable goals: dismissal and imprisonment.
The next day, still waiting for the police murderers of Sean Bell to be fired and prosecuted, Rev. Al Sharpton urged New York's mayor and police commissioner to "follow the lead" of the Philadelphia officials. Same obvious aims: dismissal and imprisonment.
We should be tired of the cycle: A video of police brutality surfaces. The black community demands that perpetrating cops be fired. Officers are fired, suspended or patted on the back. Non-dismissals lead to irritation. Firings produce satisfaction and a yearning for more. Black community then demands that officers be jailed. A lack of charges or exoneration generates sadness, anger and hopelessness. Convictions result in happiness and hopefulness that lasts about a week or so until the next video and the cycle begins anew.
This needs to stop! An additional set of demands needs to be put forth, involving a totally different way of holding the police accountable for their actions. One Human Rights Watch report published a decade ago remains relevant today, stating, "Police abuse remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States. The excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings and rough treatment, persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses."
In an attempt to hold the police more accountable, many cities have organized citizen review boards to investigate allegations of brutality. But these have been around since the 1990s, and, based on the available statistics, the problem has only grown in that time, because these boards have no real power. In New York and Oakland, for example, after these boards find that someone has been abused, the disciplinary power still rests with the police commissioner.
The only way this problem will end is if these people who are supposed to be serving and protecting us come directly under our control. Every police department in urban America should be governed directly by the community they operate in. These police boards should be similar to school boards that control schools throughout America. This should be the loudest demand of black America every time there is an act of police brutality. We need a system that actually seeks to serve and protect us instead of brutalize and abuse us.
Ibram Rogers is a doctoral student in African-American studies at Temple University.