Ending Police Violence By Changing the System

“Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail…The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” So goes the popular refrain at demonstrations to end police violence. To some, it may sound like extremist rhetoric. To others, it falls short of an abolitionist agenda by calling for the incarceration of police.

In recent years, however, these words have become truer, even for abolitionists who demand that police face accountability for killing Black people. As we make demands of the police, we are also witnessing how prosecutors protect them, and how the government has refused to provide meaningful oversight. Is the whole system really guilty? Can’t we simply vote folks out and vote others in? Don’t we live under a system of checks and balances? What about different levels of government? And if the whole system is guilty, what do we do? Is all hope lost?

The murder of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard at the hands of Sacramento Police officers Terrance Mercadal and Jared Robinet — who claimed that the white cell phone the 22-year-old was holding caused them to “fear for their safety” — is the most recent example of systemic guilt making headlines. After the officers pulled the trigger 20 times, hitting Clark in the back six times, mainstream media committed what journalist Thandisizwe Chimurenga calls “double murder” — the assassination of the victim’s character following the killing of his body. Every effort was made to cast Clark as a criminal in the year leading up to Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s decision not to prosecute the officers.

Every attempt has been made to diminish Clark and exalt the police. Rather than a victim, Stephon was made a co-conspirator in his own murder. Mainstream media ran stories that had nothing to do with the actual killing, including articles about minor crimes, mental health challenges, and even his intimate relationships. Clark’s family, supported by Black Lives Matter organizers in Sacramento and throughout the country, expressed their rage in the streets and at public meetings. The DA’s decision not to charge the officers involved followed nearly a year of weekly protests outside her office. Schubert also engaged in what Clark’s family called a “smear campaign,” announcing her non-prosecution decision amidst completely unfounded contentions that Clark may have committed “suicide by cop.”

Schubert’s unwillingness to press charges goes beyond Clark; her office has never charged an officer in the murder of a community member. Unsurprisingly, the refusal to indict officers in the murder of Black people is not unique to Schubert. In Los Angeles County, more than 460 residents have been killed by police or died while in custody since District Attorney Jackie Lacey took office in 2012. Only after more than a year of pressure did Lacey choose to prosecute a single officer — leaving 459 other cases with no one held accountable. District attorneys have failed to prosecute even in circumstances when the victims appeared to be sleeping in their car, such as the 2016 murder of #KishaMichael and #MarquintanSandlin, who were killed by Inglewood Police, leaving seven children without parents. The police officers, in that case, were fired. No prosecution was held following the murder of #BrendonGlenn in 2015, even though the police chief recommended that officers be charged.

District attorneys across the nation maintain close ties with police because they are part of the same system that treats Black, Brown, and poor residents as criminals while police who abuse community members as untouchable. The Los Angeles County District Attorney, like many DAs, has a formal agreement with law enforcement that her office will follow the leads of policing units in officer-involved investigations. The late historian Manning Marable writes of these systems in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, and reminds us that they are constructed to produce such outcomes. The criminal justice system, which both district attorneys and police are a part of, is designed to protect and more deeply entrench the existing hegemony.

Theories of democracy and civic engagement tell us, however, that we live under a system of checks and balances, where the shortcomings of one system or level of government can be addressed through another. Such an approach serves to validate the existing system, maintaining that any injustice committed is an anomaly rather than an intention that can be corrected. Thus, the whole system is shielded from guilt. This is the entire basis of Civil Rights organizing, which demands that the government protect the rights of people and groups, including protection from local entities and systems. During Reconstruction, federal troops were deployed from 1865-1877 to protect the rights of formerly enslaved people from public and private institutions in the South, including police. During the Civil Rights Era from 1954 to 1968, the federal government was called on to protect the rights of Black people, including voting rights protestors and students attempting to integrate public schools.

The Obama administration was called on to defend the Civil Rights of Black people against the police. Former Attorney General Eric Holder was charged with issuing a federal report around the murder of #MikeBrown, as well as the entire policing system in Ferguson. While Holder decided not to issue federal charges against police officer Darren Wilson in the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the report provided modest rhetorical protections against police violence and offered reform recommendations. Civil Rights protections have long been a primary function of the federal government, unless the presidential regime is adverse to adopting such a role.

President Donald Trump’s first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, severely limited the role of the Department of Justice in police oversight, rolling back the modest interventions of the Obama administration. In a 2017 address to officers, Trump encouraged police abuse, admonishing, “Please, don’t be too nice.” Rather than hold officers and policing systems to account, the Trump camp has advanced agendas that criminalize Black people who dare to stand up by issuing a completely unfounded “Black Identity Extremist” report. For organizers working to end police violence, and Black people as a whole, it is apparent that the Trump White House will not be a source of protection from local abuses.

Trump is not the first white supremacist to occupy the White House, and earlier groups of Civil Rights and Black freedom fighters refused to stop their work under even the most extremist of presidents. W.E.B. Du Bois challenged President Woodrow Wilson to represent the interests of Black people in a 1913 open letter. Richard Nixon was the target of constant protest, and some of the most significant victories of the Black Power Era were made despite his presidency. Ronald Reagan’s racist domestic and foreign policies were vigorously opposed by everyone from anti-Apartheid protesters to Coretta Scott-King. When Trump was elected in 2016, it was clear that his administration would do little to help Civil Rights requests to protect Black people from murderous police. Like those before, activists (especially Black activists) immediately took to the street while organizers launched petitions, boycotts, led marches, crafted legislation, and disrupted business as usual.

What may be new under the current white supremacist regime is a realization that rather than confining the counter to protest, new pressure points must be identified to transform the system and find a space of temporary solace for Black people.

Recognizing that the Trump administration could not be appealed to, Black Lives Matter chapters in California sought to continue the conversation. Organizers requested public forums on policing and interventions in police abuse, while families filed letters with the seemingly-progressive Attorney General Xavier Becerra about disturbing cases of government-sanctioned violence. It seemed that the lines of communication were opening up.

Perhaps Becerra could fill the void left by a federal government uncommitted to Civil Rights. Becerra has sued the Trump administration multiple times since taking office, most recently around the fake “national security” declaration used to construct a border wall. So when District Attorney Schuster refused to prosecute the police who murdered Stephon Clark, organizers looked to Becerra to offer a remedy. Instead, the California Attorney General reminded us that the whole system is guilty by refusing to issue state charges. In Philadelphia, abolitionist organizers are disappointed with former-Black Lives Matter lawyer-turned-DA Larry Krasner over his unwillingness to release political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. A traditional approach to the dilemma faced might be to support other candidates for office who are more accessible and progressive. However, the answer to a criminal justice system that refuses to represent the interests of the people authentically is not simply switching out the bodies who occupy offices; the answer is grassroots organizing.

It’s apparent that, when left to its own devices, the system protects itself. This leaves those committed to justice with two choices: resign oneself to the system as we know it, or develop community-driven solutions through non-reformist reforms with the goal of transformative change. While the family of Stephon Clark had hoped that his killers would be brought to justice through prosecutions, they knew that this would belie history. Simultaneous to the work to put pressure on Sacramento prosecutors and the California attorney general, the Clark family, along with organizers across the state, partnered with Assemblymember Shirley Weber from San Diego’s 79th district to craft legislation in Stephon’s honor. Assembly Bill 392 will take the “feared for my safety” protection away from officers and make criminal prosecution more possible. Police associations and white supremacists are staunchly opposed to AB 392, but the families of those killed by police and those deeply rooted in community are working to ensure that it passes.

Beyond passing legislation, we continue to organize by being supports for each other. The whole system is indeed guilty, but the system has never been the source of the change that we seek. We are not without hope. There is the work of Civil Rights attorneys like Benjamin Crump, who represent the families of those killed by police, including Stephon Clark’s, and are unafraid to marry their legal work with political advocacy. Athletes and artists like the Golden State Warriors’ DeMarcus Cousins use their platforms, and even their shoes, to amplify calls for justice. There are traditional Civil Rights leaders like Al Sharpton — who visited Sacramento on the first anniversary of Clark’s murder — who regularly features instances of police abuse, killings, and the on-the-ground organizers on his television show. National Civil Rights and civil liberties organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union draft and co-sponsor bills (including AB 392), and use their resources to counter behemoths such as police unions. Still, the hope in transforming the system is not people with big platforms or organizations with budgets, although they may be part of it.

When the whole system is guilty, ordinary people must rise up. Eighty-four people were arrested while protesting the decisions to not to indict the police who killed Stephon Clark. In Los Angeles, families and activists gathered for the 75th consecutive week demanding that the district attorney step down and attempted to block Lacey’s re-election bid with their #ByeJackie2020 campaign. More than 1,000 folks flooded the streets in Boulder, Colorado following police harassment of a Black man doing yard work on his property. Hope is not lost; just visit any one of these spaces. Even as we acknowledge the truth of the “whole system guilty” chant, there is another that reminds us of our own power. Every week, at protests against district attorney offices, at police headquarters, and in front of the offices of elected officials, another chant resounds: “When we fight, we win!”

About the Author

Melina Abdullah is professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She was appointed to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission in 2014 and is a recognized expert on race, gender, class, and social movements. Abdullah is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, with subjects ranging from political coalition building to womanist mothering.