By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
America is in a historic moment. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis has blown the lid off of 400 years of white supremacy on American soil. The police are agents of a government that has historically kept Black folks down, hellbent on relegating us to second-class citizenship in any and all areas of life. They are the enforcers of a deeply ingrained culture that sees Black Americans as less than white people.
And we’ve had it.
We’ve been here before. Revolts against police brutality that targets African-Americans have come in waves over the last 60–70 years, most recently captured in the Black Lives Matter movement that started when Trayvon Martin was killed by a volunteer neighborhood watch in Florida in 2012 and that took off after police officers killed Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
We’ve seen this cycle repeat itself: People hit the streets in protest. Policymakers scramble to introduce legislation. Commissions are created. The Department of Justice investigates departments in places like Ferguson and Philadelphia and Baltimore and Cleveland. Police departments start implicit bias trainings, community conversations, and police camera policies. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
And to what end? Black people are still being killed by the police (not to mention would-be vigilantes) at numbers that have barely changed since 2014, and officers believe they can act with impunity. They’re not wrong. Police are rarely charged with a crime for what they do on-duty, and, if they are charged, convictions are even rarer. The civil courts are no place for accountability, as officers have broad protection from liability under a legal concept known as “qualified immunity.” Even departments that wish to discipline problem officers through suspension and termination hit a blue wall of resistance from all-too-powerful police unions and the arbitrators who align with them.
I’m hopeful that this time will be different, that America can no longer ignore Black people’s plea for police to get their boots off our necks. It’s going to take a while longer to eliminate white supremacy, but we can do something about policing…