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 now. Policing in America won’t change until the culture of the institution changes. But elected officials have one very powerful card to play — the power of the purse. As legislative bodies throughout the commonwealth convene to approve budgets for the next fiscal year, they can shrink the presence of the police in our lives by shrinking the size of police departments.
In my home city of Philadelphia, our mayor has proposed increasing the budget of the Philadelphia Police Department by $14 million while simultaneously proposing cuts in all other agencies. The people of our city will have less access to services that improve the quality of their lives while the PPD gets bigger and even more bloated.
For years, grassroots activists have called for divesting in the police, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania is adding our voice to their effort. Led by the Movement for Black Lives and local Black-led partners, divesting in police means reinvesting in communities that have been targeted by law enforcement. And it means an end to enforcement of petty, low-level offenses, ending unnecessary interactions between police and the people.
For more than a week, thousands of Americans have been in the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd and abuse by the police. And on cue, in far too many cities, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, and Harrisburg, they’ve been attacked by cops with rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons. Law enforcement officers are proving the protesters’ point — policing in America is a violent institution rooted in slavery and steeped in racism. It must be dismantled and reimagined.
These are days that are rocking America. And we understand why. Justice has been denied to Black folks for 400 years, and it is time for our country to reckon with both its past and its present so that we can have a future that finally fulfills our highest aspirations — liberty and justice for all. Nothing less will do.