Business & Politics
The Black Lives Matter Movement and Police Brutality
3rd July 2020
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was founded in 2013, as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, which occurred in February 2012. The movement was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, who met through the Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD); a not for profit organisation which ‘facilitates social transformation and improves the living conditions of Black people by (re)building the social justice infrastructure’. Although the founders met through this organisation, the movement began with a Facebook post by Garza titled ‘A Love Note to Black People’ in which she stated ‘Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter’, to which Cullors replied #BlackLivesMatter. With Tometi lending her support, a movement was born. The movement continues to embrace social media as a tool to mobilise and garner attention for their causes and has been dubbed ‘a new civil rights movement’ by prominent media outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Times. According to Pew Research, between July 2013 and May 2018, #BlackLivesMatter was tweeted nearly 30 million times, averaging 17,002 tweets a day.
The BLM movement is now a global organisation, with branches in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. According to the movement’s website, their goal is to ‘eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes’. The organisation remains decentralised, with ‘leaders’ encouraging organisation at a local level, rather than national leadership. Local BLM chapters commit to the movement’s 13 guiding principles but operate in the absence of a hierarchy or central structure.
The BLM movement is particularly known for coordinating demonstrations protesting the deaths of numerous members of the Black community as a result of their interactions with law enforcement. They have advocated for community control of law enforcement officials; through empowering communities to hire and fire officials and issue subpoenas and promoting the community’s role of deciding disciplinary consequences and controlling the funding of the police department. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd on May 25 2020, due to the actions of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the movement gained international attention once again. They coordinated protests via social media, which spread to all 50 US states and six continents. The impact of this movement has been felt globally, reaching unlikely corners of the world including Syria, where a mural for George Floyd surrounded by rubble was unveiled in Idlib. Importantly, these protests have sparked conversations around all forms of systemic racial inequality worldwide, from Direct Provision in Ireland to protesting the glorification of slave traders in the form of statues in the UK and Belgium. The protests have spearheaded the ‘Defund the Police’ slogan in the US and in response, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband their police department on June 7 2020 with the City Council president Lisa Bender stating ‘Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period’.
Police target the African American community at disproportionate rates. 13% of the US population are Black, yet, according to Vox’s analysis of the FBI’s 2012 Supplementary Homicide Report, they account for 31% of all people killed by police and 39% of unarmed suspects killed by police. When you examine the data relating to white people, the reverse happens. They make up 63% of the US population, yet account for 52% of all people killed by police and 46% of unarmed suspects killed by police.
“Importantly, these protests have sparked conversations around all forms of systemic racial inequality worldwide, from Direct Provision in Ireland to protesting the glorification of slave traders in the form of statues in the UK and Belgium.”
In the US, police are required to complete, on average, 672 hours of basic training. In contrast, a barber requires 1,200 hours of training to cut your hair. When you compare the training period in the US with other countries, the disparities are startling. In Germany, 2.5-4 years of basic training are required before joining the police force. Even more concerning is the content of this training in the US. In a 2006 report by the US Justice Department, it was found that police officers clock up 111 hours on firearm skills and self-defence but spend just 8 hours being trained in mediation and conflict management, 11 hours on cultural diversity and human relations, 8 hours on community policing strategies and a mere 4 hours on hate crimes. This demonstrates the priorities rooted in police recruits from the beginning of their career. Rosa Brooks, Georgetown Law Professor, stated ‘many police recruits enter the academy as idealists, but this kind of training turns them into cynics’.
A significant part of the problem is police unions. They have stood against reforms of police departments and advocated for increased pay and quality of working conditions. They have successfully created a ‘hero narrative’ which puts the police on a pedestal of unquestionable power. This narrative states that the ordinary citizen could not possibly understand the daily difficult work a police officer does, therefore, they are not in a position to question them. The unionisation of police departments has been shown to encourage police brutality. A study by the University of Chicago Law School found that the unionisation in Florida resulted in a 40% increase in violent incident complaints.
Another consideration is the robust employment contracts the police unions fight for. In light of George Floyd’s death, it was revealed that Derek Chauvin, the policeman who knelt on the victim’s neck, had 17 complaints against him. However, this is unlikely to be representative of the actual number of complaints. It is extremely difficult to investigate the number of complaints against individual police officers as union contracts allow for the erasure of these records, which prevent us from knowing the nature of the grievance and act as built in protections making it difficult to discipline officers as a result of a complaint. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the police chief fired all officers involved in the incident. However, this is not necessarily permanent, as union contracts prevent the firing of officers, even by the police chief. Therefore, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that all of the officers involved will be reinstated through an adjudication process. Union contracts are a major hurdle in ending police brutality, holding police accountable and getting justice for victims.
Traditionally unions tend to identify with the ideological left. However, police unions are outliers and tend to draw support from the ideological right. The Republican party, who have historically sought to weaken unions, have supported and strengthened police unions. This has led to the politicisation of police unions. Standing against police unions or suggesting police reform is considered political suicide in the US, as unions have incredible fundraising power. San Francisco District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, ran for the office in 2019 and had a campaign agenda that included decarceration, eliminating cash bail, establishing a unit to re-examine wrongful convictions, and promoting police reform. In response, a coalition of police unions across California raised $700,000 for his campaign opponents and spent $400,000 on TV ads against Boudin’s campaign. Their efforts were unsuccessful, and Boudin was elected as District Attorney, but given their power, it is unsurprising that politicians often cower in the face of police unions.
The BLM movement works for a world in which ‘Black lives are no longer systemically targeted for demise’. However, it is clear that the agenda of police unions is fostering a culture of impunity, permeating the police force and enabling police brutality, directly translating into an unacceptably dangerous environment for Black communities in America. Police union contracts put accountability beyond the realm of possibility and fortify the notion that law enforcement are truly above the law. The obstacles and exceptions created by police unions protecting police officers such as Derek Chauvin, are not obvious to all people celebrating his arrest for the murder of George Floyd. It remains to be seen if these latest Black Lives Matter protests will be able to take on the hypocrisies of the American justice system.
Featured photo by Clay Banks