Like many people who believe in justice, I was angry at the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It reminded me of the continued epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada and the United States. I was also reminded of the killing of Indigenous people, like 14-year-old child Jason Pero in November 2017. These murders and systematic violence reminded me of two things: that we live in what Frantz Fanon called “atmospheric violence,” and that policing, a form of surveillance and social control, is intimately tied to U.S. democracy. As Malcolm X once stated about the lack of justice in American courts, “This is American justice. This is American democracy and those of you who are familiar with it know that in American democracy is hypocrisy. Now if I’m wrong put me in jail, but if you can’t prove that democracy is not hypocrisy then don’t put your hands on me. Democracy is hypocrisy. If democracy means freedom why aren’t our people free? If democracy means justice why don’t we have justice? If democracy means equality why don’t we have equality?”
The question of whether we can achieve freedom within U.S. democracy, including under its laws, justice system, and economic structure, and whether we can truly take the conceptual principles set out by white slave owners and land stealers and apply them is still up in the air.
We should be outraged but never be surprised. Black and Indigenous peoples will never get justice in the U.S., because it is a police state. The democratic project has been designed to control them/us. You can’t have justice in a state built on enslavement and the dispossession of Indigenous land until something new emerges. One of the many challenges is that we often can’t see beyond a course of action as simple as, say, voting. Voting is important but so is changing how elections are financed. We need a political imagination beyond what we can’t seem to be able to get.
We cannot reform the police. We cannot hold them accountable. A community review board is cool, but it won’t work long term.
On June 1, 2020, I tuned into the ESPN show First Take, anchored by Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman. While I don’t usually enjoy Stephen A.’s yelling and sports takes, I do like to see him and Max go back and forth. But on this day, I was concerned about how they would discuss the ongoing rebellions happening throughout U.S. cities. Stephen A., who I consider an ideological liberal at best and only slightly left of being a Black conservative—“stay off the weeeeed” comes to mind—came with the fire. I told my homie, “He sound like Malcolm X.”
While I enjoyed the discussion between the hosts and their guests, what I was really struck by was some of the language exhibited in the signs in ESPN’s protest footage. Because protest signs and other visuals are carefully chosen by the media for spectacle, one of them stood out to me. It had the hashtag #HoldThePoliceAccountable, which got me thinking about other phrases and ideological suggestions for how we might get free: “End police brutality”; “We need police reform”; “We need a community review board”; “We need police who are a part of our community”; “Defund the police.”
Pundits, including CNN’s Don Lemon and Black athletes, while offering some critical commentary, also suggest we need white athletes to speak up more. I want us to think about some of these asks. Do we really need more white voices? If history has taught us anything, they almost all refuse to go into the heart of the beast of racism: in their own families and with their friends. White terrorists and supremacists aren’t part of some random group of lone radicals; they are the friends and family of our white colleagues, neighbors, friends, and people who provide services on our behalf. Additionally, if you’re Black, Indigenous, or Latinx and you have a family member in the police, you have to deal with an uneasy and complicated choice between your love for your family and your belief in revolutionary justice—to quote N.W.A, it’s a matter of Black police, and Indigenous and Latinx police, “showin’ out for the white cop” and white supremacy. We can’t celebrate police marching with protesters; the people aren’t the problem. They need to deal with the racial brutalizing of their peers. What they could do is drop their badges and teach the people how to protect themselves. That would be a revolutionary act.
Now, let me get back to police reform. Let me say this clearly: We cannot reform the police. We cannot hold them accountable. A community review board is cool, but it won’t work long term. Hell, Black and Latinx people have been calling for community oversight for decades. I was doing archival research on Detroit and discovered that way back in 1917, Black people were asking for an end to police brutality! Having police be a part of your community might sound good, but then we reduce police brutality to “a few bad apples” and exclusively the result of white individuals. Black and Latinx and Indigenous police officers commit brutality too, because they work on behalf of a system designed to protect the property of the wealthy and control people of color. We can’t focus exclusively on ending police brutality. Here is why: A focus on ending police brutality does not, in effect, dismantle the colonial order of policing. Policing—the social, political, and economic control of subjugated people—will continue to exist. We have to work to dismantle the police. Defunding the police is an important step.
The People’s Budget LA, a coalition of Black Lives Matter LA and several other Los Angeles-based organizations, have recommended that the city council and mayor of Los Angeles reduce the Los Angeles Police Department budget from 54% to 5.7%. We can and should defund the police, or at least drastically reduce their funding, at the local level and divert that money to other services that focus on the health of our most vulnerable. As an alternative to the police, the people surveyed by People’s Budget LA recommend a “Universal Aid and Crisis Management” funding category. This includes funding for “long-term housing, renter support and emergency housing, food assistance, support for those seeking work, support for small businesses, providing public health care, offering youth development programs and supporting youth centers, fighting the impacts of climate change and ensuring our city’s environment is protected.”
This is an important way to reallocate money. However, another question to ask is, what to do with trained killers? Will they then be turned into “social workers” and cause even more harm? Can they, especially the Black, Indigenous, and Latinx officers, truly be reintegrated into our communities? Would they want to be? Maybe they could return and teach everyday people how to defend themselves. If budgets are reduced and liberal governments tell the public that they are reducing the police, will they then contract with private security companies in the name of protecting the people? We’ve already seen a process like this play out in our public schools.
We should take away police officers’ guns. We can strip them of guns, but then we will have to question why police officers need guns in the first place, then deal with the necessity of the Second Amendment, which will lead to a more fundamental question as to why we hold the Constitution as sacrosanct. I know we are not all ready for these conversations!
Another reason why we can’t reform the police is that policing is a fundamental part of U.S. democracy. The architects of the U.S. democratic project not only designed their political program to protect themselves against factions (such as the Africans and the Indigenous nations) and the will of the majority but also to control Indigenous peoples and land. They tried to ignore the issue of slavery. Black and Indigenous Lives didn’t matter then; they still don’t matter. There are other entities that also need to be held accountable and directly confronted.
Guns aren’t the only weapon of choice for police officers. We must ask this question: Where do police officers learn their techniques that lead to the violent brutalization and death of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx peoples? The martial arts community. When we see a police officer mounting a Black person and controlling their wrists and legs, holding them in a chokehold, putting their knee on someone’s neck, you know where they learned that from? A martial artist. They learn chokeholds from Brazilian jujitsu experts. They learn disarmament maneuvers from many types of martial arts. I recall one photo of police officers—I believe in Los Angeles—holding Kali rattan sticks. These are sticks used in Filipino martial arts, which uses sticks and knives. If you ever practice with the Kali sticks and accidentally get hit by your sparring partner, it stings. Imagine being a protester and getting hit with them! In this regard, we also have to hold the martial arts community accountable.
The martial arts experts who are teaching police forces need to sever their relationships with them and no longer accept training contracts. I’ve been to at least a few gyms in my life and always see someone who has all the signs of a white supremacist. Don’t train them. I understand you have bills to pay and deserve to be paid for your labor, but you are actively teaching people who commit violence against Black and Indigenous people. If you want to help someone, actively recruit and train the people who are suffering from police violence in order that they can defend themselves.
Excerpted from An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States by Kyle T. Mays (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Kyle T. Mays is an Afro-Indigenous (Saginaw Chippewa) writer and scholar of U.S. history, urban studies, race relations, and contemporary popular culture. He is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies, American Indian Studies, and History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America.