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Police Must Be Guardians, Not Warriors

We can’t reform police until we reckon with their history of enforcing white supremacy.

We must remember that a large part of early police work, especially in the South, was to implement white supremacy through the enforcement of segregation laws. (Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

We must remember that a large part of early police work, especially in the South, was to implement white supremacy through the enforcement of segregation laws. (Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

In November 2006, tensions were simmering in Atlanta, Georgia, over the police killing of Kathryn Johnston, a ninety-two-year-old grandmother shot during an exchange of gunfire with officers executing an illegal “no knock” warrant on her home. Johnson mistook the policemen for burglars and fired a single shot from a revolver she kept for protection. She paid with her life.

The officers involved tried to cover up the killing by planting evidence at the scene, but their deception was quickly exposed. A resulting investigation led to four officers receiving federal prison terms while others resigned or were disciplined.

Historically, the officers who commit police violence have had far more protections than the victims of it. That’s why in Minneapolis we see some serious pushback against the head of the police union, Bob Kroll. 

At Johnston’s funeral, Atlanta Chief of Police Richard Pennington conceded that “this tragic incident has shaken this community to its core,” acknowledging that “residents deserve honest answers.” Pennington’s presence was greeted with some protest. “You need to talk to your people,” one man shouted at the chief, “because they’re killing us!”

The long list of Black victims of police violence now includes George Floyd, asphyxiated by a Minneapolis police officer in May; Breonna Taylor, shot and killed in her home by police in Louisville, Kentucky, during a no knock raid in March; and Rayshard Brooks, who was shot in the back and killed by Atlanta police on June 12. 

These killings have led to demands for police reform and even the radical defunding of the police. Those calls seem to be gaining traction, even though, as in Johnson’s case, there are signs that police and public officials are at least starting to take decisive action. 

After Floyd’s murder, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo immediately terminated all four officers involved in the incident. In a press conference on June 13, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called for the firing of the officer involved in the shooting of Rayshard Brooks, who fought with officers seeking to place him under arrest.

“While there may be debate as to whether this was an appropriate use of deadly force,” Bottoms said, “I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do. I do not believe that this was a justified use of deadly force.” 

On June 15, Bottoms announced plans for a number of immediate reforms to police protocol. They include a duty to report and to intervene in situations where another officer uses excessive force, similar to measures coming out of the Minneapolis City Council following the killing of George Floyd.  “Our police officers,” Bottoms reminded us, “are to be guardians and not warriors.”

African Americans have long been accustomed to public acts of contrition after police killings on the part of politicians and law enforcement officials, who express their condolences while pledging reforms. 

Somehow, these never measure up to the grief left in the wake of police violence. 

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The problem is that police violence, especially toward people who are Black and brown, is deeply embedded in the history and culture of the organizations sworn to serve and protect. These organizations and structures have been built to promote warriors and not guardians.

At the end of the day, nobody wants to witness the wanton destruction of our cities. But it is equally important for all of us to try to understand the anger, frustration, and rage emanating from communities of color.

This is why President Donald Trump’s recent executive order regarding police reforms is unlikely to produce real change. While it would create a national police database to track officers with a history of violence, Trump’s order fails to address the underlying culture of policing in America, which is still unable to break free from its white supremacist roots in protecting white people and property. 

Historically, the officers who commit police violence have had far more protections than the victims of it. That’s why in Minneapolis we see some serious pushback against the head of the police union, Bob Kroll. 

“People are very, very sick and tired of the way that he vilifies victims of police and defends killer cops,” said Michelle Gross, president of the group Communities United Against Police Brutality. “He utters racist garbage constantly . . . and he’s been a brutal cop.”

Kroll has personally drawn thirty complaints in his thirty-one years on the force, has been suspended and demoted, and sued several times for excessive force. He allegedly once called Representative Keith Ellison, who is Black and Muslim, a “terrorist.” Ellison is now Minnesota’s attorney general.

We must remember that a large part of early police work, especially in the South, was to implement white supremacy through the enforcement of segregation laws. Northern communities also enforced their own brand of apartheid—a perverse form of guardianship. 

For instance, in June 1920, a white mob broke into the Duluth, Minnesota, jail with the intent of lynching three African American circus workers falsely accused of rape. The commissioner of police ordered the twelve officers under his command not to resist, telling his men that he did not want “a single drop of white man’s blood spilled on account of the prisoners.” The prisoners were subsequently murdered with no interference from the police.

More recently, politicians and law enforcement agencies in Minneapolis and elsewhere have practiced de-escalation techniques in dealing with non-peaceful demonstrators and rioters, such as yielding property to save lives. Trump responded by urging local law enforcement, mayors, and governors to “dominate” and retake the streets. In other words, he insisted they take on the historic role of warriors responding with an overwhelming display of force.

At the end of the day, nobody wants to witness the wanton destruction of our cities. But it is equally important for all of us to try to understand the anger, frustration, and rage emanating from communities of color. They have long been left to shoulder the burden of addressing the chronic and debilitating effects of living in real fear of those sworn to serve and protect. 

Mayor Bottoms is correct. There is a clear line between what one can do and what one should do.  Sometimes locating that line only becomes possible by digging up the roots so that a fresh foundation can be laid for a whole new structure, instead of merely applying Band-Aids to a deep and festering wound.

Yohuru Williams

Yohuru Williams

Yohuru Williams is an education activist and professor of history at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of several books, including Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven (Blackwell, 2006), Teaching Beyond the Textbook: Six Investigative Strategies (Corwin Press, 2008), and Liberated Territory: Toward a Local History of the Black Panther Party (Duke, 2008). He also served as general editor for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s 2002 and 2003 Black History Month publications, The Color Line Revisited (Tapestry Press, 2002) and The Souls of Black Folks: Centennial Reflections (Africa World Press, 2003). 

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