We’ve seen protests across the country in honor of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis killed by police officers, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman from Louisville, Kentucky, killed by police in her home while she slept.
Though these cases are in our current consciousness, stories like these are countless. We are only four to six years removed from uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, which were in response to police brutality, repression and murder. Since then, nothing about policing has meaningfully changed. We can trace why that is to policing’s history and the systemic oppression at the profession’s core.
Early police departments are the direct descendants of slave patrols and militia units designated to terrorize Indigenous, Black, Mexican and other people deemed by the elite class as racially inferior, poor, or not abiding by gender or sexual norms. Throughout the country, the police participated in or stood by while Black people were lynched. They terrorized organizers of the civil rights movement, outright assassinating Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and attempting to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide.
Police terrorized poor communities and communities of color during the war on drugs that we are still in today. Police, utilizing civil asset forfeiture and fees and fines, essentially loot poor communities and communities of color from their wealth and material resources. They take community wealth through massive police budgets. They disrupt homeless encampments routinely in places like Seattle and the surrounding areas. And, as seen with Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin, police can empower white supremacist vigilantes to act on their behalf.
The widespread protests and police actions during these protests are a consequence of this history. Police are fighting not only for their legitimacy, but the legitimacy of the capitalist system which exists illegitimately on the stolen land of Indigenous people here and abroad.
Some police have continued their violence in these protests. In Seattle, police allegedly maced a 9-year-old girl and shot fleeing protestors with rubber bullets. In New York and Los Angeles police used their cars as weapons to drive through protestors. In Atlanta, police violently removed two Black adults from their car. In Minneapolis, police, similar to a scene from an action movie, paraded through residential neighborhoods and fired paintballs at people on their own porch. In Louisville, police killed a beloved community member by recklessly firing into a crowd of people, leaving his body in the streets for 12 hours. There is an entire Twitter thread devoted to such violence.
These are not entirely unexpected behaviors from the police — Chicago’s 2020 budget has hundreds of millions set aside for police misconduct settlements. Police are here to enforce the status quo and quell dissent. More than 1,000 people are killed by police every year, 2.3 million people are incarcerated, millions are on probation and parole and many others are without fundamental rights. This serves the rich and powerful. Their system is not flawed.
In the coming days, weeks, and year, you will likely see Republicans call for “law and order,” while Democrats have already called for reforms. This is the rinse and repeat playbook of politicians who have been proposing these initiatives since at least 1929. These reforms, as many have documented, will only serve to further the power and reach of the police to enforce the racist status quo and deflect from systemic issues. Without the abolishment of the police nationwide and the redirection of those funds to the community, the uprisings will persist. It is way past time to abolish the police.
Brian Pitman is an assistant professor in sociology, soon to be at the University of Maine.