The murder of Rayshard Brooks is another chapter in an ongoing saga of law enforcement’s attack on the lives of Black people. Coming soon after the public execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, given the scrutiny of police departments in the wake of numerous murders of unarmed Black people in recent months, officers would exercise more caution and of awareness in their interactions with citizens. Aggressive tactics and interactions seem to characterize police contacts with citizenry.
Brooks was found sleeping in his car in a Wendy’s drive thru. Police were called and approached his car. Brooks appeared sluggish but responded to each of the officer’s commands. After interacting with Officers Brandon and Rolfe for more than 40 minutes, Rolfe moved to arrest Brook after a breath analyzer test was administered. A struggle ensued and Brooks obtained Rolfe’s taser eventually firing the taser above the officer’s head. Rolfe unholsters his weapon and discharged three deadly shots at Brooks as he attempted to run away.
How do we process these events? How do we make sense of system that so carelessly destroys Black life? How do we find a way forward? These are the questions many Americans across race, class and gender lines are asking. Tamika Miller, Brooks’ widow, in a televised statement to the press, referring to the two officers who killed her husband, asked: “If they had the chance to do it again, would they do it the same way or would they do it totally different?” This reimagining is precisely what Black people are not only asking of the criminal justice system, but the nation.
There many suggestions for change, but two are worthy of consideration: defunding the police and need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Defunding the police has gained attention in many sectors. The reallocation of funding would assume different forms depending on the needs of that community. Efforts to start this process are underway in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Albuquerque Mayor Tom Keller has established a public safety department to address social issues. The division named the Albuquerque Community Safety Department (ACS)will feature the presence of unarmed professionals who will accompany officers to nonviolent crime scenes. These professionals will address calls related to homelessness, addiction, mental health and a host of other issues. Distress calls will still be routed through 911 but rerouted to the ACS, if necessary. The Minneapolis City Council has voted to defund the police department. This process is not immediate but will involve significant community input and redetermination of the police department’s role in the city.
To reimagine society there is a strong need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These commissions are powerful tools for interpreting the past, understanding the present, and constructing possibilities for the future. Bolivia, Argentina and most recently, in South Africa and Rwanda, utilized these commissions to facilitate a deep engagement with and interrogation of the past. The opportunity for institutional representatives to present a long history of institutionalized and structural racism in American society is the first step. Victims of these policies and institutions would have the opportunity to confront the perpetrators of these acts and name their effect on communities of color. The reconnection of the past and present is necessary given the widespread belief that they have no connection to one another. This presentist sensibility distorts reality and prevents a rich understanding of history.
Truth and Reconciliation would go a long way in explaining the social, political, economic consequences, and effects of slavery. It was an American institution, which shaped every aspect of society and lasted 400 years. An institution, which at its height, amassed trillions of dollars in profits for all sectors of the American society. This process would also explain the painful 100-year legacy of Jim Crow formalized in 1896 in the Plessy v, Ferguson decision establishing separate but equal in the law. This case arose from the desire to curtail Black rights following the end of the Civil War(1861-1865) and Reconstruction(1865-1877). It is important to understand these developments and their formative impact on American racial relations. These events necessitated a long Civil Rights movement, which spanned the late 19th century through the 1960s. It also explains the period from 1968 to the present, a mere 50 years in which the high fought victories resulting from the destruction of legalized segregation and the movement, were deeply contested, and assaulted in every sphere of American life. This knowledge will deepen national appreciation and understanding of pivotal components of the nation’s life.
Tamika Miller’s suggestion to reimagine policing and the national landscape is a powerful vision. It is a challenge to every American to fulfill the nation’s promise for all its citizens. The tools we use will define the nature and scope of the work. The outcomes will determine who we will become. Whether the nation will dig in and do the hard-substantive work of social transformation or settle for the fleeting and feel good panacea of surface and symbolic band-aids designed for short term self-congratulation remains to be seen. The fierce urgency of now demands we chose the right course.
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Previously published on Historianspeaks.org.
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