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What is Killing African Americans in the USA?

The "bad cop" is just the tip of the spear—with which America is killing its own Black people.
Rabbi Ariel Edery – June 2020

Why are innocent Black people repeatedly killed in America? It is not “simple racism” or “bad apples” in police. It is entrenched racism well organized in our laws, in our economy, in our courts, in our law enforcement, in our government, and in our schools.

Police forces use lethal force. That is what they are trained for and why we support them: to use the necessary force to uphold the law and to “serve and protect” our communities. That is why we cannot be surprised by their use of force: We charge them to use force on our behalf. As we allow “necessary and reasonable” use of force, we have check and balances for it, to ensure that force is not abused.  

But these checks, in our policing rules and through our justice system, are weak, ineffective, and are weakened continually at every level in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems.

The old proverb says, “A fish rots from the head down." 
At the very top of our nation’s justice system, for decades, the Supreme Court has willfully embraced doctrines that let the killing of innocent people by police go unpunished. Instead of being the check to balance the power of police, our Supreme Court leads our justice system to enable the abuses and grant a virtual immunity to any officer committing a crime on the job. 

How the Supreme Court Lets Cops Get Away With Murder.

In the words of Justice Sotomayor, “By sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow.”

Can anyone police themselves? 
Our system of oversight for police forces can be succinctly explained: We have “no system of oversight!" Each state, each city, and each local police force is overseen in their own way. Typically, the oversight is given inadequate funding, lack of true independence, and the lack of access to critical information. On the very human side of it, we know we cannot expect effective oversight when people are asked to pass judgement on their work-mates, on their partners in the difficult world of enforcing the law, especially when the conclusions of such oversight mean the end of someone’s career, end of employment, or even facing criminal charges. We don’t do this to a friend, to a law-enforcement colleague, to those who risk their lives to serve us.

Surely, we do have some federal oversight of local police forces—the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (VCCLEA) makes it unlawful for a police agency to engage in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional misconduct. The statute gives the U.S. Attorney General the authority to seek relief to force police agencies to accept reforms aimed at curbing misconduct. But, a study of Federal Enforcement of Police Reform shows that each year, the Justice Department investigates fewer than 0.02 percent of the country’s nearly 18,000 state and local law-enforcement agencies!

And what happens in that tiny minority of instances when the Justice Department intervenes? In the end, the only changes that result are those to which the police force consents. In 2004, the Justice Department found Cleveland to be plagued by discrimination and excessive-force complaints. The four-year investigation ended by reaching an out-of-court settlement with the city. But by 2013, Justice Department investigators were back in the city. This time, they came at the request of the mayor, to look into another rash of police shootings and other abuses. 

The blue wall of silence

In 2016, the city of Chicago set up a Police Accountability Task Force. They found confirmation of racism and systemic failures in the city's police force, validating complaints made for years by African American residents. And yet, Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel admitted: “The collective bargaining agreements between the police unions and the city have essentially turned the code of silence into official policy.” In other words, Police departments themselves set up the rules that make oversight ineffective, render checks and balances toothless, which make even an eventual “bad apple” or "bad cop" to remain immune to justice, and sets the impunity for abuses as the norm. Can anyone honestly be surprised when the abuses keep happening? When you knowingly keep silence and cover up for the rotten apple, when you obstruct the job of those reviewing and overseeing the bad cops, then you are the rotten apple, you are the bad cop.

Shootings are the fruits, segregation is the root
We are shocked and enraged when an African American, innocent and unarmed, is killed by police. But there is another situation that happens even more often, and which should make us all shocked and enraged: So many are killed or imprisoned as they get involved in some a crime. What should enrage us is not that criminals are punished, but that so many are led into that path of law-breaking which gets them eventually imprisoned or dead. Time and again, this has been shown to be the fact: Lack of proper schooling is directly correlated to a life at odds with the criminal justice system. A simple variable such as high-school graduation brings on a change in paths towards crime or not—for millions of American kids each year. And the fact is that in America, education has always been segregated by race, and has always been unequal and inadequate for non-white minorities. 

This has to do with our education system and policies, but it goes well beyond that: this entrenched inequality is largely driven by our social and economic laws and traditions which have segregated minorities into poor neighborhoods. Remember Redlining? It is not just past segregation, it is still harming minorities in America today! Specific policies by federal, state, local governments, and by business interests and organizations have created the socio-economic reality and the educational opportunities which the New York Times reports as Still Separate - Still Unequal. Our policies and traditions to this day lead to this recurring reality: School districts that predominantly serve students of color received $23 billion less in funding than mostly-white school districts in the United States in 2016, despite serving the same number of students.

The killing of Black Americans by police is a terrible tragedy, an enormous blemish on our country and on all the ideals we associate with America. It is not an independent or isolated phenomenon—it's pervasive in American life because it is well rooted in our economic, social, and political systems. That is why “a fix” may help here and there, but only a change can solve the problem. 

Such change starts with the acknowledgement that we are not dealing with a "bad apple" in a good system, but realizing how it is our racism-infected socio-economic and political roots that keep producing those rotten fruits. An honest recognition of what is wrong can lead us to envision the possible ways to making it right. A shared vision, with strong and diverse public support, can give us a new direction to move towards. This requires all sectors to be involved and active now: government, big business and tech giants, faith communities and religious leaders, and each of us engaging as citizens. We can act locally, and at every level. As enraged and angry as we are—and should be—we must not mistake a demonstration for a concerted action to bring about change. Let the demonstration bring the energy so we organize the sustained actions that can change what is wrong.

When we embrace the highest spirit of America, committing to “liberty and justice for all”, then we may find our path to life in peace. As the prophet taught: “when such spirit takes over us… then the acts of justice will bring enduring peace.” (Isaiah 32:15-17)

Tue, September 26 2023 11 Tishrei 5784