by MacKenzie Foy
The year is 1857. Dred Scott, an enslaved man living in a free state, tries to sue for his freedom. The Supreme Court of the land declares him not only sub-citizen, but sub-human, and therefore ineligible for freedom. He remains the property of John Stanford until his death.
The year is 1916. Jesse Washington is lynched in front of a crowd of 10,000 cheering spectators. People come to Waco from all over Texas to watch him be burned to death and hanged.
The year is 2000 and Amadou Diallo is shot 19 times by four policemen. He is unarmed.
The year is 2016, the week of July 4th. Police in Baton Rouge celebrate the American tradition of violence towards black and brown bodies by shooting Alton Sterling in the head at point blank range while he lies face up on the ground, neck-under-knee of two officers. I don’t know their names but I imagine I know a good deal about them; history of aggression, put on paid leave, “We’re deeply sorry, but he shouldn’t have…” types.
To add insult to age-old injury, Louisiana has just passed House Bill 953, a self-titled Blue Lives Matter bill designed to “add value” to the lives of law enforcement officers allegedly victimized because of their profession. The bill categorizes police officers as a minority group and protects them under title 18 U.S.C. § 245, the law that classifies certain offenses as hate crimes. This will allow courts to administer sentences as heavy as the death penalty for those who enact “injury, intimidation, or interference” against police.
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This piece of legislation equates police with marginalized peoples in a way that is repugnantly ironic considering that southern law enforcement, imagined by white supremacy, was originally designed to control people of color. Southern police organizations originate from the “Slave Patrol” (Platt 1982), which had the explicit goal of maintaining racial hierarchies, even after the Civil War.
Ties between police forces and white supremacy aren’t just historical. White supremacy gives power to the construct of whiteness while demonizing blackness, and today that manifests as making racist assumptions about black folk. Blackness is associated with poverty, and poverty is equated with criminality — while in theory, law enforcement is anti-crime, the foundation of white supremacy has created a reality where it is anti-black. Concretely, this looks like black people being more likely to be pulled over while driving, black children and especially black girls being more likely to be classified as disruptive and destructive in school, black youth in Colorado being arrested more aggressively for smoking weed than their white counterparts, the War on Drugs, broken windows policing, Hillary Clinton calling black youth “super predators”, and the application of the death penalty, to name just a handful of examples.
Videos of police brutality, akin to modern lynchings, receive views well over 10,000 people on Facebook and Twitter.
Our carceral state mimics the motions of slavery, trapping working-class black folks in a cycle of unemployment, homelessness, and recidivism, and then exploiting the labor of these “sub-citizen” and “sub-human” prisoners for profit. The Dred Scott decision lives on.
Given the oppressive weight of white supremacy and how it has shaped the history and mission of modern police forces, it is particularly reprehensible that the Blue Lives Matter bill exists, and has been proposed in Pennsylvania recently. Hate crime laws are an avenue through which folks who experience physical violence as a result of systemic violence can receive acknowledgement of both their assault and the historical precedent which yielded it — house bill 953 has made a mockery of this meager form of reparations.
To be clear, there’s no such thing as blue lives — officers wear a blue uniform that they remove at the end of their 9 to 5. My blackness isn’t a uniform, a career option, and doesn’t afford me a pension. I’m black 24/7, 365, 19 years and counting, and that makes me a target. Police sign up to protect and serve, and when their lives are unjustly taken, there is ample legal and social outcry that proves that their lives matter. The government recognizes it, white supremacy recognizes it, people of color recognize it, and media recognizes it. The president speaks on their behalf, and attends a memorial service in their name. Where was the president at Mike Brown’s funeral? Sandra Bland’s? Alton Sterling’s? To be fair, black people are getting murdered too quickly for our black president to stand with them all, even if he wanted to. By the way, police are currently the safest they have ever been in America.
Blue Lives Matter bills are offensive to any demographic currently or historically targeted by law enforcement. Police cannot be victims of systemic violence because they are literal agents of white supremacy! America’s racism has not only given them power, but made them the actual Powers, the enforcers of law, the enforcers of white supremacy, and now they are shielded under the pretense of marginalization. There’s a dark irony in the fact that police, who killed an unarmed black person nearly twice a week in 2015 (mappingpoliceviolence.org/unarmed/), are protected by the death penalty. Enacting “injury, intimidation, or interference” against police in this country could get you killed by the government — as if being black and alive weren’t reason enough. Will protesting qualify as interference? Does wearing a #BlackLivesMatter t-shirt qualify as intimidation?
I fear that it might.
MacKenzie River Foy was born and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey. She abandoned the intensity of the northeast as soon as she was able and now lives and learns in Washington, DC. She will be a sophomore at Georgetown University studying American Studies and Film and Media Studies.