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The GRPD, White Supremacy and Community Accountability

April 14, 2017

The recent actions of the Grand Rapids Police Department, where they profiled black youth after an incident at the KROC Center is not only infuriating, it is the most recent example of how deeply entrenched White Supremacy is the norm when it comes to the police.

What happened to those young African Americans is unacceptable and should never be tolerated. The response from the community to demand some form of accountability has been admirable, but we see how the GRPD is simply unwilling to be questioned on their behavior. Both the Chief of Police and the police union have made it painfully clear that they do not care what the community has to say about recent events or what many others addressed during last Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, which was to talk about the collective experience from people of color as it relates to the GRPD.

The recent incident and the response by the police department and police union should cause us all to take a step back and examine the real function the police serve in Grand Rapids, some some history of police unions, White Supremacy in Grand Rapids and the false solutions that the City of Grand Rapids has been presenting on policing.

What are cops for?

For many people in the US it is known that what gave birth of modern policing was the organizing of white men to hunt and police slaves who dared to flee the plantation. Modern policing was founded on slave patrols. This cannot be said enough, because besides this being the origin of modern policing it should tell us something about the ongoing white supremacists nature of how policing has functioned for nearly 200 years in the US. I can’t stress enough how important it is for people to read the book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, by Kristian Williams.

Police departments serve the power structure of any community. This doesn’t mean that cops don’t do “good things,” but we really need to move beyond the good/bad binary and come to terms with the primary function of police departments. Police departments serve the power structure, the state and engage in various forms of population management to make sure that people don’t try to overthrow the systems of power and oppression that most of us live under. The police essentially protect the system of economic exploitation that most of us experience, since they do not go after the capitalist class for unjust treatment of workers, and they make sure that whatever grievances we have with those in power, we will not be allowed to stop the abuses of power by means other than petitions and voting.

Police Unions

The response from the Grand Rapids Officers Association to the recent outcry from the public is frustrating, but it should be understood that it is consistent with the function of police departments and that police unions are fundamentally different than other trade/labor unions. 

As Kristian Williams observes:

“Police associations thus developed in relative isolation from the rest of the labor movement, while building close ties with the command hierarchy within departments. This fact points to two related reasons why police unions are not legitimate unions. First, as is discussed above, the police are clearly part of the managerial machinery of capitalism. Their status as “workers” is therefore problematic. Second, the agendas of police unions mostly reflect the interests of the institution (the police department) rather than those in the working class.

Williams goes on to say in Our Enemies in Blue:

Unionization (of police) has thus served to preserve the patterns of abuse and discrimination, while at the same time advancing the agenda of law enforcement on the social and political fronts.

Another way to think about this point is that since police unions work for the system of power, they are not really interested in challenging the status quo or challenging any system of oppression that exist in any community. Again, their function is to serve power and defend the interests of those within the police department. The Grand Rapids Officers Association said in their response to the recent public outcry that they – are charged with taking care of the people who take care of all of our citizens. It is true  that their task is to look out for cops, but the notion that cops “take care of all our citizens” is a ridiculous piece of propaganda.

White Supremacy and Cops

The GRPD is set to host several community meetings across the city on Wednesday, April 19 to share the findings of the recent racial profiling study. While some might see this as a mechanism of accountability, what such studies do is further legitimize the white supremacist nature of police departments.

White Supremacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is the result of structural violence that benefits white people over communities of color. Communities of color disproportionately experience exploitation and poverty, and are therefore more likely to be policed over white communities and white neighborhoods.

The arrest rates and incarceration rates of communities of color is disproportionately higher that that of white communities and this is by design. Therefore, hiring more officers of color will not do much to dismantle the White Supremacy within police departments, it will only further legitimize the nature and function of those police departments.

False Solutions or re-imagining what it means to look out for each other

Within months after the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the GRPD realized that is was important to take the initiative around so-called police reform. The level of police violence was astronomical, particularly in communities of color, so the GRPD and the city leaders knew is was important to appear as if they city was taking proper action.

The city has been working on 12 ways to attempt to improve community relations and restore public trust. These 12 recommendations are really just minor adjustments to the current system of policing and will not result in building trust within the community. All one had to do was listen to those from the community who spoke at the City Commission on Tuesday and it is clear that there are large sectors of the community that do not trust the GRPD.

So what is to be done? Well, there are no easy solutions and any discussion of what is to be done must come from those who are most directly impacted by police abuse and police behavior. What many organizations and many communities who directly impacted from police violence have been saying in recent years is that they want to have control over their own communities. Some organizations and movements, like Black Lives Matter, have been calling for the abolition on policing. Again, we have to listen to the wisdom of those most negatively impacted by police violence.

At a minimum, let us hope that the resistance from the GRPD leadership and the police union to practice accountability, will lead us have more critical discourse on the nature and function of policing and allow us to re-imagine new ways of looking out for each other that do not rely on cops.

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