Skip to content

Systems of Oppression, the GRPD and Celebrating Black History Month

February 4, 2019

Systems of oppression and power always make it a point to appropriate the images and messages of revolutionary politics. Corporations, political parties and other structures that have power over people often claim to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month.

Such appropriation is often seductive and subtle, but it is appropriation none the less.

Then there are entities like the Grand Rapids Police Department, which are not so subtle, which also claim to celebrate Black History Month. On February 1st, the GRPD posted the following text and image on the Facebook page – here on the right.

There are just so many things that are fundamentally wrong with the GRPD claiming to celebrate Black History Month. Such a claim is insulting and offensive. The text says they want to, “recognize African American Pioneers in the area of Law Enforcement throughout the month.”

It’s as if Black History Month can be reduced to celebrating anything as long as it involves African Americans. Well, lets take a closer look at the significance of the GRPD claiming to celebrate Black History Month.

First, the text also includes a rather innocuous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Systems of power and oppression have their own agenda and will use people like Dr. King to support their agenda. Quoting Dr. King doesn’t mean much these days, especially since those who often engage in oppression are the first to quote the civil rights leader.

If we look at the totality of Dr. King’s life and work, we clearly see that he was in favor of challenging systems of oppression and power and that includes police departments. It is insulting and offensive for the GRPD to quote Dr. King when we know that for decades the police intimidated, harassed, infiltrated, arrested, beat and even killed those involved in the Black Freedom Struggle.

Then there is the image that the GRPD uses, an image which includes a few Black entertainers, but mostly Black people who have been at the forefront in the fight for justice and liberation.

There are two people from the 19th century abolitionist movement, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Both Tubman and Douglass were targeted by police, security agents and other enforcement entities of the state. In fact, those who were involved in the Underground railroad were seen as an enemy of the state.

Then you have the images of Dr. King and Malcolm X. Both of these men were part of the larger Black Freedom Struggle and both of them were personally harassed, wiretapped, targeted and arrested by law enforcement. Both of these men were assassinated and while we can debate who specifically pulled the triggers in the killing of Malcolm and Martin, it is clear that local law enforcement and the FBI were either involved or complicit in their deaths.

The image of Muhammad Ali might seems rather innocuous, since many saw him as merely an athlete. However, Ali, apart from his involvement in the Nation of Islam, was a draft resister and a dedicated activist/organizer against the US war in Vietnam. Ali refused his induction into the US military and was promptly arrested by cops for doing so. In addition, while Ali was stripped of his boxing title, he spent the better part of two years traveling around the US, speaking at college campuses, churches and civic institutions against the US war in Vietnam. He did this all under the watchful eye of the FBI and local law enforcement, since anyone involved in such activities was considered an enemy of the state.

Then there is the reality of politics and oppression in Grand Rapids. The GRPD excessively patrols in Black neighborhoods and disproportionately monitors and arrests Black people in this community. We are all familiar with the more high profile cases in recent years, but we may not be as familiar with the daily activity of the GRPD to harass and intimidate the Black community.

The fact that the GRPD wants to highlight “African American Pioneers in the area of Law Enforcement,” just underscores how insulting their celebration of Black History Month is. Having African American cops intimidating, harassing and arresting Black people doesn’t make it any less oppressive than having White cops do it. All cops serve the interests of the state, which ultimately means it serves the interests of those with power.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: