With protests continuing two months after George Floyd’s death, many are coming out in defense of police, sometimes when officers are not even being personally attacked. Some are saying, “not all cops are like that” and using snappy little slogans such as “back the blue,” while others are raising thin blue line flags in their windows (this flag is commonly cited to have more than just a simple pro-police connotation, so maybe think twice before displaying one). No matter what your stance is, we can all agree that America is divided on this topic. I’m here to tell you it shouldn’t be.
Law enforcement, history has its eyes on you now — the whole world does — and rightfully so. That’s a lot of pressure. I can only imagine how scary it must be to see an organization that you believe in have so many wanting to tear it to shreds. This is a career many have worked long hours to try to advance in. The badge you proudly display seems to be desecrated. That must be hard. I can understand, you feel as if you are a good cop, that you did nothing wrong, and it must be hard having others fear you. However, as you hold that badge so tight, why don’t you work to give it a better name? Your own actions only go so far. While taking note of your implicit biases (we all have them) and how they come out in actions is a great start, this only goes so far as well.
Try to understand what the other “side” of the line is saying. People who take to the streets in the middle of a pandemic are not stupid — they’re very mad about something and wholeheartedly believe their cause is so great, it outweighs the health concerns. People who walk through a gated community to get a message across because they are not being heard otherwise, who risk being threatened by Kens and Karens waving guns, are fighting for something that outweighs the risk of being shot down by someone who has their hand on the trigger. This is the result of systemic problems ingrained within a country built on the back of slavery that never truly ended, but was merely reshaped. And, I hate to break it to you, but law enforcement as an institution has largely upheld these practices, and was even built on such practices.
In the South, modern policing originated as “Slave Patrol.” As Gary Potter of Eastern Kentucky University details here, the “Slave Patrol” did exactly what its name stated: its three main functions were to (1) track down and return runaway slaves to their owners, (2) deter slave revolts and (3) discipline those who failed to follow plantation rules. When the Civil War brought the “emancipation” of many slaves, the police were often used to assert control over these individuals, now labelled “laborers.” Law enforcement was the very backbone of Jim Crow laws. They provided the force necessary to quell resistance until this simply wasn’t possible anymore.
Many reading this might say, “but we are in the Midwest, ‘Slave Patrol’ was in the South.” Well, when you look at the history of our area, it’s not so simple. While St. Louis is widely recognized as “the Gateway to the Midwest,” this cute little nickname is an attempt to distance itself from its deep-rooted Southern ties. A quick search on OfficialCitySites.org shows Missouri was very split between Union and Confederate issues during the Civil War. Look at “Little Dixie,” the region that earned its nickname due to the large amount of Southerners who settled there. To put it simply, Missouri is a border state that has a strong Southern influence, one that seeps into the very fibers of its landscape today.
Given this miniature history lesson, it’s no wonder many are wary of law enforcement, not only across the nation, but within our particular area. This short rundown does not even mention the East St. Louis massacre, in which law enforcement and other officials turned a blind eye and refused to protect Black residents, leaving 39 Black residents dead, according to official records (note: many believe this number actually exceeds 100). It also doesn’t mention the Delmar Divide and the drastic change in policing over the span of just three or so blocks. It doesn’t mention the kettling used by officers during the Stockley verdict protests to trap both journalists and protesters alike. It doesn’t even mention Mike Brown.
Keep in mind, this is only the tip of the iceberg. This is by no means an extensive account of the history of policing in the St. Louis area. It is also told through the lens of a white person, who could never fully understand the physical and psychological impacts our nation’s history and current state has on the Black population. What I do consider to be a basic, non-disputable principle is that trust is earned, not freely given. Given this very watered-down, short, edited account, it is not hard to see why many feel law enforcement is not trustworthy. It’s not hard to understand why many are calling for police reform if not complete abolishment altogether.
What is hard to understand, however, is why so many officers are quick to look down at the protesters and write them off. As somebody who displays a badge, don’t you want to be proud of it? And if so, how can you be proud of an institution that has done so much wrong, of co-officers who have upheld the same prejudices that have led to more Black bodies lying for hours on the streets after an interaction with a cop? Wouldn’t it make you proud to do better, and don’t you owe it to the public to do better, even if that means your department changes? Wouldn’t you want to actively change the past and present narratives by earning the community’s trust? If the answer is no, maybe you chose your career for the wrong reasons.