Cops on bikes

As protests recently erupted in response to the killing of George Floyd, we saw something that truly epitomized the American experience. Police in cities around the country responded to protests against police brutality with (surprise!) police brutality. Yes, in a time when everything seems like an Onion headline, seeing police respond to the protests with such profound force became a window into what’s been normal for American minorities for decades. Our country’s criminal justice system is steeped in systemic racism, where bigoted policies are codified and enforced with a well-funded, militarized apparatus. The only bright side is that now it’s finally being exposed for what it is.

Like many Central Ohio suburb kids, I grew up respecting my local police. They were the ones who told me how to read street signs and not do drugs. They were the ones who families called when someone’s bike was stolen or a house got robbed. I still know most of my local police and wave hello when I see them. But I also acknowledge that I’m a white male from a privileged city and these standards don’t apply to everyone else. Outside of my hometown, police forces were engaging in racist practices for decades, something that was highlighted with the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992. Unfortunately, those events were followed by the dreadful 1994 crime bill, which only made institutionalized racism in our criminal justice systemworse.

The first time I was faced with the militarization of local police was during my first Halloween at Ohio University in Athens. It was 2002 and the event was flagged as a “terrorist threat” because such a large crowd could be a target for Islamic extremists. The police forces on display were called in from around the state and heavily armed. However, the only force that was ever used was against drunk people, not terrorists. Eventually I learned that this trend of over militarizing smalltown police wasn’t just occurring in Athens. With the growing threat of terrorism, the Pentagon was using their 1033 program to send excess military weaponsto police forces all over the country. The program proved mutually beneficial for weapons manufacturers, the Pentagon and police departments with new toys alike.

Nonetheless, I still remained an oblivious white kid to police violence until I moved to New York City. While New York has a reputation of being a liberal hot bed, the state has had draconian drug laws on the books since the Nelson Rockefeller years, which were only intensified by such policies as “stop and frisk” being implemented by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg. Coupled with mandatory minimum sentencing, many minorities ended up in Rikers Island without the knowledge of what they did or the bail money to get out. In 2013, these controversial policies finally came under rightful scrutiny when an innocent black man named Eric Garner was choked to death by a NYPD officer for selling cigarettes outside of a deli. His final moments were videotaped for all the world to see as he exclaimed “I can’t breathe.” Eerily similar moments would continue to be captured on video throughout the next 7 years as more innocent, unarmed African-Americans were killed while in police custody, including yet another in May 2020 -- a black man who also exclaimed that he couldn’t breathe.

Because of this, we’ve finally reached a pivotal point for criminal justice in America. With the death of George Floyd, our systemic racist policies have gone too far, although it’s obviously only been the tip of the iceberg. Protests have rightfully exploded across the U.S. as mostly peaceful, lawful Americans have exercised their first amendment rights to speak out. However, as we’ve seen, in almost every city these protests were met with the kind of brutal force that only happens when a well-funded, militarized police force is left unchecked. In doing so, police proved the people’s point. The scenes of tear gas, wooden bullets, batons, pepper spray and tanks weren’t from some wartorn country, they were from a warlike country. After all, the U.S. spends more money on our military than any other country in the world, all while our cities spend huge portions of their budgets on militarizing the police. America has begun to look like some of the countries we’ve invaded and the actualization played out in real time on live TV.

Again, the only silver lining is that now the writing's on the wall. Police forces must change their practices, politicians must change the policies and the billions of dollars that have been spent on turning community police forces into mini-militaries need to go towards anything else or back into taxpayers’ pockets. If we don't, the “police state precedent” that’s been set for the 21st century will only get worse.