By Rann Miller | AC JosepH Media Guest Blogger
America is on fire.
Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities across the United States have burned in one way or another; all in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Various political leaders and state actors called violence against state and private property unproductive; the burning of cars, public and private retail buildings as well as looting from private retailers.
Juxtaposed to those images was the images of the Camden County Police Department (CCPD) with residents in the city of Camden. Last weekend, organizers of a protest marched with police to the police headquarters for a rally to protest the murder of George Floyd and police brutality. The media has hailed Camden’s protest as a model of what peaceful protest looked like.
However, there are voices who shared their skepticism over what they witnessed. Residents of Camden took to Facebook to share their thoughts on the protest. A resident shared that, “Camden is crushed under the knee of an oppressive machine that took control of this event like [it] is prone to do with everything.”
Another resident shared, “a peaceful protest in Camden… with Camden residents being told how to live and survive in Camden by people who aren’t from or live in Camden… Y’all are real crafty.”
To be clear, seeing Black people and police officers marching together in the name of ending police brutality is certainly better than watching police officers gassing and shooting rubber bullets at folks marching and protesting; we’d take that response every time.
However, we must also be honest and recognize that what happened in Camden over the weekend was less a protest and more a demonstration. This is not to say that protests are inherently violent and because there was no violence, it wasn’t a protest. It is to say that even peaceful protests, by the mere presence of protestors, disrupt and agitate.
Who was disrupted and agitated by what happened in Camden?
Was it the CCPD? Was it newly arrived corporations invested in protecting the property their tax breaks purchased them? Was it the politicians? Was anybody agitated – or was that the point of all the “solidarity?”
Partnerships between police and community are essential to maintaining the people’s right to live in their communities peaceably. However, the Camden protests, and protests happening throughout the country, are born from sad reality that in 2020, police officers continue to kill Black people. While this hasn’t happened in Camden, the CCPD has a poor reputation with some.
City resident and activist Vida Neil referred to the CCPD as a “rogue police force.” Neil noted that, “their idea of community policing is to set up a barbecue grill and pull up an ice cream truck.”
Police photo-ops while eating ice cream and playing basketball with Black children doesn’t address nor solve the anger around state violence against Black people.
However, ceasing the state violence against Black people will.
Neil went on to say that “some of the new officers aren’t trained right and they’re not getting socialized. The young white ones were raised with the dangers of Camden, and they’re just thrown into this.”
To the credit of Camden County Police Chief Joe Wysocki, he acknowledges and agrees with the assessment. However, Chief Wysocki urged city residents to give the CCPD a chance.
Yet it was just one year ago that a CCPD officer was acquitted for using excessive force against a Camden resident while video shows otherwise; two officers holding the victim down while the acquitted officer punches the resident.
I wonder, if a march was organized to protest the acquittal of that officer would CCPD be on the front lines with thumbs up for the camera?
If protests were organized and held to voice demands that no more traditional public schools are closed or to demand the exit of Holtec International from Camden for lying to secure $260 million in tax breaks and its failure to employ Camden residents after the CEO made disparaging remarks about Camden residents… would CCPD and political officials show solidarity and take photos with protestors?
The problem with images of cops and protesters is that it’s ready made propaganda; it’s can (and often does) distract and distort the message of protestors to stop killing Black people.
If looting and rioting says to state actors and would be sympathizers that protesters only care about using an unfortunate circumstance to engage in criminality, then law enforcement and politician photo-ops during a protest says to Black people that you believe a few pictures and public displays of affection will smooth things over.
America isn’t burning because police officers won’t hug Black people, or play ball with them, or participate in a dance off. America is burning because Black people are killed by police officers disproportionately – that’s indisputable, and none of the above mentioned has stopped or will prevent the future brutality against and murdering of Black people by the police.
America is burning because good people have failed to do good enough.
President Obama delivered a list of action items for Americans looking to make real change. With his first action item, President Obama said, “If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”
Respectability politics won’t win this war Mr. President; respectability politics wouldn’t have prevented George Floyd’s murder and it won’t prevent state violence in the future.
However, the protest, and the rioting and looting along with it, played a primary role with securing the arrest of Derek Chauvin and Governor Tim Walz handing over George Floyd’s case to Keith Ellison; who in turn will charge the other three officers.
Camden residents had no intention of rioting and looting. The businesses in the city are largely owned and operated by residents who support each other. They live next to each other, worship with one another, and their children attend school together.
Legitimate fears of looting and rioting concern non-residents; primarily white people who view Camden as a dump – displayed when they arrive to Camden for concerts & events and leave behind a trail of debris. Nevertheless, they’re allowed back in. But I digress.
As an educator, it is my obligation to treat my students with respect and dignity, even if they fail to afford me the same treatment. The same is true for law enforcement.
Public service occupations are thankless. They require that you keep your cool when in tense situations. Failure to keep your cool can result in mistakes being made; failure to keep your cool while a racist upheld by systemic racism can result in Black people being brutalized or murdered.
We don’t need more good people in law enforcement, in political office or in classrooms. We need antiracists in those spaces.
We need for the definition of good people to mean antiracist people.
The murder of George Floyd has hit a bit different. Never do I remember seeing police chiefs speak with protestors, march with protestors or kneel with them. Yet it has happened this time; in Camden, Houston and Minneapolis.
I applaud Yolanda Deaver; a Black woman and mother of three sons, who organized the protest, as well as the protestors who marched in Camden. Respect is due to Chief Wysocki of CCPD and other law enforcement leaders who understand at the very least that you get more bees with honey.
But you can’t march with or kneel with protestors in moment and drop tear gas them or shoot them in the next – that happened in Philadelphia. You must do the real work of antiracism – that goes for law enforcement and public officials – and the work of antiracism doesn’t involve beyond practicing jumpers and stopping Mr. Softee.
That is unless, Dr. Cornel West is right; that the system in incapable of reforming itself.
Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.
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