The June 27 police murder of Jayland Walker in Akron, Ohio proved yet again what many of us already knew: In the United States, even the most mundane encounter with the police can be deadly if you are Black.
The lawyer representing his family said Walker was shot “approximately 90 times”. Body-cam footage released by the police confirmed the count. An initial autopsy showed that the Black man had 60 gunshot wounds on his body at the time of his death.
Walker fled a “routine” traffic stop, authorities said in response. He would be alive today, and his encounter with the police would be truly “routine” if only he did not run.
Of course, these claims do not hold water – for several reasons.
First, there is no guarantee that Walker would be alive if he did not run. Sure, as a Black man, I also tell my son that he should “comply” if he is ever stopped by the police - even when there is no legitimate justification for the stop (as it was allegedly the case with Walker). But I know that compliance does not always save Black people from police brutality.
Second, despite what the police tried to imply, Walker’s encounter with the police was already pretty “routine” for America – indeed, “routine” traffic stops and other “routine” interactions between Black people and security forces routinely end with murder in this country.
But why are Black people still being brutally killed under a hail of bullets for fleeing “routine” traffic stops some two years after the brutal police murder of George Floyd led to global protests demanding this deadly “routine” to come to an end?
The answer, sadly, is simple. Despite all the protests, this tragic routine is showing no signs of changing because by routinely intimidating, harassing and killing people of color, the American police are doing what it was originally designed to do:
Upholding white supremacy.
Indeed, the American police are a product of American enslavement – it was created to address the need to halt slave rebellions. Not too long ago, so-called “slave patrols” were criminalizing, brutalizing and killing Black people across this country in the name of maintaining order. Today, American police officers are keeping this legacy alive as they criminalize, brutalize and kill Black and other marginalized people.
Today, America is still being policed with a warrior mentality – law enforcement forces are still acting like occupiers and enslavers rather than guardians of communal well-being when they are dealing with communities of color.
That white supremacy has always been and still very much is at the core of American policing is hardly a secret.
There is a fast-growing body of evidence that “a significant number of US police instructors have ties to a constellation of armed right-wing militias and white supremacist hate groups.”
It is therefore not surprising that Black Americans are more likely to die at the hands of police than others. According to a study published by medical journal Lancet in 2021, between 1980-2019 the highest rate of deaths from police violence occurred for Black Americans, who were estimated to be 3.5 times more likely to experience fatal police violence than white Americans.
And white supremacy is such a core characteristic of law enforcement in America that police officers rarely face any punishment for hurting Black people or taking Black lives.
Timothy Loehmann, the former Cleveland police officer who killed a 14-year-old Black boy named Tamir Rice in 2014, for example, was recently rehired as an officer in the borough of Tioga, Pennsylvania. Loehmann was previously fired from the Cleveland police force, but not for killing Rice. He was dismissed merely for failing to disclose that he was told to resign or face termination for incompetence from a position he previously held with Independence, Ohio police department.
While police officers kill unarmed Black people with impunity – for reasons ranging from fleeing a traffic stop to holding a toy gun – they often manage to arrest white people without much incident or injury even after they commit mass murder.
Indeed, even after he killed seven people and wounded dozens of others during the Independence Day Parade in Highland Park, Illinois earlier this week police officers did not shoot Robert Crimo III, a white man. Instead, they politely asked the assailant, “Do me a favor, get on your knees, get on your knees lay down flat on your stomach.” Similarly, they arrested without incident Payton Gendron, a white supremacist teenager who shot 10 people to death in Buffalo, New York to “prevent Black people from replacing White people”.
The white supremacy of the American police is of course a reflection of white supremacy that is at the core of American society.
Due to America’s racist history, the perception that Black men are “threatening and dangerous” is ingrained in the collective American unconscious.
This is undoubtedly contributing to the police’s tendency to be violent towards Black members of the public. In addition, studies have shown Black children – both girls and boys – are perceived as older and less innocent than their white peers, making them more prone to police violence and punishment.
The media also works to criminalize blackness and Black faces and helps create conditions that perpetuate police violence against Black people.
Black Americans, and Black men, in particular, are over-represented as perpetrators of crime in US news media. Meanwhile, the same media outlets tend to use images and narratives that make white perpetrators of most violent crimes look innocent or at least incapable of taking responsibility for their actions. This feeds into existing stereotypes that people of African American descent are threatening and overall more dangerous than white people.
“The white press, inflames the white public against Black people. The police are able to use it to paint the Black community as a criminal element. The police are able to use the press to make the white public think that 90 percent or 99 percent of the people in the Black community are criminals,” Malcolm X said in 1962, but his words still sound eerily relevant today. “And once the white public is convinced that most of the Black community is a criminal element, then this automatically paves the way for the police to move into the negro community, exercising Gestapo tactics, stopping any Black man on the sidewalk… As long as he is Black and a member of the Black community, the white public thinks that the white policeman is justified in going in there and trampling on that man’s civil rights and on that man’s human rights,” he added.
The murder of Jayland Walker is further proof that the main function and aim of American policing today, as it has been throughout history, is upholding white supremacy.
The unprecedented protests against racialized police brutality that followed the murder of George Floyd did not change this fact because they failed to bring about a complete overhauling of existing structures.
Only a complete re-imagining of public safety in America and the building of a law enforcement network that is tasked with protecting all Americans equally can bring an end to the violence routinely faced by all communities of color and especially Black people in this country.