Black Life No Bargaining Chip In Demanding Police Accountability

Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. She advised judges on legal sufficiency and analysis of social security regulations as well as applied specific federal circuit precedent to cases. Her past work also included representing indigent clients, helping families access benefits and using the power of  the legal system to help the disadvantaged. She brings a strong commitment to social justice and the need to give voice to the plight of the marginalized.

This column is part of an ongoing series on race and democracy produced by The Douglass Project of the Institute named after consequential abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the most preeminent black freedom fighters in the nation’s history. The Project produces  opinions, analysis, policy initiatives and proposals that are strategically aligned with the principal pillars of race, equity, and democracy. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org.

By Tina M. Patterson, Esq. 

George Floyd was a man who mattered. He was a brother, son, father, and friend. His blackness in no way, shape, or form negated his humanity or diminished his worth. In fact, the global outrage of his death at the hands of Minneapolis police is the purest evidence of his undeniable value as a human being and an unwavering position that black lives do matter.

We should not have to reference these events as evidence to prove his worth after his death, but all too often, this has become a necessary occurrence. Time and time again, we have had to witness appalling video footage of innocent black men, women, and children being beaten and killed by polices forces across the nation. 

In this era of COVID-19, we have seen the devastating, yet far-too- often politically buried, effects of inequality rise to the surface and bubble over into the national conscience. Our deepest societal flaws have been exposed, demonstrating just how divided we truly are, rendering the message of togetherness as nothing more than a pacifying placebo that conveniently ignores the very real and detrimental effect of centuries of inequality in this country.

While there is an eagerness to return to “normal,” we are faced with the reality that “normal” is not what we need and has never been an answer to the real challenges in our society. Rather, the normalcy desired is a veiled plea to return to the business of upholding systemic discrimination and postponing unequivocal equality. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the long overdue reformation of the police institution, which is fueling the pain and anguish of the protests on the streets resulting from George Floyd’s murder. 

Before we can bring solutions to the table regarding police reform, we must identify barriers to the discussion. Obviously, there will be pushback from the police institution itself, a natural reactionary response against uncomfortable change. Yet we must also fully address those in the community serving at the behest of the power structure as obstructionists of change. As long as the system can turn to co-opted activists and individuals as a ready and reliable shield in dealing with the real problem at hand- ending the centuries-long racism baked into the system- nothing will ever change. 

While the demand for accountability in the horrendous murder of George Floyd continues with the nationwide protests,  we should also immediately make some strong demands for change within the Detroit Police Department, which is not innocent of a racist police culture or discriminatory practices that disproportionately target black people and feed the current public’s mistrust of the police institution.

This begins with the use of facial recognition technology in the Detroit Police Department, a far-reaching surveillance measure that disproportionately targets black people. Despite its well-noted inherent bias against dark skinned people, the use of this technology was readily endorsed by Detroit political leadership, including Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James Craig. Further, while this racially biased technology is deeply problematic in a city that is 80% black, the Detroit Police Department has a history of larger unresolved issues of racist and dishonest practices.

The Detroit Police Department has yet to fully address the 2019 revelation that 54 officers on the force have a history of dishonesty, an admission readily offered by Chief Craig, which has resulted in their testimonies being deemed inadmissible in court. The fate of those officers remains unclear to this day. Those who are in the business of administrating justice and enforcing our laws must be honest and honorable men and women, and dishonest officers should not be rewarded with taxpayer dollars. Public confidence in law enforcement is significantly eroded when police officers fail the truth test in any court of competent jurisdiction, resulting in the climate of police distrust that we are experiencing across the country.

Finally, the Detroit Police Department has been dealing with existing internal racial turmoil, evidenced by the infamous Ariel Moore incident, in which a young black woman was racially taunted by a white officer as she walked home in record below zero temperatures last winter after police seized her car. An audit uncovering of a racist culture revealed in the 6th Precinct further undermines public trust in this Detroit institution that is tasked with serving this majority black city.

Despite these egregious practices, many of the same community leaders joining voices with the Detroit Police Department and Mayor Mike Duggan to condemn the George Floyd protesters have stood on the sidelines as Duggan and Chief Craig implemented facial recognition technology. These so-called leaders have applied no public pressure and made no public demands for immediate reformation to end the racist culture in their precinct. In fact, these unacceptably problematic issues have been given a tacit endorsement to exist because so-called community leaders have made no serious push for lasting change.

Weekend protest against police brutality at the Detroit Police headquarters in downtown Detroit.

Agitation from outside the status quo political system has always been the driving force for progress. Blacks have for the most part only known America to be a cruel master and false negotiator of freedom, which is why protest and demand for radical change have been such vital and necessary tools of liberation to gain even the most basic respect for our humanity, which is still under constant threat. No group in the history of this country has demonstrated this need for external agitation more than the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s preeminent civil rights group founded by W.E.B. Du Bois and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, among others.

Founded in 1909, the original mission of the NAACP was to promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law. 

That mission is still as necessary as ever in 2020, yet here in Detroit, which boasts the largest national NAACP chapter and largest sit down dinner in the world, external political agitation has evolved into political complicity. Rather than holding its own press conference exclusively condemning the horrors of police brutality against blacks, Detroit NAACP President Rev. Wendell Anthony joined a live city press conference held by Mayor Duggan and Chief Craig to condemn the protests and issue a citywide curfew. Rather than fight against the political system to demand justice for blacks, Anthony joined the system to encourage calm with no demand for immediate systemic change to protect black life, an absolute disgrace to the mission of the NAACP’s founding.

When a Detroit police officer was seen on video in 2018 repeatedly punching a naked black woman at Detroit Receiving Hospital, who was taken there for mental health issues, Anthony did not convene a public press conference to condemn such dastardly behavior and demand an immediate arrest of the officer. There are many other instances where the Detroit NAACP chapter under Anthony’s leadership has been woefully silent, all of which constitute a betrayal of the founding mission of the organization. 

Anthony and the local NAACP should be leading protest on the streets of Detroit right now insisting on radical and humane reforms inside the Detroit Police Department and ending the use of measures such as facial recognition technology, not appearing to give Mayor Duggan cover and serving as an extended arm of the status quo that have kept things the way they are. 

Such seemingly coopted, safe bet, no risk activism and civic engagement plays directly into the hands of the status quo, particularly white liberal politicians like Mayor Duggan, who can then offer pleasant sympathies without any discomforting demands for change. Too often, “good” white liberals are more interested in being perceived as not racist than actually acting to dismantle racism in their circles and institutions, particularly white liberal politicians like Duggan, who will then turn to the Wendell Anthonys of the world to bail them out of the demands for racial justice.

As a black woman who was born and raised in Detroit, I am beyond disappointed to see black leaders like Anthony who seem more interested in pleasing Mayor Duggan than publicly challenging and condemning his untenable policies and actions in ways that reflect the actions and true demands of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. 

As a lawyer, I’m appalled that we live in a majority black city where whenever the human rights of Detroiters are violated by the police force, no serious public demand and scolding is made by organizations like the Detroit NAACP, which are supposed to be the vanguards of black rights. 

Let’s be clear. The crisis we are facing is not a political bargaining chip. We are dealing with the protection and indeed the survival of black humanity. Blacks in this country have been prey to government sanctioned terror since freedom from bondage after slavery ended in 1865. Centuries of oppression followed by decades of suppression have led us to this moment. We are witnessing, in real time, people genuinely angry and tired of the injustices against black humanity and the constant stagnation disguised as gradual change by our political leaders.

Any attempts to temper the response to a comfortable degree only signify a lack of commitment to change anything, and while violence is not advocated, one must be foolish to believe that acquiescing to the preferences of the status quo will bring about any change. Such disingenuous attempts to quell the justifiable anger in the streets are also a subtle effort to control black thought and behavior, further underscoring the underlying dangers of the system of white supremacy.

Offering empty platitudes of togetherness, fantasizing about the imagined peace of a colorblind world, and joining the white power structure to protect them from using their authority to institute equality are lethal and inimical behaviors we can no longer afford. 

Legendary writer and voice of the Civil Rights Movement James Baldwin eloquently and impeccably summarized the need to act with swift urgency without getting bogged down in the doldrums of political excuses for bold and immediate action. 

“What is it you want me to reconcile myself to? I was born here almost sixty years ago. I’m not going to live another sixty years. You always told me it takes time. It has taken my father’s time, my mother’s time. My uncle’s time. My brother’s and sister’s time. My niece’s and my nephew’s time. How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?”

Over 30 years after Baldwin asked the penetrating question, we must demand answers once and for all. Status quo black apologists must stop offering cover for political inaction or risk any remaining community credibility they possess. Elected officials and police departments in Minneapolis, Detroit, and across the nation must not simply offer their sympathies and selective support for responsible activism and peaceful protest, but use their inherent authority by eliminating detrimental police tactics and ensuring accountability for police misconduct. Doing so not only guarantees justice for George Floyd, but protects the entire future of black humanity.

One comment

  1. Excellent article. Attorney Patterson outlines clearly the problems in Detroit and the culprits. It is time to get up and stand up against police brutality, racism throughout the city, elimination of poverty and an immediate change in these so called civil right organizations that don’t work in our behalf of the black citizens of Detroit. Wake up Reverand Anthony and N. Charles Anderson. Your inactions show that you have succumbed to the status quo
    of being puppets for white supremacy.

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