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Originally published on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2015 at 8:00 AM

Slavery is at the Root of Police Violence in the US

In response to the numerous murders of unarmed Black people committed with impunity by police officers, the Black Lives Matter movement has ignited protests and conversations about racist police violence all around the country. But as this conversation widens, and as calls are being made for police reforms like body cameras, we need to stop and consider whether reforms can really address the root causes of this brutality.

This summer, even before the Black Lives Matter movement erupted following the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. In it, Coates argues that addressing contemporary racism requires looking back to the founding of this country and reckoning with the fact that our democracy was built on the economic basis of slave labor. The US, created through “black plunder” and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, continues to promote freedom for some and inequality for others. “White supremacy," then, Coates argues, "is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”

Coates carefully documents how a racist past and present—"250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal, and 35 years of racist housing policy"—impacts the current lives of Blacks in this country who are oppressed by systemic racism and then blamed for their own oppression. He outlines how whites profited from the system of slavery that decimated Black families, how the roots of American wealth and democracy for whites lay in the “for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family.” Today, media commentators and politicians obscure this historical context and reverse power dynamics by pathologizing Black family structures and chiding Black fathers for shirking their responsibilities.

We see this erasure of historical context and reversal of power in the media coverage of the recent police killings of Black people. In the aftermath of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, officials and the media attempted to portray both victims as “thugs” and “criminals” in order to justify their murders. Black protesters who faced militarized policing in Ferguson were also portrayed as “thugs” in order to delegitimize their actions and justify a disproportionate police response. We see media commentators fixated on “Black on Black” violence, in an attempt to avoid confronting the reality of white supremacist violence.

As the Black Lives Matter collective argues, "That’s the crux of white supremacist racial logic: the problem with black people is… well, black people – not mass incarceration and the deindustrialization of urban America… we are bullied politically, socially and economically. But it is we who are called 'thugs.'"

Racist police violence is a manifestation of the white supremacist principles and practices this nation was founded on. This means we must think beyond mere reform when we ponder solutions. The Black Lives Matter collective insists: “We must recognize, as Malcolm X did, that police brutality is a human rights issue that will not be solved simply by the passing of legislation. Our rallies must spark revolutionary action. Our marching must evolve into a sustainable movement. We must see that this is bigger than Brown and Wilson, than Ferguson or New York City. This is about the value of black life in 21st-century America.”

Similarly, while Ferguson Action demands "an end to the over policing and surveillance of our communities,” they recognize that the problem goes beyond racist police. They point out how the prison industrial complex— the interwoven forces of for-profit criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color—is the modern-day equivalent of slavery. Calling for an end to imprisoning Black people, Ferguson Action wants “to address harm and conflict in our communities through community based, restorative solutions.”

Instead of investing millions in surface-level police reforms like body cameras, which do nothing to combat structural racist violence, we can demand real investments in Black communities. “By decreasing law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels,” The Black Lives Matter Collective insists that the government can then reinvest “into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools.”

We can also take Coates seriously when he makes the case for government reparations to Blacks in the US. “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal,” Coates says, because “an America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” The Black Lives Matter movement is giving us the opportunity to take this first step toward spiritual healing by turning and facing the racism that splits our country at the roots.