Policing is not a neutral institution. It protects the interests of those who have societal power, often at the expense of those who lack such power.
We know this from our community experience as Japanese Americans.
When Issei community leaders were rounded up after Pearl Harbor, when our families were forced to sell their property at fire-sale prices, law enforcement was serving the interests of white neighbors who’d always wanted an excuse to get rid of us. As Austin Anson told the Saturday Evening Post in 1942: “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. … We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the Brown man.”
In the years since, we have been able to rebuild our communities. And many of us now live in places where — at least for now — we feel protected by police.
But of the many groups of people who have experienced police power as a boot heel, one stands out in particular: Black Americans.
The first city police department in America was founded in Charleston, South Carolina in 1783. Staffed by white men, its explicit purpose was to control and surveil the enslaved Black population, maintaining a racist social order against the will of those whom it policed. It was a slave patrol.
That pattern of police enforcing racist social structures against Black people continued after the end of slavery in the Jim Crow era, continued through the War on Drugs, and continues today.
Today, a Black person is 3.6 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as a white person, even though both groups use marijuana at comparable rates. And police violence is one of the leading causes of death for Black men in America: 1 in 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by a police officer. Indigenous and Latinx people also face disproportionate rates of police brutality.
This is why people are in the streets demanding change.
And the lesson of recent years is that new training and policies simply aren’t enough. Four years ago, the Minneapolis Police Department received a federal grant as part of a multimillion dollar program to enhance procedural justice, reduce implicit bias, and foster reconciliation between law enforcement and communities of color. Yet last month, none of those training efforts stopped Officer Derek Chauvin from brutally and casually killing George Floyd. Nor did it inspire his three fellow officers to intervene during the 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Officer Chauvin slowly crushed the life out of Mr. Floyd.
It is not just bad apples. The whole tree is rotten.
Meanwhile, Black, Brown and Indigenous communities in America have suffered from decades of underinvestment in education, jobs, health care and other structures that foster safety and stability — the kind of safety and stability that enables wealthier, whiter communities to go through daily life without routine police intervention.
This is why so many grassroots activists are calling for divestment from police and reinvestment in community programs.
Here in New York, the police department has a $6 billion budget — more than what the city spends on health, homeless services, youth development and workforce development combined. Think about what kinds of innovative programs could be funded if even a portion of that money were reinvested.
Meanwhile, the forces of reaction are lining up against change. President Donald Trump has tear-gassed peaceful protesters for his vanity photo op, called for governors to “dominate” protesters and threatened to call out the military against the American people. On the streets of Washington, D.C., CBP and ICE agents, federal prison guards, and police are all guarding the White House — in a symbolic illustration of the forces seeking to end so many Black, Brown and Indigenous struggles for liberation.
As Japanese Americans living in this historical moment, we have a choice: We can stand quietly on the sidelines — as so many other communities did when we were targeted during World War II. Or, we can join in solidarity with these Black-led calls for action.
This is a critical moment, when deep systemic change is possible. Each of us must consider our responsibility and role, and work to build a new way forward.
Together, we can build a more just and equitable society.
Carl Takei, a Yonsei, is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, and a board member for the New York Day of Remembrance Committee. He now coordinates the ACLU’s national strategy on police practices, and previously conducted ACLU litigation and advocacy on prison privatization and immigration detention. You can follow him on Twitter at @carltakei, or reach him at email@example.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly nor the ACLU.