Letter to the editor: Policing rooted in racism; Middlebury isn’t exempt
The history of the police may seem like it was a long time ago, and it is tempting to think that we should focus only on the present. However, the history of police is not only a relic. Even the star shape of the police badge, which originated from the first slave patrol badge, upholds that system that was created not so long ago. Another example is the use of dogs to enforce terror during slave catching, during civil rights protests, and today — it has even occurred in town against a Black Middlebury resident this summer. It is exactly this past that has led us to where we are today, making the ways in which we use police a contemporary issue.
Many of us talk about how slavery was wrong, and we wouldn’t see an enslaved person who ran away as a criminal. If you would consider yourself to be an abolitionist then, this is something you should care about today. In the time of slave patrolling, those who did not uphold the system of slavery were considered criminals. During times of segregation, something as harmless as Black people drinking out of the same water fountain as a white person was considered a crime. The police in many of these cases have resorted to violence in the name of “upholding the law,” even though there is a distinct difference between crime and harm.
There are socially constructed crimes that cause little to no harm, like someone sleeping on a park bench, using marijuana, or living with mental illnesses. Yet there is harm that is not considered a crime, like waving a Confederate flag, not paying people a livable wage, or keeping people in cages at the border. Criminalizing homelessness, substance abuse, mental illnesses and immigration status is not a preventative measure, does not protect the community and only causes further harm.
History will tell us that laws have not always been built in favor of what is right, and law enforcement has been on the wrong side of history. People in power define what is a crime and who is a criminal, because they want to uphold the laws they have created. This gives power to law enforcement to uphold the law, which leaves a lot of room for error. Racism is law. We see this from the inception of the United States: slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment, Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, and the violence against and arrests of Black Lives Matter protestors. We can see that laws do not define what is right, and what is right is sometimes classified as unlawful.
In the 1980s and 1990s, President Reagan’s War on Drugs and President Clinton’s tough-on-crime policies enabled police departments to use numerous tactics to attack and criminalize specific groups of people, such as stop and frisk, which was meant to be a crime-preventing tactic. However, stop and frisk has mostly targeted Black and Latinx people (the majority of whom have been innocent of any crime). The harm of this tactic is that it only requires reasonable suspicion, much of which is rooted in racial profiling, for a police officer to engage. Being a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or person of color) is not a crime, causes no harm and should not be enough to create reasonable suspicion. These tactics have resulted in today’s era of mass incarceration in which Black people are gripped into the prison industrial complex, because of (and not limited to) the school-to-prison pipeline, false criminal reports, and low-level drug charges at higher rates than white people.
Police may not claim to be criminals (although some crimes are committed), but they most definitely are harmful. Saying that the Middlebury Police Department does not engage in racist behavior distances us from the fact that, based on both historical and contemporary examples, policing is rooted in racism and causes deep harm. Middlebury is not exempt. We hope to explore specific examples from the Middlebury community in future letters. Denying the problem, instead of acknowledging it directly, prevents us from addressing it.
On behalf of I.D.E.A.L.
Middlebury: Invest. Divest. Educate. Abolish. Liberate. Middlebury is a unified collective of people working to reduce community and systemic harm by creating new policies, support structures and accountability measures for the town of Middlebury through an anti-racist, abolitionist framework to better serve all members of our community. If you are interested in joining our efforts, email us at [email protected]
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