On August 26th, 2016, Collin Kaepernick made headlines when he sat for the national anthem during the 49ers third pre-season game. Explaining to the media that he sat because of the oppression of people of colour in the United States and ongoing issues of police brutality, Kaepernick has attempted to prompt a discourse of social injustices still prevalent in society. It is important to note that police brutality is different in kind and degree from police misconduct, examples of which include conducting unlawful searches and unnecessary use of force. While the gesture itself has been a controversial topic in recent months, police brutality and racial divide in the political system has been a matter of protest for a long time, most notably the beating of Rodney King in 1991 by four police officers, and the Watts uprising of 1960.
Between 1986 and 1990, Los Angeles paid over $20 million in settlements against LA police officers in over 300 cases of excessive use of force. On March 3, 1991, there was public outrage as African-American motorist Rodney King was filmed being pulled over for speeding. Four white officers then proceeded to use a stun-gun on King, repeatedly kicked him and hit him with batons. The trial of the four officers ended 14 months later with a verdict of not guilty. This enraged the public, resulting in a violent outbreak causing approximately 60 deaths and an estimated billion dollars in damages. In a public statement, police chief Daryl Gates called the beating an “aberration,” however, statistical evidence suggests otherwise.
The 1960 Watts crisis was not surprising as racial tension was rising within predominately black communities. The 1960 census revealed that out of the 461,000 black population, fewer than 4,000 lived in neighbourhoods that were not majority black – resulting in a 99 percent segregated community. Then in 1964, there were three urban riots including Harlem, Rochester and Philadelphia, as Passage of Proposition 14 was placed in effect with a margin of 2 million votes. Proposition 14 nullified the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which meant that private property owners could legally discriminate against racial minority groups. Proposition 14 was subsequently removed on May 29, 1967, by the Supreme Court.
A 2013 study revealed 5,986 reports of misconduct between April 2009 and June 2010, which resulted in 382 fatalities and settlements of $347,455,000. 33 percent of misconduct cases went through to convictions and 64% received prison sentences. In more recent accounts, the killings of unarmed black men have called for public outcry. Eric Garner in New York City, Brown in Ferguson, Alton Sterling and Philando Castille to name a few, all of which were caught on camera. In the case of Eric Garner, six police officers subdued him, who was suffering from asthma, obesity and diabetes, and placed him in a chokehold. Police officer Daniel Pantaleo was found not guilty on the technicality that he did not place the victim in a “choke-hold,” however the coroner’s report clearly identified the cause of death to have been “compression of the neck… compression of the chest.” The police department reported that the police officers felt endangered because he was a “big guy” resisting arrest and reacted accordingly. This failure to acknowledge a systematic problem in the police department is only possible when the officers are protected by a chain of authority. Many of these incidents resulted in the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a protest against American police killing unarmed black men.
Racial profiling is critiqued to be a biological method of identifying deviants, specifically in which entire ethnicities are labelled as such. A 2015 study found that over a four-year period, the police conducted 52,000 stop and frisk searches in a predominantly Black and Latino community, of which 94 percent of those stopped had committed no offence. This racial profiling from an established image of the criminal has also resulted in crimes by agents of the state. From Rodney King, Eric Garner and Laquan Mcdonald – who was shot 16 times despite being unarmed – police brutality has caused social outrage. Moreover, the militarization of the police and disproportionality in consequences raises a societal conversation for systematic reformation where the state and its agents need to be held accountable for its actions.
As law enforcement continues to face national criticism, it is important to acknowledge that racial minorities make up 46.6 per cent of armed and unarmed victims according to a recent study. However, the same study also reported that racial minorities made up 62.7 per cent of unarmed people killed by the police. This disparity in police use of force is also consistent in other areas of the criminal justice system, in which black people are more likely to be arrested for drug-related offences – despite the fact that they are not more likely to use or sell them.
The disproportionate policing of African-Americans can be argued to break pro-social bonds between individual and society in terms of limiting employment as a result of criminal records, a poor education system along with healthcare as facets of poverty-stricken ethnic communities. Under this idea, the low economic success of black males means that race is a predictor of crime. This means that as black males are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate, pro-social relations break down through the lack of opportunity in employment, education, and limited social mobility, which all generate a feeling of helplessness. When these young black men are unable to achieve idealistic goals set by society through legitimate means, they may resort to crime to achieve those goals.
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