September 1, 2020 — On August 23, Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man was shot by the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Once again, people were outraged as the video reflected once more the unnecesary use of force against black bodies in the United States. The videos depict a man who is not threatening the police but rather refusing to follow their commands, and who is shot seven times in his back in front of three of his children. Miracolously he didn’t die, but the prospect of a full recovery is uncertain. Protests started immediately in Kenosha.
On August 25, vigilantes, armed civilians self appointed to suppress and punish crime summarily responded to a Facebook group invitation and travelled to Kenosha “to defend private property from the protests”. These individuals convened around private business, claiming that they were protecting them. In spite of a curfew, protestors and vigilantes were in the streets demonstrating, when a seventeen year old carrying an AR-15 style rifle killed Anthony M. Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, and shot Gaige Grosskreutz. Video footage shows how after the killings, he walks towards the police carrying his large weapon, persons on the street yell, yet the police ignore them. The following day he was arrested in his home in the neighboring state of Illinois.
The contrast is evident and painful. A Black man represents a threat to the police even if he is walking away from the police unarmed. Failing to closely follow police instructions represents a great risk for Black men. Even though heavily armed and walking towards the police a white man is not perceived as a threat, even if a crowd yells that he just shot three persons. That is systemic racism. This is precisely what needs to be addressed and what calls for reform are urging for in movements such as “Black Lives Matter” and others. Various sport leagues and athletes responded with a strike or retiring from competitions, demanding action.
The justified distrust of law enforcement is also attributed to the relationship between local police departments and federal agencies. Since 2000, Kenosha county has leased detention space to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in its County Jail, motivated by the millions made in annual revenue. Immigration detention by local counties has become the norm.
Local police agencies who collaborate with federal agencies, like in Kenosha, frequently use regular traffic stops to arrest and hold immigrants for ICE, placing them on a pathway to deportation. Not surprisingly, Black and Latinx residents are more likely to be stopped by police than white residents. This is evidenced by the fact that Black immigrants are disproportionaly represented in immigration enforcement. Because Black communities are over-policed, they are at a higher risk of falling into the prison-to-deportation pipeline. From inception these systems of oppression have aimed at punishing Black and Latinx communities. Hence the cry from activists and protestors: police and ICE need a radical transformation.
The need for substantial police reform is evident. The images from Kenosha depict evident discrimination against Black and Brown bodies by police officers, resulting in the disproportionate use of force, arrests and criminal convictions. The cry for a systemic response is loud and clear. It is necessary to reconsider the role of the police, to review training and admission policies. Armed personnel, bearing arms, and acting under the color of law should be held accountable for their actions. It is not only a matter of defunding the police, but of transferring those funds to social services agencies that can intervene in domestic disputes, mental health crises, and neighborhood conflicts. We all need protection. The use of force must be the last resort, not the only response.
The criminal actions of vigilantes in Kenosha raise also great concerns about civilians carrying weapons and acting on their own will. Recent events in Portland reflect the dangers of armed political confrontation. It is fundamental to acknowledge that private violence is increasing, that it is a threat to democracy and to us all and that it must be confronted in the context of extremely polarized elections.