When I came into the kitchen that dark Chicago morning, my father broke the news to me straight away. “They murdered Fred Hampton.”
The police had stormed his apartment at 4 a.m., guns blazing. They concentrated their fire on the bedroom where they knew Hampton, the young, charismatic chairman of the city's Black Panther chapter, would be laid out flat, immobilized by the sedative an informant had slipped into his juice. Papi had just come back from the scene.
This December 4, on the 50th anniversary of Fred Hampton's assassination, the Minneapolis City Council is holding a public budget hearing featuring a plan to hire 14 more police officers at a cost of $8.5 million. Five decades ago, police departments operated under the authority of city governments, most notably serving as enforcers for corrupt political machines. That was then. With the decline of the machines in the '70s, the police emerged as the most powerful section of municipal governments, more influenced by Homeland Security, regional fusion centers, and a police equipment industry aggressively pushing the latest in weapons and surveillance systems.
While politicians turn over every few years, the police have built an enduring base of support, unwavering in its belief that more cops mean more safety. As a result, their numbers, budgets, and clout have steadily increased over the years, as racial and economic inequality have grown.
Elected backers of police expansion like Minneapolis City Council members Linea Palmisano, Lisa Goodman, and Alondra Cano seem to believe they would be supporting a community-oriented police department spearheaded by Chief Medaria Arrodondo. That department is a mirage. They would be better off investing in a unicorn park. Reformist chiefs have at best a fleeting impact on their departments, their effort—what former Minneapolis Police chief Tony Bouza called his "futile attempt to reform the police”—erased within a year or two of their departure.
Police departments in this country were consolidated as a system, in the aftermath of Emancipation, to address the urgent “problem” of how to keep black people in servitude. The solution was a system of unequal laws, unequal enforcement, and unequal consequences to permanently stamp blacks and other unworthies with criminal records that effectively remove them from competition for good jobs, housing, credit, and education as well as barring them from voting, running for office, or serving on juries.
The true face of the Minneapolis Police Department is not Chief Arrodondo, its appointed administrator, perched lightly on the iceberg of entrenched power. It is its elected leader, currently police union honcho Bob Kroll. The recent “Cops for Trump” stunt was a public endorsement by the MPD's rank and file of Donald Trump's ideology of racial, misogynist, and religious bigotry. While it can be said that not all cops share these sentiments, there's little room for dissent in police culture.
On the evening of November 12, my council member, Alondra Cano, hosted a community safety meeting for a section of her ninth ward. Earlier that day, Minneapolis cops (who insist they are too underfunded to answer 911 calls or process rape kits) raided homeless encampments in the ward in 12 degree weather, throwing away people's belongings and directing them to shelter beds that were not prepared or sufficient. KSTP's glowing account—“Minneapolis Police Department helping the homeless stay warm"—must have come straight from MPD's public relations team.
Our city representatives can choose to live in the comforting world of press releases, but the poor and displaced of our city do not have that option. They experience the real MPD in all its Trumpian power and arrogance. To view the police as a solution for social problems is to accept the premise that their brutal and racist record is the result of individual implicit bias or insufficient training in an otherwise noble institution. In other words, it requires a reckless disregard for history.
The police narrative of being the “thin blue line” against crime and chaos gives them powerful leverage over elected representatives. It is easy for them to trigger public fear, so it is never politically safe to stand up to their demands. All it would take is one shooting in your ward and you get blamed for not supporting “the brave men and women who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe.”
I can hear some saying, “But we must support our first black police chief!” Actually, we must support concrete community safety practices that have a real chance for success. Implicit bias training, civilian review commissions (we're on our fifth!), cops on bikes or handing out ice cream cones, even putting more dark people and women in charge—none of these surface measures address the structural, cultural, and historical reality of the police presence in our lives.
To struggling communities, the $8.5 million needed for 14 more cops is more than chump change. It can and should be diverted to the numerous social, housing, nutritional, leadership, and other resilience-supporting programs and initiatives. While it is necessary to be able to intervene in emergency situations, that task should be transferred to agencies trained to skillfully help people in crisis, not evict, criminalize, or shoot them. We need serious solutions for our serious problems in all their complexity, enlisting the full creative abilities of our communities in the process. We can't just keep pumping money into a paramilitary force that has, in 150 years, never wavered from its founding mission.
Ricardo Levins Morales is an artist and organizer. He lives in Minneapolis.