Content Warning: violence, racism
The recent murders of Black Americans—George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, David McAtee, and countless others—at the hands of law enforcement and racist white vigilantes have translated into widespread community anger and protests across the United States, and the world. The unfolding protests reflect long-existing tensions between communities of color and the police force, and speak to a history of disproportionate policing, excessive force, and lack of accountability. As Black Lives Matter and adjacent movements refocus public attention on anti-Blackness in America, institutions and individuals must take it upon themselves to correct racist norms and practices.
Speaking as a currently entirely non-Black entity, the Editorial Board of the Voice expresses its strong support for Black Lives Matter and protesters seeking systemic change. We vehemently condemn police violence committed against Black individuals and protesters, and write to show solidarity with Black communities and Black students at Georgetown in pursuit of racial justice. We seek to elevate Black voices, as well as use our own voice and privilege to demand necessary changes. This editorial is one of many calls for change—its proposals merely provide a preliminary course of action for further dialogues.
Our message for fellow non-Black readers who want to be allies: don’t engage in performative activism, or political participation with the goal of simply gaining social favor. Though it does raise awareness, performative activism is often unproductive: It talks over activist voices actually affected by oppression and neglects to take tangible responsibility or engage in honest personal reflection. Simply posting #BlackLivesMatter on Instagram or Twitter is not enough; we must show that Black lives matter to us. We need to actively utilize our privilege to empower Black people in the fight against systems built by four hundred years of white supremacy. At the very minimum, this means uplifting Black people within our spaces, donating to Black organizations and bail funds, and supporting Black-owned businesses.
For non-Black people who attend demonstrations, the most important goal should be to support the agendas of Black protest organizers. This means not engaging in any protest action against the wishes of Black organizers, because Black lives are the ones on the line. Rather, non-Black allies can use our bodies and privilege to shield Black people at protests from police violence.
Outside of direct protesting or supporting protesters, non-Black people must also urgently address racism—in ourselves, our families, and our communities. As much as the protests are a critique of police misconduct, they are also a reaction to the inescapable presence of racism and anti-Blackness in everyday life. While it is more normalized to call out overt racism (e.g. condemning the use of racial slurs, neo-Nazi rallies, etc.), covert racism and white supremacy are just as damaging. Acknowledging and combating the impact of covert racism is the next step toward achieving long-term change. We must take this opportunity to confront our own complicity and participation in racism through speech and silence.
Ask yourself and your social groups: How have I benefited from being non-Black? How do I behave when I witness racism? Am I consciously helping uplift Black individuals, Black businesses, and Black creators? Why and through what systems does whiteness dehumanize Black individuals? Have I participated in those systems? How can I help dismantle those systems? The answers to these questions and several others may be difficult to uncover, especially because our complicity with racist systems is often invisible at first. That’s why total honesty is important, and where the urgency for anti-racist self-education comes in.
Beyond individual practices non-Black allies must adopt, this Editorial Board strongly believes institutional reform through policy must occur as well. We join a number of activist groups calling for the widespread defunding of police departments. The United States currently spends over $100 billion on policing its citizens. In America’s urban centers, funding for policing vastly dwarfs money earmarked for nearly any other purpose. In D.C., more than a half-billion dollars annually is allocated to the Metropolitan Police Department; in Los Angeles, a whopping 54 percent of the city’s unrestricted funds go to the police at the expense of community-building departments like education and transportation.
At its core, armed policing is an inherently violent institution. Its racism and brutality are closely embedded in its history. Many of the earliest formulations of the police in the South were slave patrols, and the police have nearly always played punitive roles. Even the most “progressive” police departments which have widely adopted procedural justice changes—Minneapolis, for example—continue to be plagued by fundamental challenges, causing local legislators to consider defunding. As long as the police continue to receive large percentages of funding, marginalized communities will face deadly and discriminatory surveillance. While we will mention a number of procedural reforms of police departments, we believe only through substantial reallocation of the police’s vast financial resources towards community development can we see permanent reductions in violence against Black people.
This being said, law enforcement systems must also undergo deep internal changes, starting with demilitarizing police forces. During the protests, we have seen the repeated deployment of military-grade weaponry against protesters, often unprovoked and excessive even by international protocols. As President Trump threatens to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and employ state-sanctioned violence against protesters, a call for the demilitarization of law enforcement becomes only more urgent. Rubber and plastic bullets, used consistently throughout the past week on all types of protesters, can inflict “death, injury, and disability.” Using a respiratory weapon like tear gas in the midst of a respiratory pandemic is reckless and should be disallowed immediately. Even outside of the lens of the protests, the expansion of SWAT teams and the transfer of tactical equipment and weaponry from the Pentagon highly militarize municipal police. Simply put, militarization only seeks to increase violence and excessive force against citizens; it must end.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) should have its police oversight power immediately reinstated, after it was largely ended by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions back in 2017. Sessions’s memorandum resulted in a substantial rollback of federal accountability measures and investigative power as applied to municipal police departments. However, the DOJ needs to go further than just restoring departmental powers; it should automatically investigate every death in police custody and every police killing of an unarmed individual.
The Supreme Court’s qualified immunity doctrine must also undergo revision. In protecting government officials from litigation harassment, the Supreme Court has extended legal protection to armed personnel with the capacity to inflict deadly violence. Qualified immunity has a history of protecting police officers from being sued in excessive force cases, and its application has only become more frequent in the last few years. Given the violent nature of their work, law enforcement officers must be excluded from qualified immunity exceptions.
Police unions and their negotiated collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are also in need of substantial reform. The police’s negotiated CBAs are full of policies preventing officers from facing the disciplinary consequences necessary to maintain a well-behaved police force. Dismantling high evidentiary standards for accountability suits, rewarding whistleblowers, forcing secondary employment disclosures, rescinding interview delays, preserving records of past disciplinary misconduct, and more are all necessary changes to be made in police CBAs.
The policy ideas listed in this editorial are just some concrete ways policing in American needs to change and it is far from a complete list. Requiring longer training periods, social work degrees, widely shared databases of officers with conduct violations, mandatory bodycam footage investigation, and dozens of other reforms have also entered justice-focused conversations among activists.
On a macro-scale, the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans makes it clear racism does not occur in a vacuum; it exists in nearly every system we encounter in our daily lives. Knowing this, we acknowledge this movement seeks to change more than just policing. Housing, healthcare, political participation, infrastructure, education, and countless other systems must undergo their own transformations to eradicate racism and anti-Blackness from their substructures, where it continues to be rife. Otherwise, anti-racism will never be able to take root in this country.
As Georgetown students, we must examine and expose our relationship to anti-Blackness at a university built on the backs of enslaved people. It is abundantly clear the administration needs to do far more to address racism on campus. In President John DeGioia’s letter to the student body after George Floyd’s murder, he noted that the enduring legacy of racism stems from “institutional structures that perpetuate inequity and inequality.” Yet he made no mention of Georgetown’s own complicity in those racist structures or the issues facing Black students on campus today. We call on DeGioia to look in the mirror.
As a university, we must do better. Too many students at our majority-white institution graduate without being educated on race in America. We call on the university to amend the ill-defined “domestic diversity” requirement and implement a racial studies requirement in the core curriculum. This requirement must include teaching the history of the Maryland Jesuits’s slave plantations and of their sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838 to pay off Georgetown’s debts.
Like all police departments in America, the Georgetown University Police Department (GUPD) has its own institutional racial biases. Since GUPD’s inception, many students of color have stated that they have been racially profiled by officers and asked to provide proof of their enrollment at Georgetown while walking through campus. During the Black Survivors Coalition (BSC) sit-in this year, multiple students shared accounts of GUPD using excessive force and stalking people on campus. Although Chief of Police Jay Gruber claimed he had never received any reports alleging violence by an officer, those involved with BSC say those who have had negative interactions with GUPD choose not to file reports because they believe no action will be taken. This highlights the issue at hand: Many students, especially people of color and survivors of sexual assault, do not trust GUPD.
Police reform should be implemented by this university in tandem with the national reforms proposed in this editorial. We support the BSC in demanding GUPD improve its responses to survivors of sexual assault, and we stand with Georgetown United Against Police Aggression (GUAPA) in calling for full transparency regarding GUPD protocols, vastly increased and improved implicit bias training, and a guarantee from the university that officers will never be armed.
In addition to reforming GUPD, we fully back the student-led petition calling on the university to halt all contracts with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), a petition which has accumulated over 6,000 signatures as of June 9. We watched in horror as MPD officers, acting under the president’s orders, fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades at thousands of protesters, including Georgetown students, in front of the White House. In addition to its history of racial profiling and violence against Black communities, over the past week, MPD has doubled down its transgressions by illegally detaining D.C. residents, assaulting demonstrators, and directing disproportionate violence against Black protesters.
Despite DeGioia’s email about “confronting racism,” the GUPD website still states that it “enjoys a close professional relationship with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.” Just as the University of Minnesota limited ties with Minneapolis PD last week, Georgetown has a responsibility to ensure its students are not harmed by an overzealous and discriminatory D.C. police force.
So long as racism continues to exist in our society, we carry the moral imperative to correct it. We must confront racism in our communities and engage meaningfully in protest and other forms of activism. We must defund and reform police departments when they continue to disproportionately perpetrate violence on Black people, as well as deconstruct larger systems of oppression. We must make changes on our own campus—cutting ties with MPD, reforming GUPD, updating our curricular requirements, and more—to protect Black Hoyas and truly begin “valuing diversity” at the level promised for so long. The time for you to act is now. The time for the university to act is now.
Image Credits: Nathan Posner