Professor Imani Perry Looks at Police Violence Through Lens of History

Wednesday, Apr 21, 2021

A protester holds up caution tape that read “Don’t Shoot” as police and protester stand off in front of Forest Hills station in Jamaica Plain in June 2020
A protester holds up caution tape that read “Don’t Shoot” as police and protester stand off in front of Forest Hills station in Jamaica Plain in June 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The country is watching as events unfold in Minnesota. The police killing of Daunte Wright occurred miles from where Derek Chauvin is on trial for killing George Floyd.

Imani Perry, professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, says during the course of U.S. history, Americans have been in this situation many times before, witnessing excessive violence against Black, Brown and poor people with little to no action toward real change or reform.

She says it’s crucial to bring the conversations of the past into the present as activists and political leaders take on the idea of police reform.

In a recent tweet, Perry points out that Black newspapers in the early 20th century were discussing problems with policing in the U.S. The conversation has been happening over and over again for more than 100 years, she says.

In some ways, she says police violence has “become even more egregious.” Protests used to erupt over a particular incident of police brutality. Now, we’re responding differently, she says, where widespread protests are sparked by police killings.

And as she notes in her tweet, lynching was done by white mobs, while policing today is “an agent of the state, with the authority of the state, killing people without any process.”

Talks about “reestablishing trust” in policing fall flat because it’s “a fundamentally untrustworthy institution that has not reformed itself since, you know, literally for generations,” she says. “And it's incredibly frustrating to imagine that, yes, 100 years later, we're still talking about this institution in this way.”

Police reform is on the table in state legislatures in ways the country hasn’t seen before. Police functions — such as whether officers should carry guns or intervene in mental health crises — are being scrutinized.

The ongoing conversations about fundamental police transformation — and ideas that go beyond reform, such as questioning the necessity of police — have Perry feeling optimistic about the movement gaining momentum. The “process of defunding, dismantling [and] really deterrence by structure” also needs to be included in these conversations about policing, she says.

“I wouldn't say that I'm hopeful about the transformation in the near future,” she says, “but I am extremely hopeful that people are really connecting the dots about not just how impunious and unjust often the behavior of police officers is, but raising questions about the necessity.”

Interview Highlights

On whether she’s watching the Derek Chauvin trial

“I've watched bits and pieces. I want to keep abreast of what's happening. The moments where they show his murder are very difficult for me to watch. I did not watch it originally. It feels to me honestly inappropriate to watch someone being killed. And it's something that we almost only do with Black people in this society. But I am trying to follow the trial.”

On how history proves that showing video evidence of police brutality against Black Americans isn’t enough to transform policing

“I think it's not enough, but we also ought to be concerned about what the repetition of showing Black people being killed [means]. There's an incredible risk of dehumanization and desensitization by the repeated cycle of seeing Black people killed. Lynching was a public event. We have a history in which Black death has not moved people. And there's a kind of, I think, absolute disregard for the most difficult moments of people's lives. And at this point, we've been seeing what are essentially snuff films of Black people for years. We've seen it over and over again, and we literally have no change.”

On whether it’s possible for white people to truly understand police violence against Black Americans

“I do. And I want to say this: There is definitely racial injustice in policing, but there are also poor white communities that have lots of people experience abusive treatment from police officers. There are Latinx communities, there are queer communities that experience this. So I do think, one, that there are more people who have been wounded by excessive policing than we sometimes discuss. I think that's one sort of pathway to that understanding. But another is that you see millions of people, not all Black people by any means, all over the world taking to the streets — so they've made a statement. And the question is, why does our political leadership, why do the powers that be, refuse to respond to this very loud public dissent in so many places?

“So in some ways, when white people do understand, they are disciplined out of understanding because the larger structure of the society doesn't shift. So they have a moment of potential reckoning, but if nothing changes, it actually dissociates white Americans from our experience. So I do think that there's a capacity and I'm not saying that white people can understand what it's like to be Black. I think it's very hard to fully understand another person's identity, but absolutely, they can understand the injustice.”

On what federal actions can be taken to address policing

“I have mixed feelings about this. Certainly in the abstract, there should be. But what the history of the 20th century taught us is that at various moments where at the presidential level, at the federal level, people said they were going to address problems associated with policing, really what they did is give more money to police departments, which really has led to greater impunity and, of course, the rise of mass incarceration.

“The concept of reform, as it tends to be imagined at the federal level, actually is not punitive [and] not a deterrent and there will be lots of dollars spent examining. … Sensitivity training doesn't work, we know. We also know that even diversity, equity and inclusion training doesn't show results in any kind of institution. So the question for me is, what kind of examination are they talking about? What I would like to see happen is actually at the state level, sort of legislators continuing to be responsive and accountable to local organizing branches. And on the other side, I think we have to be more innovative in how we pursue protest because marches are clearly not functioning. We've had so many over the past six years or so [that] are not functioning to have produced the desired effect.”

[Originally published on April 14, 2021 via Here & Now]

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