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Reparations Are Also About Black Safety — and That Means Taking on Policing

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A Black man wearing a white and maroon jacket and a hoodie holds a hand-made sign reading 'Love to Tyre' above his head, with another sign reading 'Stop Killing Black People' visible in the back, with the buildings of downtown in the background
A demonstrator in downtown Oakland marches in a Jan. 29, 2022, protest of the Memphis police killing of Tyre Nichols. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

T

yre Nichols was mercilessly beaten by Memphis police officers after a traffic stop last month — and it was his fault. That’s if you believe the five officers accused of killing Nichols, of course.

Here’s the story officers, who pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder charges on Feb. 17, wanted the public to buy: Nichols, who lived in Sacramento before moving to Memphis, was driving recklessly, a misdemeanor in Tennessee, before he was pulled over for a routine traffic stop.

After being forcibly removed from his car at gunpoint, he fled. The officers, then-part of an elite crime suppression unit, chased Nichols. They punched and kicked Nichols and struck him with a baton, justifying the violence in a false police report.

The release of police and traffic camera footage revealed the glaring disparity that often exists between the police narrative and what actually occurs. Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, wasn't violent or aggressive, and he didn't reach for an officer’s gun, as the initial report falsely asserted. So why did Nichols flee? In my bones, I know he was running to his mother's house in search of what many police officers decline to provide Black people: safety.

The safety of Black people in America has been imperiled for four centuries.

The safety of Black people in America is at the core of the California Reparations Task Force.

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I wish more Californians were aware of the first statewide body to consider reparations for Black people. The task force has presented an irrefutable examination of how systemic racism was woven into the fabric of America and California. I can think of at least 1,619 reasons why the work is largely unnoticed.

Think about it: After the unpaid workforce of millions was emancipated, laws were enacted to restrict economic and social mobility. The emancipated population was terrorized by white supremacists intent on preserving the racial hierarchy as promises of land, opportunity and security were abandoned.

It wasn't safe for Black people to look white people in the eye. It wasn't safe for Black people to vote. It wasn't safe for Black people to be in some towns after dark. It wasn't safe for Black people to prosper. To maintain institutionalized social order, first it was the slave patrols, and now it’s the police.

Racial terror swept this country for decades after emancipation as white mobs — some dressed in robes and hoods, some flashing badges and guns — destroyed homes, towns and lives. The racial segregation enforced in the South initiated the migration of Black people to states like California.

For more than a year, the reparations task force, which meets Friday and Saturday in Sacramento (PDF), has documented the unsavory truth about Black history — a history that is more than the cherry-picked sections of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream speech. Honoring Black history must include the centuries of state-sanctioned violence that America willfully ignores.

Black history is American history.

After I watched the footage of Nichols being brutalized by the officers who immediately began constructing a false narrative as they gasped for air, I thought about Rodney King, the Black man who was savagely beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers in 1991, an assault recorded by an amateur videographer. The grainy footage of King writhing in pain as officers swung batons as if they were chopping sugarcane will stick in my mind forever.

I thought about Delphine Allen, the Black man who, while walking in West Oakland in 2000, was kidnapped and assaulted by rogue Oakland police officers. His feet were struck with a baton before he was driven to a secluded highway overpass, where the beating continued.

Allen was the lead plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit that alleged misconduct and excessive use of force by four Oakland police officers — and a lack of discipline and accountability for officer misconduct within the Oakland Police Department. More than 100 residents alleged mistreatment — brutal beatings, unlawful detention, intimidation — in the lawsuit that led to the federal monitoring of the OPD.

The quartet of officers known as “The Riders” rampaged West Oakland, an area once patrolled by the Black Panthers because of police brutality, after sunset. An enduring vestige of enslavement is the over-policing of Black neighborhoods. As part of the $11 million settlement with the plaintiffs in 2003, the police department was forced to comply with court-ordered reforms.

Almost two decades after the settlement, LeRonne Armstrong, OPD’s police chief, was fired on Feb. 15, in part, because of an independent report that detailed the police department’s mishandling of officer misconduct — the kind of violation that led to federal monitoring in the first place.

A bald Black man in a blue police uniform stands outside in the sun holding a microphone and squinting
Former Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, pictured at a 2021 NAACP event paying tribute to George Floyd, was fired by Mayor Sheng Thao on Feb. 15. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Last month, I interviewed Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston, co-authors of The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Cover-Up in Oakland, as part of a Commonwealth Club of California event. In the book, BondGraham, news editor for The Oaklandside, and Winston, an independent journalist, present a riveting and profound portrait of out-of-control policing in Oakland. The Riders Come Out at Night is a compelling argument for why the police can’t be trusted with reforming the institution of policing.

In 2016, OPD cycled through three police chiefs in eight days, an infamous stretch initiated by another misconduct scandal, the sex-trafficking of a minor by Oakland police officers and officers from multiple Bay Area jurisdictions. The same year, two officers were suspended because of a racist text scandal. In 2021, nine officers were disciplined for racist and sexist social media posts.

Here’s what led to the firing of Armstrong, who is from West Oakland and became chief two years ago this month: In 2021, an OPD sergeant driving a police vehicle hit a parked car in the garage of his San Francisco apartment building. The driver, Sgt. Michael Chung, who was instrumental in OPD’s response to crime in Chinatown, didn't report the accident. In 2022, Chung fired his gun in an elevator at police headquarters. Again, no report was filed. An investigation by a law firm found that an OPD captain had Chung’s violations reduced so his punishment was less severe. According to the investigators with Clarence Dyer & Cohen LLP, Armstrong was aware of the light discipline.

On Jan. 18, the federal judge monitoring OPD's reform efforts made the report by Clarence Dyer & Cohen public. The investigation “revealed systemic failures far larger and more serious than the actions of one police officer,” the blistering report (PDF) concluded. The next day Armstrong was placed on paid administrative leave.

That's when he should've copped a plea and said, “My bad, y’all.” Instead, he campaigned for his job at a rally on the steps of Oakland City Hall. The NAACP held another rally on Feb. 20. I called Terry Wiley, the former Alameda County prosecutor who is handling press around the firing for the NAACP. Wiley told me that Armstrong had made the kind of progress people of color want to see.

A profile shot of a group of roughly 10 people, most of them Black, listening while a woman in the middle claps her hands
Community members listen to speakers during a rally in support of terminated Oakland police Chief LeRonne Armstrong at City Hall on Feb. 16. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

“When you look at the balance of all of the positives he has brought to the department as the chief, the question becomes, was this incident such that he should be terminated?” said Wiley, who lost the November election for district attorney to progressive Pamela Price. “Our conclusion was that the mayor went too far on this, and that there should have been much more contemplation about the decision.”

In a statement released by Sam Singer, a crisis manager, shortly after Armstrong was terminated, Armstrong referred to himself as a “loyal and effective reformer.” But reform isn’t possible without zero tolerance for misconduct, and the failure to issue appropriate discipline is inexcusable, especially for someone who pledges loyalty to reform.

The police are incapable of policing the police. Just look around the Bay Area. In Vallejo, a city that blithely dodges police scrutiny, the city destroyed evidence in multiple police killings despite being under investigation by the state attorney general, according to reporting by Open Vallejo.

Officers in Antioch and Pittsburg are under investigation by the FBI and the Contra Costa district attorney for fraud and civil rights violations, and federal prosecutors have already dismissed more than a dozen cases that hinged on officer testimony, according to The Mercury News. And in Berkeley, the city’s former police union head allegedly sent racist, anti-unhoused text messages to officers while pushing for more arrests, as multiple newsrooms, including KQED, reported in November.

In January, the California Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board published a report that found that police searched Black people at twice the rate of white people in 2021 (PDF). And get this: Officers were more likely to find contraband on white people than Black and Latino people, according to the report, which also found that police were twice as likely to use force against Black people than white people.

In 2021, Black people were six times as likely to be stopped in Oakland than white people, according to the San Francisco Chronicle’s analysis of the police-stop data recently released by the state attorney general.

In San Francisco, Black people were at least five times as likely to be stopped than white people. This is a city where officers accused of, among other infractions, sexual misconduct, domestic violence and sharing racist and antisemitic texts work desk duty in a windowless room while raking in millions collectively, according to the San Francisco Standard’s three-part series on police accountability. This is the city where the law-and-order district attorney gutted the unit that investigates police misconduct and violence, according to reporting by the San Francisco Chronicle.

On a recent episode of Forum, Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, talked with host Mina Kim about “Why There Was No Racial Reckoning,” a piece he wrote for The Atlantic. George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis in May 2020 sparked nationwide uprisings not seen since 1967. Floyd’s death was supposed to also spark a reimagining of policing.

That, of course, hasn’t happened. Instead, the backlash against protests that demanded more funding for social services has empowered cities to continue criminalizing poverty. Posturing by police and politicians isn't going to provide relief for families who have been living in poverty for generations. The police are trained in coercion, which renders their skills insufficient to respond to the circumstances which allow criminal activity to flourish: disinvestment.

“What type of resources are we pouring into those communities if our aim is to cut down on crime?” Lowery said on Forum. “Is the resource we're sending in a bunch of armed guys told to rough people up?”

Reparations Coverage

In July, the task force will deliver reparations recommendations, which are expected to include direct payments to eligible Black Californians. But reparations are more than compensation. Last summer, the task force released a preliminary report (PDF) with recommendations to address, among other things, the unjust legal system.

The police are the gatekeepers of that system.

The preliminary report suggests reducing “the scope of law enforcement jurisdiction within the public safety system” and shifting “more funding for prevention and mental health care.” The report also calls for the elimination of “discriminatory policing and particularly killings, use of force and racial profiling” of Black people; the elimination of racial disparities in police stops; and the elimination of over-policing of predominantly Black communities.

The task force could pave the road to viable racial equity in America. But to get to that place, it’s guaranteed to be a bumpy journey. Make sure you buckle up for safety.

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