Divided We Fall: When Police and Communities Collide

By Jasmine Chia, Harvard Class of 2018

Tamir Rice. Rekia Boyd. Tyisha Miller. Walter Scott. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Laquan McDonald.

As the list gets longer, the scars get deeper. People call it 'police brutality.' The paradox of a state apparatus endangering the citizens it is meant to protect.

At Harvard's JFK Jr. Forum, "Divided We Fall: When Police and Communities Collide," Kennedy School students opened with the line: "We can waste our lives drawing lines, or we can live our lives crossing them." It was a powerful statement of political idealism, but one in stark contrast with reality. The reality of policing in America is this: the lines have been painted in blood by history and have been made into walls by institutions.

One thing that all the panelists at the Forum - #BlackLivesMatter leader Brittany Packnett, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, former Superintendent at the Chicago Police Department Garry McCarthy and Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman - agreed on was this: the police are a small part of a much bigger failed system.

As I began my interview with McCarthy, I told him I'd arrived in America in 2014. He said, "You probably came the wrong year." In 2014, Laquan McDonald was shot sixteen times by police officer Jason Van Dyke. Video of the incident was not released until 14 months later, after much public protest, when a judged forced its release. Protests flared and, a week later, McCarthy was fired.

But that was a particular moment. This story is 300 years older. When asked how the police could regain the trust of people of color, McCarthy said, "I don't think we ever had trust. Because slavery was written into the constitution of the United States of America, and then over the years those racist policies that were laws such as Jim Crow, segregation, black codes, you name it, through the years were enforced by the white police officer." When Candy Crowley questioned how legitimacy is possible, Annise Parker interrupted, "Safety comes first." But when the choice between safety and legitimacy becomes either/or, and when safety means different things to people of different races, it is not just police who have failed America. It is the entire criminal justice system.

Therefore, police cannot remain the sole target of public anger. In Packnett's words, "the point is not to break off one branch, the point is to uproot the entire tree." We can, and should, focus our attention on instruments of oppression. But when we do, reform-minded officers like McCarthy take the fall as individuals. Since McCarthy left office, the murder rate in Chicago increased by 120%.

Politicians like Rahm Emanuel, Chicago City Mayor, need to be held accountable. We cannot just demand greater change from those who execute the laws - greater change needs to come from those who legislate them. In the words of Packnett, "Systems aren't broken. They are functioning in the way they are intended to." It is not just a matter of crossing those lines. It's a matter of bringing down that blood-soaked wall.

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Jasmine Chia is a Thai-Singaporean sophomore studying Government and Economics at Harvard University, trying to understand what democratic politics looks like.