Oppression, Structural Violence, and Policing
How can we get the cops to stop killing people?
How can we get the cops to stop killing Black people?
How can we get the cops to stop killing Black women?
How can we get the cops to stop killing Black Trans Women?
Who are these killers?
He is an officer of the law, sent to protect. He protects them from us.
He has been an officer since 2001. He has a medal of valor. He has commendations. He is a training officer.
He is a professional.
He has 18 complaints on his official record.
18 instances, he violently did what he thought he was supposed to do. Only reprimanded twice.
In the 19th instance, the man died, and we all saw it.
He’s Dereck Chauvin, the convicted murderer of George Floyd.
Chauvin’s position of power as a white man, white officer, and an upholder of the violent system of policing enabled him to physically violate allegedly 18 people and still be on the force to violate and kill George Floyd. Black policemen killed tyre Nichols, showing the system that produced Chauvin also made those five officers in Atlanta in the same image. Purveyors of oppression and violence, it doesn’t matter the skin tone.
Today, I’d like to meditate on Iris Young’s 1990 chapter in the Justice and the Politics of Difference, “Five Faces of Oppression, and how this text ties into the structural issues of policing in Minnesota.
As an activist, community member, former president of the Minneapolis NAACP, and Black woman in America, I’ve had the displeasure of seeing Young’s five faces of oppression in action. My own complaint on the process of police reform in Minnesota is that for the last two years, no meaningful policy has yet addressed or even acknowledged that policing in the state is inherently oppressive and violent towards people of color, women, and those in the LGBTQ communities.
Young says it best, stating, “We cannot eliminate this structural oppression by getting rid of the rulers or making some new laws because oppressions are systematically reproduced in major economic, political, and cultural institutions,” in this, Young shows how change will not be made with policy that addresses only the ripple effects of systemic racism. Change won’t happen by electing a new mayor or governor. It can only happen with fundamental, systemic transformation.
Young’s five faces of oppression are the quotidian manifestations of systemic oppression. Although three are social concepts, these are the reality-shaping factors that impact regular peoples’ everyday lives. Exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence shape a Minnesotan reality where police violence against people of color and vulnerable communities is normalized, expected, and erased.
Police serve as the violent arm and function that maintains segregation. Growing up in a predominately white neighborhood, it was precarious how the black babysitters, housekeepers, friends, and relatives were frequently stopped by police while they entered the suburb. I’ll never forget an officer questioning me about where I ‘truly’ lived, even though he was presented with my driver’s license that showed I lived just down the street in that suburb. I won’t forget that feeling of marginalization and powerlessness. The police officer was there to remind other BIPOC passers-by and me that this was a white space, and his duty was to maintain that. I had to prove my belonging.
Police are often used to perpetuate class domination. Officers are called on protesters and strikers and are empowered to hyper-surveil poor communities, particularly poor communities of color, using outdated Broken Glass theories and modern-day statistical iterations to justify over-policing. Officers are brought in to protect Downtown Minneapolis and property over people, as seen with Operation Safety Net.
Young states, “The powerless are those who lack authority or power even in this mediated sense, those over whom power is exercised without their exercising it; the powerless are situated so that they must take orders and rarely have the right to give them.” Today, communities have very little power over Police standards and training and face consequences when they stand up. The recent killing outside of Atlanta of activist Tortuguita highlights how activists and community members have been disregarded in the building of the police training center dubbed ‘Cop City.’ However, Georgia residents showed out in numbers to testify for two days against the development. In Minneapolis, two years after starting the largest social movement of the century, still, community members are fighting tooth and nail for community policing and power over the police. These are examples of community powerlessness, although taxpayers and the community are whom the officers are supposedly mandated to ‘protect.’
The idea of safety and protection is rooted in a culture and an ideology that sees those who are ‘other’ as a threat. And us threats, have little say in how a government entity can or should function. Instead, those who stand up are surveilled, harassed, arrested and even killed. For this reason, safety is an illusion for a marginalized person. Safety is only for White folks in White neighborhoods with White officers who violently maintain that idea of safety. It is a manifestation of Cultural Imperialism Young discusses as “To experience cultural imperialism means to experience how the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the Other” (60). Dominant perceptions of safety prioritize locking up and throwing away Black people over public and community health. Perspectives of poor Black folk in heavily policed areas are rarely considered once the ‘crime rate’ is brought up. We are left with policymakers, non-profits, and public administrators often dictating the issues of our community back to us, over helping us address the very real soul wounds and historical traumas that still live in these communities. Policing us over hearing us.
These are the examples that, for me, show that policing in Minnesota and the US is a fundamentally oppressive system, not just a racist system or anti-disability rights system. But a system that utilizes all the faces of oppression to perpetuate the institution’s existence and a hegemonic social structure built upon that oppression.