I live and breathe superheroes. Probably more-so than any regular 22-year-old Canadian kid should. I’ve read comic books since I was a kid, watched every single movie and TV show featuring a superhero, and dreamed about what it would be like to wear a colourful suit of armour and save innocents from incredible danger. I grew up idolizing heroes such as Wolverine, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Batman, and The Flash; men who would lay their lives on the line for anybody that needed it. Men who took an oath to protect innocents from certain danger, and ensure that their respective cities were safe. They act as an inspiration to us all to be better, and hold ourselves to a higher standard; they spit in the face of dictators, fascism, racism, and anything else that stands in the way of freedom. They’re flawed, but in the end, they always do what’s right, even if it meant overcoming difficult obstacles that most couldn’t. In a way, superheroes are what we should all strive to be.
Of course, superheroes aren’t real. The “Superman” isn’t real. When you’re in New York, you won’t see Spider-Man swinging through the streets catching black-hooded burglars. Batman isn’t lurking in the night waiting for some maniacal clown to hold a building hostage. In their place however, are what we call “real-life superheroes.” These are regular people who have taken on careers that better the world in some way. Doctors are real-life heroes. They go into work to treat and save lives. Especially during this pandemic, doctors, nurses, first responders, and front-line workers, have proven to be some of the finest real-life superheroes. Firefighters are another example; putting out fires and saving trapped citizens from said fries. There are many different examples for what constitutes a real-life hero, but the one we’re going to focus on today is probably the most famous and most talked-about example: police officers.
On September 20, 2019, The New York Times published a report titled “Americans Trust Police More Than Congress, Study Finds.” The Pew Research Center found that Americans trust police officers, military leaders and local public officials more than members of Congress, tech leaders and journalists. I mean, why wouldn’t they? We’re taught that cops are the first line of defense for the average person. They’re duty is to protect the people of their city. They took an oath to uphold the law, apprehend criminals, and serve justice in our streets. Doesn’t that sound like a real-life superhero?
Turn on any police procedural like Law and Order or CSI and the cops are ALWAYS portrayed as upstanding citizens who take down perps and look cool doing it. They’re meant to be the best of us, whether they’re working inside or outside of the system. Cops have been a focal point of TV and film for the better part of the last 60 years, to which we’re told that, in most circumstances, the cops are in the right, and the bad guy deserves to get caught. Few shows have flipped this notion on its head, Orange is the New Black, The Wire, and The Shield are examples that come to mind, and so, we’re left with stories that almost glorify what it means to be a police officer. To be frank, the cops that you see in NCIS, Criminal Minds, Blue Bloods, and more, are what police officers SHOULD be like. Unfortunately, once again, we’re left with the real world.
According to Al Jazeera, United States police officers have killed 7666 people between 2013-2019. Despite only making up 13 percent of the total U.S population, Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police compared to White Americans. With every passing year, the list of black men and women killed by police officers grow. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and most recently, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McDaniel and David McAtee, like so many others, were murdered by the people who swore to protect us. Frankly, it’s disgusting and heartbreaking. You can make any argument you want trying to defend the officers involved in the above individuals’ death, but the fact of the matter is that none of them had to die, and cops abused their power each time. Sure, you can say that they’re uncommon events, and that it’s not like something like this isn’t happening every day. That’s not the point; this shouldn’t be happening AT ALL.
The men and women who took and oath to protect and serve are failing us. They’re failing black men and women in the United States and across the world, and work for a system built on racism and brutality. Go on Twitter, scroll a bit, and it won’t take long to find videos of cops abusing their power with protestors. They’re acting as judge, jury, and executioner in some instances. Don’t believe me? Go read about Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was shot multiple times by plainclothes police officers, who had broken into her home with a “no-knock search-warrant.” The cops had thought that her house had drugs in it, so they broke in, leading to Taylor’s boyfriend to shoot his own gun at the intruders. Police returned fire, and Taylor ended up dead. I ask again, does that sound like a real-life hero to you?
The fact that these supposed “real-life heroes,” who we’ve been taught to trust and look up to, continue to abuse their power, and kill black men and women is nothing short of revolting. In 2014, Eric Garner yelled “I can’t breathe,” as NYPD officers pinned him to the ground until he was dead. Fast forward six years later, and George Floyd is killed in the same way. I ask: how does this keep happening? A system that prides itself on serving and protecting is doing everything but those two things. Philando Castile was a licensed gun-owner, much like many White-Americans. Despite him saying that he wasn’t reaching for his gun, a police officer shot him seven times after freaking out. You’d think that Castile’s shooter would be brought to justice, right? Well, he was acquitted on all charges. You’d think that Breonna Taylor’s shooters would be brought to justice, right? Those officers continue to walk free.
All across the USA, people have taken part in protests against anti-black racism and police brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement has taken centre stage, as they work to ensure that Floyd, Taylor, and so many others do not die in vain. They carry on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and more, as the fight for freedom, and against all forms of oppression. It’s crazy that, in 2020, these things still happen; that there are people out there who still believe in white supremacy and that there is no “systemic racism” in the States. While crazy, it isn’t surprising, given the country’s current leader is a racist, uninformed joke who literally called the country’s own military to assist police in handling protestors. Every day, new videos are shown online where police are roughing up protestors, inciting violence, and outright attacking the people they swore to protect. The widespread perception that these men and women are heroic public figures has died, or frankly, never existed in the first place.
You think that these protests and riots are the result of one specific moment? This dates back decades and decades; black people have always been at the centre of oppression and racism in the United States, and now, a revolution has begun. In terms of the last decade alone, George Floyd’s death seems like the tip of the iceberg. Time and time again, it’s the same story: an unarmed black man or woman, murdered by cops. Peaceful protests, like the ones from Colin Kaepernick, Beyonce, and so many others were called out by conservative voices, Donald Trump included.
Now, those same voices question why riots are occurring and not peaceful protests. First, peaceful protests ARE happening, and you can see them all over the world. Second, as MLK said “a riot is the language of the unheard,” and you can’t argue that black people have been heard. If they had, the officers involved in the Rodney King beating would have seen justice. Michael Brown’s killer would have seen justice. Sandra Bland’s killers would have seen justice. But they didn’t. The shocking amount of police brutality that has occurred throughout these anti-police brutality protests is repulsive. So, what then? Well, as BLM said, “no justice, no peace.”
And no, I’m not here to make blanket statements that all cops are bad and every single one is a villain in this story. I don’t deal in absolutes. Then again, I most certainly don’t consider them heroes either. In the end, you could argue that not all cops are bad, but it’s not like a cop tried to push Derek Chauvin off of George Floyd’s neck. You don’t see cops pulling other cops off of protestors that they’re clearly hurting. When a cop is silent during these instances, they’re complicit. The cops who stood by while Eric Garner was killed, should be considered complicit in his killing.
I made mention of doctors above, because we put our lives in their hands. Do we put up with “a few bad apples” when it comes to doctors? No, because it’s lunacy. Why should black people, and the rest of the world, have to do that with police officers? The modern-day police officer works in a system that oppresses black people, kills without cause, and inflicts dread into the hearts of citizens. That isn’t heroism, it’s fear. Cops are unfairly protected by the justice system, especially when it comes to these killings, whereas the families of those murdered don’t even see justice for the departed. The protests you see are not an overreaction; it’s a build-up of years of racist actions carried about police officers, and so many others.
I know I’ve spoken a lot about the United States in this piece, but I’d be remiss if I did not speak about police officer activity in Canada as well (I am Canadian after all). It may not seem like it, but Canada is rooted in systemic racism as well, it’s just not as televised. Unlike our controversial neighbour down-south, Canadian police departments do not reveal stats regarding use-of-force incidents. Third-party organizations however do compile stats related to Canadian officers, and unsurprisingly, most studies suggest that Black and Indigenous citizens are more likely to face brutality than white Canadians. In a study conducted by the CBC, they discovered that, between 2000 and 2017, two distinct groups are overwhelmingly over-represented when discussing cops using deadly force: Black and Indigenous people.
According to a study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), it found that Black residents in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. While Black citizens only make up 8.8% of Toronto’s population, the study noted that they account for 61% of cases involving excessive force that led to the death of the accused.
Make no mistake, police brutality is very real in Canada, and it must be taken more seriously. The conversation about this topic is uncomfortable, as it should be, but it is one we must have. Canadians pride themselves as being an inclusive nation that celebrates people from all walks of life. The reality is that we still have a lot of work to do. We, along with our American friends, have to confront the fact that our justice systems are rooted in oppression and racism and need to be overhauled. Our police system needs an overhaul. The application process should be more rigorous, and better teachings regarding use of force need to be put in place.
When I go outside, I don’t fear a cop during a routine traffic stop. I make small talk, and go about my business. As a white person, I do not fear walking on the streets of Toronto where cops are stationed. That’s white privilege, and it’s something I, and so many others, must confront and dismantle. At this time, as many others have said, it is not enough to be “not-racist.” We have to be “anti-racist.”
We need to have uncomfortable talks, we have to listen instead of trying to play devil’s advocate, and most of all, we have to finally accept that police officers are not here to protect and serve like they promised. I don’t have all the answers when it comes to how we should fix the police system. It would seem like common sense to say “hey cops, maybe don’t kill black people,” and yet, here we are. It’s time for us to educate, protest, and make black voices heard. We have the power and privilege to amplify these voices, missions, protests, and visions.
Police officers are failing the us, and they have been for decades. There cannot be change until those in power face the reality that the system is broken. Cops should be real-life heroes, and yet, year after year, they have become the villains of the story. Whether it be excessive use of force, acting as if they are a barking dog, or flat-out killing someone, cops continue to fail the people they promised to protect. It’s time for change, it’s time for action, and it’s time for white people to use the privilege we’ve had for years to protect black people, the indigenous community, and anyone else impacted by these injustices. No more killings, no more news stories about assaults. It’s time for police officers to act like their TV counterparts. If they won’t, dismantle the system, defund the police, and implement a justice system that equally protects all. Everyone should be able to walk outside and not be worried about if a cop will kill them. Black men and women shouldn’t have to die for common sense to prevail and racism to die out.
“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom. If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.” – Malcolm X
Ways you can help: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/