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Opinion | Dual pandemics: police brutality and coronavirus racial disparities

For 400 years, racist violence has been a cornerstone in upholding white supremacy.  After the civil unrest of the 1960s, U.S. President Lyndon B Johnson commissioned a study of the sources of the rebellions in Detroit and cities around the country.  The resulting Kerner Commission Report called for massive investments in cities improving schools, jobs and health, as well as addressing police brutality.  

Rather than investing to dismantle structural racism, our country has turned its backs on on majority-Black cities like Detroit, Highland Park and Benton Harbor and implemented 50 years of disinvestment through destructive policies of fiscal austerity.  We have cut jobs, closed schools, slashed pensions, shut off water and foreclosed on homes. We have mounted a war on crime, a war on drugs and have built a fortress of mass incarceration.  

Now, the coronavirus is ravaging African-American communities at the same time protests against police brutality fill the streets.  The enemy is the same, racism — express and structural.  We need to acknowledge these interconnections as we fight for a better future.  We are in a fight for our lives. And we all have roles to play.

The murder of George Floyd triggered righteous anger that has flowed into mass protests in streets across the nation.  The tragic racial disparities in deaths from the coronavirus crisis has triggered overwhelming grief and mourning, but not protests in the streets.  

There are clear differences.  The murder of Mr. Floyd is the latest in this nation’s long history of visible, external assaults on the collective Black body.  The coronavirus crisis is an internal assault on the collective Black soul.  The murder is a direct expression of explicit racism.  The health disparities of the pandemic are a no less direct, but a more hidden expression of structural racism.  These crises are interconnected and need to be viewed together.  After all, while Black communities have been disproportionately impacted by the ravages of the Coronavirus, they have also been disproportionately targeted by police for social distancing citations—the new stop and frisk.

Historically, protest movements and mass uprisings are triggered by police violence during periods of heightened political consciousness.  The coronavirus tragedy is not the kind of event that typically triggers protests, but it helped create the heightened political consciousness about structural racism and white supremacy that has helped fuel them.  

Looking to the future, we must more consciously connect the fight against police brutality with the fight against structural racism and its impact on health disparities.  

Police violence must end. So must the hyper-policing of Black and Brown communities.  History shows us that police are the enforcement arm of white supremacy.  They have served this function since their origins in slave patrols and have often counted white supremacists among their ranks.      

But ending the pandemic of police brutality alone is not enough.  We need to ask: What will really make us safe?  Safety is linked to health, dignity and community.  Safety will come from better jobs, equitable access to education and health care, decent housing and combatting environmental racism.  This is the fight against structural racism that Detroiters have been waging for generations.  Factors fostering racial equity also address the social and economic determinants of heath that lie at the heart of the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating impacts on communities of color.   

These times call for transformative change.  Business as usual is what got us here.  Business as usual serves to perpetuate systems of racial hierarchy and white supremacy, not dismantle them.  We are all experiencing the tragic sense that we have seen this all before: Rodney King, Malice Green, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and now, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.  Our past protests have not achieved systemic change.  Despite generations of collective anti-racist struggle, white supremacy remains alive and well in the United States.    

This is the time for intentional, sustained, long-term efforts to end police violence, demilitarize police practices, and ensure meaningful civilian oversight.  This is the time for envisioning what safety truly means and realizing a world without state sanctioned body terrorism, police and prisons.  This is the time for intentional, sustained, long-term efforts to advance racial equity and dismantle structural racism.  This is the time to see that in fighting for one, we are advancing the agenda for the other.  Express racism is real.  Structural racism is real.  Both are deadly. 

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