by David Magnus, Ph.D.
The past three months have witnessed this country (and the world) go through the most serious pandemic since 1918; the greatest economic collapse since the great depression; and the murder of George Floyd has set off a protest movement across the country that has arguably not been seen since 1968.
All three of these events have something in common. They all expose a hard truth in a fashion too compelling to deny: the underlying racism of our country. Health disparities between white and black Americans, and a similar health-wealth gradient, have been part of public health discussions for many years, but the impact of COVID-19 has made it impossible for society to ignore. Black people are nearly 2.5 as likely to die of COVID-19 as whites. Similar death rate differences exist between poor and affluent populations. Death rate maps correspond to income maps for COVID-19 as they do for nearly every other disease. The economic collapse has also not been felt equally across society. Black unemployment is higher and people of color disproportionately make up underpaid, front line jobs that create higher risk of COVID-19 exposure. In 2016, the net worth of the average black household was $17,150 while the average white household had a net worth of $171,000.
The experience of violence by black Americans at the hands of police has been present for many years. When I was a graduate student in the 1980’s, I did volunteer work for a group in San Jose called the “Attorney’s Committee on Police Practices” (ACOPP) that tried to represent individuals who had suffered abuse at the hands of police. Nearly all of the ACOPP’s clients were people of color. It was virtually impossible to prove anything and the cases almost always failed. One big difference exists between that time and ours: the ubiquitous technologies such as cell phones that make it possible to record the abuse and violence by police. Things should be better.
But six years ago, this country heard as Eric Garner was killed from a chokehold, begging for his life, telling the officer choking him “I can’t breathe.” Six years later, the country again heard a black man being brutally killed while saying “I can’t breathe” to an apparently indifferent group of police officers. In the case of Eric Garner, despite the medical examiner ruling that the death was a homicide, no charges were filed against Daniel Pantaleo and it took 5 years for him to be dismissed. Police killing of black people without provocation or cause has apparently been legal in this country. The brutality has continued as the names changed. Will the outcome be different this time?
Now is a time for pain, sorrow, rage, and despair. What can we do in the face of such large problems, of a country that has essentially legalized the murder of black people and created the greatest inequality in wealth in the world? How can we begin to repair the tattered social safety net that any country with the resources and a shred of decency would provide to all who live there? I don’t know how to solve all of these problems, but we must begin to take action. There are steps to be taken that can make it less likely that police will inflict violence.
Campaign Zero (https://www.joincampaignzero.org) offers a whole set of policy recommendations that are evidence based and can improve police conduct and relationships between police and the communities that they are supposed to protect. More immediately, Campaign Zero has launched the #8cantwait project. These are 8 concrete, evidence-based policies that police forces can adopt that have been shown to reduce police violence (https://8cantwait.org). Many of these policies are best practices that are in use around the country. The project keeps score of many cities and how they do on these measures. For example, here in the Bay Area, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, and San Mateo police have only enacted two of the eight policies; Oakland and San Jose have adopted 5; San Francisco has adopted all eight. Adoption of these policies will not be a panacea or make the problems vanish. But evidence suggests that a significant reduction in violence can be achieved. We must hold police accountable and that can only be done through strict policies and ways of measuring if they are living up to them. Please write or email your local city council or county board of supervisors and urge them to require that the local police must adopt all 8 of these policies. After that, we can move on to the rest of the Campaign Zero policy recommendations. If enough people send messages and lobby, action should follow. If it doesn’t, then vote against anyone who isn’t actively supporting these policies. This is a concrete action that you can take. It is a small step in a long journey, but we need to find ways to make things better.