Could black cops ‘taking a knee’ revive a push to organize?

Two African-American Chicago police officers take a knee

Photo courtesy of Aleta Clark

Englewood community activist Aleta Clark posted a photo to her Instagram account of her and two African-American Chicago police officers in uniform “taking a knee” in the manner of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose kneeling during the national anthem before football games to protest police brutality has ignited controversy.

The image on the cover of Tuesday’s Sun-Times was powerful: two black police officers, joining an Englewood activist, “taking a knee” and raising their fists in a stance first taken by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest police killings of unarmed black people.

It was also revealing, providing what may be the first prominent indication of sentiment among black officers in Chicago that’s sympathetic to community concerns over abusive policing.

The two officers face a reprimand for violating departmental policy against engaging in political activity while on duty. But their action, according to one black former officer, may well revive a discussion on the need for a unified voice among African American officers on policing reform in communities of color.

Until now, the only police voice in the discussion has been the leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police, which staunchly opposes any measure to increase accountability.

“It could be an awakening,” said Edward “Buzz” Palmer, who founded the Afro-American Patrolman’s League in 1968, some 50 years ago.  Since then, he said, “there’s been 40 years of diminution of [the] consciousness of struggle.” The league was disbanded in 2012. The late Pat Hill, the League’s final executive director, said in 2015 that black officers were afraid to speak out about departmental problems at the time and  decided it was no longer needed.

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Now, Palmer said, “I believe black football players have ignited something.” He recalled the significance of John Carlos and Tommy Smith, who raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the U.S. national anthem at the 1968 Olympics. The two were expelled from the games.

Palmer, however, thinks it may have been President Donald Trump’s attack on protesting athletes that pushed many to move from sympathy to solidarity and action.

“As [legendary journalist] Lu Palmer used to say, it’s enough to turn a Negro black,” Palmer said.

When the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League was founded, “black policemen were regarded as Uncle Toms,” he said. “Fred Hampton coined the term ‘dashiki pigs.’” (Many grassroots activists take a similar view today.) “But some of us wanted to take on the role of protector of the black community as opposed to being the oppressor, or as I called it, ‘brutal pawns.’” A couple of years later, the League played a key role in exposing the cover-up of Hampton’s assassination. In the 1970s, the League sued the department in federal court for discrimination in hiring, assignments and promotions, winning a ruling to force more promotions of people of color and women.

The organization wasn’t afraid to directly challenge racist policies. During the uprising following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered police to “shoot to kill arsonists,” and the League announced it would not obey that order.  “He was protecting private property; I was protecting lives,” Palmer said.

Palmer thinks police officers should be “from the community they serve.”

“Black police officers can’t help but see that most of the police in our communities are white, and [black officers] are a minority even in their own community,” he said.  “And white officers, even well-intentioned white officers, are seen as an occupation force.”

His concerns are supported by a recent study of the impact of procedural justice training on Chicago police officers, conducted by Northwestern University political scientist Wesley Skogan.  Skogan found the training succeeded in improving attitudes about the importance of treating residents with respect, a common issue among citizens of color. Race was “the most important factor” that determined the level of support for those principles, Skogan found: Before and after the training, black officers were more supportive of procedural justice principles than were white officers.

When Trump attacked black football players for their protests, the Chicago Bears and some other teams responded by standing with arms linked during the national anthem.  That may have watered down the message, but it did show support for the right to peacefully voice dissent.

CPD’s rank and file hasn’t shown the same respect, with white officers on Second City Cop “blasting the kneeling cops,” as Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell reports.  Perhaps rather than circling the wagons, they should listen and learn.

(Since then, a white police officer also faces a reprimand for appearing in uniform in a photo with a flag and a sign apparently meant to show support for Trump.)

Asked why the views of black officers who share community concerns aren’t represented by their union, Palmer offers a straightforward response: “That’s because black officers are not organized.”

Perhaps it’s time to revive the League.