Policing: the Pandemic that Endures

Part 2 of a two-part series by the COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity as we reflect on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic.

On June 3, 2020, the UCLA/CDU COVID-19 Task Force on Racism and Equity released the following statement committing to continuous work on structural racism, which must be dismantled to achieve public health equity. Our statement addressed policing, a form of state-sanctioned violence. Policing is a racial process that marks communities as disposable and institutionalizes unfreedom. Policing relies on technology, laws and institutions to tag Black and Brown bodies as dangerous, deviant, and requiring surveillance and intervention.

As always, our commitment to drawing attention to these patterns and underlying roots stems from our public health commitment to dignity and safety. And, this commitment requires us to study policing in all of its material and conceptual forms as a system, a technology, and an act in service of maintaining inequality and managing dissent. Countless organizers, prisoners, scholars, students, youth, abolitionists, and families have documented these histories and their embodied realities.

Today, on the anniversary of the Task Force, we publish the statement here to continue our critical examination into what gains have been won through the “antiracist” awakening that happened immediately after the killing of George Floyd. Material conditions of the people have not changed. Vital conditions that determine wellbeing and are preconditions for dignity and self-determination have not been substantively won.

Foundational to amassing the United States’ power, policing has manifested through white supremacy and is structuring racism daily. This brings us to one of our most critical questions of the moment: what type of reforms are we expecting to come out of this system whose intended function is to police, surveil, discipline, and punish us? As demanded below, we reiterate our need to collectively self-monitor, track, organize, and act against the pandemic that will endure long after COVID-19 fades.

Policing and the Pandemic

Press Conference Statement[1]
This was originally published June 3, 2020 at https://www.racialhealthequity.org/blog/policingandpandemic.

“White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression.” — bell hooks

bell hooks, a Black scholar/feminist/activist stated these words two decades ago. In 2020, with our Black families targeted specifically, and people of color more broadly, we continue to live, relive, and over-live these words.

We, public health scholars, teachers, and practitioners, come together today after a weekend of nationwide mobilizing, protest and uprising against state-sanctioned violence and the system’s racial disregard of life.

As public health professionals, focusing on issues of equity, we are facing two interrelated crises right now: policing and the pandemic. In mid-March, when the task force initially convened, we recognized that the national deployment of military was always a possibility as was the chance for the state, and its benefactors, to use the pandemic as an opportunity to expand its power. Specifically, we became concerned with the rhetoric and implementation of contact tracing, as there was always a justified fear that this public health tool could be weaponized against already structurally vulnerable and targeted communities. Guided by our field’s obligation to prevent harm and promote health, we were both concerned with protecting people from getting the virus and from the collateral consequences we expected communities of color and other socially disadvantaged communities would disproportionately face.

To counteract this, we as a health community, worked hard to have our presence be more relevant and influential than that of law enforcement. With the most recent brutal murder of George Floyd (added to the other more recent murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery), we wonder if this was ever possible given how the state’s sanctioned violence against Black people is the foundation we attempt to build our public health system on. Racialized risk of dying, constant police surveillance, and economic devastation were matches in a tinderbox. Today, we not only see increases in COVID-related death among communities of color, but also helicopters, tanks, riot gear, tear gas, rubber bullets, and real bullets. In this context, we hear law enforcement throughout the country implying that such a thing as public health policing exists, justifying the expansion of their local budgets, and referencing contact tracing, a public health tool that they believe can be used to fight crime, or more accurately, to fight dissent.

While the appropriation of this tool is happening before our eyes, if you are Black, Brown, Native living in this country, your likelihood of death, hospitalization, or infection in general, and because of SARS-Cov-2 more specifically, is greater than others due to structural racism. People detained in jails, prisons, and detention camps, unhoused, living in nursing homes and on reservations, and working in factories and farms have been the ones most impacted as their health is structured by their overexposure to hazards, stress, and racism and their underexposure to clean water, rest, care, and dignity. A biomedical fix will not address this problem, as it is not obesity, diabetes, and hypertension that are to blame for this disparity. It is not even the virus.

Rather, it is white supremacy, a racial system of dominance, expansionism, and law and order. It is the most significant public health problem throughout the history of this country. In fact, it legitimized and facilitated the founding of the U.S. Today, in this current crisis, our focus is on the system of policing and the continued role it plays in structuring disparities from the neighborhood to the individual level and from the individual through the neighborhood. In 2018, the American Public Health Association, in a statement titled, “Addressing Law Enforcement Violence as a Public Health Issue,” reviewed established evidence connecting policing to increased death, disability from injury, and psychological harm such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and stress. Bringing together the published literature, it demonstrated that policing in the United States is the institutionalization of death and disability for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. Policing in this country is a system whose genealogical roots connect to slave patrols on the plantation and US expansion into domestic and global lands. It functions in service of racial capitalism and maintains the “frontier” once it has been conquered. Since its inception, policing has served to confine communities and police the freedoms of one group to expand the freedoms and protect the property, interests, and life of the white supremacist state.

More specifically, policing is deeply embedded within white supremacy’s larger carcerality as a carceral system that institutionalizes and normalizes violence and the theft and exploitation of humans and land. It operates on the level of the civilization and it has always needed structural violence to maintain control. As an ideology and practice, it believes state-sanctioned violence (incarceration, detention, securitization, and war) in all its forms are needed for it to thrive. It is made up of structures (prisons, jails, juvenile halls, and detention centers), people (police, guards, and soldiers), and technologies (fees, drones, electronic monitoring devices, and databases). Modern policing is rooted in this structure and connected to other forms of structural violence. Seeing the national guard outside of police stations in downtown Los Angeles, the thin line between policing and militarism is revealed. Is the military here to restore law and order? Are they here to support an extension of themselves, the police?

Domestic policing and global militarism have converged in our streets indicating that they may never have been separate. Policing and the pandemic teach us that structural violence is what has allowed for structural racism to continue. As such, neither the current context nor historical evidence support the expansion of any policing/law enforcement/military budget, anywhere. For any country or city to be prepared for any disaster, it needs to invest in building up community strength and power between and during emergencies. It is quite brutal to increase an epidemiological driver of harm at the expense of all other essential services needed for healthy social functioning. And, no matter how many ways they attempt to re-brand themselves, police officers are not social workers, mental health providers, or community health workers. Policing, just like racism, is structural, much more nuanced and penetrating than the interpersonal, and not knowing the American histories of anti-black racism and policing in this country has resulted in a fractured solidarity that has us focused on micro-level interactions at the cost of systems change. The failure to let go of policing in this country — as a source of protection for anyone — is a failure to understand how policing is upheld by racial logics of safety and threat that structure permanent vulnerability for Black people and all racialized groups. The national guard in the streets for “order” is made possible because we fail to see how injustices to some leave none of us safe and how policing is counter to our public health mission.

In the latest budget proposed by the Los Angeles Mayor, over half of the entire budget (54%) is allocated to law enforcement, this includes an increase in 7% to cover bonuses, salary increases, and educational incentives. An increase in funds to law enforcement during a pandemic makes priorities even more clear. As Pete White of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) said in a recent press conference demanding a revision to the Los Angeles Mayor’s budget, “Our community workers don’t have guns.” They have guns, because this isn’t about life; this is about power, its acquisition and maintenance. These budgets structure the very racism which then pre-exposes communities to increase hardship, hazards, and risk as opposed to structuring access to care, support, and vital resources, and they structure the violence that is needed to maintain this inequality.

Los Angeles provides a concrete example of how policing is used to manage the unrest and fallout that comes from decades of social and economic disinvestment — the racialized neoliberal structured abandonment. It has been previous budgets that have contributed to disproportionate susceptibility to infection, hospitalization, disability, death, and financial collapse and poverty for communities of color, the working poor, and unhoused during this pandemic. Policing and the pandemic teach us that all budgets across all institutions that disinvest from police and instead invest in housing, transportation, education, and employment are what are needed. Providing health resources during a pandemic are what are needed, not closing them. Removing guns from the streets are what is needed, not adding them.

Reflecting on the situation across the country right now as it unfolds, we turn to Dr. Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist whose expertise includes structural violence and racial struggles for liberation, for a final lesson on policing and the pandemic. In “Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry, and Politics,” Nigel Gibson quotes an article written by Frantz Fanon and Slimane Asselah, which states, “It is precisely when the agitated are not rejected, excluded, isolated, or confined that we can endeavor to understand them”. Until American society can commit to full racial justice and the abolishment of structural violence, people will continue to protest, disrupt, and demand. Towards this end, the charges we give to ourselves and the health professional community below are necessary first steps to stop and reverse the injustices that sit at the intersection of racism and violence. They require us as a health professional community to strategize, organize, and mobilize in sync with community visions of self-determination.

We charge ourselves and our colleagues to do four things:

1. Self-Monitor how we research in the community. A true commitment to health equity and anti-racism work employs tools and skills to undo the legacies of racial capitalism, setter-colonialism, and imperial efforts. When we fail to consider the ways in which our work can be co-opted, we too are complicit in state uses of violence to counteract the petitions socially marginalized communities make for a better world.

2. Track the nation’s alignment with global principles. Specifically, we must not continue to violate the abilities of diverse communities to self-determine. We will be monitoring these three things in particular:

  • How the nation is responding to people’s resistance to legacy and ongoing structural racism and structural violence through policing;
  • How the nation is taking advantage of the pandemic to expand its law enforcement powers and the surveillance state.

3. Organize to hold governing bodies accountable. Institutions such as the American Public Health Association (APHA) must be held accountable to formally stand against the growing dependence on carceral (incarceration, detention, law enforcement and/or military) solutions to public health and social problems. We also urge such bodies to advocate and support other, specifically community health-centered tools, instead.

4. Act in alignment with actions that develop and strengthen community power for the purposes of self-determination. We believe this is an essential component to facilitating racial justice. For Los Angeles County, please see the resources below on visions and plans in alignment with this charge:

  • Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) has been organizing in downtown Los Angeles in Skid Row, the epicenter of policing. Unhoused persons are disproportionately Black, have the lowest life-expectancies in Los Angeles County, and are the most likely to be arrested. Go here to connect with their many programs that build community power: https://cangress.org/
  • Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) and the STOP Police Violence Coalition, a network of families who have lost loved ones from police violence, have been working on important legislations to address policing. In 2018, they organized to pass SB 1421 which advocated for public release of records and, in 2019, AB 392 which advocated against the use of force. For 2021, they are mobilizing to introduce legislation for police decertification. Please go here to learn more about their actions and to connect: linktr.ee/youthjusticela
  • Stop LAPD Spying has been following and analyzing the ways that the National Security Police State uses opportunities such as the pandemic to expand its power at the cost of community power. Their series, “Power Not Paranoia,” discusses surveillance, gender, sexuality, racism, public health, and the pandemic. https://stoplapdspying.org/action/webinars/
  • Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup has given us a blue-print out of criminalization and into a legitimate community health system. These alternatives are the roadmap. They have racial equity benchmarks to make sure that the most marginalized groups get to benefit form this new vision. Go here to read the full report: https://lacalternatives.org/

In support,

COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity

Collins O. Airhihenbuwa
Professor, Heath Policy and Behavioral Sciences
Global Research Against Noncommunicable Diseases (GRAND)
School of Public Health
Georgia State University

Randall Akee
Associate Professor, Public Policy and American Indian Studies
Luskin School of Public Affairs
University of California, Los Angeles

Bita Amani
Associate Professor, Department of Urban Public Health
Charles R. Drew University School of Medicine and Science
Faculty Affiliate, Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health at UCLA
Co-Chair, COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity*

Sharrelle Barber
Assistant Research Professor, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics
Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health
Founding Director and Coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign Health Justice Advisory Committee

Chandra L. Ford
Associate Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences
Founding Director, Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health
Fielding School of Public Health
University of California at Los Angeles
Co-Chair, COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity*

Gilbert Gee
Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences
Fielding School of Public Health
University of California, Los Angeles

Keon Gilbert
Associate Professor
College for Public Health and Social Justice
Saint Louis University
Co-Director of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity

Derek Griffith
Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Health and Society
Vanderbilt University
Founder and Director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health

Camara Phyllis Jones
2019–2020 Evelyn Green Davis Fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Past President, American Public Health Association
Adjunct Professor, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University
Senior Fellow and Adjunct Associate Professor, Morehouse School of Medicine

Nancy Krieger
Professor, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Monica R. McLemore
Associate Professor
School of Nursing
University of California, San Francisco

Michelle Morse
Assistant Professor
Harvard Medical School and Co-Founder, EqualHealth

Linda Rae Murray
Steering Committee Member
Collaborative for Health Equity — Cook County
Past President, American Public Health Association

Jaime C. Slaughter-Acey
Assistant Professor, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health
University of Minnesota School of Public Health
Founder, Black Epi Matters

Angie Denisse Otiniano Verissimo
Associate Professor, Department of Health Science
Co-Chair, CSUSB Women of Color in Academia
California State University, San Bernardino

*Signed on behalf of the COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity, a partnership between the Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health and Charles R. Drew School of Medicine and Science.

[1]This is the official version of the shorter statement read during a press conference held on Monday, June 1, 2020.