The tragic killings by police of Amir Locke, George Floyd and Jamar Clark serve as the emotional core of the documentary “Sound of the Police,” now airing on Hulu. It tries to answer the question of why, when it comes to the Black community, the police so often fail to serve and protect.
Renowned documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, along with director Valerie Scoon, bring together TV writer David Simon (“The Wire”); Dean of Columbia Journalism School Jelani Cobb; historian Sally Anne Scott; activist Rev. Al Sharpton; former police officers; Twin Cities’ civil rights advocates like Nekima Levy Armstrong; family members; and many others to try to answer this question.
Through interviews with insightful commentators and riveting archival photos and video, “Sound of the Police” analyzes the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement through the prisms of history, the media, and social norms to illustrate the systemic nature of law enforcement’s apparent disproportionate hostility toward African Americans.
“Sound of the Police” starts at the very beginning: slave patrols of the South. The only real law enforcement of that era, their main focus was capturing escaped enslaved people and suppressing slave revolts.
It also illustrates that although slavery did not exist in the North at that time, Blacks were still “othered” as second-class citizens. Modern law enforcement across the nation reflects this.
In response to the passage of laws after the Civil War to protect the constitutional rights of African Americans, police unions were allowed to grow increasingly more powerful. Their contracts virtually guaranteed that they wouldn’t be held accountable for misconduct against Blacks.
During the Jim Crow era, police were either participants or looked the other way as Blacks were lynched. Sadly, footage of contemporary interactions with the likes of Rodney King, George Floyd, and others indicates those attitudes have not changed.
Cobb, paraphrasing James Baldwin, gets to the heart of the matter when he comments, “The police are mainly there to prevent Black people from spilling out of the areas in which they’d been corralled into areas where White people were.”
A White former police officer also appears, frankly admitting that the culture bred in the police force, as he experienced it, was “us against them.” He revealed officers were taught to fear, rather than feel obliged to protect, the Black communities in which they worked. This conditioning did not extend to White communities or individuals.
The advent of mass media further empowered law enforcement, with media representation burnishing a one-dimensional image of them as heroes, devoid of complexity in their relationships with people in the Black communities they were ostensibly serving.
A writer from the popular series “Dragnet” reveals that the scripts were approved by LAPD personnel. These types of shows have proliferated parallel with the de jure increase in civil rights and social advancement for Blacks and other minorities.
Many of the commentators in “Sound of the Police” qualify their statements about police brutality with the phrase “In America…” because the production aims to highlight the issue within the context of the U.S. However, Black people across the globe share the same relationship with law enforcement.
In an article in the periodical “The Atlantic” about policing in majority-Black South Africa, Eve Fairbanks pointed out, “Like America, South Africa was gripped for a long time by the idea that White people are entitled to government service while Black people require government control.”
The same issues of police brutality against Blacks make headlines in England, France—anywhere with a significant Black population. So the fact that policing in America is an outgrowth of slave patrols in the U.S. seems relevant but incidental and suggests the solution—if there is one—would have to be rooted in a global application.
“Sound of the Police” touches on but doesn’t delve into the fact that the issue is not about the police force itself, but about who created them in the first place and their perpetual mandate. As Cobb also commented, “It’s not simply a question of the prejudices of the police, it’s an issue of the society that the police function in.”
That “society” is the owners of capital and resources (usually unjustly acquired) who use police to defend themselves against any hint of a threat to their claim of those resources. As Sharpton articulated, “Clearly, what law enforcement became was the enforcers of White supremacy.”
So, the answer is that with regard to Black people, in America and globally, police aren’t actually failing to “serve and protect” Blacks (and in fact, other non-European Indigenous people). That was never law enforcement’s job in the first place.