Image Credit: Gage Skidmore
On 16 June, President Trump signed a new executive order aimed at tackling the plague of police brutality that Americans have become accustomed to. The tragic death of George Floyd has reinvigorated discussion and debate about racism and has led to American citizens, and indeed the world, questioning how its scourge has remained a deep-rooted part of the fabric of American society. It is critical to dissect what the passing of the executive order will actually change and whether this change is a meaningful start to addressing the concerns and fears of the Black Lives Matter movement.
While signing the executive order, Trump spoke of both embracing the spirit of “equality for all Americans” and yet “further” restoring “law and order” “nationwide”. This balancing act in practice will be difficult to achieve; especially when the specific issue of police brutality can only be effectively dealt with by reviewing the powers and privileges of the police. In reality, Trump is ushering in incremental changes.
To say that these changes aren’t of significance is a mistake. However, they don’t reflect the radical or revolutionary spirit of the Black Lives Matter activists. The executive order bans chokeholds, alongside the caveat of except in circumstances where the officer’s life is at risk. The executive order can be credited with requiring the police to be more transparent with their interactions with US citizens, as federal grants will be tied to “best practices” and it will be compulsory for databases to record complaints against officers. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, questioned the comprehensiveness of the executive order in fighting the “epidemic of racial injustice” and accused Trump of skirting around the heart of the issue of police brutality.
The legal doctrine of qualified immunity remains protected by the executive order and since 2005 this doctrine has been frequently applied by the Supreme Court. It has acted as a ruse for excessive and deadly use of force by police officers. Introduced in 1967, the doctrine’s purpose was to protect police officers in the line of duty. Instead it has become a common loophole that is exploited by police officers in the courts. In a special report conducted by Reuters, it was revealed that in all excessive force cases against the police since 2005 there were “three dozen in which qualified immunity protected officers whose actions had been deemed unlawful”.
Due to the doctrine, victims have to prove that their “constitutional rights” have been violated and the fact that legal loopholes remain a convenience for police officers that abuse their powers emphasises the urgency with which a more targeted campaign is needed. Raising awareness through posting on social media is valuable in gathering popular support for change. Although it is likely that in order for genuine progress to be made organisations such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) will have to give doctrines such as these a greater reckoning in the courts.
The Brown v. Board of Education case (1954) is an ideal example of the NAACP challenging the doctrine of “separate but equal”, a policy that also had a harmful impact on the Black community. The success of Thurgood Marshall in overturning the ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is a reminder of how racist dogmas often require both a response on the ground and simultaneous legal action if they are to be dismantled.
Trump described his passing of the executive order as “a start” and a start it is. However, if it will bring a meaningful and positive impact on the day-to-day lives of Black Americans remains to be seen.