American police reform needs real, lasting support from white allies
White Americans are learning what black Americans have known for a long time — America can be a police state for black lives. Worse yet, it can be a police state built on the foundation of white supremacy. On June 21, 1964 — 56 years ago today — my family experienced this sad reality firsthand when my brother, Andrew Goodman, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteer, was murdered along with two other civil rights workers, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
Andy and Michael were Jewish activists from New York and James was a black Christian activist from Mississippi. When they went missing, they were registering black Americans to vote. It would be 44 days before their tortured bodies were found.
The investigation revealed that the three young men were kidnapped and murdered by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which included members of the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and the Philadelphia (Miss.) Police Department. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the sheriff, an official member of government law enforcement, deputized the other KKK members who then murdered under the shield of the law.
The executions of my brother and his fellow civil rights volunteers were the first known interracial and interreligious state-sanctioned lynchings, and the case caused national outrage among white and black Americans. The parallels between then and now are as striking as they are shameful. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and Rayshard Brooks are among the most recent examples on the continuum of systemic racial oppression.
So where do we go from here?
It’s time for white Americans to be true allies by demanding transformative police reform. The onus should not and cannot be only on black America alone to fight institutional racism. The lessons that my family learned in fighting for justice for my brother and his companions remain relevant today. We used our privilege not only to fight for justice for Andy but also to support the work of civil rights activists fighting for racial equality. Through The Andrew Goodman Foundation, we continue to advocate for policies aimed at equity and justice.
The foundation of our work is the protection of voting rights for students, particularly black students and other traditionally marginalized Americans. The success of our efforts is rooted in coalition building and allyship that recognizes the need for continued work and is intentional and outcome-driven.
We’re already seeing the results of the protests and genuine allyship. A veto-proof majority of Minneapolis’s city government has pledged to dissolve their police force and start anew. This would not have been possible without sustained, focused pressure from a multiracial coalition. However, many politicians, in other cities and nationally, have not made a similar pledge. That’s why we need to vote and elect politicians who support these measures.
Allyship must exist in the streets, at the ballot box, and in positions of power. The collective outrage surrounding the executions of Andy, James, and Michael in 1964 added to the intense political pressure brought to bear by the civil rights movement. Ultimately, activism and public pressure forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to reckon with the fact he could not ignore this issue any longer. He used his political capital to shepherd the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We must listen, learn and demand meaningful and lasting policy change, starting with policing in America. I’m calling on white Americans to join me in supporting policies to defund the police — which means not eliminating public safety but overhauling the policing model and reallocating our tax dollars into other essential services. This includes creating more equitable systems of public safety, better education, and health care systems.
We must reimagine American policing. We’ve seen this model work effectively in Camden, N.J., where crime is substantially down and quality of life has improved for residents. This kind of transformative policy action is the first step in breaking the cycle of racial injustice in policing.