In a disturbing, anti-democratic combination, the federal government is simultaneously trying to bury the number of police shootings happening around the country while criminalizing opposition to this violence. How have we reached a point where the government so blatantly flouts democratic norms?
The Guardian reports that the government’s “effort” to document police shootings of civilians undercounts the number of victims by more than 50%. Although the government tracks every trend you can imagine, from waterfowl migration patterns to preschoolers’ eating habits, the government pointedly does not track police shootings. Because of this willful lapse—and because it is so important that we know how often the police shoot people—it has fallen on the private sector to try to keep track of police shootings. The Guardian—a British publication—is leading the way.
But the private tracking efforts still rely on the government’s honest classifications of the cause of deaths. To test The Guardian’s tracking accuracy, a Harvard study cross-checked government reporting against death certificates. In another example of the government lying to protect itself from public scrutiny, the study revealed that the government drastically underreports police shootings. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention misclassified 55.2% of police killings in a reported year. For instance, in Oklahoma police killed 30 people, but not one of the deaths at police hands was properly classified. Not surprisingly, the errors disproportionately undercount police violence in low-income areas.
Instead of addressing the police shooting problem, the FBI has been working to criminalize the opposition to police brutality. In the wake of scores of police shootings of African Americans, primarily unarmed black men, the Black Lives Matter movement has grown as a much needed voice against police violence. In a blatant effort to criminalize government criticism, the FBI has classified such protesters of police violence as “Black Identity Extremists” and deemed the protesters a major threat to public safety. Shockingly, on the eve of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, the FBI circulated an internal memo warning of the threat of black extremists, not neo-Nazis. The FBI report was supposed to remain a secret, but Foreign Policy obtained and publicized a copy.
Make no mistake, the concept of Black Identity Extremists is invented out of whole cloth, to stifle legitimate protest. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been monitoring Black Lives Matters activists since Michael Brown was gunned down by police in Ferguson. According to documents revealed through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the DHS is surveilling everything from silent vigils to a walk to end breast cancer, looking for ways to criminalize black activism. DHS is watching social media accounts and monitoring things like who participated in the National Moment of Silence in response to police shootings.
There will never be meaningful headway made on the problem of police violence until the government starts acknowledging the problem, instead of hiding it and trying to criminalize the protesters. The First Amendment is supposed to protect our right to protest wrongs, particularly when government actors are the perpetrator. The dangerous actions of our government, in trying to criminalize peaceful protest, violate the very foundation of our democracy.