Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed the “Protect and Serve Act of 2018.”
The euphemistically named bill offers protections modeled on hate crimes laws to police officers. Harming a police officer is already a federal crime, and laws enhancing penalties for violence against police are already on the books in all 50 states. So if all these protections already exist, what purpose does the “Protect and Serve Act” really serve?
Well, according to the ACLU, “It serves no purpose other than to further dangerous and divisive narratives that there is a ‘war on police’.” The ACLU also points out that hate crimes laws were specifically designed to provide justice to people who were often denied it, people from marginalized groups in society. They were meant to protect people based on immutable characteristics, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
The US first began to enact hate crimes bills in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, when violence against people of color often went unpunished, as white jurors voted to acquit white defendants accused of crimes against Black Americans in particular. It was a way to take judgment out of the hands of the accused’s white sympathetic friends and neighbors and achieve some measure of justice by putting it in the hands of a federal jury. It was a way to finally start taking violence based on prejudice seriously in a country that has so often enabled or ignored that violence.
In contrast, violence against police is already being taken seriously.
It leads to manhunts and lengthy prison sentences or the death penalty, not to jury nullifications and impunity. On the contrary, the real impunity is often enjoyed by police officers who have assaulted and/or killed civilians and rarely face charges. While the people currently protected by hate crime legislation are the victims of targeted violence, police are often its perpetrators, harassing, brutalizing, and killing disproportionate numbers of people of color.
The federal “Protect and Serve Act” is similar to a number of bills that have been circulating the country in state legislatures. These “Blue Lives Matter” bills, as they are often called, are a reaction to the calls for police accountability by Black Lives matter and other activist groups. They’re meant to cast the police as a targeted minority, despite the fact that actual violence against police is near record lows. And they are meant to implicitly link that Black activism against police brutality to an invented surge in violence against police when the reality is that the majority of people who do attack and kill cops are white and often associated with far-right groups.
Some critics have said the “Protect and Serve Act” is a “solution in search of a problem,” given the relatively low levels of violence against police officers in recent years. The truth is, it’s worse than that. The false narrative of the war on cops reinforces a mentality that leads them to view the communities they should be serving as enemies. It makes them feel more justified in enacting precisely the violence that Black Lives Matter and other anti-brutality activists are trying to stop. And Republicans and Democrats alike in the House of Representatives just lined up to vote for it.
The next step is for the Senate to consider their version of the bill, which civil rights groups believe is even worse.
If it gets past that stage, there’s little doubt Trump would sign it into law. So let’s not let it get that far. Call your Senators and tell them not to pass any version of this bill. For help on talking points, check out the first part of Human Rights Watch’s letter about the Protect and Serve Act of 2018.