Kathleen Cleaver ’84 LAW ’89, former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party, spoke Tuesday night at a Yale Political Union debate with the resolution “Police are not heroes.”
Cleaver, who currently serves as a law professor and senior lecturer at Emory University, argued against the notion that police officers are heroes. Cleaver acknowledged the importance of the role of police in maintaining civil society, but used historical anecdotes to puncture the often-idealized vision of the force. A crowd of more than 150 students and community members, on the whole, responded positively to Cleaver’s remarks.
“[The police] are not heroes, and they’re not all villains,” Cleaver said. “What we really need is good police. We really need good police in America … It happens too frequently in those close, dark encounters that some unarmed young black man is dead.”
Cleaver said police often appear to protect only the wealthy and powerful members of a community. As a result, she noted, systems of “corruption” emerge that privilege the empowered over the disenfranchised.
She described police officers on duty in minority neighborhoods as units that resemble “occupying armies.”
“[The police] were not there to protect us,” Cleaver said. “But they were there to protect someone else.”
Cleaver asked the crowd to search for positive solutions to this problem. She said every citizen of the United States has a duty to respond to systemic problems and help create a “better world and a better country.”
She heralded community policing, a practice that integrates law enforcement officers into communities by assigning them beats within neighborhoods, as an effective style of policing. Cleaver noted that the Black Panther Party advocated for community policing.
“There has to be recognized community,” Cleaver said. “There has to be a recognized police.”
Cleaver also told attendees that police departments must take seriously the biases that have led to repeated shootings of innocent black men and children. Layla Treuhaft-Ali ’17, of the Party of the Left, said Black and Latino individuals are often falsely associated with criminal activity in their neighborhoods.
Treuhaft-Ali added that because police officers are in positions of power, the results can be particularly disastrous when they fall prey to bias. She called for skepticism of any force that has a significant capacity for violent action. She also said labeling police officers “heroes” gives them a certain immunity to proper punishment, even when they abuse their power.
“I still prefer talking about public servants as servants for their communities because it implies being held accountable,” Treuhaft-Ali said. “There’s something about glorifying strength and power rather than seeing strength and power as something that needs to be checked.”
Michael Lemanski ’16, a member of the Tory Party, argued against the resolution. Lemanski emphasized the role of the police in preserving free speech and a “liberal democratic society.”
Lemanski also made the philosophical argument that the actions of the police are authorized by the citizens of a community.
“What we should aspire to [say] is, ‘[The police] are reflecting the will of the society that has made certain decisions according to powers rightfully granted to them, and I, [as a citizen], have a stake in that,’” Lemanski said.
Though several students interviewed expressed concern that the resolution of the debate would not allow for a captivating discussion, many considered Cleaver’s remarks sensible and interesting.
In particular, students responded enthusiastically to Cleaver’s references to civil rights-era America and more recent instances of police brutality.
“I thought it was well thought out, articulate and reasonable,” Federalist Party member Sherry Ann Morgenstern ’19 said. “She used many contemporary and recent historical examples to support her case.”
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966.