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To: Mr. Jeffrey B. Norman, Chief of Police of Milwaukee,
Today, on the twenty-eighth of January, when I looked through my email notifications and noticed that members of my Muslim community have been invited to attend a meeting with the Milwaukee police, I stopped to think about what must motivate the police department to schedule an event on this very day.
Was it not just today that the “city of Memphis has released police body camera and surveillance video showing the January 7 traffic stop and violent police confrontation that led to the death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols”?
Sir, what is this invitation meant to do for our larger community in light of the traumas renewed by this occasion of police brutality? Are we at a place to ignore the ongoing violence in our highly segregated cities?
Sir, you must know that I am a Muslim and Palestinian doctoral student, and I teach at an institution located on the boundaries between these segregated neighborhoods.
Today at Marquette just so happened to be the day scheduled to discuss policing and surveillance in the young adult novel “American Street” by Ibi Zoboi.
I entered the class recognizing that I had a responsibility as an educator to acknowledge what had just happened yet again, to support students in navigating the oppression now commonplace in our current cultural landscape.
Before today, I had hoped that I would be able to say: We have moved a step in the right direction and if the movement to defund has resulted in reform, then so be it. Let us be reformed, then, and we can wait for the fruits of #8 Can’t Wait, a project by Campaign Zero to reform police departments.
What I realized, however, was that police reform is not truly acknowledging the racism perpetuated by policing as a system.
And then the invitation, sir.
I must tell you that I stood up in front of my class and described in pain the mechanisms of surveillance that have, in our current history, targeted racialized peoples in the United States: programs that track migrants who are denied human dignity and sanctuary, the CVE program that targets Muslims after 9/11 and inserts within these communities informants to dissolve trust and deconstruct any hope for mutual solidarity.
Surveillance does not counter violence; it perpetuates it.
And then, when the Black Lives Matter movement called for justice for those who are most oppressed, people throughout the globe stood in solidarity, but the movement then became a target for surveillance.
Have calls for justice now become so extreme?
Sir, I recall that we walked in solidarity on those days following the murder of George Floyd, confident that social justice would not be lost from that day onward.
We walked in downtown Milwaukee led by a young black Muslim woman, and the youth screamed out until their voices cracked. We held signs of brutal images of knees on necks and mirror images in other parts of the world where colonial states sanction other forms of bloodthirsty eradication.
When we stood then, the movement made us fearless in its humanity. We located hope in walking alongside one another on the streets of Milwaukee, and we forgot how dehumanization functions to displace us from within our communities.
I recall on a day 10 years ago when I stood in a large congregation of hundreds of my siblings in the Muslim community, and I heard leaders say: “Well, if they want to surveil us within our places of worship, then so be it. We have nothing to hide.”
At that moment, I regret that I did not speak about the dehumanization, the many forms of violence that the members of my community have endured and the injustice in the pitting of sibling against sibling.
This fitna, a vicious type of social murder, is especially experienced by those members of my community subjected to anti-Blackness and white supremacy coupled with anti-Muslimness.
And then today you invite us to share in a conversation with you, to embrace our roles in the maintenance of safety and security.
Do the safety and security that you discuss require our communities to be racially profiled, just like when former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke was asked about patrolling Muslim communities in Milwaukee, and he assured white supremacists, “Sure. And we already are”?
I cannot hesitate to speak now and say that racial profiling and the maintenance of civil liberties that he describes are complete opposites.
The murder of Black men by the police has historically been a result of this profiling and its entanglement in racist notions about criminality.
If there are limited resources, then why not funnel these into ensuring access to education and not the kind of education specifically aimed at growing the police force?
I often think about why an institution of higher education located in the areas that you patrol, situated within a community of people who are predominantly from historically marginalized backgrounds, is predominantly white.
As we make changes to this in our institution, we must realize as a community that resilience cannot be found in the forms of targeted policing to which the Milwaukee Police Department has subscribed.
It is located when we stop silencing calls for social justice from within our institutions, from our community members, from our students who are impacted the most. We must immediately stop penalizing, punishing, detaining, incarcerating and eradicating those who do the important work.
What is truly the existential threat to safety in our community, sir, is the rife systemic racism and not Black members of the community or Muslims or migrants.
If the aim is to improve the “relationship” between the police and the residents of Milwaukee, I would encourage the police department to look inwardly and seek radical change in its investments in racist systems of surveillance and regulation.
Ibtisam M. Abujad
Ibtisam M. Abujad is a doctoral candidate and instructor in the Department of English at Marquette University. She conducts research on race, gender, migration and Critical Muslim Studies.
Karen Coy Romano says
Thank you Ibtisam for your courage and for stating exactly what is going on and what needs to be changed! I salute you and all those who are working with you to address our racist systems. I am working with others to accomplish very similar goals.