The History of Policing in the US and Its Impact on Americans Today

Feature Picture
Several policemen in riot gear spray the camera crew walking by with a fire hose. Source: Yahoo Images

Policing in America has a long history, one that dates back to the founding of this country. Although it has always been a controversial issue, the recent instances of police brutality that have come to light along with the increasing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement have forced it back into the social and political limelight. The differences in beliefs are influenced by popular political outlets and political activists on both sides of the spectrum. However, when examining the history and the facts surrounding the creation and implementation of the policing system in the US, it is clear that policing also shares a racially biased history.

The History of Policing in America

The history of policing can be traced back to the days of slavery in colonial America. In the South, where slavery was central to the economy, slave patrols, responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their masters, was the first unofficial police in America. Considering how slavery itself was one of the most egregious treatments of mankind in human history, slave patrols were especially cruel in the ways they captured runaway slaves and punished them for their daring escapes. Slave rebellions were a constant threat to the economic status quo of the southern plantation owners, and slave patrols ensured that these owners were able to intimidate and punish any insurgencies or revolts. In return, these wealthy plantation owners protected the interests of the slave catchers. As a result, this practice created a social hierarchy between the wealthy landowners at the top, the slave patrols separating the wealthy from the poor, and the slaves who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.

To show that the history of policing as slave patrol is a known fact
A crowd of protesters advocating for the end of police brutality. One of the women in the crowd holds a that reads, “US police began as slave patrol.” Source: Yahoo Images

These slave patrols slowly morphed into policing units in charge of breaking up insurgencies that began to rise in the aftermath of the Civil War. When the Civil War ended, many colonists, especially Southerners, felt threatened by the population of freed African Americans, arguing that they would disrupt the social order. As a result, African American communities experienced an increase in violence committed against them in the form of police brutality. The Reconstruction Era, which came immediately after the Civil War,  was a racially charged environment, as the newly freed citizens attempted to live peacefully amongst their oppressors.

During the Reconstruction Era, cruelty was the policing style, and protecting the economic interests of the wealthy proved very beneficial to these units. Police were used as a way to provide a sense of security for the white communities, keeping the black communities intimidated and segregated from the white population. Additionally, reconstructing the South after the war would require a lot of free labor, and much of the reconstruction that took place was achieved through the enforced hard labor of the newly freed populace, who were shortly enslaved again, this time through the prison system.

Known as the Jim Crow laws, a number of legislations were passed in an attempt to keep the black and white communities segregated, and racist policies were put in place to target and imprison people of color. In part due to the loophole in the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, policing centered around rounding up and arresting African Americans for violating the racist Jim Crow Laws, denying them their fundamental rights as human beings. Racism was still rampant in the South and was especially tolerated under the prison system. Ironically, the loophole provided by the thirteenth amendment gave rise to today’s prison industrial complex.

These racist policies were further encouraged by the passing of the “separate but equal” verdict by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and they continued to target African Americans for simply existing. The Plessy v. Ferguson case argued that as long as both white communities and black communities were able to have access to the same resources, they could remain segregated. The verdict only emboldened and encouraged policing to incorporate racism into lawful practice. Unfortunately, this legal segregation lasted almost a hundred years, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Continuing their roles of breaking up insurgencies, policing during the Civil Rights Movement centered around riot control. As the Civil Rights Movement took place, inspiring hundreds of people to come together to demand justice, police were on the frontline of the opposing end, protecting the economic interests of America at the expense of human beings. Police used water hoses, police dogs, tear gas, and other crowd control measures to break up protests and peaceful sit-ins. The police would also brutally beat up and bruise the peaceful protesters, while others were incarcerated for daring to protest for their civil rights.

Policing since then has evolved to incorporate discriminatory practices, such as the “stop and frisk” policy – which empowers police to stop and search someone without a warrant if they have a reason to believe that individuals are doing something wrong – or the practice of racial profiling individuals to “fit” the description of a suspect the police can then target. Along with these practices, the war on drugs further aggravated the situation, granting the police the power to detain drug users by racially targeting people of color, and further enabling discrimination and harassment of marginalized communities. Today, the discrimination that is present in policies like stop and frisk, and racial profiling; and the war on drugs upholds the social hierarchy created during the times of slavery. These unethical policies continue to bolster the wealth and income inequality between wealthy communities and marginalized communities.

Additionally, the Revolving Door Phenomenon continues the historical practice of sabotaging marginalized communities. The Revolving Door Phenomenon refers to the fact that even after prisoners have served their time and get released, many of them end up back in prison. This is largely due to the many difficulties they face upon re-entering society, like finding employment, finding housing, securing transportation, and not being able to vote and be represented, to name a few. They can also face homelessness, and as a result, become victims of police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality is still rampant to this day with no accountability of the police. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which became a worldwide phenomenon during the summer of 2020, is attempting to bring an end to police brutality and the violent murders of unarmed African Americans committed by the police.

Police Brutality and Rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement

To show how popular the movement has become
Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles. July 1st, 2020; Source: Yahoo Images

The Black Lives Matter protests began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy that was murdered by a White man on Neighborhood Watch. The man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, facing no form of accountability for his actions. The hashtag movement gained further popularity when Michael Brown was murdered by a White officer, and yet again, no one faced any charges for the killing of a Black man. The Black Lives Matter movement encouraged people to record and report any instances of police brutality they witness, and soon, hundreds of civilians reported such instances on social media.

The murder of George Floyd was caught on camera, and this recording enraged the public. As a result, the Black Lives Matter Movement expanded nationwide, and over the years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. This movement brought attention to the frequent instances in which innocent African Americans were brutally murdered by the police. An NPR investigation revealed that since 2015, there have been 135 instances in which the police have murdered unarmed African Americans. They also found that of these 135 instances, 75% of the time, the officers were White. Another source places the total number of people who have died at the hands of police as high as 1,126, and that’s just in 2020. They allege that 96% of those deaths were a result of being shot. Reprehensibly, these instances continue to occur, as people such as Tameer Rice, Bryanna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Jamarion Robinson, Ronald Greene, and too many more have continued to face cruelty at the hands of the police.

Especially jarring is the cruel way in which Ronald Greene was murdered. The brutal death of Ronald Greene, an African American man who was beaten and shocked to death by a group of police officers, has been under investigation since 2019. The police falsely testified that he had died in a car crash, but body camera videos show the extent to which the police viciously killed Greene as he begged them to stop. Additional reports came back on Greene’s autopsy that further discredit the claims of the police that Greene sustained fatal injuries due to a car crash. Heartbreakingly, this is yet another instance of police brutality that was allowed to occur.

To show just a few of the names of the people who have been victims to police brutality
Among a group of protesters, one activist holds a sign with the names of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, three of the well-known victims of police brutality. Source: Yahoo Images

Accountability

One of the main reasons why police brutality continues to take place is due to the fact that the police face no real consequences for their actions. As has been the case too many times, police are reported to be found in compromising situations, leading to the inhumane treatment and in many instances, death of innocent people. Following those reports of human rights violations, it has also become common-place to find that those officers accused of brutality rarely get charged or punished for their behavior. They are generally held accountable only due to public outcry. Unfortunately, even then, accountability comes in the form of simply getting transferred to a different department. Too many instances over the past decade have highlighted the dangers of a militant police force without proper policies in place that hold responsible those that abuse the law. Policing leads to a power dynamic between communities and authorities, and in the wrong hands, without the proper measures of liability in place, can lead to an abuse of powers and people alike. As a result of the racial history that plagues America, the relationship between the police and marginalized communities is one that is (understandably), very fragile and filled with distrust.

Reform or abolish?

Many people have proposed policies to reform the police system in America. This can get pretty complicated, as police departments all across the country follow different rules and regulations and are state-funded entities. This can mean that implementation and enforcement of regulations can be a difficult task, requiring different entities for each state. Furthermore, there is not much data collected on policing misconducts, and the available data can be biased or lacking details. Additionally, many of the acts of police brutality are explained away using legal powers vested in the police, such as the ability to use force while conducting an arrest. The vague language of the policy allows the police to use excessive force and justify their actions in court. Moreover, police unions hold a tremendous amount of political power and influence and protect their officers from facing any real accountability. Even the attempts at limiting qualified immunity, (which protects government officials from civil lawsuits) have gotten nowhere, as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has yet to be passed in the Senate.

An info graph that showcases some of the misuses of the police budget and supports calls to defund the police.
An info graph that depicts some of the data that supports defunding the police. Source: Yahoo Images

As a result, cries to abolish the police have increased since the Black Live Matter protests of summer 2020. While police may be effective in situations where a crime has occurred, the abolitionists of today argue that police only complicate things in some instances, including interactions with people of color or when approaching people with mental illnesses or disabilities. Without being educated on systemic racism and the role of the police or having the proper training to care for people with mental or physical disabilities respectively, the police can make things worse, even if they are attempting to de-escalate the situation. The abolitionist approach is to restructure the entire policing system in order to divide the undertaking of community safety and security into various different institutions that are tasked with protecting the human rights of individuals. This enables the option of having other agencies in place aimed at solving community issues and nurturing a relationship with people within the community, making it more accessible and reliable for the community members to ask for assistance. Doing so could eliminate the oppressive climate brought on by the social hierarchy that has been ever-present in policing throughout American history. By reshaping society and its structures, we can ensure that the needs of the people in society are met, while preserving their fundamental human rights.

 

 

The Re-Entry Simulation on Mass Incarceration and its Practical Applications in the Real World

This image is from the re-entry simulation event that took place at UAB
The coordinator of the re-entry simulation for mass incarceration explains the procedures. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock.

The University of Alabama in Birmingham hosted a re-entry simulation for mass incarceration on the 15th of October, 2021, partnered with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama. This simulation, which featured around a hundred participants, was designed to enlighten both students and community members about the difficulties surrounding re-entry into society for those who have been previously incarcerated. The event featured different booths to portray the various obligations, both legal and personal that had to be met by individuals exiting the prison system into the civilian society.

These booths included responsibilities such as securing identification cards, attending treatment appointments or drug screenings on time, or even being able to get employed, all while having to figure out transportation to be able to fulfill these requirements. Each participant was provided with a new identity, a few transportation tickets, some money (depending on the person’s identity), and a list of obligations that needed to be met each week. The “weeks” were timed to be fifteen minutes each, and the participants got four weeks to successfully re-enter society.

Getting your IDs

The identity I assumed had no IDs to their name, and only $30 when exiting the prison system. One of the most difficult components of this exercise was securing the three required IDs. Without the IDs, all the other booths refused to be of any help, and securing the IDs took well over a “week.” In the real world, this also means that people are unable to find employment, housing, or even apply for government aid like food stamps until they are able to secure these IDs. Furthermore, as Jeremy Sherer, the Assistant United States Attorney who helped organize this event discussed, there is a possibility of being re-imprisoned for outstanding warrants that might have been acquired while individuals were serving time in the prison system. Therefore, people who attempt to get their IDs at the DMV might end up being reincarcerated for these outstanding warrants. An easy solution to this problem would be to issue government IDs to people as they are exiting the prison system. This would dramatically decrease the mental and physical stress on individuals, as this one act would open up resources and opportunities they might not have without the proper government-issued IDs.

Transportation

An image depicting various forms of transportation on a highway. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Another enormous obstacle in the way of successfully re-entering civilian society can be transportation. Many people, upon entering the prison system have three options concerning their vehicles: they can sell their car and keep the cash, they can give the car to someone else, or if they are making payments on a car upon the time of their arrest, it can become repossessed by the time they exit the system. Even if your property was held by the police for “safeguarding” or for evidence purposes, if you cannot claim it within a certain time frame (which is impossible for people who are imprisoned), you face the risks of losing that property.

Transportation is a necessity, and if you live in an area where public transportation is unavailable, you will need to either purchase a car or rent one. In order to purchase any vehicle, you have to have an ID. Assuming you have your IDs, the next step is the background and credit checks. This can be a massive hurdle, as people who leave prison might not have the necessary credit history, nor have established employment history to purchase a car. They may not be able to afford the full price of the car, having just come out of jail or prison. For those who depend on public transportation in areas that offer the services, bus schedules can be very confusing and might not travel to the necessary destinations. Additionally, those who live in areas where public transportation is not an option have to figure out a way to find transportation for themselves. There are no agencies in place to provide any assistance to people in cases like these.

The Bail System

According to The Prison Policy Initiative, 74% of people in jail have not been convicted of any crime. If we were to follow the logic that people are “innocent until proven guilty,” 74% of the people held in jail are innocent. These individuals are only allowed to leave the jails by paying the set bail amounts for their particular case. These bail amounts are set based on the criminal charges and the complexities surrounding the crime in question. Although bail is not supposed to be a form of punishment, the bail system tends to punish the poor by setting a financial amount that has to be paid if the individual does not want to await their trial in jail. Most Americans are seldom prepared for a $400 emergency, and for people struggling with poverty, the set bail amount can be impossible to meet. This pretrial detention can also last months or even years before the trial date, meaning that innocent people might be held in jail for years simply for not being able to afford bail. The person’s identity I assumed at the re-entry simulation had $30 on their person, and their bail amount was the full $30, which ended up bankrupting them, leaving them with no money for food, transportation, or any other expenses.

Legal Responsibilities

This was another picture taken at the event itself
This image portrays the participants and the various booths involved in the simulation. These booths were set up to mimic real-life agencies, such as the courthouse, or the probation office, or even the pawnshop, to provide a realistic experience. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock

People exiting the prison system have to meet certain legal requirements upon their re-entry into civilization. These legal responsibilities include regular check-ins with the probation or parole officer, regular drug screens, and even clinical or treatment appointments that need to be attended. For one, as mentioned earlier, formerly incarcerated people need to be able to secure a stable form of transportation to get to these appointments. They also have to be able to provide their IDs, so not having one could result in a violation of the conditions of parole. The demands of parole or probation are different for each case, but conditions of release can include finding and holding stable employment, as well as showing up to take a urine analysis, blood tests, or a drug screening whenever requested of them. These drug screens can also interfere with the individual’s employment (if they do manage to secure one), as they would be required to leave their workplace to comply with this stipulation. People that are required to meet these conditions of release are also personally billed for these tests, something that they might not be able to afford. These stipulations can become even more complex based on the history of the person’s criminal offense. Those that have served time for sexual offenses are also required to register as a sex offender in their area, further complicating their ability to acquire employment or housing, and as a result, making it near impossible to meet their conditions of release.

Additionally, some people being released from prison might have to attend clinical appointments or treatment sessions. This may be a weekly obligation, and again, transportation and IDs are essential to meeting this condition. These treatment sessions, while helpful and certainly necessary in many cases, might only add stress to those who are financially compromised.

I wanted to include a picture of solitary confinement because it's a widely practiced form of punishment in the United States prisons and jails.
Solitary Confinement can place an individual in a dark, secluded place, depriving them of social interactions and stimulations, which can prove to be damaging to the mental health of the inmates who experience it. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Recent studies show that many people who enter the prison system without any mental illnesses can come out with serious issues related to their mental health. While there may be many factors that influence an individual’s mental stability inside the prison walls, research shows that solitary confinement, a practice that is used in most jails and prisons in the United States, can play a fundamental role in someone’s mental health. At times, placing an inmate in solitary confinement can exacerbate pre-existing conditions of mental illness. Solitary confinement can also lead to a number of mental health-related illnesses, including depression, paranoia, or even trigger hallucinations. As a result, many people who enter the prison system with no history of mental health issues can develop mental illnesses or acquire trauma while serving out their sentences. This inhumane practice can be suspended, which would dramatically affect the mental health of prisoners and lighten the load on some of their legal obligations.

Personal Responsibilities

Along with legal responsibilities that have to be met, people attempting to re-enter society also have personal obligations they may have to fulfill, including responsibilities regarding their children (if it applies), their own personal care (such as food, and shelter), and their attempts at professional success, including employment and education. Many individuals, upon re-entering society, regain custody of their children, meaning that they have to ensure both their needs as well as their children’s needs are met. This can prove to be very stressful and traumatic, both for the individual re-entering society and the children involved. As discussed previously, people exiting the prison system might not have the resources or the mental stability to be able to accept such a huge responsibility, often resulting in the parents neglecting their own needs for the needs of their children, and as a result, increasing the mental and physical strain they might place on themselves.

Even still, many parents that are not awarded custody of their children might be forced to pay child support upon their release. Unless they ask for a suspension or reduction of child support, the amount can continue to accumulate while the person is serving time, and upon release, the person is mandated to pay the full amount owed. Failing to pay the amount can be considered a violation of their conditions of release and can result in the reimprisonment of the individual.

Another personal responsibility that an individual re-entering society has to meet is self-care. An essential part of personal care includes food and water, yet many people might not be able to afford three square meals a day. As I learned from the re-entry simulation, contrary to popular belief, churches are not as forthcoming with assistance as many like to believe. This may be due to a variety of reasons, ranging from funding problems to religious or ideological reasons. Applying for food stamps is an option, but it can take weeks, requiring both transportation and IDs. Even when an individual is awarded food stamps, it might not cover all their nutrition expenses, leading many to become food insecure.

I wanted to showcase the quality of life that many people exiting the prison system are faced with.
An image depicting an unhoused individual’s dire situations, a risk that formerly incarcerated personnel face due to housing insecurities. Photo Credit: Yahoo Images.

Additionally, many people re-entering society may face housing insecurities. Due to the social and sometimes cultural stigma around imprisonment, family members might refuse to provide adequate shelter for the individual. In order to qualify for an apartment, the applicant has to provide proof of employment as well as a security deposit. Many job applications require a background and criminal history check, at many times refusing to hire an individual if they have been convicted of a crime. Without a job and proper shelter, many risks facing the possibility of becoming homeless.

Expanding on the complexities of getting employed, many people re-entering society have to cross so many hurdles to be successful professionally. Depending on the age at which they were incarcerated, many individuals returning to society might not have the necessary education or skills to qualify for employment. Some might even have to train for and take their GEDs, a base requirement to get jobs, even low-wage ones. To add to the complexities, people with traditional High School Diplomas receive a higher pay rate than those who obtain GEDs.

Once they are able to acquire their GEDs if they choose to pursue higher education, formerly incarcerated people have to do so at a private university or college. This is due to the fact that most public universities and college applications include a section asking about the applicant’s criminal history. This can indirectly discriminate against those who are struggling with poverty, fundamentally impacting their ability to compete with the growing skilled and educated labor forces of society. Moreover, people who have been incarcerated face many challenges when applying for financial aid. Their ability to receive financial aid is very limited, as they can be denied student loans as well as Pell grants due to their criminal history. Consequently, this usually means that people coming out of prison are stuck with working labor-intensive, low-wage jobs without the prospect of advancement in their professional careers.

Conclusion

The coordinators of the re-entry simulation, the Assistant United States Attorney Jeremy Sherer, and Dr. Laurel Hitchcock. Photo Credit: Laurel Hitchcock.

As part of his concluding remarks, Jeremy Sherer reminded the participants at the simulation that almost 60% of people who are released from prison can end up being incarcerated again. This is a sign that the current system is designed to fail these individuals who are just attempting to survive after their punishments have been served. The lives of these individuals are impacted forever by their criminal history through the taxing obligations they have to meet in order to lead a successful life. They are not provided any form of guidance yet punished constantly for the failures of the system. If the components of racial discrimination in the prison system are taken into consideration, (which will be covered in my next blog post), some might even believe that this injustice intentionally targets certain marginalized members of the community.

Everyone makes mistakes; this is a universally accepted concept. Yet, part of the process of learning and growing involves being provided with the necessary opportunities and resources to learn from the mistakes of our past and strive to become better individuals. Having participated in the re-entry simulation, I attempted to meet all my requirements as best as I could with the resources I was provided with, yet I was sent to “jail” for failing to visit my probation officer, and by week four, I was begging the “police officer” in the exercise to just send me to “jail.” I could not handle the mental, emotional, and physical stress that resulted from the realities this simulation strived to convey, and my participation was voluntary. Many individuals who have to deal with these systems on a regular basis do not have a choice.

Why we should celebrate “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” instead of “Columbus Day”

I included this image to showcase the richness of the culture, and the resilience of the Native American people that is brilliantly portrayed in this image
A Native American man dressed in cultural attire holding a bow and arrow; Source: Yahoo Images

I would like to start with a land acknowledgment, a practice I was introduced to during a 21-day racial equity challenge I participated in over the summer. I extend my gratitude for the people of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Chickasaw nations for their preservation of the land that I live on today, and more generally, to all the members of the First Nations spread across the American continents for their wisdom, respect, and the deep cultural relationship they share with nature. The history of the First Nations’ People in America overwhelmingly encompasses examples of atrocities and genocidal acts committed against them. On October 11, 2021, America officially recognized the inhumane treatment that the Native Americans faced for centuries and honored the brave warriors who fought against the oppression and genocide of their people. Yet, many continue to believe that America owes its discovery to Christopher Columbus. In an effort to set the record straight, it is vital to investigate why American society should stop idolizing Columbus and instead honor the people that have the original rights to this “Land of the Free.”

A Brief History and Lifestyle of the First Peoples’ Arrival to the Americas

This image is to portray the hundreds of Native American Nations that were living in the United States before colonization
A map of the United States depicting the various Native American Tribes that existed prior to colonization; Source: Yahoo Images

We must explore the history of the indigenous people to truly understand the full context of why we should even acknowledge the land as belonging to the Native Americans. Tens of thousands of years ago, many humans crossed into the Americas, enduring tough terrain and temperatures while crossing the Bering Strait. This was an ice-covered land bridge that got destroyed as a combined result of great climate catastrophes and shifts in plate-tectonics. The break in the land bridge made travel between the two land masses impossible, and people in the rest of the world soon forgot that the Americas even existed. The people who managed to cross the bridge before its break, spread out through the North and South American continents and began to establish civilizations. Contrary to what our education systems professes, these great civilizations included trade routes between tribes, farm lands that practiced polyculture crop cultivation, and had even established impressive cities such as Cahokia, Chaco Canyon, and Tenutchtitlan.

An image to show that the First People had established successful civilizations prior to the arrival of the European settlers
An image depicting the great ancient Native American city of Cahokia, which rebukes the myth that the Native American people were “savages;” Source: Yahoo Images

Additionally, many Native American societies were matriarchal, believing that women were the wise members of their communities that were responsible for creating life, educating their children, and tending to the harvests, among other things. This empowered women to make important decisions surrounding faith, as well as gave them political and economic powers that pertained to the governance of their societies. The matriarchy appeared to be a direct threat to the European settlers, who were primarily patriarchal, believing that the women’s place was at the home, and that men would be the ones to make all the decisions for them. This clash of ideologies led to more conflicts between the Native Americans and the European settlers.

Furthermore, the Native Americans had perfected polyculture crop cultivations, a sustainable method of farming that enables different crops to grow together and provide support to each other in the form of nutrients, shade, or prevention of soil erosion, among other things. The Native Americans planted beans, corns and squash together, famously known as the Three Sisters, using polyculture methods to both protect their crops and also produce an abundance of food. When the colonial settlers first arrived, the Native Americans not only provided them with a warm welcome of food and shelter, but also taught them how to grow the Three Sisters to survive. Similarly, the Native Americans also provided the settlers with insight on how to practice hygiene, as Europeans believed that changing into clean garments was good enough and did not associate water with hygienic rituals until their arrival to the Americas. The Native Americans essentially played a tremendous role in ensuring the survival of the settlers that continued to arrive on their lands.

Columbus and his Treatment of the Native Americans

To showcase how Native Americans were treated in return of their hospitality
An image portraying some of the cruelty that Native Americans encountered at the hands of Columbus and other colonizers. Many indigenous people who refused to pay gold were fed to the dogs; Source: Yahoo Images

The arrival of Christopher Columbus brought with it death, destruction, and devastation to the Native Americans. The first interactions with the Europeans introduced the Native Americans to diseases that they had not developed immunity to, killing hundreds of Natives as a result. Columbus arrived with his crew members into the New World believing it to be India, and thus naming the people who greeted him and his crew members as Indians. Although he had set out in search of spices, upon seeing the Native Americans adorned in some gold jewelry, Columbus became greedy for their gold. His new mission was to bring back as much gold as he could, and so his cruel rampage began. He tortured innocent Native Americans for their gold, cutting off the hands of those who refused to give up their gold, and sometimes even burning down entire villages for the precious mineral. Columbus was also a slave trader, forcing hundreds of Native Americans onto his ships to take them back as slaves to Spain. As if this wasn’t atrocious enough, he also managed to kidnap young Indigenous girls and force them into sexual slavery to provide pleasure for himself and his crew members. To make matters worse, he became a sex trafficker, preferring to kidnap girls between the ages of 8-10, noting that they bring the best profits.

How Do Indigenous People Continue to Suffer Today?

This image was used to bring attention to the systemic issues that Native Americans still face today
An image depicting how nothing has fundamentally changed for the Native Americans since the European arrival in America; Source: Yahoo Images

Ultimately, to the First Peoples of this nation, Columbus has become the face of the brutalities and genocidal acts committed against the Native American population in the United States. To this day, Native Americans simultaneously deal with the systemic racism and the consequences of colonization as a result of a loss of culture leading to depression, and elevated levels of alcoholism, to name a few. Native Americans feel invisible to the larger society, as women are also disproportionately disappearing, and no one seems to notice or care. America has continued to disrespect the Native Americans, polluting the lands and rivers that they share a spiritual connection with, and even defiling their sacred mountain, Mount Rushmore, with the images of American leaders that represent colonialism and the genocide of their people.

Why We Should Honor the First Nations’ People Instead

I wanted to include this image to depict the deep spiritual connection that Native Americans share with the Nature
A Native American man spiritually connecting with the Nature; Source: Yahoo Images

The Indigenous People of America have taught us so much about the world we live in. They played a crucial role in the survival of the settlers that arrived in a new world without the slightest idea of how to survive its harsh conditions. They have also vigorously fought against their oppressors, and more recently, against climate change. They are at the forefront of many environmental movements, including the protests that were led against the building of the Dakota Access Pipelines that would prove to be an environmental disaster for those who live in surrounding areas. This Pipeline was projected to cut through the reservations of the Standing Rock Sioux (which is protected under a treaty), and the members of the Sioux nation argued that the pipelines would lead to environmental concerns in their waterways, and if it were to burst or have accidental spills, would prove to have enormous ecological consequences while simultaneously endangering the residents in the surrounding areas. Due to the fact that Native Americans share a special spiritual relationship with nature, the First Nations People practice sustainable farming and protect their environments from pollution. Their practices can provide a very important skill that we can incorporate into our larger society and even on a global scale, to help combat climate change.

Overall, we should dedicate a day to celebrate the Indigenous People of America and all their heroic actions, from their significant roles in the survival of the settlers when they first arrived, their courageous efforts to fight back the oppression and genocide targeted at them, as well as their ability to practice sustainability and preserve natural ecosystems from pollution and destruction. This day should replace the current celebrations of Columbus Day, a day that continues to celebrate an individual who was directly responsible for genocide, inflicting pain, suffering, and torture on thousands of Native Americans. We shouldn’t just add Indigenous Peoples’ Day to the calendar alongside with Columbus Day; we should stop celebrating Columbus Day altogether.

 

The Realities of Being Homeless in America

An image portraying an encampment under a bridge
Source: Yahoo Images; People experiencing homelessness sleeping under a bridge

The homeless population in America tends to be neglected by the society they live in. They are among the most vulnerable, belonging to already marginalized communities that struggle to meet their day to day needs. As a result, the unhoused have little to no power or influence on social norms and affairs. As someone who has experienced homelessness both in India and in America, I have come to distinguish some of the common misconceptions society holds about the unhoused population. There are a lot of stereotypes and social stigma that surrounds the discussions around homelessness, which often blames the victims of systemic issues, instead of restructuring the conversation around how we as society can best help these marginalized groups realize their basic human rights to shelter. In order to do so, we must first understand what it really means to be homeless in America.

History of Homelessness in America

Homelessness is not an issue unique to the United States, as it can be found in countries all over the world. While homelessness in America can be found as early as the colonial times, modern homelessness rose as a response to the Great Depression, where people experienced high levels of unemployment and poverty. Especially interesting is the relationship between the growth of urban cities and the rise in homelessness. Coupled with low-wages and higher costs of living, people found it more expensive to find places to live in urban centers, such as New York and California. The aftermath of the Great Depression put a lot of people in desperate need of employment, and as the economy took to the service industry, more and more undereducated, impoverished people had no other choice but to turn to these low-income jobs. The country’s shift to a service economy meant that laborers were now being paid lower wages, leaving service industry employees unable to afford the rising costs of housing. Coupled with higher housing costs and lower wages, when people turned to social welfare programs, they found these programs to be lacking in funds as well.

Additionally, there was a campaign to “Deinstitutionalize” people held in mental asylums. While the campaign itself was well-intended, its applications were lacking in structure, and instead of providing patients with proper access to mental health resources, people with mental disabilities were released to fend for themselves. The neglect of these institutions led to the increasing numbers of mental health patients facing housing insecurity. To make matters worse, gentrification policies (made to bring in wealthy real-estate investors and high-income residents to underdeveloped parts of the city) led to the displacement of many low-income families, putting them out of their homes. These policies disproportionately  affect people of color, something that has forced many marginalized communities to fall prey to an endless cycle of poverty and degradation.

Unfortunately, one of the most concerning additions to the homeless population is the disproportionate number of youths that identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community. According to a recent study conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, LGBTQ+ youth had a 120% higher risk of experiencing homelessness. These members who already belong to an ostracized community can become more vulnerable to harassment, violence and hate crimes.

Additionally, unable to find jobs after returning home from military service, many veterans end up homeless with nowhere else to go. Although places do exist to support veterans who experience homelessness, many are either unaware of the resources at hand, or too ashamed to use these resources. As a result of the social stigma surrounding the topic, people experiencing homelessness often become withdrawn from society.

Society’s Attitudes Toward the Homeless

A bench that has armrests in-between to prevent laying down
Source: Yahoo Images; An example of hostile architecture that prevents the unhoused from sleeping on benches

Homelessness is received with wildly different attitudes among different cultures. America is a very diverse country, with people that share hundreds of different cultures and traditions, and these cultural attitudes can carry over in the way they respond to contemporary social issues. Different cultures share a varying definition of what a “home” means, and even more distinctions in their approach toward people experiencing homelessness. What the dominant White culture might consider to be a home, (an individual unit of space for nuclear families), might not be what someone who belongs to the Indigenous population believes. They might argue that a home is where you can interact with your community, a place to feel safe and share with friends and family. Even the attitudes toward helping people who are unhoused have strict cultural implications. As described in Islam, it is part of the every-day religious ritual of a Muslim to give alms and help the poor in their community. In Hinduism, while helping the poor with food and shelter is allowed, certain castes are not allowed to eat alongside with or sit beside  people of lower castes. People experiencing homelessness have their own unique culture, where certain skills or strategies for survival on the streets are shared amongst each other.

Along with all these complexities, the unhoused also undergo various types of stigmas, including social stigma, and cultural stigma. Social stigma can be discrimination and harassment directed toward the homeless population by the institutions, systems and people that make up society. Cultural stigma can refer to the stigma expressed by friends and family members or other religious or cultural institutions that may shame and blame the victims for being homeless.

Unhoused people also have a hard time finding employment. This is partly due to the fact that the job application requires a home address for the application process to be completed. As a result, people who are dispossessed also experience difficulties when finding housing. The applications for apartments include a proof of income/employment section and applying for government housing takes months to be processed and reviewed. Many states have long and complicated application processes, and even then, it is not a guaranteed housing option. Nevertheless, applicants can be denied, and they would still need a place to stay while awaiting their application to be approved.

Adding to these difficulties, people in the homeless community are constantly harassed with wild stares or abuse, (both verbal and physical), from members of society. The law enforcement agency, an institution designed to serve and protect people of the community, may make matters worse by deteriorating the situation further. Without proper training, police approach the homeless defensively, ready to attack at the slightest “abnormal” reactions. What they haven’t been trained to realize is that many people experiencing homelessness are also at high-risk of developing mental health issues due to the stress and realities of being homeless. These altercations can turn deadly, and unfortunately, many people of the homeless community have either been locked up or even killed by officers of the law. Many of these instances were even caught on camera, yet these officers faced little to no accountability or legal punishment.

People experiencing homelessness are also easy targets to getting their possessions robbed, and many times, police will raid their camps and confiscate what few belongings they might acquire, including sleeping tents and toiletries. Society also treats the homeless population as a burden and blames them for being “lazy” or “druggies” or “criminals/suspicious,” without any provocation from the homeless community. It can be especially insulting for the people experiencing homelessness to be judged for their situation while society simultaneously fails to criticize the state’s inability to protect peoples’ fundamental human rights to food, shelter, and other basic needs.

The Legal Response to Homelessness in America

Spikes under bridges
Source: Yahoo Images; An example of hostile architecture to deter the homeless from sleeping under bridges

The legal response to the homelessness crisis in America has not been a heartwarming one either. Urban cities all over the United States have put in place anti-homelessness measures, otherwise known as hostile architecture. These include slanted benches, benches divided by armrests, spiked and rocky pavements to prevent people from sleeping there, and even boulders under bridges. Not only are these measures inhumane, they also cost the tax-payers a lot of money. These atrocious tactics are put in place to discourage homelessness, attempting to connect rising numbers of homelessness to increased crime rates. As recently as July of this year, Los Angeles even went so far as to make homelessness downright illegal, restricting homeless encampments in majority of the city. The city has even  prohibited the homeless from sitting, sleeping, or laying in public.  Due to the fact that homelessness overwhelmingly affects people who belong to already marginalized communities, a rights-based approach is necessary, one that addresses the existing systemic issues which need to be fixed first.

Covid-19 and How it Continues to Impact the Homeless Population

An image of a crowded homeless shelter
Source: Yahoo Images; Homeless shelters can be crowded, without proper social distancing measures in place

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact many different communities in a variety of ways. The pandemic hit especially hard among the homeless population, where access to hygienic products are often slim, if not non-existent. People experiencing homelessness may not have the ability to continuously wash and sanitize their hands, with limited access to clean water and soap products. They also been experience complications with social distancing measures, forced to be in crowded spaces like homeless shelters, which has only increased their risks of getting infected. Furthermore, even when infected, or exposed to the disease, the homeless population has very limited ability to quarantine, further allowing the spread of the disease to others in close proximity. The unhoused population has limited access to healthcare and medicinal treatments, and many are already immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions, which increases their vulnerability of catching the disease. Stereotypes geared toward the homeless population labeling them as “junkies” or “druggies” has influenced the care they receive, leading to many cases of misdiagnoses or mistreatment as a result of biases held by healthcare professionals and others in the health care industry. Due to the rise in unemployment numbers during the economic shutdown as a response to the pandemic, millions of people who did not qualify for unemployment benefits, and could not make ends meet, also became homeless as a result.

Some Successful Approaches to Ending Homelessness

A person sitting next to a hostile architecture with a sign reading, "Homes Not Spikes"
source: yahoo images; An unhoused person advocating against hostile architecture

There have been some successful attempts at ending homelessness in America as well as in other nations. Utah attempted to decrease its rates of homelessness back in 2015, which successfully reduced its homelessness by 91%. They executed a policy known as “Housing First,” which gave their chronically homeless populations free housing, a decision that cost the state less money than alternative anti-homelessness measures. This program unfortunately has not been a complete success, as people experiencing homelessness in other states have been migrating to Utah, making it too expensive for Utah alone to pay for the country’s increasing homelessness crisis. A national policy, on the other hand, that could implement the Housing First approach taken by Utah, may be the easiest, and essentially cheapest option to ending the homelessness crisis in America. This is essentially what Finland did. In 2019, Finland approached the homelessness issue with the most obvious of answers, by providing housing for all those who are unhoused. Like Utah, they applied the “Housing First” policy, (which came with no strings attached), recognizing that housing is an essential human right that should be protected and promoted. They also understand that in the long run, providing the homeless population with housing is the cheaper option to society. Also, as examined earlier, if applied in America, this Housing First policy will inevitably save more lives, with fewer interactions between the homeless and the police.

While homelessness is not something people are normally born into, the unhoused face discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization from society just as much as any other group. Although people’s socioeconomic status is a major factor in determining who is most vulnerable to experiencing homelessness, as we’ve seen in the case of the LGBTQ+ youth, and older veterans as well, homelessness can impact people of any and all races, at various age levels, and at any given time. The pandemic itself has expanded the homeless population as people are unable to pay their backed-up rent or mortgage payments. While alternative approaches can assist to eradicate levels of homelessness in our society as implemented in Finland and Utah, it is crucial that we also continue to destigmatize being homeless in American society and take a rights-based approach to finding long-term solutions to end their suffering.