Academic societies' role in curbing police brutality

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Science  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6497, pp. 1322
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd1932

The shocking death of George Floyd is unfortunately not a singular event in the United States. Eric Garner, Michael Br own, Freddie Gray, Amadou Diallo (1), and Breonna Taylor (2) are just a few examples from a long list of unarmed Black people who have died at the hands of the police. This pattern of violence is deeply rooted in the history of Black-White relations in the United States and the failure of the leaders of this country to deal with systemic racism. As professional physicists, we suggest that professional science and humanities organizations such as the American Physical Society (APS) take action by refusing to hold conferences in cities where police brutality takes place.

The APS and many other professional societies host large meetings in cities across the United States. APS cancelled a 2018 meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, to oppose a law that discriminated against the LGBT community (3). The American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science) has also selected cities for meetings based on their record of civil rights, including excluding the “Jim Crow” South from consideration and supporting states that ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (4). In this spirit, professional societies should protect Black people by meeting only in cities that implement evidence-based policies to limit the use of force by police. Academic societies should also assess cities' responses to police brutality, such as the transparency of communication and whether offending officers have been fired and charged with a crime. Social scientists have researched policies that can reduce police violence [e.g., (5)], and we encourage science societies to use this evidence to develop a set of criteria.

Economic pressure has historically been an effective strategy in bringing about social change. A decision to stop doing business in cities with inadequate protective policies would be similar to the divestment movement in South Africa in the 1980s (6), which was pivotal in ending apartheid. It would also be in keeping with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s boycott of businesses in the South that refused to hire Black people (7). Academic societies should encourage positive change by sending a powerful message: Cities that reduce police brutality through egalitarian reforms will yield substantial financial benefits.

By using their power of the purse to oppose racist policing, professional societies would also be protecting their minority members, who might, for example, decide during a meeting to take a run through city streets while being Black. The ongoing protests demonstrate that established norms of social and race relations are changing. It is time for professional societies to live up to their charge of positively affecting society by taking a stand against police brutality in deed as well as in word.

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