We Need The Police To Enforce Equal Justice and Protect Ordinary Citizens, Not to Go Away

As I was half way through the writing of this piece, Donald Trump took to the podium yesterday on the White House lawn and announced that he was signing an executive order involving very minimal gestures towards police reform. While no mention was made of Black Lives Matter, Trump did mention the protests—as an occasion to reiterate his attack on their “radical left” organizers and to remind everyone that if necessary he can use federal troops to “restore order.” The speech was in essence a “Blue Lives Matter” speech. But it was also a conventional, right-wing “law and order” speech.

The speech was one more reprehensible speech act delivered by this reprehensible racist president.

And yet, while the speech completely misrepresented the current protests and the moral force of their demands, I fear that Trump’s rhetorical appeal to the heroic aspects of police as first responders might strike a chord with some listeners and voters. It may well be that most such people are simply primed to support him anyway. It surely is true that the current discourse of “defund the police” covers a wide range of possible changes, many of them profoundly compelling, and it also seems true that this discourse is effectively mobilizing large numbers of active citizens willing to take to the streets in protest.

Perhaps the rhetoric of “defunding” and even “abolitionism” has real traction. I continue to worry that it is also easily caricatured, and might provoke a serious electoral backlash. But my bigger concern is not tactical but programmatic. This concern can be summed up in a simple question: is it really true that what is necessary now is not simply the substantial “reform” of policing, but its dramatic diminishment if not its abolition?

I doubt that it is. I am who I am, and I am not who I am not. I am aware of this. Each of us has the identity we have. And while I do not endorse simplistic slogans of any kind, including “Silence=Racism,” I do believe it is my responsibility to think for myself and to say what I think when it comes to important public issues.

And, as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter protests, I disagree with those who advocate the general dismantlement or abolition of police forces.

And this brings me to the story with which I originally intended to begin this piece: yesterday’s news that on June 15, 2020—last Monday— Albuquerque citizens demonstrating against racism were stopped in their tracks when four shots rang out from a crowd of right-wing “civil guard” militia wearing military garb and carrying semi-automatic rifles. The shots terrified the crowd of demonstrators and critically wounded one man. The Albuquerque police then arrested a number of the militia group members, in connection with the shooting (there is apparently some question about whether the shooter himself was actually a member of the group). “The heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said in a statement. “To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry — with an implicit threat of violence — is on its face unacceptable; that violence did indeed occur is unspeakable.”

This is not an isolated incident. Only a few weeks ago armed right-wing militias descended on statehouses across the country to protest COVID restrictions and to intimidate Democratic politicians, to the applause of Trump, who Tweeted about “liberating Virginia” and alluding to the Second Amendment. More recently, when Trump has repeatedly sought to cast the Black Lives Matters demonstrations as being organized by “Antifa” intent on promoting violence, it was correctly emphasized by left publications that the real danger of such violence comes from the right, and that there was substantial evidence that it was right-wing activists who were fomenting violence during the protests. In late April, for example, the Nation ran a piece entitled “For White Nationalists, Covid-19 Came Right on Time.” The following week the New Republic published a similar piece on “The All-Consuming White Pandemic Protester,” pointing out that “As white armed protesters flood state capitols to be marveled at by the media and left alone by police, workers of color are fighting for their survival.” This is a common point of reference on the left, and rightly so. Back in January 2019, Adam Serwer, one of the very best writers on the far-right and its racism, published a piece in theAtlantic on “The Terrorism That Doesn’t Spark a Panic,” and in June 2017 an In These Times headline stated the issue plainly: “Don’t Blame the Left for Political Violence in America: The Problem Lies with the Right.”

The violence here is real and dangerous, as Monday’s situation in Albuquerque makes clear.

Also real is the overlap between this paramilitary violence and certain police officers and unions who sympathize with and are linked to the far-right. There is a real fascist tendency here, which must be acknowledged and opposed.

But it is equally clear that when this far-right violence occurs, unless we are committed anarchists willing to advocate armed counter-violence, we can only look to the police to step in, arrest the perpetrators, and initiate a process of criminal justice. And it is often the failure of this to occur that drives demonstrations protesting that Black lives don’t matter and insisting that Black lives do matter.

On February 26, 2012, 17-year old Trayvon Martin was followed and then shot to death by George Zimmerman, an informal “neighborhood watchman” who considered the African-American young man a “dangerous” interloper. Zimmerman claimed that he felt threatened by Martin, and had simply exercised his legal rights under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. Almost seven weeks later Zimmerman was finally arrested, charged with second-degree murder, and then acquitted in a Florida court. This outrage played an important role in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The outrage related to the crime. But also to the failure of the police to promptly arrest Zimmerman and the failures of the prosecution to take his prosecution seriously.

On February 23, 2020—almost eight years to the day after the Martin murder—Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year old African-American man, was chased down by a white father and son while he was jogging in his own Atlanta neighborhood, cornered, and shot to death. Four months later, no arrests had yet been made, in part because a local prosecutor maintained that the killers were acting within Georgia’s citizen arrest and self-defense statutes. But in early May police finally arrested the two killers. A third suspect was subsequently arrested, and all three are now being charged with murder. But this only occurred after the delays were challenged by mass protests demanding the arrest and prosecution of the killers and the resignations of those prosecutors reluctant to bring charges. “Justice for Ahmaud is more than just the arrests of his killers,” said John Perry, president of the NAACP chapter in Brunswick, Georgia at the rally on Saturday, according to the Associated Press. “Justice is saying that we’ve got to clean up the house of Glynn County.”

Perry did not call for stringing these men up to the nearest tree—or for some other form of vigilantism or “popular justice.” He called for the arrest and prosecution of the criminals (and for a system of criminal justice and incarceration centered on the justified punishment of truly dangerous criminals).

And do you imagine that when the shots went off in Albuquerque, those good citizens who were in the street protesting racism were sorry to see the police arrive on the scene and arrest the shooter?

I doubt it.

Julian Castro did post a video of the “civil guard” mob on Twitter along with this caption: “One of these New Mexico right-wing militia members just shot a person. Notice how calmly they’re all being detained. Don’t tell me George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks and Eric Garner—who did not harm anybody—couldn’t be treated differently.” There is a critique of policing here. But it is not a denunciation of the fact that there were police officers called to arrest the militiamen. It was a call for more proportionate police responses across the board, much more “civilly” in dealing with the above-named victims of police killing, and perhaps less “civilly” when dealing with armed thugs who were not Black. In the same way, the Common Dreams story covering the event bore the sub-heading “These extremists cannot be allowed to silence peaceful protests or inflict violence,” in other words, more must be done by law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute these extremist groups in order to protect ordinary citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.

While the troubling racism of U.S. police is undeniable, “police” is not always synonymous with “oppressor,” and the critique of policing is often powered by a demand for better, safer, and more egalitarian law enforcement.

It is true that the American system of policing is rooted in a history of violent class conflicts and efforts to control labor and a history of slave patrols and forms of racial domination.

And it is true that the current failings, cruelties, brutalities, and injustices of the American system of policing are rooted in that history of injustice.

It is also true that everything about American politics and society is rooted in the historical injustices of capitalism and racism and the violence associated with them.

This is why the protests sweeping the country are so important, and why demands for substantial police reforms, de-militarization, and the creation and funding of alternative forms of community conflict resolution and problem-solving are so necessary. And to the extent that calls for “defunding” bring these issues to the fore, and sustain the political pressure to drive such major policy changes, then all to the good.

But this history of violence is also why the call for the abolition of police, or even an actual substantial “defunding,” are off the mark in a programmatic sense, and does not in my opinion represent the kind of real change that people rightly angry about police brutality seek. Because the U.S. remains an extremely violent society, in ways that the rhetoric of “abolish the police” either ignores or imagines away.

The U.S. is the by far the most armed society in the world not suffering from civil war. It is estimated that in 2019 alone 13.9 million firearms were purchased by Americans. Last March—a few months ago—more than two millionguns were purchased in response to fears of the coronavirus. According to one estimate, Americans own more than 390 million firearms. The epidemic of gun violence has long been well-understood, and it is one of the reasons why serious gun control is such an important issue to many people, including many progressives. Most of the millions upon millions of guns are probably the legally obtained possessions of law-abiding citizens—and indeed, alas, a great many of those involved in “militias” are such “law-abiding” citizens, even when they tote their semi-automatic assault rifles around state capitol buildings. But many of these guns are illegally obtained and/or in the hands of violent criminals. Regardless, there are millions of violent people out there in the larger society, everywhere, with guns. These people—of all racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and class backgrounds– are the products of their violent and unjust society. But they pose a danger to society nonetheless.

The danger is real, and it is widely distributed throughout the society—to suburban and urban schoolchildren and civil rights activists and abortion providers and mosque and synagogue congregants and the largely African-Americanresidents of inner cities. And one of the things that must be relied upon to deal with this danger is a well-run policing system consisting of properly-trained police officers who properly do their job. The current system is not well run, and too many of its officers are not properly trained in the range of responsibilities attached to their jobs, and too many of these officers do their jobs very poorly, some even criminally so. More important, the current system is infused with a culture of violence and racism.  And it is inextricably linked both to histories of racism and to extremely punitive and unjust laws designed to sustain a vast “prison industrial complex.” There is “a carceral state,” as so many scholars have documented, none more powerfully or influentially than Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (a seminal book made even more relevant by the replacement of Obama by Trump, who has done his best to return the U.S. to an age of color-conscious white racism). All aspects of this system deserve to be contested, protested, changed, as I’ve argued in a piece last week. And such efforts ought to be part of a broader agenda of racial and socio-economic justice. But unless one is an anarchist serious about walking the talk, none of this can mean that policing is a dispensable occupation or that it is a job that can be properly done in this country by anyone other than trained, professional police that are accountable to serious civilian oversight.

There is too much police violence, including gun violence. And there is too much violence in general. These things must be changed. And changing them should be linked to broader struggles against racism, and unfair drug laws and punitive sentencing and asset forfeiture, as Black Lives Matters activists properly maintain.

But “abolition” goes a step further. Mariame Kaba writes in the New York Times (“Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police”) that “The only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police.” It might be true that the only way to diminish police violence is to make the police go away. But it is also true that if the police went away, there would likely remain a great many occasions when violence between individuals or groups would simply be perpetrated with no consequence. As long as there are lynchings of African-Americans or LGBT teenagers, and violent felons and armed neo-Nazi groups and street gangs, and “domestic disturbances” typically involving violent intimidation or rape, we will need police. There are many functions currently fulfilled by police officers that can and should be fulfilled by social workers, mental health professionals, or even community volunteers. Everything that is possible should be done to promote practices of community care and to invest resources in such practices. But when an armed robbery or a school or nightclub shooting is taking place, or a spouse or child is being beaten, or racist thugs are attacking a man like Ahmaud Arbery, or far-right “militias” are threatening peaceful protestors in the light of day, in such circumstances–all too frequent in our violent society—genuine “public safety” will require the intervention of police professionals familiar with the neighborhoods in which they work and trained in tactics of de-escalation, civil mediation and the justified and efficient use of force as a last resort.

Nothing I’ve said above should be interpreted as a critique of the current protests or of the broadly Black Lives Matter message that animates them. Today’s criminal justice system is unjust. It must be changed, and changing it means challenging its racism. Policing must be transformed. Certain police departments should surely be placed into federal receivership or otherwise regulated by an activist Justice Department. Some, like the Minneapolis department, may require a drastic overhaul. Some are much larger than they need to be, or allocate resources toward forms of equipment that are unjustified, and serious reallocation of resources is often called for. Major reforms are necessary. The Justice in Policing Act (full text here), spearheaded in the House by Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Karen Bass, leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, and introduced in the House Judiciary Committee by Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Ilhan Omar, is one important first step. (For an overview, I recommend the two-page Fact Sheetfrom the Congressional Black Caucus.) The actual policy debates taking place in cities across the country, from Minneapolis to San Francisco to New York, are important. Organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative,  The Sentencing Project and The Marshall Project continue publicize and promote a range of important proposals.

But these debates proceed from the premise that equal protection under the law is a constitutional norm and a moral value whose realization is a worthwhile political goal, and that the legal system is something more than a means of brutalizing and oppressing people of color or subaltern groups more generally. In a recent Intercept piece, Chenjerai Kumanyika, an educator and BLM activist, took Barack Obama to task for calling on police officers and departments to reform themselves so that more police officers can do their jobs in the right, legal, and civically respectful way. Kumanyika insisted that Obama was idealizing what is essentially a form of oppression plain and simple:

“Derek Chauvin was doing his job when he arrested Floyd. You might feel that he didn’t do his job well, but the police union will likely disagree with you. . . . It was not the job of the police to understand why Floyd may have been using a counterfeit $20 bill; it was to ensure that he would be obedient — even though he did not resist arrest. . . . It was also the job of the police to ensure the subservience of the others who courageously attempted to reason with Chauvin and save Floyd’s life . . . When people hit the streets in outrage, it was the job of the police to enter their neighborhoods in armed trucks, with heavy tactical gear.”

Obama of course knows that this is too often the way police behave. That is why his administration pursued some very serious and consequential reforms. And it is why he is now calling for more substantial change. But Obama refuses to accept that “the job of the police” is to harass and kill people like George Floyd and those who protest on their behalf. He insists it is not, properly speaking, the job of the police to do these things, and that these things are both wrong and illegal—and that it is essential to bring conduct into alignment with current laws while at the same time improving the laws.

Keith Ellison, the Black and Muslim former civil rights activist and chief supporter of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, who is the recently-elected Attorney General of Minnesota, agrees with Obama here. He is insisting that Chauvin and his colleagues were not doing their job properly, they were using force excessively, and that it is his job to have the police arrest these men, charge them with murder, and prosecute and convict them for their criminal actions.

Is Ellison a fool who is ignorant about the history of racism and believes that police officers are great? No. He is a responsible and responsive elected official trying to use the powers of the government to realize the principle of equal justice under the law. He is thus now in the center of the important debate about how to transform policing and the system of criminal justice more generally, through legal change and through the election and selection of prosecutors committed to equal justice.

These debates are obviously related to broader debates about justice that will surely inform the Democratic party platform this year. More needs to be done to support a dramatic public program of reinvestment in the inner cities, attacking the “structural violence” that many suffer, and contributing to the development of civil society institutions. There is no reason to expect the current protests to stop just because a good law is passed or a good change made here or there. The issues are deep, and it is the job of protest movements to keep the pressure on. In the same way, it is the job of elected public officials, and the political parties with whom they are associated, to respond to and channel such energy into meaningful policy change.

And it is the job of writers to say what they think. And while I support the protests, I think those who are serious about the “abolition” or radical “defunding” rather than the reform of policing are mistaken.

There is a crisis in American policing, and it must be addressed.

But addressing it means transforming policing, not ending it.

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