America looks today like a failed state. A botched response to a global pandemic has left over a hundred thousand dead, the worst fatalities in the world. The sloppy, unhasty lock-down and lopsided stimulus in response to the pandemic has now hurled us toward a second Great Depression. And now, police violence has triggered monumental unrest throughout the country.
Let’s be clear. We must make a distinction between the protestors and the rioters and looters. There were tens of thousands of protestors in many of the afflicted cities. Only a few hundred rioters and looters, though.
Because if tens of thousands of people had rioted, then there would be no Philadelphia, there’d be no Minneapolis. If tens of thousands of people set out to burn a city down, then it will be burnt down. Whether looting is really a political act is open to debate, but Dr. Martin Luther King’s remark that a “riot is the language of the unheard” has been quoted quite a bit in the last few days. It’s important to note, though, that while he sympathized with the anger that led to rioting, he objected to it both on moral and practical grounds–because he feared that rioting could be used as justification for further oppression and would alienate large segments of the white populace. We can see from the currents in online discourse that he continues to be hauntingly prescient to this very day.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail and other writings, Dr. King speaks about the need for discipline among non-violent protestors. In preparing for marches and demonstrations, he knew it was asking a great deal, asking perhaps something unnatural, for protestors to not react to violence, to meet sometimes horrific attacks with peace and restraint.
This component of the campaign for Civil Rights took planning and coordination.
Spontaneous protests like those that sprang up over the past several days in the wake of the murder of George Floyd obviously cannot benefit from that kind of planning and coordination. To be sure, many march organizers worked hard to ensure that the protests remained nonviolent, but other forces have now conspired against those best intentions.
We don’t yet have a clear picture of what those forces are. Obviously, some of the looting is simple opportunism. But there seem to be radical elements from the left and right–although they may only be from the right posing as the left–looking to exploit this moment toward their own ends. There may be instigation from foreign agents using the Internet to stoke our divisions. There were other moments where police have prompted violence through unwarranted use of force. These contributing factors may never come into perfect focus. Only time will tell.
What we can reflect on now, though, is another kind of restraint, another kind of discipline.
The police are the segment of our society to whom we, typically, grant a monopoly on the use of force. In theory, this monopoly is wielded in order to serve and protect the public’s interest in maintaining law and order.
But, of course, there are problems implicit in this long-standing arrangement. What if, for example, the order the police maintain is corrupt? What if, as was the case during segregation, the law itself is immoral? And even if the laws and the societal order being protected are just, what kind of discipline does this monopoly on force require of its agents?
We know a lot about how wielding power, particularly violent power, shapes human behavior. From historical case evidence to psychological studies, we can see how dangerous a monopoly on the use of violence can be. To wield it responsibly is asking at least as much if not more than King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement asked of the members of their movement.
And, to be sure, there are many fine civil servants who wield that power ethically and responsibility, fully cognizant of their duty to the public, the entire public–victim and accused alike. In recent days, we have seen many officers and departments reaching out to stand in solidarity with outraged communities.
But we’ve also seen too many times that there are many within our police forces who do not wield their power ethically, and I’m not even talking about Derek Chauvin and the other officers who held down George Floyd.
What about the cops in riot gear, chomping at the bit to bash some skulls? What about the officers indiscriminately shoving people to the ground as they advance through the streets? What about the police vehicles being used like battering rams on assembled crowds? What about the cops hosing down protestors with pepper spray from car windows? What about reporters being hit with rubber bullets or beaten with plexiglass barriers?
How do we address this kind of police behavior? This is the conduct of police forces in an authoritarian state, and there’s no place in a democracy for this kind of behavior. There is a pervasive problem in police culture, an us vs. them mentality that allows officer to dehumanize and assault the very people they are meant to serve, along with an insular ethos whereby bad cops are not called to task by their peers.
Obviously, protests and video records of these abuses and crimes bring greater visibility to the problem of police abusing their monopoly on the use of force, but they do not in themselves present a clear path forward. The protests’ purpose is to bank social capital to leverage change (something the distraction of violence and looting makes harder, so we should all keep our focus on the positive direction of the much larger non-violent demonstrations) and we should be careful not to squander that capital.
Bringing Chauvin and his accomplices to justice is not enough. We need systemic change to maintain this visibility and make police procedure transparent so that bad cops are flushed out of the system, or at least too damned scared to abuse their power. (In fairness, many departments have already moved in this direction and, nationwide, police killings are down compared to past years.) Given the role that video evidence has played in bringing so many of these kinds of crimes to light, it’s tempting to push–as so many of us did years ago during the rise of Black Lives Matters–for more body cameras. According to the Police Use of Force Project, though, these tools are too easy for crooked cops to circumvent and have not correlated with fewer police killings. Instead, their research shows that demilitarization, greater oversight (especially federal oversight), and more emergency response options for communities lead to the best outcomes when seeking to reduce criminal transgressions by the police.
We need tougher standards for cops (and I’d say, better pay to recruit better candidates to replace the officers who need to be purged from the ranks for their crimes) and we need to demilitarize the police departments and reculture them so they do not think they are fighting a war on the communities they’re meant to serve.
All of this calls for national leadership that we are unlikely to see until after the election. It may also feel inadequate to those of us who remain deeply troubled by the rise in overt racism in our society over the last few years. There is ample evidence that racism and implicit and institutional bias are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that overt, visible statements of racist sentiment had become taboo in American society in the last generation and that that taboo has subsequently been worn away over the last few years, allowing all manner of repugnant displays–from public harassment of people of color to white nationalist marches–to become more commonplace.
Policy can’t create taboos. The taboo against explicit racism that seemed to have taken root in American thought only a decade ago can only be rebuilt and strengthened by loud, unequivocal anti-racism from all of us. Tens of thousands of Americans in the street saying “enough” is certainly a powerful way to push back against the tide of ugly racism that’s risen the last few years.
But that racism is only one dimension of the problem with our police forces and those problems require targeted and informed policy decisions–from both local and national elected officials.
That means the next front in the campaign for justice for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Sandra Bland, for Philando Castile, for Eric Garner and for all the victims will be waged on November 3rd.