A dreadful, familiar scene is playing out in Minneapolis, as people protesting against the police killing of George Floyd have been met with rubber bullets and tear gas. And the response from public officials, pundits all over the political spectrum, and the media is following the same patterns we’ve seen time and again.
While right-wing protesters like the “reopen” gangs rampaging across state capitals in the past few weeks can essentially do whatever they want without fear of violence from the cops, or handwringing from the media about whether or not they have legitimate political grievances, Black Lives Matter protesters don’t have the same luxury. They get teargassed, the media focuses on the arson and the anger — local coverage in Minneapolis can’t get enough of the looting and the damage to a police precinct and an AutoZone — without getting to the politics beneath that anger, and politicians can’t even say the right words to try to placate the communities they claim to be in touch with most.
After the initial coverage comes the next phase: the “conversation” about what is to be done. This is happening now: national outlets, such as the New York Times, are depicting reining in the Minneapolis cops as an uphill, probably futile battle, citing the fact that Minneapolis’ own police chief once sued the department over its discriminatory practices. This is, generally speaking, the best we can possibly hope for: An admission that the problem exists and has always existed.
But that doesn’t mean the problem always has to exist. You can argue that other levers of the criminal justice system such as incarceration policy and the political leanings of state and local courts and DA’s offices are slowly changing, but the cops and especially the cop unions refuse to budge. When prosecutors and mayors even gesture at criticism, let alone reform, they attack. When given a range of choices, they opt for the most reactionary. When faced with evidence of a problem, they refuse to admit it exists.
This is because, quite simply, they haven’t had to. The cops are a special interest group, and along with your local real estate magnates and chamber of commerce, they’re one of the most powerful in your area. They’ve whipped everyone from the city council to your U.S. senators into shape, to the point where Amy Klobuchar, a former presidential candidate who struggled badly with black voters and who’s very publicly vying for a promotion, couldn’t do anything more than flail at the right words when she tried to talk about Floyd’s killing.
The history obviously matters. The fact that policing is just one tentacle of systemic racism that pervades society matters. But we’ve been having a “national conversation” about racist violence at the hands of the police for years, and while liberal politicians have generally gotten more adept at getting the terminology right (with some notable exceptions), their solutions still largely boil down to a holistic approach. If you’ve ever sat in a circle at a local middle school with two cops and a bunch of residents as part of a city-mandated “community conversation,” you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Sure, firing all four police officers allegedly involved in Floyd’s killing is a good start, but it’s a decidedly non-systemic answer to a systemic problem, and doesn’t answer the question of why a cop with reportedly over a dozen complaints over the course of his career was never even disciplined. (Doing so, to be clear, would indict a potential Democratic vice presidential nominee.)
There’s a strain of thought on the left that says policing in America isn’t broken, it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to. That’s largely true in that it serves to protect property and subjugate the poor and working class and people of color, but it inadvertently lets politicians at all levels off the hook for an active choice they’re making to let the police run wild on marginalized communities, particularly those made up of black and brown people.
This is made all the more outrageous by the fact that white people, so long as they pass for middle-class or more well-off than that, are governed by a parallel system of policing that rarely elicits the violent response from the cops seen in the deaths of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and so many other people of color over the past several years. Yet even when examples of both are fresh in the public consciousness, the kind of fixes suggested do nothing to get us closer to even something as imperfect as the flawed but rarely lethal policing most white Americans encounter.
Looming over all of this is the growing movement to abolish the police entirely. It’s true that reformism might be ultimately doomed, and that a more radical solution could be needed. But in the meantime, there are things that could be done to limit the damage that aren’t just sensitivity training or community policing or diversifying the police force. Take guns away from cops, and take all of the high-grade military shit out of commission. Set up citizens’ panels or boards or independent offices to investigate police misconduct, appoint special prosecutors in cases such as this, make the police leadership more directly accountable to the public, and so on. These are not perfect solutions by any means, but they all share in common an identification that the problem lies with policing rather than the people and communities being policed.
Of course, all of this only happens if the public wants it, more specifically if white people want it enough to vote for it. But right now, a lot of this isn’t even on the ballot or up for discussion, and it needs to be. At this point, the conversation just isn’t enough anymore.
Screenshot via KARE-11