The very public lynching of a black man, George Floyd, three weeks ago on the streets of Minneapolis where I grew up has ignited an outpouring of rage, disgust, and anguish the likes of which the world—or at least the United States—has never seen.
Parallels are drawn to the convulsions that happened after the Rodney King verdicts were handed down, to the Occupy Movement, and for the older among us, to the Vietnam War protests and to the conflagrations in Watts, Newark, Detroit and elsewhere in the 60s.
But what we’re seeing today—starting in a few big cities, but quickly spreading all around the country to cities and towns large and small, and then around the world—is very much its own thing: bigger, broader, more impassioned, more inclusive.
Just the other day, something like 100,000 people—a great many of them white—crowded the streets of Hollywood, demanding that police stop killing black men and women, and chanting that police departments need to be reformed, defunded, or even outright disbanded. Every time you turn around, there’s another huge protest, one larger than the next.
And officials are taking notice:
- The Louisville metro council passed “Breonna’s Law,” banning no-knock warrants as were used in the police killing of Breonna Taylor in her bed.
- Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he will direct $150 million to social services in communities of color out of the LA Police Department budget, after years of boosting police spending at every turn irrespective of crime growth.
- The Minneapolis City Council has announced plans to disband its police department and invest in community-based public safety programs.
What we’re seeing today—starting in a few big cities, but quickly spreading all around the country to cities and towns larger and small, and then around the world—is very much its own thing
And that’s just a sampling, as the calls for true, fundamental change to society’s approach to public safety keep coming from all quarters, thanks especially to the efforts of Black Lives Matter and allied groups.
Those Three Questions
Many of you responded to our survey last week about what kind of changes to policing you would like to see. We laid out a selection of ideas that have been put forward and gave you the opportunity to add your own:
- End consent searches and enforcement of minor offenses that drive street-level harassment, such as those involving minor behaviors and marijuana distribution.
- End the presence of police in schools.
- Develop a variety of social services—rather than using police officers—to support people who have a behavioral or mental health crisis.
- Implement common-sense legal constraints to limit police use of force.
- The calls for defunding or dismantling police departments are rhetorical exercises that will go nowhere once the demonstrations stop.
- Prohibit police unions from lobbying legislative bodies and supporting political candidates.
As you see from the graph, most of the ideas got similar levels of support—except for the idea that the whole brouhaha around police violence will subside once the demonstrations end.
Comments similarly ran the spectrum, from outright abolishing police departments, to various kinds of defunding, to the kind of police reforms that have been pursued for decades. Given our audience, we did not draw the “you’re all a bunch of commie pinkos,” “blue lives/white lives/all lives matter” crowd. That nonsense was not surprisingly, but thankfully, absent from your responses.
Abolish the Police
As Marianne Kaba points out in a recent New York Times opinion piece, life experiences have shown many if not most African Americans feel that police do not come into their communities to protect and serve, but rather as an occupying army: "There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against black people,” Kaba says.
One survey response raised that point:
The police are simply out of control. We need monumental deep change that overwhelmingly acknowledges and decisively addresses the endemic racism, malicious violence, and cultured unaccountability demonstrated over and over by police departments all across our country over generations. We have moved so far in the wrong direction, and these problems have become so embedded, that we will therefore have an exceptionally long and difficult road to bring change.
We need to move quickly to achieve what we can in the near-term, but then not give up, and we must be ready to commit to years and decades of community-guided changes. Garcetti's token $150 million diversion is political theater. Scenes of police captains kneeling and marching with protesters are cute, but literally cannot be trusted. We need bottom-up change, not top-down dictation.
But the whole concept of “defunding” or “disbanding” the police raises alarm, as another respondent remarked:
The term "defunding" will alienate and scare possible supporters of the general idea. We need a better term.
Kaba’s opinion piece can help clarify the position of long-time advocates of abolishing police departments:
But don’t get me wrong. We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.
We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.
Such tide-changing ideas are not new. Community activists and scholars—especially Black activists and scholars—have long considered how to make profound, lasting changes to protect communities that have borne the brunt of police violence, rather than tinkering around the edges with more standard, and perhaps more palatable, police reforms.
The beauty of what we’re seeing with the huge demonstrations going on around the country for now more than two weeks is that the protests aren't confined to the victims of that repression, but that a great many white people—who may be much less impacted by police outrages—are giving full throat to the protests as well. It's said that racism isn't so much a Black problem as it is a white one. People of color know full well the violence police forces bring to their communities. It's too many of us white people who have blinded ourselves to these injustices.
What Defund Actually Means
While “Defund Police” may be a great rallying cry—and apparently it is given the outpourings of support—the implementation devil will be in the details. One respondent phrased that nicely:
Our elected officials for decades have not funded resources that urban communities need and instead funded the police. We must fund schools, affordable housing, healthcare, social services, libraries, after school programs, and job programs with the money that comes from defunding the police.
I can offer my own example of what redirecting police funding to community funding might look like.
Decades ago, in an earlier version of myself, I was deeply involved in founding and running a nonprofit halfway house for alcoholic and drug-addicted men. That’s what I did before LA Progressive, around my day jobs.
And for a couple years, I stepped away from a decent job to open up and then manage the 20-bed facility in the old SRO hotel we managed to secure in Torrance. To me, it was like joining the Peace Corps, a chance to do something different and meaningful for those few years. I called myself “executive director,” though I’m told some of the guys called me “house daddy.”
This was the mid-80s, at the height of the crack epidemic and our “pay what you can” service was desperately needed. As part of the tasks I set for myself, I developed a thick binder with information about every detox, treatment center, jobs service, training facility, counseling center, legal aid organization—you name it, anything that might help the guys in the house get back on their feet—for every corner of far-flung Los Angeles County.
Where I really used my binder was for the stream of newly sober alcoholics and barely clean crack addicts and heroin users who would drag themselves into my little office day after day—men, women, couples, women with children, men with children—all desperately needing a safe place to stay.
But I had just those 20 beds to offer—plus three couches and a couple cots in the garage—which were always full. And we weren’t really set up for women, except for the occasional one I could hire as a cook, and no kids either. So I was on the phone all day long, trying to find some other place they could go.
Occasionally, I’d get lucky, but most of the time it was “sorry, we’re full, too”—this from colleagues I knew who would have helped if they could.
And right there is where “defund the police” comes in. There needed to be a lot more community services available for people trying to get clean and sober—not warehouses, but real services—because the alternative was that these desperate people would cycle down and down, becoming even more of a burden on whatever was left of their families, more trouble that the police would ultimately be called in to handle with their billy clubs and handcuffs.
So time and again, I saw people—whose core problem was an addiction to alcohol and drugs they had not been able to shake—trundled off to jail cells or prison, where I was told drugs and homemade alcohol were plentiful, after which they would be tossed back on the street.
You can't treat an illness with weapons. Billy clubs, handcuffs, stun guns, brute force, and pistols are simply the wrong tools for what needed to be done.
Back on the street, their fundamental problem—their drug addiction or alcoholism—would be utterly untreated. But now, they’d be even further estranged from their family, they’d be even less likely to find a good job, they’d be “watched” by the police everywhere they went.
Most damaging, they’d often have it in their heads that they were losers—a mindset that would bring them back to the crack pipe or bottle far too often.
Most damaging, they’d often have it in their heads that they were losers, that life had nothing good to offer them, that their families and society in general didn’t want to have much to do with them—a mindset that would bring them back to the crack pipe or bottle far too often.
So, instead, police defunding could have led to the creation of trained community health teams that could help these individuals get at the core addiction issues plaguing them, without making them out to be horrible people: jobs, training, counseling, housing, not jail cells.
You can extrapolate that same thinking to providing community health services and housing for LA’s army of homeless people and similar issues we have dumped on police, who are generally ill-equipped to deal with them.
Reform, Not Replace
A number of survey respondents replied with suggestions for ways to reform police departments, some new and some that have been discussed for years. Here are a few:
- I'd like to see a study on how many veterans with military training and service in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are populating our police departments. When I look at videos of how police are dealing with protesters in American cities all I can think of is that this is the behavior of an occupying military.
- Make police accountable for their actions. Don't hide police records of aggression/illegal activity. Require officers to wear and turn on body cameras at every interaction with others. Train officers to follow the law. Punish officers for every illegal/violent action.
- Desegregate public school. It is 66 years since the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education said, “Separate but equal…is inherently unequal. And yet LAUSD and many other public schools remain 90% Black and Latino.
- Cull the police herds of bad actors by holding cops liable for using excessive force or operating outside of local, state or national guidelines with judgments paid from retirement funds or required individual liability insurance ...not taxpayer money! The "bad apples" will price themselves out of jobs.
- Stop using police for ambulance service and social work. Police should be confined to work that requires guns, handcuffs, helicopters, squad cars, and jail cells. Work that could be done by unarmed social service workers—such as dealing with the homeless, drug addiction and alcoholism, school patrols—should not be the purview of police officers.
- No more shielding bad cops. There should be a national database of officers using excessive force and killing people who pose no threat. Officers should not be able to just get another job with another police department after serious misconduct. Police should not have military weapons and equipment.
A confluence of forces have given us a chance at fundamental change: George Floyd’s public lynching, people’s fatigue from being quarantined for the pandemic, disgust that muttonhead is our president, for some of us our angst that our only alternative to muttonhead is Joe Biden, a growing sense life is just not fair for many Americans, a growing and more widespread understanding of the day-in, day-out racism faced by our black and brown communities.
Let’s hope we don’t blow the chance.
Editor, LA Progressive