The year 2020 is proving to be the year of global disease, economic collapse, and mass rebellion against police brutality in the United States.
Sparked by the police murder of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, the status quo in the United States is collapsing, shaken by a largely youth-led anti-racist protest movement of unprecedented scope. Set against the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic, mass unemployment, and the spectacularly inept, reactionary leadership of President Trump, the protests have acquired the force of a mass movement unseen in many decades.
It’s a sign of just how bad policing is in the United States, how decayed the state of official justice, that protests against police brutality have been met with even more police brutality. From city to city, numerous incidents of police assaults on peaceful demonstrators, media crews, medical aid workers, and even bystanders have occurred. Pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, driving police vehicles into crowds, slashing car tires, and the old stand-bys of shoving, punching, and kicking are the tools of this organized repression. In the first two weeks of the protests, more than 10,000 people had been arrested.
Even with cities already on edge, police can’t stop themselves from doing what they do, escalating minor incidents with Black citizens into deadly encounters, as the June 12 shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta demonstrates.
The System is Rotten. The pervasive brutality on display destroys the illusion that police violence is just a matter of the proverbial few “bad apples.” From the report of the nine-year old girl in Seattle pepper-sprayed in the face by police to 75-year-old Martin Gugino knocked to the ground in Buffalo with a serious head injury, accounts of police violence have unfolded in all their manifold ugliness
In Minneapolis, residents of a quiet residential street on their front porch had paint canisters shot at them by a moving squad of police. Shouting orders for people to go inside, the police waited only seconds before firing at residents. In New York City, a cop used two hands to violently shove a young woman to the pavement, shouting “stupid f—ing b—h” as he did so. The assault put Dounya Zayer, 20, in the hospital.
Further, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented (as of June 21) more than 430 incidents of police assaults, arrests, and harassment of journalists since the protests began. One Louisville cop shot pepper balls directly at WAVE3 TV reporter Kristen Rust and photojournalist James Dobson. In Los Angeles, KCRW’s Cerise Castle says she was clearly holding her media badge above her head when she was struck by a rubber bullet. In Minneapolis, freelance photographer Linda Tirado was shot in the face with a foam bullet, blinding her in one eye, by an officer who took direct aim at her. With her professional equipment, she says it was clear she was working press. Such incidents have occurred in cities across the nation.
The Limits of Reform. Ironically, Minneapolis was actually one of six cities selected in 2015 as pilot sites for a policing reform initiative supported by President Obama. The initiative emphasized a kind of technocratic, procedurally based approach to the challenge of police reform, as sociologist Alex S. Vitale explains in a recent interview. The goal was to improve police-community relations, reduce racial bias through enhanced training, allow more federal oversight over excessive police use of force, and other desired reforms.
Was this the Obamacare model of health care reform applied to law enforcement, an attempt to address some of the more egregious inequities in the system without challenging the rot at the system’s core? It is not possible for the universal right to health care to be fully realized under a medical system that remains under the sway of finance capital and insurance industry profiteers. Similarly, how is it possible for the police in a class-divided society to “serve and protect” everyone equally when they operate more like a concierge service for those with power and property, rich elites? In the hyper-capitalist citadel of wealth inequality that is the United States, with its long history of persecution of the poor and minorities, police are essentially the shock troop enforcers of an oppressive status quo.
Actually, before the 19th century the police as an organized social institution did not generally exist anywhere, not by any recognizable modern standard, says historian Sam Mitrani, PhD, author of The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850-1894 (University of Illinois Press, 2014). In fact, one of the first organized police forces in the south were the slave patrols. But the expansion of the capitalist economic system brought with it the need for greater mechanisms of direct social control of working-class people. This led to the growing institutionalization of policing, largely set apart from democratic control, and operating as a permanent system to enforce “order” upon the most exploited members of the society.
“The police were created to use violence to reconcile electoral democracy with industrial capitalism,” writes Mitrani. “Today, they are just one part of the ‘criminal justice’ system which continues to play the same role. Their basic job is to enforce order among those with the most reason to resent the system—who in our society today are disproportionately poor black people.”
In the United States, police have long operated with impunity, firmly established in their jurisdictional power within city administrations. These days the police are also increasingly militarized in their operations, using gear and equipment originally designed for the battlefield.
If defunding the police sounds utopian to some, that’s only because police departments have for years gotten essentially everything they wanted, steadily expanding their power and resources. Today, many city budgets reportedly devote anywhere from 20% to 45% of their discretionary funds to policing. In New York City, the original proposed police department budget for 2021 was nearly $6 billion a year. Nationally, police funding now consumes an estimated $100 billion annually.
In Chicago, the city also regularly budgets tens of millions of dollars to settle citizen complaints and misconduct lawsuits brought against police. In 2018, the figure was $113 million for a wide range of charges. According to The Chicago Reporter, total expenditures over a recent eight-year period to settle lawsuits against police was approximately half a billion dollars!
Police Unions: Thugs with Badges. To make matters worse, many police unions are now led by right-wing Trumpites, who talk like thugs with a badge. The president of the Minneapolis police union for years has referred to Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist organization.” The president of the Philadelphia police union once called activists protesting a civilian police killing as “a pack of rabid animals.” This same “union” leader more recently called city leaders “cowards” and “frauds” simply because Philadelphia’s mayor expressed support for an independent review of the city’s response to anti-racism protests. Good luck championing constructive dialogue with these “law enforcement” types!
These far-right police union leaders are not an aberration. A 2016 poll by Police magazine found 84 percent of police planned to vote for Donald Trump in that year’s presidential election. “Law enforcement appears to be the last government institution that is not dominated and controlled by the liberal left,” writes Jim McNeff, managing editor of Law Officer, a police training and media group. “Therefore, they need to take us out at the knees, and it’s happening in real time.”
Notably, one of the group’s associates is Travis Yates, the Tulsa police officer who claimed in a recent interview that “We’re shooting African-Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be, based on the crimes being committed.” This is apparently the same Yates who teaches “warrior-style training” seminars to police departments nationally. When the Minneapolis Mayor banned the police department from participating in the seminar last year, Yates in collaboration with the Minneapolis police union, responded by offering it anyway, free of charge, to any Minneapolis police who wanted to participate.
These so-called warrior training programs are a cottage industry in the police world. They are based on what one proponent calls “killology,” or “the scholarly study of the destructive act.” When the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recently tried to distance itself from the warrior–mindset advocates, Law Officer’s McNeff was prompted to ask, “Are we grooming a bunch of pansies in police leadership?” This is a mentality that belongs in the alleyway dumpsters outside police headquarters.
Further, if anyone wonders how the United States became the world’s leading mass incarceration state, imprisoning a higher percentage of its citizens than any country in the world, it starts with the police. They are the front lines of an exceedingly harsh and coldly unforgiving criminal justice system. The United States claims only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 21 percent of the global population of incarcerated persons. The rate of incarceration of African Americans is more than five times that of whites, according to an NAACP fact sheet. Together, African Americans and Hispanics comprise 56 percent of those incarcerated, a rate far higher than the 32 percent of the population they comprise.
In Portland, Oregon, about half of all arrests in 2017-18 were of people with no fixed address. To be homeless now is to be routinely harassed or arrested by police for all kinds of typically petty violations. If someone without a mailing address then misses a court date, they end up with an arrest warrant.
The massive anti-racist rebellion now unfolding is history in the making. But it is also hope and power in the making, as new generations of minorities and youth discover their voice and solidarity in the streets. This is how the world changes. Indeed, in a few short weeks mass action in the streets has done more to expose racist policing and empower social justice than years of incremental policy legislation, electoral promises, and other business as usual politics ever accomplished.
This is a people’s movement for a more humane and fair society. Led by Black Americans, a diverse coalition of all races are rising up to express how sick they are of the protected status police have in society. They are sick of the official state license of police to abuse and mistreatment, to act like street-level executioners. They are sick of the vast, unforgiving reach of a criminal justice system that at every level, from arrest to prosecution to probation or parole, is so unforgivingly punitive for poor and minority communities.
Defund the police, yes! Stop using armed police for social problems that would be better served by community services and resources. But policing should also be under the direct democratic control of communities. This is a prerequisite for justice. Democracy means real community control, not window dressing for police review boards to offer “input” and “recommendations” that police bureaucrats ignore as they please. Communities should have the right to hire, fire, and regulate all police operations and resources.
From Sea to Shining Sea, People Take the Streets. The massive anti-racist rebellion we are now witnessing stands as a stunning refutation of the violence and racial oppression that has long defined American life. The mass protests are also a refutation of the failures of decades of bipartisan neoliberal politics, the Wall Street-friendly policies that have accelerated extreme wealth inequality, racist mass incarceration policies, and an economy defined by the largest military expenditures in world history.
The election of a Black president in 2008 proved in the end to be largely symbolic. The cost of living, health care, higher education, housing and more, coupled with jobs that for too many pay too little, have steadily eroded the fabric of people’s hopes for a better future. The flag of the democratic ideal flies now at half-mast in the United States, a frayed and faded remnant of a dream that was always illusory for the most downtrodden Americans and oppressed minorities.
“The American empire is imploding, its foundations being shaken with uprising from below,” concludes Harvard professor Cornel West, PhD, in a recent MSNBC interview.
Land of chokeholds, no-knock warrants, tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray, your day is ending! Land of knees on the neck and bullets in the back, justice is coming!
Stay in the streets! Ban it all!