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Fixing the Police Problem (AKA defining “defund”)

Published by marco on

A Messaging Failure

The phrase “defund the police” is spectacularly terrible optics and messaging. It’s muddled, can be interpreted six ways from Sunday, and can be easily weaponized by an almost overwhelmingly powerful opposition that is utterly uninterested in a generous, or even honest, interpretation.

The phrase “Living Wage” also seems quite innocuous and obvious, but has suffered from decades of picking nits. What does a person really need? What’s the bare minimum someone needs to live? Isn’t that enough? It’s tedious, but the point is that messages have to work for you instead of letting your opponents suck all the life out of you with them.

Or take “Black Lives Matter”. You’d think that would also be straightforward, but even with that message, obstinate people managed to redirect energy into explanations that it doesn’t mean that only black lives matter, an argument that is still occasionally belied by an orator with a bit too much fire in their belly. Most of us instinctively got the message, though.

“Defund the Police” is even more vague and takes even less energy to deflect and deliberately misunderstand. Considering how good a lot of people associated with the protests are at messaging, this leads me to wonder whether the message is being promulgated by the state and the right-wing, interested in defusing and misdirecting the whole movement qua revolt.

I’m kind of embarrassed for whoever came up with it. The fact that everyone now has to define what it means is likely to doom anything actually associated with it. The other side knows how to frame an issue and they know political messaging.

If you have to explain it, you’ve already lost. Drop this albatross.

Systemic Problems

An implicit component of each of the possible definitions is that the U.S. deracialize police. Another is to demilitarize the police.

These problem are endemic, if not immanent. Excising these two components only in the police will do nothing on its own, but it’s a vital component. If America doesn’t fix racism and militarism and its love affair with violence on a systemic level, then whatever we have now will probably rise again.

There is no way to make America “like a European country” without changing its entire attitude toward nearly everything.

America is killing its black people, its poor people. It’s inventing crimes and building a carceral state like the world has never seen. But what it does domestically is actually peanuts compared to what its militaristic, racist, and violent attitude does to people in other countries.

Not only have we forgotten about COVID-19 or the collapse of participatory democracy[1], but we’ve also (perhaps conveniently) forgotten about brutal economic sanctions, ongoing occupations, and military incursions and attacks.

But the issue at hand is America’s inward-pointed violence, specifically toward its poor (and disproportionately black people).

On Domestic Terrorism

To be precise: American police are shooting American citizens exercising their first-amendment right to assemble with “rubber bullets”—which are not made of rubber—and tear gas, which, as a chemical weapon, is prohibited for use in international warfare.

The article Rubber bullet (Wikipedia) describes the effects of non-lethal “rubber” bullets as follows:

“Such “kinetic impact munitions” are meant to cause pain but not serious injury. They are expected to produce contusions, abrasions, and hematomas. However, they may cause bone fractures, injuries to internal organs, or death. In a study of injuries in 90 patients injured by rubber bullets, 1 died, 17 suffered permanent disabilities or deformities and 41 required hospital treatment after being fired upon with rubber bullets.[6] A review of studies covering 1,984 people injured by “kinetic impact projectiles” found that 53 died and 300 were permanently disabled. (Emphasis added.)”

That’s a lot more dangerous than the mainstream media leads us to believe. I think it’s clear that the U.S. police is more violent and more militarized than other OECD countries and that this is what people want to change.

I thought we were already post-racist?

There are those that will argue that America is already post-racist, pointing to affirmative-action programs or other quota-based mechanisms that purport to “fix” racism.

What these programs do is pay lip service to equality without actually changing anything or without making the powers-that-be give anything up. Despite the ostensible good intentions of these programs, black people are still much more likely to be discriminated against, arrested, and harassed by police. They have lower income and far less wealth (by an order of magnitude, according to Mark Blyth in Mark & Carrie: The Anger Will Out); they were nearly completely wiped out in the 2008 crash; they are disproportionately hit by COVID-19.

Either these programs are completely misconceived or mismanaged, or they were deliberately sabotaged, or they were never intended to “work” in the first place.

Paying lip service to equality doesn’t amount to anything. The situation on the ground keeps getting worse, though quasi-racists will constantly hold up “all of the things we do for them”, effectively complaining about how great black people—or poor people, or unemployed people—have it.

I direct these people to answer Jane Elliot’s question in Being Black by Jane Elliott (YouTube) (1min):

“If you, as a white person, would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand.

“You didn’t understand the directions.

“If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are, in this society, stand.

“Nobody’s standing here.

“That says very plainly: you know what’s happening, you know you don’t want it for you.

“I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”

If everything’s so sunny for blacks and the poor in the U.S., then why wouldn’t anyone switch places with them?[2]

A deficit of principle, obviously.

Possible Definitions

Eliminate police entirely
If you take away all of their money, then there is no more police. No one is seriously talking about this definition. It is highly unlikely that anyone means this. This is the definition that unserious commentators will accuse their ideological enemies of using.
Replace the police with something else

The organization and most of the people involved are highly suspect and should be rebuilt from the ground up. Some people probably do mean this.

It’s not unreasonable, given the systemic and entrenched corruption and nearly complete disconnect between the goals of the police (growing larger, more powerful, and richer) and the society that pays them for safety and protection and keeping the peace.

John Oliver pointed out that the city of Camden, NJ fired its entire police force and invited them to re-apply to a new organization. Their results were promising.

Reduce the role of the police

The police in the states fill myriad roles. They are in charge of homeless people, mental-health complaints, social service, evictions, and dozens of other roles for which armed personnel are not required and are actively detrimental.

These two comments by bitches_love_brie (Reddit) are interesting and seem legitimate. I’ve cited the parts I find interesting, but the full comment includes a litany of useless calls from his logbook that are also interesting but too lengthy to cite.

“I’m a current US police officer, I spent 6 years in the military, and have a 4-year degree. I’m not old and salty, or brand new to life or policing.

“[…]

“Problem is, everyone has a phone in their pocket now, no one wants to risk getting involved, and people know that if they call 911 someone will come and try to solve the problem any time of day, every day of the week.

“[…]

“it’s time for the silent majority to speak up because if the loud people that often represent the extreme ends of the discussion get their way, shit is going to go from had to worse. Vilifying all cops is only going to widen the divide between the public who want to see things improve and the cops who want things to improve. As a good cop (by my own assessment, and by my professional record of car stops, public interactions, and use of force history, all of which I can’t share with Reddit so you’ll have to take my word for it) it SUCKS to be a good cop right now.”

Not to diminish at all what the commentator is feeling, but cops have been under pressure for two weeks now and are losing their shit and can’t figure out how to deal with it. Most of them, however, can take off the uniform and blend in, though, can’t they? They get weekends off from being discriminated against, if they want to.

As another anonymous comment writes,

“I’m pretty sure we are watching the police collectively having the experience of being pulled over for a crime they didn’t personally commit because they “fit the description” and are actively resisting, while the entire world is yelling repeatedly “stop resisting!” and they really don’t like it.”
Demilitarize police
This goes in the direction of reduce, but also wants to reduce the role of enforcer drastically. No other country in the OECD has a police force that looks anything like that of the U.S. This option would bring policing in the States more in-line with how our allies do it.

A Disconnect from Other Jobs

Without considering the danger—which is not really pervasive and is often caused by their own actions—being a police officer is a very attractive job compared to the utter shitshow that is the job market in America.

In a country where millions were cut down to 29 hours per week in order to avoid having to pay for Obamacare, police get (often extravagently) paid overtime, sometimes guaranteed overtime, and generous pensions.

They get to retire ridiculously early—a friend I graduated high school with is already retired on a full pension and we’re not even fifty yet. This, while the rest of the country contemplates working until they fall into a grave.

This is a serious disconnect: a country trashes nearly every other person’s pension—letting private equity companies just eliminate them with the stroke of a pen—but somehow police retire in their mid-40s with full and quite-generous pensions.

If they spend their 25 years of service drumming up reasons for why they should continue to exist by arresting people for bullshit infractions, that’s even more scathing.

And they almost always get their pensions. For example, the Shooting of Daniel Shaver (Wikipedia) tells the tragic story of a young man who was drinking with friends when someone called the police. Police Sergeant Charles Langley gave him deliberately conflicting orders until he eventually screwed up. Officer Philip Brailsford shot him five times with his AR-15, killing Shaver instantly.

This is obviously bad enough, but they weren’t finished. Brailsford was fired, taken to trial for second-degree murder, and acquitted. Soon after, he declared bankruptcy, and was reinstated as a non-active police officer, had his medical bills for PTSD from the shooting paid for by the department, then retired 45 days later on a $2500/month pension, having put in a whole four years.

He got his pension for life, having retired early for medical reasons brought on by his having murdered a man in cold blood.

The system works. It works very nicely for some.

Speaking of which…

Defunding Already in Progress

As many people have pointed out, “defunding” is in progress in myriad other areas like education, welfare, infrastructure, healthcare…the list goes on.

The article Republicans Only Want Certain Cops on the Beat by David Sirota (Jacobin) discusses the many ways in which police have specifically already been defunded:

“Republican leaders would have us believe they love law enforcement and cops, but that is belied by an unmentioned fact: these are the same greedheads who have eagerly pushed to defund the police charged with protecting us from the world’s most powerful criminals.”

The EPA under Trump? Eviscerated. The IRS under all presidents? Too poor and understaffed to chase after “big fish” because that would be too expensive.

Corporate crime is essentially not prosecuted. No-one responsible for the 2008 crash that robbed trillions of dollars worth of assets—and wiped out 70% of black America’s equity and wealth—was even charged, to say nothing of prosecuted or sentenced. Almost all of them are much, much, much richer now than they were then—that 70% had to go somewhere, ammirite?

You see? They already know how to do it. They’ve made sure to disband the police for big crimes—the ones they’re most likely to commit themselves—while turning the screws on everyone else.

To control the people, though, Bush invented a whole new Department of Homeland Security—to complement the already existing Department of Defense, which focuses exclusively on Offense—including the gigantic TSA and a massively increased ICE and Border Patrol.

There’s plenty to be mad about and plenty of reasons to want to reform or rebuild the police. There’s also plenty of reason not to trust anyone in power to do so.

It’s going to take patience and perseverance—and, honestly, we may never get there. The odds are long, but what else have people got to do? It’s not like there are any jobs.


[1]

A friend just sent me the link How did Georgia get it so wrong (again)? by Chris Cillizza (CNN), which outlines how America managed to combine long lines and long waits to both thwart democracy and start a new COVID outbreak.

“Many admirably waited in long lines through downpours and searing heat, and some stayed beyond midnight to exercise their right to vote. But untold numbers were dissuaded from voting by the lengthy lines and other issues that plagued the primary.”
[2]

I’m really asking people like the author of Requiem for George Floyd by James Howard Kunstler (Clusterfuck Nation), whose column I’ve followed for years. I’ve read and liked some of his books (most recently The Long Emergency).

He’s well-informed, rational, and well-worth listening to on a plethora of issues, but on issues of race, he’s utterly awful. He sometimes rises to “less offensive, but still vaguely unsettling”, but the piece linked above sees him rehashing the worst of his old canards.

This seems to be the baseline attitude for people of a certain age in upstate New York, where he lives and where I grew up. I know a lot of old farts from that region who almost uniformly nice people with awful, small-minded opinions on race and poverty.

He is not alone is posing questions that ignore the wide swath that racism has torn through American society. We don’t need to bother answering his questions, but should maybe get people like him to answer Jane Elliot’s question.

To be clear: Kunstler is not the worst of the problem. He seems to at least acknowledge that what he’s saying is wrong, but he keeps claiming that his logic and rationality leads him to only that conclusion.

He’s kind of from the Bill Cosby school: telling people to pull up their pants and to learn to speak English correctly. He writes this seemingly without understanding—or deliberately ignoring—the systemic and brutal practices that infuse everyday life for many black people. You can’t ignore Jane Elliot’s question and you can’t ignore the arrest numbers and you can’t ignore the wealth and employment gap.

If you keep claiming that our society hands blacks everything on a silver platter while ignoring the fact that society actually ends up taking everything away from them, then you’re a racist. Whether you come by this label deliberately or not makes no difference, in the end.