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Race, class and policing – first principles must be reexamined

Race, class and policing – first principles must be reexamined
US President Donald Trump apparently had to be talked out of sending 10,000 federal active-duty troops to quell disturbances in various cities. (Illustrative image | sources: EPA Etienne Laurent / Jim Lo Scalzo / Erik S Lesser / and Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Demonstrations and protests, now largely peaceful, have continued across the US – and internationally – without significant let-up in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The demands for broader changes in the national law enforcement agenda are growing, but it is impossible to predict what shape all this will take – or how it will affect the national election in less than five months.

“I have a good look at the policemen; they are standing there just like the military police used to, pugnacious and domineering, with their green uniforms, red faces, official swords and pistol holsters. It’s power, I think, it’s always power, and even if they’ve only got an ounce of it, that’s enough.” – The Way Back, by Erich Maria Remarque (also the author of All Quiet on the Western Front)

“Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived” –  Riff’s lines from the song Officer Krupke, from West Side Story, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

It is a story that is a staple of the cinematic universe and thus an influence on the minds of so many about how things really are put together in life. It goes something like this: Two friends grow up in a rough, tough neighbourhood. Despite their close bond from childhood, one becomes a crime kingpin, while the other becomes a cop or prosecutor (and once in a while, a priest), focused like a laser beam on busting up criminal gangs and syndicates. Inevitably, because this is Hollywood, now adults, the two men come into conflict, and, eventually, one of them must pay the price that comes from their starkly different life choices. It is rarely the criminal who makes it through to the ending credits and so the story is one of the exercise of power and authority, along with the impact of economics, not race, that makes the tale.

But here is another story, this time, from the author’s past. Back when I was in university, like most students globally, together with a few friends, on a weekend evening, sometimes I would find myself out for the evening. In the Washington, DC, area it was in Georgetown, then the nightlife neighbourhood of the city.

One Friday evening, while moving on from one favoured place to another on the opposite side of the street, I took a chance and crossed the road while there was still a red light traffic signal – and crossed from the pavement in the middle of the block to the other side. Suddenly, emerging from between two parked cars, there was a Washington Metropolitan Police officer. I was, frankly, feeling little pain and when I was told I was about to receive a traffic offence citation for jaywalking, I looked at the policeman and said, “What happens if I get two of these tickets; do you revoke my feet?” “Here’s your ticket, son, pay it within 30 days. Now move along,” I was told in return.

Thinking back to that moment many years ago, it is obvious to me had the racial roles been reversed – had the cop been white and had I been a young black man – after our little dialogue, and had it escalated a bit, I might well have been taken into custody and maybe even charged for some criminal infraction. Those smart-aleck comments might conceivably have ended up giving me a criminal record, while I was under the influence of some Dutch courage.

Instead, this particular policeman sized up the situation as one of a university student letting off a little steam, rather than a street challenge to his power and authority. Instead of wrestling me to the ground and using a forbidden chokehold to keep me still, he let my comments go without much more than a scowl, until my friends had dragged me away from the scene of the crime. That put an end to my potential career as a criminal mastermind, even before it began. (Many readers may have undergone something similar in their own lives, perhaps without even realising such an event demonstrated both an uneven power relationship, and, crucially, a kind of racial profiling one way or another.) And yes, the following day, I dutifully paid the fine without argument or any clever repartee.

Both of these thoughts come to mind while contemplating the growing impact and larger meaning of George Floyd’s sacrifice – and all the subsequent protests, demonstrations, urban violence, political posturing, and ritual condemnations of and by political leaders. And, most of all, there has been the extraordinary behaviour of President Donald Trump and his coterie as they have attempted to trample on citizen rights explicitly protected by the US Constitution, and then his unexpected comeuppance by US military and ex-military commanders. This, collectively, takes us to consider the intersecting impacts of race and power in civilian-police interactions and what it may mean for the future.

In the past week, following the events described in two earlier columns, vast protests, ostensibly about Floyd’s death, but clearly about something much larger as well, have filled public spaces in cities across the US – and beyond. (Demonstrators in Bristol in the UK have toppled a statue commemorating a local business figure who just happened to have been a leading light in the slave trade conveying shiploads of Africans to the plantations of the Western Hemisphere.)

This past week’s protests about Floyd’s death at the hands of the police in Minneapolis, Minnesota have been boisterous but largely peaceful, except for Seattle, Washington. However, the movement is clearly turning into something much larger than just protests about one unjust death at the hands of the police.

For many demonstrators, the issue has moved well beyond the death of just one man. Increasingly, it has become a protest about an entire justice and public order system weighted against minorities, and that periodically produces yet another victim killed by the police (or even by civilian vigilante wannabes). Young black men are often stopped on the street or while driving (the “walking” or “driving while black” phenomena, as it is often called) – and sometimes with truly baleful circumstances afterwards.

Four years ago, The New York Times and other newspapers had reported on a study by Harvard economics professor Thomas Fryer (just by the way, a black man), noting, “A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police. But when it comes to the most lethal form of force – police shootings – the study finds no racial bias.

“It is the most surprising result of my career,” said Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard. The study examined more than 1,000 shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California.

“The result contradicts the image of police shootings that many Americans hold after the killings (some captured on video) of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Walter Scott in South Carolina; Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; and Philando Castile in Minnesota.” [And, of course, the toll has continued with Floyd as the latest victim, albeit choked to death, rather than shot.]

The story went on to note, “The counterintuitive results provoked debate after the study was posted on Monday, mostly about the volume of police encounters and the scope of the data. Mr. Fryer emphasises that the work is not the definitive analysis of police shootings, and that more data would be needed to understand the country as a whole. This work focused only on what happens once the police have stopped civilians, not on the risk of being stopped at all. Other research has shown that blacks are more likely to be stopped by the police.” (Italics by this author.)

In effect, this means that according to Fryer, while people already in police custody do not die in racially skewed numbers, the frequency of street-side interrogations and frisking is skewed racially, giving many African Americans the very real sense they are a kind of subject population of citizens who are under continuing suspicion, with the possibility of worse to come, should they interact with the police. 

Resentment derives from a combination of unequal power dynamics and race, acting in combination to build anger. In the demonstrations and protests taking place now, however, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on the economy, anger has also tapped into the deeper well of resentment over continuing, pervasive disparities in black/white education, wealth, incomes, employment and other socioeconomic circumstances, despite all of the implicit promises of the civil rights revolution and the ameliorative economic efforts launched thereafter.

The Washington Post then reported, on 8 June, on yet another study, noting that killings by police have remained constant across the country for half a decade, despite often-announced police reforms. It noted that following protests in many cities in 2015, “That year, The Washington Post began tallying how many people were shot and killed by police. By the end of 2015, officers had fatally shot nearly 1,000 people, twice as many as ever documented in one year by the federal government.

“With the issue flaring in city after city, some officials vowed to reform how police use force. The next year, however, police nationwide again shot and killed nearly 1,000 people. Then they fatally shot about the same number in 2017 – and have done so for every year after that, according to The Post’s ongoing count. Since 2015, police have shot and killed 5,400 people.

“This toll has proven impervious to waves of protests, such as those now flooding American streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The number killed has remained steady despite fluctuating crime rates, changeovers in big-city police leadership and a nationwide push for criminal justice reform…. ‘It is difficult to explain why we haven’t seen significant fluctuations in the shooting from year to year,’ former Charlotte police chief Darrel Stephens said. ‘There’s been significant investments that have been made in de-escalation training. There’s been a lot of work.’

“The overwhelming majority of people killed are armed. Nearly half of all people fatally shot by police are white. Most of these shootings draw little or no attention beyond a news story.”

In the midst of such concerns, the newest demand articulated by protesters (and, increasingly by some academics and a few politicians as well) is what is called “defunding the police”. While this can sound like an outrageously implausible idea – abolishing the police? – some protest rallies have now vocally taken up this idea of literally abolishing police forces as we know them, and spreading their budgets elsewhere. In the hands of more reality-grounded enthusiasts, however, it is actually becoming an argument for a deeply rethought through police sector.

Taken as a whole, the US has nearly 18,000 independent police departments (state, county, city, and town departments, independent sheriff’s departments, special purpose jurisdictions such as the National Capital Park Police, and so forth), and the total workforce is around 700,000 men and women. In recent years, in addition to having taken on new or enhanced responsibilities such as policing school facilities, many of these forces have simultaneously embarked on what is called the militarisation of the police as high-tech, heavy-duty weaponry has been obtained – often as surplus from the Defense Department.

But as it is often said, if you have a hammer in your hands, everything looks like a nail. The argument being advanced now is that the nation’s police forces must be reconceived so that many tasks are moved over to social services agencies elsewhere, and the police focus on catching actual bad guys committing actual crimes.

And, in fact, on Monday, 8 June, according to a Washington Post report, “Congressional Democrats unveil sweeping police reform legislation in response to protests after the killing of George Floyd. The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 would ban chokeholds, establish a national database to track police misconduct and prohibit certain no-knock warrants, among a range of steps. Democratic leaders of the House and Senate released the legislation that had been drafted by members of the Congressional Black Caucus….”

Moreover, in Minneapolis, where all the latest anger and protests began, the report added, “As calls to ‘defund the police’ grow, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council said Sunday that they plan to disband the city’s police department. The nine, who represent a majority on the council, did not offer a timeline or propose specific actions but said they are ‘taking intermediate steps toward ending’ the force.”

In the White House counterpoint to all of this, earlier in the past week of demonstrations and protests, the president apparently had to be talked out of sending 10,000 federal active-duty troops to quell disturbances in various cities – an idea that the Defense Department was apparently only able with some difficulty to head off. But then, on Monday, the 8th, the president suddenly announced there was now enough peace and contentment in the land that National Guard reinforcements from other states brought to Washington were now to return to their respective states. In addition, on Monday he was scheduled to hold a virtual roundtable with police leaders from around the nation and he is reportedly even mulling over the idea of giving a nationally televised address on race, the police, civil order and similar concerns.

But what may actually be most on the president’s mind are polls showing that, nationally, he is losing ground to his Democratic challenger, former vice-president Joe Biden in an election now less than five months in the future. These polls come amidst the continuing vagaries of the Covid-19 pandemic, along with all the George Floyd protests.

As 8 June’s Power Up Washington newsletter had it, “The campaign’s intense push to paint Trump as the political leader who can bring ‘Law and Order’ to the streets may seem savvy given that 8 out of 10 voters believe that things in the U.S. are spiraling out of control, according to a fresh NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. ‘According to the poll, 80 percent of registered voters say they feel that things are generally out of control in the country, versus 15 percent who believe that things are under control,’ per NBC News’ Mark Murray. ‘That includes 92 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and even 66 percent of Republicans who think things are out of control.’

“But it carries a raft of political risks, since voters don’t quite seem to agree on what, exactly, is out of control: ‘Voters by a more than 2-to-1 margin say they’re more worried about the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed in Minneapolis after a police officer put a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and the actions of police, than they are by recent protests that have occasionally turned violent,’ per NBC. Majorities are also concerned about ‘the spread of the coronavirus, pessimistic about the economy’s returning to normal before next year and down on [Trump’s] ability to unite the nation.’ ”

While the president’s overall poll approval at his job rating remains largely steady, the newsletter went on to say, “Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s polling lead has also persisted: the former vice president is still 7 points up among all registered voters nationally and his combined lead over Trump in the top battleground states is 8 points, 50 percent to 42 percent. Trump is losing ground ‘with a wide range of demographic groups measured by educational attainment, gender and race,’ NBC News’ Dante Chinni writes, ‘These are numbers he’ll need to address if he wants to be reelected.’ 

“Trump’s ‘edge with men has eroded to about 8 points, and his deficit with women has exploded to 21 points,’ per Chinni. ‘That’s a gender split that basically makes it impossible for Trump to win the popular vote. Women tend to make up more of the electorate than men.’ Also striking: Biden currently bests Trump by nearly 2 to 1 on his ability to bring the country together. The poll finds 51% of Americans think Biden has the ability to bring the country together, compared to 26% who believe Trump does.”

There are potential perils to talking so much about violent protests and looting as an incumbent president: “When disorder is all around them, voters tend to blame the person in charge for the disorder – and, sometimes, punish those who exploit it for political gain,” historian Rick Perlstein argued last week.

Small wonder then Donald Trump is, despite his natural inclinations to act the Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” tough guy, actually trying to figure out just how to respond to the national movement triggered by the death of George Floyd. The movement is further gaining momentum from the public voices of the loosely organised “Black Lives Matter” movement, and it has even been energised by the recalcitrance of the military establishment to back the president’s most imprudent impulses. Then there has been the open defiance of people like Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney. Bowser had had city workers paint “Black Lives Matter” in huge letters right on 16th Street, just north of the White House, and Romney met and walked with demonstrators over the weekend. 

But, taken together, how all this is going to turn out for real changes in society or the economy, let alone for the results of the country’s election on 3 November, no one knows. DM

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