By Robert Bernstein
The police murder of George Floyd has boosted the Black Lives Matter movement and has caused a fundamental rethinking of basic questions about our society. Here are some photos I took of posters and other Black Lives Matter art in Isla Vista.Some of the signs are specific to George Floyd
Many call on the community to “Say Their Names” so that real people are remembered and not just a hazy sense of injustice.
“I Can’t Breathe” and “People Not Politics” were featured themes of hand-decorated flyers like this one:
This banner calls on deeper reflection:
Apparently “Dog S— Park” has been renamed to “Sea Lookout Park” and it now hosts an extensive memorial to black people who have been killed by police.
People are invited to leave their own notes of their own experiences of injustice and/or expressions of solidarity.
I have to say that I am in awe of how quickly people organized themselves and how rapidly things are changing. Considering the decades and centuries of injustice and justifiable rage, the protests have been exceptionally peaceful.
The civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s involved massive organizing and disciplined non-violence training. I was concerned that attention spans have grown short and that social media is better at distraction than at coordinated action. I feared that there would be a brief explosion of outrage and that everyone would go home. I am happy to be proved wrong.
The peaceful occupation of a police station and surrounding neighborhood in Seattle has been duplicated in other cities already. Including Durham, North Carolina and Bridgeport, Connecticut and Chicago.
My optimism is guarded. I lived through the uprisings as a child in Washington, DC in the 1960s following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Some areas of DC were still not rebuilt after decades. There were Senate hearings on how to make fundamental change to prevent future such uprisings.
Those hearings went far beyond the issues of police violence and went to the heart of economic justice. Both major parties agreed that there must be a guarantee of a job for every American who wants to work. Both major parties also agreed to other basic rights like universal healthcare.
The Humphrey–Hawkins Full Employment Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Carter in 1978. Yet it never was actually implemented.
I lived through the 1992 Los Angeles uprising after the beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the police who beat him. Again, there were hearings and recommendations. And little changed.
One of the best analyses of the situation and what needs to change was this 30 minute HBO broadcast by John Oliver. I strongly urge you to watch it from beginning to end. The end includes a surprising bonus.
Oliver noted that the protesters were protesting excessive police brutality. And that the police were responding with excessive police brutality. Just as in the murder of George Floyd, the presence of video cameras everywhere did nothing to limit the brutality. The police knew that there would be no accountability.
The “Defund the Police” campaign has resulted in shock and outrage. Not against the brutality, but at the very idea that any sane person could think of defunding the police.
Except that Camden, New Jersey famously did exactly that. They dismantled their police force and started over from scratch. The result was a significant drop in police violence, a significant drop in crime and a significant increase in trust between the police and the community. The result was far from perfect. But it did help.
“Defund the Police” calls for a complete rethinking of what the police do. A rethinking of what is meant by true “public safety” and the best ways to achieve those results. And realizing that most of that has nothing to do with calling out an officer with a gun.
President Nixon created the “War on Drugs” in a deliberate effort to intimidate people of color. President Reagan greatly expanded that effort. Little has been done to reverse this “War” other than a relaxation of cannabis laws at a state level.
Homelessness exploded under Reagan and it has just been accepted as “normal” ever since. How much of “policing” is related to dealing with people who are homeless and/or are suffering from mental health problems.
Police departments soak up vast resources while critical housing and mental healthcare is woefully underfunded.
It is also important to remember the history of policing in the US. Law enforcement in the South consisted of “slave patrols” to capture escaped slaves. When slavery was officially outlawed… Slavery never ended at all, due to a massive loophole in the 13th Amendment that supposedly freed the slaves. Black people were arrested on “vagrancy law” violations. They were not sent to jail. They were sent to work on plantations as “punishment”. There were more black slaves in the US in 1941 than there were at the time of the Civil War. Law enforcement made all of this possible.
And when blacks fled the South to go to Northern cities, the police were not their friend there, either.
Lest we entirely blame the Republicans like Nixon and Reagan, it is important to remember that Democratic President Clinton increased the number of police and pushed his notorious 1994 crime bill that increased the incarceration of black men.
The police have also become militarized, using actual equipment of war to confront Americans here at home. Equipment like armored vehicles. Did you know that tear gas was outlawed by the Geneva Conventions 100 years ago and is banned for use in war. Yet it is still used at home?
Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin has pointed out that “demilitarizing the police” is not fair, either. This call legitimizes the fact that the actual military has mostly been used to terrorize brown and black people in other countries as explained in this brief article.
An excellent front page article in the New York Times on June 6 showed how police unions are a major obstacle to any police reform. They push against accountability and support training that often leads to violent escalation.
The head of the Minneapolis police union, Bob Kroll, pushed his officers to take training from Dave Grossman. Training that he calls “killology”. Grossman is on the road 200 days a year teaching police officers to see themselves as predators.
How can anyone claim that the problem is “just a few bad apples” when there is a systematic effort to train officers in this way? In almost every case of police misconduct, we see police closing ranks and covering for each other.
After the choking death of Eric Garner in New York, the police pushed back against reform by staging a “slow down”. They dramatically reduced arrests. Yet do New Yorkers remember that as a time of chaos and danger? No. Because most of what police do has little to do with actual public safety. Did you know that 40 percent of police in a given year don’t make even one felony arrest? We picture police fighting crime and going after bad guys. But very little of their time is actually spent on such activity. Think of how few rape cases are ever charged, let alone result in convictions.
Remember when President Trump spoke to a rally of police officers and told them “don’t be too nice”? Do you remember how the police officers responded? The Federal Government is one check on abuse by local police. The Trump Administration has not used that power at all. Even President George W Bush used that power repeatedly.
What about suing the police? Over a recent five year period, the top ten cities in the US paid out over a billion dollars in settlements. That money could have gone a long way to solving real root problems of housing and mental health. The police didn’t pay for it. We taxpayers paid for it.
But that billion dollars is tiny compared with what should have been paid out. Ever hear of “qualified immunity”? Suppose there was a legal precedent where the court ruled it was unconstitutional to have a police dog bite a motionless suspect in a bushy ravine? And now there is a case of using a police dog to bite a compliant suspect in a canal in the woods. Nope. That case cannot be won against the police because it is not exactly identical to the previous case. Really.
Or the pregnant woman who was tased during a routine traffic stop. No lawsuit or accountability there, either. No other part of our society has such power to intimidate not only ordinary citizens, but also elected officials of both parties.
While I remember the uprisings of the 1960s, you can go back to 1919, 1935 and 1943 and see the same history repeated with no meaningful change resulting.
Yes, it is nice to see some police kneeling now. It is wonderful to see NASCAR finally banning the hateful war flag of the slave holders. And to see the Confederate monuments coming down. We should be grateful for these changes in this moment.
But nothing will change unless there is true economic justice. Black people spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year in their communities. Yet almost all of that money leaves their communities to corporations and corporate banks that do nothing to reinvest in their communities.
This could be an historic moment. But we really have to demand: This Time Really is Different.