When dealing with the political establishment, always remember that whatever they say it is, it ain’t that. This has never been truer than when discussing policing in America.
The historical role of policing in America in relationship to the black community is not about law enforcement but rather enforcing the social norms of white supremacy. We must remember that race-based chattel slavery was government-sanctioned, and the American legal system enforced the maintenance of the "peculiar" institution. Whether it was the Jim Crow South or the more informal Northern racism, the police ensured black men and women knew and stayed in “their place.” Police enforced the law and maintained the oppressive order.
Americans believe that policing is about controlling crime because that’s what they’re told. In fact, policing exists to control social behavior; controlling crime is just a side order of grits. Crime actually rises and falls for reasons that have very little do with policing.
The biggest divisions in the United States are racial and economic. Because economic and political power are held unequally in the United States, dominant groups (white people) demand policing in order to regulate threats from less-powerful groups (people of color and poor people). There will always be a demand for increased policing whenever a large population of poor people of color is perceived as threatening by white people.
Over the last 40 years, the American public has become increasingly poorer and at the same time increasingly less white. This is why police expenditures ballooned as a percentage of local budgets while policing became more militarized. The war on drugs removed huge numbers of young black and brown men from their communities, which was threat reduction disguised as crime reduction.
In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, we see masses of white people marching with black and brown people against the police. We are seeing that when white people use their privilege on behalf of justice for black people, they get treated like black people. That’s the police enforcing and maintaining the white-supremacist social order. Just as black people can’t escape the consequences of their blackness, white people are not free to reject the privilege of their whiteness without consequences.
These demonstrations are also teaching an important lesson to white America: that inside the chest of every white supremacist beats the heart of a fascist. So, white America, ask not for whom the bell tolls.
The American system of policing can’t be reformed because the predicate of its existence is the control and suppression of black communities and individuals. Police play the same role relative to the black community in 21st century America that slave patrols played during slavery.
This is not about good versus bad cops; it’s about the purpose and nature of policing. Put good people in a corrupt system, and the system doesn’t change but the people do – for the worse. There were no good overseers during slavery, though some may have been less violent than others in maintaining an oppressive system.
If slave patrols had a union in the antebellum South, it would look exactly like today’s police unions. Police unions actively oppose any and all structural reforms and champion the toxic culture that has metastasized in police departments. Policing in America needs to be reimagined and then rebuilt. This reimagining and rebuilding are not possible unless and until you eliminate the control that police unions exercise over police departments.
To do this will require disciplined, collective leadership that has a national strategy with focused local execution. The massive, sustained, nationwide demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd is a guide to how we should strategically proceed. In any given city, the police system and its allies have the capacity to defend against and suppress local opposition. But they can’t control the narrative or carry the day against simultaneous, sustained, national mass action.
As I write this, Donald Trump is a prisoner in the White House, every major police department has had to retreat to the shadows or stand down, the U.S. Senate had to unanimously (albeit belatedly) pass an antilynching bill, and four policemen in Minneapolis have been charged with murder in the death of George Floyd.
What does this mean? It means you continue the attack. You don’t want a deal. You want their unconditional surrender. In order to get that, you have to be willing and able to stay in the streets one day longer than they can.