It’s difficult watching every angle and frame-by-frame take of testimony and evidence presented at the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin when the outcome is fairly predictable. Even after the vivid and very grisly murder of George Floyd has been seen by, perhaps, most Internet users on the planet, there is a very significant chance that we reach either one of two verdicts: Chauvin receives a sentence much lighter than what’s deserved or he receives no sentence at all.
Why so pessimistic? Well, don’t forget: just 5 percent of all police officers who’ve been charged for murder end up getting convicted – at least that’s been the trend for nearly two decades now. That does not bode well for prosecutors in the Chauvin case, where the trickery of “qualified immunity” puts more burden on the Floyd the victim than his killer.
Perhaps the outcome will be much more severe than expected (or predicted). That’s what we hope for. But, why do we abuse ourselves with the repetition of such trauma? Knowing that, it’s probably a smarter course of action to simply go about one’s business and ignore the day-to-day media sensationalism that is this trial. Corporate media outlets, greedy for ratings in the post-Trump world, won’t allow that, of course. As a result, public conversations and Black discourse in particular are consumed by meticulous assessments of what’s happening each day in the Chauvin trial.
What’s particularly unhealthy and unproductive about this exercise is that it triggers, yet again, what cultural economist Mike Green argues is the “episodic” nature of our response to these types of incidents and issues. We’re more immersed in a specific event, the personalities involved in that event and, more bluntly, the events unfolding in a courtroom that we have absolutely no control over. The “episodic” model is very reactionary and it fails to mobilize communities into focus on broader structural issues and action. The state of community mindset, activism, and politics will hinge largely on the trajectory and outcome of this trial. Since there’s no real collective planning around what we’re doing during this trial or what we’ll do after the trial concludes, we risk more uncoordinated outbursts versus coordinated overhauls of systems and influence over what we can actually change.
Things like restructuring police departments or completely flipping them into “public safety” agencies are possible, as are bold moves to totally purge departments of white nationalists in their ranks, to carry out more aggressive psychological screening of new hires and existing officers, to mandate liability insurance, to add rigorous new education criteria and to push for residency requirements. But, since everyone is focused on this trial and this trial alone, it carries the risk of making all of those achievable goals get ignored or to seem unachievable.
One Capitol Police officer was caught taking a selfie with a member of the white supremacist mob that overtook the US Capitol last week. A second officer has been suspended for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and directing insurrectionists around the building rather than handcuffing them. The storming of the Capitol has revived concerns about the ties between police and white supremacists, in part because officers arrested far more Black Lives Matter protesters this summer than they did Trump supporters who broke into the legislative building with weapons, at least one Confederate flag, and bundles of zip ties.
It wasn’t just on-duty cops who raised eyebrows: Off-duty law enforcement officers were allegedly part of the mob itself, with some flashing their badges and identification cards as they rushed through the doors, according to an on-duty DC Metro Police officer who saw them. “If these people can storm the Capitol building with no regard to punishment, you have to wonder how much they abuse their powers when they put on their uniforms,” the officer wrote later on Facebook, according to Politico.
Police departments around the country are now investigating officers who are suspected of attending the rally in DC, or were caught posting racist messages on social media. Days after the attack, New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman introduced a bill that would require a commission to examine whether Capitol Police officers have white supremacist ties.
For some experts, these investigations are far too little, too late: Police departments and federal agencies have long understood that certain cops are connected to racist groups, and have largely looked the other way. “We’ve known for decades that there are racial disparities in every step of the criminal justice process, from who gets stopped to who gets arrested to who police use force against to how they get charged,” says Michael German, a former FBI agent who now studies white supremacist infiltration of police departments as a fellow at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank. “It’s treated as implicit bias or structural bias without an acknowledgment that there’s a lot of explicit bias driving these disparities.”
As an FBI agent in the 1990s, German went undercover with white supremacist and militia groups to thwart their bomb plots. At the time, the Justice Department warned him to be careful about sharing details of his investigations with cops, because some of them had ties to white supremacist groups themselves. Even so, in the decades since then, he says the FBI has not prioritized investigating those police officers and getting them off the streets, allowing them to continue their jobs. I caught up with German this week to ask how law enforcement agencies have fallen short in identifying and firing racist officers, and what they should be doing now, in the wake of the Capitol siege, to root them out.
Do we know roughly how many cops have ties to white supremacists?
Unfortunately we don’t have a sense of the scope of the problem because no entity has made it their mission to identify the scope. But the FBI regularly warns its agents who are investigating white supremacists and far-right militants that the subjects of those investigations will often have active links to law enforcement, and that they need to alter their methodology to protect the integrity of their investigations. Those were warnings I received in the 1990s when I worked these cases, and they appear in published leaked FBI materials, including the 2015 counterterrorism policy guide.
When you say FBI agents alter their methodologies, do you mean they’re not supposed to collaborate as much with police while investigating white supremacists?
Exactly. The counterterrorism policy guide recommends that the FBI put the subjects of these investigations on a watch list with what’s called the silent-hit function; if a police officer pulls over the subject of your investigation, a silent-hit function would not tell the officer that he’s interacting with someone who’s the subject of a terrorism investigation.
If the FBI knows this is a problem of such significance that it has to alter its methodologies of investigating cases, I would argue it also has to have a strategy to protect the public from these white supremacists and far-right militants who carry a badge. The fact that they don’t even document who these police officers are shows an inexcusable lack of attention to their mission to enforce the civil rights laws of this country as well as the counterterrorism laws.
In 2006, the FBI warned that for decades, white supremacist groups had been attempting to “recruit” police officers. Can you talk about the history of this?
It’s important to understand that the United States was founded as a white supremacist nation, so our laws enforced white supremacy, so those who were sworn to enforce the law were enforcing white supremacy. After slavery ended, you had Jim Crow. After the civil rights era, you still had sundown towns, where the police enforced unwritten rules about who could stay in town past dark. To imagine there was somehow a miraculous event that cured the police of that problem is foolish.
The most egregious are examples where police officers were actually members of white supremacist groups and would go to public events representing themselves as police officers. And their membership was known to law enforcement for years and unaddressed, and it was only when the public learned about it that the police department took action.
We do so little examination of police violence in this country, but we know it disproportionately targets people who are Black or brown. How much of that is driven from actual white supremacist ideology rather than isolated incidents that happen on the job is something the Justice Department has a responsibility to investigate.
What kind of recruitment techniques do white supremacist groups use with police?
Having spent time as an FBI undercover agent, I think the term [“recruit”] doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening. It’s not so much that this group will put a pamphlet together and make a recruiting pitch and approach officers. In many cases, these are people who grew up affiliating with white supremacists. One guy went to work as a prison guard, one guy went to work in factories, and the other guy went to work as a police officer. And they are just carrying on attitudes and associating with the same people they associated with when they weren’t a police officer.
Are there any police departments that have tried themselves to root out racist cops, and any that did a good job?
The departments tend to be reactive to public outrage. Part of the problem is that most law enforcement agencies don’t have written policies specifically addressing the issue. So when the public identifies somebody who’s operating in league with a white supremacist group or far-right militant group, they end up disciplining them under broad prohibitions against engaging in public conduct detrimental to the public interest, or similarly worded policies.
Sometimes this doesn’t stand up to the due process scrutiny that’s designed to protect innocent officers from being treating unfairly. So they end up getting their jobs back after they’re fired.
What I argue is that even where the conduct is not sufficient to terminate that officer, the police department still has an obligation to mitigate the threat they pose to the community. There are plenty of jobs in police departments that don’t regularly interact with the public. Or perhaps some extra level of supervision of that officer would be warranted.
Right. Or just the lack of policy, or disparate treatment, where other officers known to engage in racist behavior weren’t fired in the past, so it’s unfair to fire this officer. Often, if the police department knew about your involvement with this white supremacist group for five years but is now trying to fire you, you can argue: “I’m not being fired because of the conduct, because the department knew about the conduct; I’m being fired because the public demanded it, and that’s not appropriate.” That’s the problem with the way we have just turned a blind eye to this problem for so many decades.
Is there anything else that government can do to address this problem?
What we need is to empower prosecutors and defense attorneys. When these [white supremacist] officers are identified by the agency or by the public, that information should be provided to prosecutors and they [the officer] should be put on no-call lists or Brady lists. Today these no-call lists are lists of officers who are known to have previously engaged in some kind of dishonest conduct that a defense attorney could use to impeach their testimony. My argument is that racist behavior is one of those categories that should be available to the defense attorney. [This can] force those agents off the street.
In an ideal world, what do you think the Justice Department or FBI’s role would be in rooting out white supremacist police officers?
What I would recommend is for the Justice Department to implement a national strategy to identify these officers, document the scope of the threat, and design programs to mitigate it. It’s a matter of priorities. If the FBI heard through the grapevine that a police officer was affiliating himself with Al Qaeda or ISIS, we can be confident the FBI would react quickly. They should act just as quickly when the police officer is associated with white supremacist and far-right militant groups.
Some people have expressed the idea that we need to create a list of designated domestic terrorist groups, but that’s a silly approach because these groups change their names regularly. In other words, writing a list of groups that are banned is not going to help. Because officers can look at the list and say, “Okay, I won’t join this group, but I’ll join this other group. Or I’ll be part of a group that previously called itself the KKK but now calls itself something else.” But it’s the same people engaged in the same racist conduct. It takes an understanding of how these groups actually organize before you can write a policy.
The officers and agents within these federal, state, and local law enforcement departments know who the racists are among them. What we need to do is make sure officers who see racist misconduct or far-right militancy within law enforcement are protected when they report it. We need to strengthen whistleblower protection laws.
You wrote in a recent report about a man in Anniston, Alabama, who applied to be a police officer, and listed on his application that he was part of the League of the South, a white supremacist secessionist group. He was hired anyway. Are cops’ racist ties often that obvious?
Yes, often it is that obvious. So it’s not that they can’t be seen, it’s that nobody is looking for them.
Update (January 15): The Capitol Police officer who wore a MAGA hat claims he put on the cap as part of a plan to save some of his colleagues who were in danger, according to a new Wall Street Journalreport.
“No One Took Us Seriously”: Black Cops Warned About Racist Capitol Police Officers for Years
Allegations of racism against the Capitol Police are nothing new: Over 250 Black cops have sued the department since 2001. Some of those former officers now say it’s no surprise white nationalists were able to storm the building.
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When Kim Dine took over as the new chief of the U.S. Capitol Police in 2012, he knew he had a serious problem.
Since 2001, hundreds of Black officers had sued the department for racial discrimination. They alleged that white officers called Black colleagues slurs like the N-word and that one officer found a hangman’s noose on his locker. White officers were called “huk lovers” or “FOGs” — short for “friends of gangsters” — if they were friendly with their Black colleagues. Black officers faced “unprovoked traffic stops” from fellow Capitol Police officers. One Black officer claimed he heard a colleague say, “Obama monkey, go back to Africa.”
In case after case, agency lawyers denied wrongdoing. But in an interview, Dine said it was clear he had to address the department’s charged racial climate. He said he promoted a Black officer to assistant chief, a first for the agency, and tried to increase diversity by changing the force’s hiring practices. He also said he hired a Black woman to lead a diversity office and created a new disciplinary body within the department, promoting a Black woman to lead it.
“There is a problem with racism in this country, in pretty much every establishment that exists,” said Dine, who left the agency in 2016. “You can always do more in retrospect.”
Whether the Capitol Police managed to root out racist officers will be one of many issues raised as Congress investigates the agency’s failure to prevent a mob of Trump supporters from attacking the Capitol while lawmakers inside voted to formalize the electoral victory of President-elect Joe Biden.
Already, officials have suspended several police officers for possible complicity with insurrectionists, one of whom was pictured waving a Confederate battle flag as he occupied the building. One cop was captured on tape seeming to take selfies with protesters, while another allegedly wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat as he directed protesters around the Capitol building. While many officers were filmed fighting off rioters, at least 12 others are under investigation for possibly assisting them.
Two current Black Capitol Police officers told BuzzFeed News that they were angered by leadership failures that they said put them at risk as racist members of the mob stormed the building. The Capitol Police force is only 29% Black in a city that’s 46% Black. By contrast, as of 2018, 52% of Washington Metropolitan police officers were Black. The Capitol Police are comparable to the Metropolitan force in spending, employing more than 2,300 people and boasting an annual budget of about a half-billion dollars.
The Capitol Police did not immediately respond to questions for this story.
Sharon Blackmon-Malloy, a former Capitol Police officer who was the lead plaintiff in the 2001 discrimination lawsuit filed against the department, said she was not surprised that pro-Trump rioters burst into the Capitol last week.
In her 25 years with the Capitol Police, Blackmon-Malloy spent decades trying to raise the alarm about what she saw as endemic racism within the force, even organizing demonstrations where Black officers would return to the Capitol off-duty, protesting outside the building they usually protect.
The 2001 case, which started with more than 250 plaintiffs, remains pending. As recently as 2016, a Black female officer filed a racial discrimination complaint against the department.
“Nothing ever really was resolved. Congress turned a blind eye to racism on the Hill,” Blackmon-Malloy, who retired as a lieutenant in 2007, told ProPublica. She is now vice president of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association, which held 16 demonstrations protesting alleged discrimination between 2013 and 2018. “We got Jan. 6 because no one took us seriously.”
Retired Lt. Frank Adams sued the department in 2001 and again in 2012 for racial discrimination. A Black, 20-year veteran of the force, Adams supervised mostly white officers in the patrol division. He told ProPublica he endured or witnessed racism and sexism constantly. He said that before he joined the division, there was a policy he referred to as “meet and greet,” where officers were directed to stop any Black person on the Hill. He also said that in another unit, he once found a cartoon on his desk of a Black man ascending to heaven only to be greeted by a Ku Klux Klan wizard. When he complained to his superior officers, he said he was denied promotions and training opportunities, and suffered other forms of retaliation.
In an interview, he drew a direct line between racism in the Capitol Police and the events that unfolded last week. He blamed Congress for not listening to Black members of the force years ago.
“They only become involved in oversight when it’s in the news cycle,” said Adams, who retired in 2011. “They ignored the racism happening in the department. They ignored the hate.”
The department’s record in other areas of policing have drawn criticism as well.
In 2015, a man landed a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn — top officials didn’t know the airborne activist was coming until minutes before he touched down. In 2013, when a lone gunman opened fire at the nearby Navy Yard, killing 12 people, the Capitol Police were criticized for standing on the sidelines. The force’s leadership board later determined its actions were justified.
Last month, days after a bloody clash on Dec. 12 between militant Trump supporters and counterprotesters, Melissa Byrne and Chibundu Nnake were entering the Capitol when they saw a strangely dressed man just outside the building, carrying a spear.
He was a figure they would come to recognize — Jacob Chansley, the QAnon follower in a Viking outfit who was photographed last week shouting from the dais of the Senate chamber.
They alerted the Capitol Police at the time, as the spear seemed to violate the complex’s weapons ban, but officers dismissed their concern, they said.
One officer told them that Chansley had been stopped earlier in the day, but that police “higher ups” had decided not to do anything about him.
We don’t “perceive it as a weapon,” Nnake recalled the officer saying of the spear.
Chansley told the Globe and Mail’s Adrian Morrow that Capitol Police had allowed him in the building on Jan. 6, which would normally include passing through a metal detector, although he was later charged with entering a restricted building without lawful authority, violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. As of Tuesday, he had not yet entered a plea.
For Byrne and Nnake, their interactions with the “QAnon Shaman” on Dec. 14 highlighted what they perceive as double standards in how the Capitol Police interact with the public.
Like many people who regularly encounter the force, Nnake and Byrne said they were accustomed to Capitol officers enforcing rules aggressively — later that day, Nnake was told that he would be tackled if he tried to advance beyond a certain point. “As a Black man, when I worked on the Hill, if I forgot a badge, I couldn’t get access anywhere,” he told ProPublica.
Congress, which controls the agency and its budget, has a mixed record of oversight. For the most part, Congress has been deferential toward the force, paying attention to its workings only after serious security failures, and even then, failing to meaningfully hold its leaders accountable.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from D.C. who is a nonvoting member of Congress, told ProPublica she believes a national commission should be formed to investigate what occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6, similar to what followed 9/11.
“Congress deserves some of the blame,” she told ProPublica. “We have complete control over the Capitol Police. … Long-term concerns with security have been raised, and they’ve not been dealt with in the past.”
The force has also suffered a spate of recent, internal scandals that may prove pertinent as Congress conducts its investigation.
Capitol Police officers accidently left several guns in bathrooms throughout the building in 2015 and 2019; in one instance, the loaded firearm was discovered by a small child.
The agency has been criticized for a lack of transparency for years. Capitol Police communications and documents are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and, unlike many local law enforcement agencies, it has no external watchdog specifically assigned to investigate and respond to community complaints. The force has not formally addressed the public since the riot last week.
“All law enforcement is opaque,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “At least most local police departments are subject to some kind of civilian oversight, but federal police agencies are left to operate in the shadows.”
The agency’s past troubles have rarely resulted in reform, critics said.
After the April 2015 gyrocopter incident, Congress held a hearing to examine how 61-year-old postal worker and activist Doug Hughes managed to land his aircraft after he livestreamed his flight. Dozens of reporters and news cameras assembled in front of the Capitol to watch the stunt, which was designed to draw attention to the influence of money in politics. Capitol Police did not learn of the incoming flight until a reporter reached out to them for comment, minutes before Hughes landed.
Dine defended the force’s response to the incident, pointing out that Hughes was promptly arrested and no one was hurt.
Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, then the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, harshly criticized the department and other federal agencies for what he perceived as an intelligence failure.
“The Capitol Police is terrible and pathetic when it comes to threat assessment,” Chaffetz told ProPublica in an interview. “They have a couple people dedicated to it, but they’re overwhelmed. Which drives me nuts. … It’s not been a priority for leadership, on both sides of the aisle.” He said he is not aware of any serious changes to the force’s intelligence gathering following the debacle.
Norton, who also pressed Dine at the hearing, told ProPublica the intelligence lapses surrounding the gyrocopter landing should be considered a “forerunner” to last week’s riot.
“For weeks, these people had been talking about coming to the Capitol to do as much harm as they can,” Norton said. “Everyone knew it. Except the Capitol Police.” Reports show the force had no contingency plan to deal with an escalation of violence and mayhem at last week’s rally, even though the FBI and the New York Police Department had warned them it could happen.
Law enforcement experts said that the agency is in a difficult position. While it has sole responsibility for protecting the Capitol, it must work with other nearby federal law enforcement agencies, Washington’s Metropolitan Police and the National Guard in case of emergencies.
In an interview, Nick Zotos, a former D.C. National Guard commander who now works for the Department of Homeland Security, said that the roughly two dozen agencies responsible for public safety in Washington can cause territorial disputes, finger-pointing and poor communication.
“This is not a D.C. thing, necessarily, although it’s probably the worst in D.C.,” Zotos said. “Police departments just don’t play with each other nicely.”
Blackmon-Malloy told ProPublica that divisions within the Capitol Police could be just as dangerous, not only for Congress but for Black officers themselves. “Now you got to go to work on the 20th,” she told ProPublica, alluding to the inauguration. “And stand next to someone who you don’t even know if they have your back.”
The decision not to charge the officer who shot him stems in part from weak legislation.
Jacob Blake Sr., father of Jacob Blake, holds a candle at a rally Monday in Kenosha.Morry Gash/AP
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Jacob Blake, paralyzed and still suffering from injuries, got a phone call on Tuesday afternoon from Kenosha District Attorney Michael Graveley with some news: There would be no charges filed against the police officer who shot Blake seven times in August, sparking massive protests in the city.
“Based on the facts and the law, I have decided not to issue criminal charges against Officer Sheskey, Officer Meronek, or Officer Arenas. This decision was by no means easy,” Graveley wrote in a report published later that day. In a press conference, he described the shooting as a “tragedy.”
The video of the shooting has been viewed by millions of people, and is difficult to watch: Blake, who is Black, walks toward the driver’s side of a parked car in a residential Kenosha neighborhood, with his children in the back seat. A white officer, Rusten Sheskey, follows behind him with a gun drawn. As Blake approaches the door, Sheskey grabs him by the shirt and then fires his weapon.
It can be hard to imagine how Sheskey’s actions wouldn’t warrant criminal charges, even considering the blatant racism of our criminal justice system. But District Attorney Graveley, in a roughly two-hour press conference, argued that pressing charges would be unethical because, given the state’s law about when officers can use force, there was no way he could win at court
Even after atrocious policing, even after a man is paralyzed, use-of-force laws around the country often make it very, very difficult to punish cops. In Wisconsin and most states, police can legally fire their weapons against someone if they have “reasonable” fear the person will otherwise gravely harm them or someone in the vicinity. And here’s the kicker: The law usually says police officers get to define what’s reasonable.
At the press conference, Graveley explained why police could successfully argue that Sheskey’s decision to shoot was reasonable under the circumstances, using evidence not visible in the viral video most of the country watched.
According to Graveley, the police had reason to be nervous off the bat: Three officers were called to the scene by Laquisha Booker, the mother of Blake’s children, who told a 911 dispatcher that Blake had grabbed the keys to her rental car and was trying to take their kids away from her, according to a recording of the call played at the press conference. The officers knew that Blake had a felony warrant for alleged domestic abuse and sexual assault. When they arrived at the scene and tried to arrest him, a physical confrontation ensued—Blake says the officers punched him and dragged him to the ground, and the officers say he resisted their orders. At one point during the struggle, Blake was on top of Sheskey on the ground, according to a second video. Officers tried to stun him with a taser, but he tore the prongs out.
Blake admitted to investigators later that he was holding a knife in his hand after he stood up and began walking to the car. Sheskey says he followed Blake and then grabbed his tank top because he feared Blake would take the car with the children inside. (Booker had yelled that the children were hers.) According to a statement Sheskey gave later, he worried that if Blake drove away, it could result in a high-speed chase that could harm the kids, or they might be taken hostage. An independent police expert, former Madison Police Chief Noble Ray, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to grab Blake, according to the district attorney.
In the video footage, it looks like Sheskey then shot Blake seven times in the back. But according to the district attorney, two police officers and citizen witnesses told investigators that before the shooting began, Blake started turning toward Sheskey and made a motion with his knife hand; this allegation couldn’t be confirmed in the video because the camera view was obstructed by the car door and another officer. A medical examiner later concluded that Blake was shot four times in the back but also three times on his left side, adding some corroboration to the allegation that he turned.
Ray, the independent police expert, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to fear that Blake was trying to stab him at that time. Blake denies this allegation and says he was simply trying to put the knife back into the car. “They didn’t have to shoot me like that,” he said in a statement later, published in the district attorney’s report. “I was just trying to leave and he had options to shoot my tires and even punch me, tase me again, hit me with the night stick.”
If you asked many people on the street, they’d probably say it’s unreasonable for a cop to follow behind a man who is walking away, grab him by the shirt, and proceed to fire multiple shots into him at close range while his children watch from the back seat. But our laws are set up so that it doesn’t really matter what most people think: It matters what a police officer decides is a reasonable fear. And in a racist society where Black people are too often viewed as threats, police will almost always be able to come up with some justification for why they were afraid and believed they had to shoot.
Prosecuting cases like this will require states to change their use-of-force laws, so that officers don’t have so much power to define what’s reasonable. Until that happens, law enforcement will regularly get away with shooting people, including those sleeping in a car or at home on a couch, when it might have been possible to deescalate the situation instead. Officers continue to get away with violence because it’s not very hard to come up with a reason why they thought someone would harm them, especially when the law doesn’t require them to prove that they were correct or that the person was actually a threat. “Without any new rules from the legislature, we’re going to have this problem again and again,” says Farhang Heydari executive director of the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law. “We saw it in Breonna Taylor’s case, Eric Garner’s case, with Tamir Rice. It will happen over and over again until legislators step up and enact clear rules around force.”
It’s possible to change these use-of-force laws, which often differ from state to state and even city to city. California recently amended its statute so that an officer can only legally shoot if it’s “necessary,” rather than “reasonable,” to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury. But even there, it’s hard to predict whether the statute will bring justice after future police shootings, because California lawmakers didn’t define what “necessary” means in the law, again potentially leaving some room for discretion among police officers.
More than half of states considered legislation last year dealing at least in some way with police use of force, and at least several focused on deadly force. But many of the bills didn’t go as far as some criminal justice reform activists would hope. Delaware’s attorney general has pushed to reform her state’s law, but her proposed changes wouldn’t even go as far as California’s did: Delaware’s statute currently allows deadly force if an officer believes he or she is in danger. The attorney general wants to reform the law merely to specify that it must be a “reasonable” belief—which brings us back to the problem in Wisconsin and many other states.
The Policing Project’s Heydari recommends that new laws require officers to take deescalative steps, and to only use force as a last resort, limiting the types of response depending on the situation. Fair and Just Prosecution, an advocacy group that works with district attorneys, recommends a ban on deadly force against suspects who are fleeing.
Under the Biden administration, the federal government could step in to encourage these changes. The Justice Department, which may soon be led by US Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, could set a national guidance on when it’s acceptable for officers to use lethal force. The agency or Congress could also require states to follow this guidance in order to receive federal funding for training or other programs. Biden’s pick to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, formerly prosecuted police brutality at the department. She supports efforts to scale back law enforcement and invest more in social services, and has encouraged the federal government to stop funding agencies with a long history of violence and racism.
In terms of Blake’s case, federal prosecutors at the Justice Department and a US attorney’s office are now conducting a civil rights investigation and could later decide to bring federal charges. The Justice Department could also launch an investigation into the Kenosha Police Department and push for a consent decree that would require reforms.
“Now our battle must go in front of the Congress, it must go in front of the Senate,” Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., told reporters Tuesday after the district attorney’s decision not to file charges locally. One of Blake’s attorneys, Benjamin Crump, said they would press forward with a civil rights lawsuit. “It is now our duty to broaden the fight for justice on behalf of Jacob and the countless other Black men and women who are victims of racial injustice and police brutality in this country,” he said in a statement.
“We’re going to talk with the Speaker of the House, Speaker of the Senate,” Blake Sr. added. “We’re going to change some laws. Some laws have to be reckoned.”
Black Radical Activists and the Dangers of the Police State
During recent anti-police brutality protests and marches across the United States, American police forces have displayed the very behavior that brought people to the streets in protest. Activists have been harassed, beaten, arrested, shot at with rubber bullets and tear gas, and shot and killed by white vigilantes encouraged by police. Critics have focused their blame on the largely peaceful protestors rather than the violent police forces whose actions have been caught on camera. The police have also used their arrest power to try and stifle protest including, in one incident, arresting the only Black state legislator in Kentucky during a protest against the police violence that killed Breonna Taylor. Police abuse during social justice protests has a long history and has been part of the resistance to the kind of radical political change needed for racial justice. Angelo Herndon’s activism in the 1930s, his frequent arrests, and his unjust imprisonment is part of this long tradition of using police to prevent racial justice and stifle dissent.
In 1937, Herndon published his memoirs titled Let Me Live, where he related his family’s poverty, his employment struggles, and most importantly his radicalization in the Communist Party. The book is sometimes considered one of the first prison memoirs, but some scholars have recently argued that it is a poignant critique of racial capitalism. Herndon’s story of growing up in poverty and facing racial discrimination and police harassment demonstrate what Charisse Burden-Stelly has described as the “mutually constitutive nature of racialization and capitalism.”
In Let Me Live, Herndon describes his growing awareness of capitalist exploitation as well as the use of police as capitalist agents to control Black bodies. Herndon was born in Wyoming, Ohio in 1913, one of eight children. His family’s precarious financial position declined further after his father died from miner’s pneumonia when he was nine years old. At only thirteen, Herndon and his older brother Leo left home and traveled to Lexington, Kentucky to find work as miners. His first job as a miner, working and living in a segregated community, was a wake-up call. His wages, which were meant to help his whole family, were often consumed by company fees leaving him and his brother barely able to support themselves. Frustrated, the Herndon’s left Kentucky and went to their father’s birthplace, Birmingham, Alabama. Leo found a job, but Angelo remained unemployed. In the process of trying to find work, Herndon met a labor agent who convinced him to leave town for work on a bridge. When he arrived, he realized that he and other Black laborers had been lured to work as slave laborers policed by armed guards and given no wages. Herndon and a few other workers managed to escape, despite being chased by dogs.
Herndon’s time in Birmingham radicalized him further. When he finally found work with a mining company, he was disgusted with the company union that failed to advocate for workers. He witnessed a coworker’s death after management failed to make necessary repairs to the machinery he worked on; he and other employees moved his body out of the way to continue work. While traveling through town he witnessed a conductor beat a Black man who did not defend himself; his frustrations mounted until one day he refused to move on a Jim Crow car, he was left alone after the conductor told people he was crazy. In June 1930 he happened upon an Unemployed Council (UC) leaflet announcing a meeting, this was Herndon’s introduction to political organization and the Communist Party (CPUSA).
Herndon became a UC organizer and began attending meetings, organizing events, and traveling to UC conferences. He respected the UC and CPUSA for embracing an antiracist position and calling for working-class unity and he came to believe that communism was the “only philosophy of living worthy of a thinking civilized man.” Unfortunately for Herndon, the police did not take kindly to communist organizing and especially to a Black communist. As Marion Ross argues, Herndon’s “redness” and “Blackness” made him a criminal in the eyes of the law. His first arrest came when he tried to organize his fellow miners into the United Mine Workers, he was charged with vagrancy, though he was employed, and held in solitary confinement for seven days.
At his trial, the prosecutor focused on the threat Black men posed to white women’s virtue; this was enough for a guilty sentence and twelve months imprisonment and a $500 fine. When the prosecutor painted Herndon as a sexual predator, he was alerting the all-white jury to the belief that the Black body had to be controlled to secure white supremacy. His conviction was eventually overturned in the circuit court, but it was enough to move Herndon to officially join the CPUSA. Soon after he was arrested again walking to a CPUSA Labor Day rally; he was held for eleven days with other prisoners detained for mental illness. After his second arrest, Herndon’s memoir pivots from a story of radicalization to one of fascist police abusing him and his fellow organizers with impunity.
Herndon’s every movement in Birmingham was followed by police who arrested him on any pretense; it became such a frequent occurrence that he claimed it drove him further into the arms of the CPUSA. But it also became too difficult to live there, so in 1931 he took a job with the Trade Union Unity League to help organize longshoremen in New Orleans. Even in Louisiana the police dogged his every move, and he was arrested again. He also became active in the campaign to free the Scottsboro boys, nine Black youths arrested for allegedly raping two white women on a train.
Herndon returned to Alabama to organize for the Scottsboro defense and to try and help with the organization of sharecroppers in Camden County, but he was chased out of town by the threats of a lynch mob. When he arrived back in Birmingham he was arrested right off the train. Herndon did not stay long, he was sent to organize for the UC in Atlanta, GA in 1932. When the city announced it was going to drop over 20,000 people from the relief rolls, Herndon sprung into action. He began producing leaflets and organizing marches, all of which brought law enforcement attention. While picking up mail at the post office he was arrested and charged under an 1861 law to prevent slave insurrections; the place where he was staying was raided and all of his pamphlets and books were seized, later to be used against him in court.
Herndon described his subsequent imprisonment, trials, and conviction as being “crucified by capitalist law and order.” He was held incommunicado until a fellow inmate smuggled out a letter to the International Labor Defense, an organization devoted to defending workers. It was this arrest that prompted Herndon to write Let Me Live; in it he described his months in solitary, then on death row, the “kangaroo court” trial in which the prosecutor went into a “lynch frenzy,” and his conviction and sentence of 18-20 years on a chain gang, a death by labor sentence. This arrest would make Angelo Herndon a household name for radicals raising awareness about the dangers of the police state and its concerted efforts to quash social justice. All told, Herndon would spend two and a half years in jail while his appeals were heard. After the CPUSA mobilized a global defense around Herndon, the charges would eventually be dropped, and he would be free. He later described his imprisonment as an “apprenticeship in the revolutionary struggle.”
Herndon recognized what even today some Americans are only just realizing: that the police are not public servants meant to keep the peace, that they are agents of social control. While speaking to other prisoners, Herndon told them that if there was a “decent government” who cared for people’s needs, rather than protecting capitalist profits, fewer people would be imprisoned. Herndon was arrested so many times as a known UC organizer that he lost count; he recruited others to the UC and CPUSA by arguing that they had to make change because we are all “in the same leaky boat.” His memoirs have been described as prison literature, a critique of racial capitalism, communist propaganda, and in the tradition of slave narratives — it is also a book about police abuse and control and policing as a tool to control Black America and working people. It is a narrative that is all too familiar to today’s activists, that policing is a barrier rather than a path to social justice.
For America’s Black mothers, the fear of loss and trauma is constantWhen photographer Jon Henry poses families as if in mourning, he’s calling out police violence that too often kills young Black men and terrifies their mothers.
When the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into the back of George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes while Floyd pleaded for help, he was merely following the president’s advice.
“Please don’t be too nice,” Donald Trump told an audience of police officers on Long Island in 2017, in a speech largely focused on the MS-13 gang. The audience laughed. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”
Floyd’s killing has sparked nationwide protests, despite the fact that the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans and left 40 million without work, is still killing about 1,000 people a day in the United States. Those Americans who were disproportionately dying from a plague came out in force to protest being murdered by their government.Trump, who ran as the “law and order” candidate, now presides over the very “American carnage” he vowed to end.
A different president might have tried to quell the unrest and unify the nation, but Trump is incapable of that. He cannot rally Americans around a common identity or interest, because his presidency is a rejection of the concept, an affirmation of the conviction that America’s traditional social hierarchies are good and just. He is hardly the first president to embrace those hierarchies as unassailably virtuous, but he is the first in decades to do so openly. Law and order, for this president, simply means that he and his ideological allies are above the law, while others, such as Floyd, are merely subject to it. The chaos sweeping across the United States has many causes, but the one over which the president has the most control is the culture of lawlessness and impunity he has cultivated and embraced. When you attempt to impose “law and order” without justice, you get chaos.
The moral core of the protests is a simple demand: that police who abuse their authority be held accountable, that black Americans be able to live free lives without fearing that they will be cut short by a chance encounter with law enforcement. This demand clashes with the history of the United States, in which the ideal of equal justice coexists uneasily with the tacit understanding of many Americans that guarding the color line is one of law enforcement’s obligations, a commitment that has existed from slavery to the beating of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Ronald Reagan blamed the activist for his own murder, hissing that King’s death was the kind of “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order.”
When a white dog-walker in Central Park threatened to call the police on a black bird-watcher and tell them that “an African American man is threatening my life,” she was leveraging their mutual understanding that the police exist to protect white people from black people. This is why Chauvin and his fellow officers thought nothing of him being videotaped as he dug his knee into Floyd’s neck, and why authorities in Georgia saw no crime in the stalking and killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Integrating police departments was meant to help align law enforcement with its stated ideals, but as in every other area of public policy, correcting centuries of tradition is an arduous task, even if one is sincerely committed to it.
The president, a man who once called for the execution of five black and Hispanic teenagers for a crime they did not commit, is not just skeptical of reform. He views the violent enforcement of the color line as an honorable calling, and one that police officers should embrace rather than reject. Decades after taking out a newspaper ad demanding that New York “Bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!” the president still refuses to acknowledge the innocence of the Central Park Five. If they were not guilty of the actual crime, they were guilty of being the kind of people he wanted the police to crack down on.
Trump has few ideological convictions as consistent as his belief in the redemptive power of state violence against religious and ethnic minorities. During the 2016 campaign, Trump regaled audiences with tales of apocryphal war crimes against Muslims by American service members, then he pardoned service members who engaged in actual war crimes. He vowed to disregard the constitutional rights of anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, then he pardoned Joe Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff famous for violating those rights.
Remarks like those the president made on Long Island are often dismissed by the president’s defenders as just an artifact of his brash personality. Hardly. The Trump administration has worked diligently to turn the president’s affection for extralegal cruelty against religious and ethnic minorities into public policy, from the Trump-era toddler jails for migrants to his anti-Muslim travel ban. As with the prior examples, Trump’s encouragement of police brutality is far more than bluster.
During the Obama administration, the civil-rights division of the Justice Department undertook an aggressive effort to root out unconstitutional policing practices, initiating more such investigations than any prior administration. The authority it relied on was authored by police reformers and tucked into the now-disfavored 1994 crime bill, drafted in part by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Its inclusion in the bill was a response to the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who attacked him. In other words, in 2017, the Trump administration took a provision of the law passed to prevent police brutality and the unrest it sparks, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash.
In Miami, Obama-era investigators found “egregiously long delays in concluding administrative investigations of officer-involved shootings.” In Chicago, they found a widespread pattern of abuses hidden by “police officers’ code of silence,” which included lying and “affirmative efforts to conceal evidence.” In Baltimore, which was rocked by riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, investigators discovered “repeated violations of … constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community’s trust in the police.” In Ferguson, Missouri, an investigation following the protests and riots sparked by the killing of Michael Brown found that local police had set “maximizing revenue as the priority,” not solving crime, leading to officers crushing the town’s impoverished black residents with fines and fees designed to finance the local government. If the Trump administration had not abandoned any effort at police oversight, it might have discovered that Minnesota police had rendered dozens of suspects unconscious with the same knee restraint that killed Floyd.
Among the police forces investigated was the Suffolk County Police Department, the jurisdiction where Trump gave his speech extolling the virtues of police brutality. The department entered into a federal-supervision agreement in 2014 to take measures to avoid discriminating against Hispanic residents.
The Justice Department’s probes were not criminal investigations. Their purpose was to curb police abuses and, by doing so, to improve local law-enforcement agencies’ relationships with their communities and reduce crime. When a local community lives in fear of the police, its members will minimize their interactions with cops as much as possible, lest they end up like Floyd.
Ideally, overseeing police misconduct would be the job of local elected officials. But what appears to be a public-policy problem is also a problem of political power. Local leaders cower in fear of the power of police unions, whose political interests include not just securing higher wages and benefits or better equipment and overtime pay, but impunity for criminal behavior.
“Many of these unions have pushed collective bargaining agreements that make it all but impossible for departments to punish, much less fire, officers,” as BuzzFeed News’ Melissa Segura has written. “These agreements defang civilian review boards and police internal affairs departments, and they even prevent police chiefs from providing meaningful oversight, according to community activists and civil rights lawyers. Meanwhile, the unions have set up legal slush funds to defend officers sued for misconduct.”
The approach of many police unions both reinforces the code of silence for police abuse and makes officers whose consciences are troubled less likely to intervene, because the social costs of speaking out are so much greater than the possibility that a corrupt officer will face justice for breaking the law.
“It’s tough when somebody witnesses something and they want to speak up against it. You feel like if you do speak up, you’ll end up looking like the bad guy. Now people don’t want to talk to you,” Michael Baysmore, a black former cop in Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News in 2016. “And if nothing even happens to the person you spoke up against, it’s almost like, what’s the point?”
The extent of police unions’ power was illustrated this weekend, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected as a police reformer, defended cops plowing through protesters with cars even as the local sergeants’ union doxxed his daughter for participating in the protests.
The Obama administration’s reform efforts, although ultimately aimed at improving policing, were seen by the police unions as a “war on cops,” because they threatened the impunity to which their organizations aspired. By 2015, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and their ability to document for white audiences the shocking regularity of lethal encounters between police and black Americans had led some police-union officials to reconsider their approach. But the rise of Donald Trump, and his unqualified embrace of both racial discrimination and official impunity for law enforcement, offered new political possibilities.
Police departments themselves are not monolithic—some actually rejected Sessions’s offer to rescind federal-oversight agreements—and some law-enforcement organizations, those run by black officers in particular, have tried to rectify the profession’s history of discrimination. But the political power of police unions, the impunity granted by police contracts, and the culture of silence enforced by both leave little room for dissent, with isolation and ignominy as a reward for those who do. The entrenched legal doctrine of qualified immunity ensures that the most egregious violations of the Constitution cannot be addressed in civil court. A system that so efficiently stifles accountability cannot be overcome by the good intentions of individual officers. It is a system that ensures, as a matter of design, that bad apples remain to spoil the batch. And that was before the president encouraged police to engage in brutality for its own sake.
The head of the police union in Minneapolis, Bob Kroll, decried the Obama administration’s “handcuffing and oppression of the police” at a Trump rally in 2019. On Monday, Kroll released a letter complaining that the four police officers who had been fired over Floyd’s death had been denied “due process.” Floyd, who was being detained on suspicion of forgery, was to blame for his own death, because of his “violent criminal history.” This is a worldview that is consonant with Trumpism, in that it imagines being democratically accountable to those you regard as beneath you as tyranny, and the unquestioned authority to impose your will on those people as freedom. But amidst the president’s vocal encouragement of police brutality, his administration’s conscious abdication of oversight, and the police unions’ fanatical resistance to accountability, the condemnations of Floyd’s killing from Trump and his allies ring hollow.
This agenda of impunity for police who break the law has merged flawlessly with President Trump’s belief in impunity for himself and his allies. Both political philosophies envision a line drawn between those who are protected by the law and those who are subject to it. As Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, articulated with chilling clarity, communities that protest police abuses “might find themselves without the police protection they need.” This principle does not apply to the president or other members of the ruling party in good standing—merely to Americans whose rights have historically been easily revocable, and occasionally to those who express solidarity with them.
As the historian Rick Perlstein recounts in Nixonland, when asked by a black reporter what law and order meant, Nixon replied, “To me law and order must be combined with justice. Now that’s what I want for America. I want the kind of law and order that deserves respect.” Reporters today do not bother asking Trump what law and order means, because everyone already understands that it simply means violence.
Trump has dispensed with any pretense of seeking justice, and the Trump-era Republican Party has closed every possible path for reforming the police. Federal oversight of police is oppression. Elected officials who seek police reform have “blood on their hands.” The exercise of prosecutorial discretion by district attorneys is “anti-law enforcement” when it involves “seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient,” in the words of Barr, who has meanwhile busied himself with bailing out the president’s criminal associates. Those who challenge police abuses are not even allowed the dignity of protesting in silence. This is not the rule of law; it is the rule of might, and it is devoid of anything resembling justice.
After Floyd’s death, Minneapolis erupted in protests, including riots that began last Wednesday night and lasted through the weekend. The protests spread across the country, and in some cases so did the violence. In an atmosphere of lawlessness, opportunists looking to harm others, cause destruction, vandalize, or steal will attach themselves to whatever legitimate cause they can find. Those acting out of rage or grief may do the same. But whether motivated by rage, greed, or outright malice, such criminal acts cannot discredit demands for police accountability, or justify police brutality. They cannot repeal the Constitution.
Many police departments across the country seem determined to escalate rather than prevent violence. Videos of protests have shown “police officers in recent nights using batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked,” as The New York Times reported. This was Barr’s prophecy: an ungrateful public, protesting the unjust taking of human lives by law enforcement, punished for the foolish belief that their rights were inalienable. A First Amendment that guarantees the freedom to criticize the government only when you do not criticize the government is meaningless.
For a century, such riots in America have followed a familiar script—there is an incident of police brutality that goes unpunished, a protest, an escalation by police, and then a riot. These incidents are icebergs—the precipitating event and the destruction that follows are merely what can be seen above the surface. Underneath lie years of anger, abuse, and neglect. We do not know how the president’s encouragement of such abuse has shaped policing in the cities now rocked by protests, because his Justice Department has willingly blinded itself to the answer.
There is no romance in the destruction. Riots are, for the communities in which they occur, desperate acts of self-immolation, with consequences that can last for decades. Yet the historical record shows that the authorities often avoid taking the grievances of such communities seriously until buildings start burning. Only then do those who previously dismissed nonviolent protests against police brutality, or participated in belittling or silencing them, begin to pay attention and ask what would move such people to violence.
Such riots are, in the long run, devastating for all involved. But a legal and political system that sees no crime in the murder of black Americans by police until things are set on fire leaves black Americans with two terrible options: acquiescing to a system in which your life does not matter, or engaging in acts of destruction and self-destruction that persuade authorities to treat the needless taking of a life by police officers as a crime worth investigating, let alone punishing.
To say that a grievance is justified is not to justify every action taken by the aggrieved. But as a nation, we bear particular responsibility for the violence committed by police. We do not pay civilian rioters and looters with taxpayer dollars and empower them with the authority to use lethal force to protect our rights and our persons, as we do with police officers. That authority is a power granted by the people, and if it is abused, it must be withdrawn.
Most of Trump’s predecessors in the 20th century, including Nixon, who believed black people unfit for self-government, preoccupied themselves with preserving the credibility of an unequal justice system. By forswearing even that, by publicly reveling in the idea that state violence should be used to affirm America’s traditional social hierarchies, by denying the very legitimacy of both private protest and social reform, the Trump administration has undermined respect for the law more than any radical left-wing professor or hotheaded activist. The president sees the law as a thing of mere violence, a matter of who has enough guns to enforce their will. You can make people fear the law at gunpoint, but you cannot make them respect it.
Donald Trump proclaimed himself the law-and-order candidate. This is what law and order without justice looks like: a nation without law, order, or justice.
ADAM SERWER is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.
Editor’s note: On Wednesday, June 3 at 1 p.m., the author will co-host Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation. Sign up and join here.
American cities are in upheaval, awakened by the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy, which has resulted in 40 million people out of work and the spectacle of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Dozens of American cities are experiencing a scale of protests, clashes between police and demonstrators, and National Guard deployments not seen since the “long hot summers” of racial discontent and crisis that characterized much of the 1960s. Sympathy protests in Berlin and London’s Trafalgar Square outside the U.S. Embassy have drawn thousands of demonstrators who not only insist that “Black Lives Matter!” but reflect widespread global resistance against racial injustice manifested in the criminal justice system.
We are witnessing a level of national civil unrest that recalls the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, when 125 cities exploded in protest and violence. From peaceful demonstrations to clashes between protesters and Secret Service agents outside the White House, a national racial crisis is unfurling before our very eyes.
The public execution of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police last week has sparked national protests that have, in some instances, evolved into open political rebellion contoured by violent skirmishes between police and demonstrators and the destruction of property. Racial unrest gripping major American cities, against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the contemporary magnitude of racial injustice.
A national tragedy should be turned into a generational opportunity
The inhumanity of Floyd’s death heaped further indignity on African American communities suffering disproportionately from the brutal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Black folk have been diagnosed with, and died from, COVID-19 at alarming rates. The killing of George Floyd represents a national tragedy that should be turned into a generational opportunity.
Black death at the hands of the police is not new. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in 2014, turning a hashtag commemorating the mounting number of African Americans killed, assaulted, and brutalized by the police and displayed in social media, into a social movement that combined the non-violent civil disobedience of the civil rights era with Black Power’s structural critique of white supremacy and anti-Black racism.
BLM activists argued that America’s criminal justice system represents a gateway to panoramic systems of racial and economic oppression. The criminalization of poverty has long roots, but the past four decades have institutionalized systems of punishment that have deepened and exacerbated racial inequality. During the 1980s and 1990s, as violence, crime, and poverty raged against the backdrop of the crack cocaine explosion, both Democrats and Republicans competed with each other over how best to criminalize black inner city residents. Ronald Reagan’s tough on crime rhetoric and policies begat George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton and Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare “reforms” that further criminalized black communities and made it virtually impossible to successfully re-enter society by blocking avenues to employment, education, and housing after release.
The eruption of the BLM movement during the second term of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, illustrates how deeply entrenched the issues related to George Floyd’s death are. Donald J. Trump’s open embrace of white supremacists—from Charlottesville, Virginia’s 2017 demonstrations that left one woman dead to anti-government militias that marched to the Michigan state house in defiance of shelter-in-place orders armed with semi-automatic weapons—has fanned the flames of racial intolerance, police violence against black communities, and racially inflammatory.
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history, from the 1928 “Master Plan” that institutionalized racial segregation as citywide policy, to the decades-long efforts to fully integrate the University of Texas, to the gentrification of the historic East Side neighborhood at the cost of longstanding black residents, businesses, and communities. Racial integration in Austin has since proceeded in fits and starts, with segregated public schools and neighborhoods remaining the comfortable norm. Gentrification along the city’s East Side has largely displaced Austin’s historic black residents who find themselves compelled to depart neighborhoods just as they are flooded with the kind of investment that attracts white families, creates high achieving schools, increases home owner values, and thriving communities.
As if to acknowledge this history, activists blocked Interstate-35 on Saturday, the highway serving as a barrier between black and white Austin by design, locking Austin’s African American communities from access to white spaces, properties, and power.
The problems of racial segregation, poverty, and criminal justice that have scarred Minneapolis are national, impact Austin and other major cities around the country and, indeed, the world.
Austin, one of the nation’s fastest growing, wealthiest, and well positioned urban cities, has a unique opportunity to emerge as a national leader on the issue of racial justice.
The University of Texas at Austin, with the motto that “what happens here changes the world,” can be a major part of the city’s much needed transition from its current status as an enviable hub of technology, education, venture capital, and music into a national incubator of social justice, equity, inclusion, and full citizenship for all Austinites.
On this score the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, a center devoted to research, study, and social policy impact at the intersection of civil rights, race, and democracy, will be sponsoring an event designed to build community, forge networks, and problem-solve around issues of racial injustice that reverberate from Minneapolis to Austin and beyond. Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation will feature Mayor Steve Adler, Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison, Councilwoman Alison Alter and be moderated by myself and Jeremi Suri, my colleague at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
The protests erupting around the nation attest to a dearth of national leadership on race matters and the very meaning of American democracy. In times of national crisis—from the Great Depression to the Second World War to Civil Rights and 9-11—we come to better understand ourselves as Americans.
The fact that George Floyd could outlive the COVID-19 pandemic only to run into the even deadlier virus of white supremacy is both a national tragedy and a generational opportunity.
An opportunity to confront deep-seated racial inequities plaguing Austin
All of us can and must do more. From civil rights and faith communities to education, political, and business leaders, we must seize the combined tragedies of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and the tragedy of another unjustified killing of a black person at the hands of our justice system as an opportunity to finally confront deep-seated racial inequities that plague this city as much as any other.
Austin can turn this national moment of grief and mourning into a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal, with the knowledge that our city led the way in recognizing that a full commitment to anti-racist public policy and racial justice would allow us to achieve the community and nation we dream about.
How does an anti-racist Austin look? We can start by acknowledging the stubborn persistence of racial segregation in our city’s public schools and neighborhoods, a fact that amplifies opportunity gaps in education, employment, and housing and helps to create a feedback loop of racial disparities in rates of poverty, treatment before the criminal justice system, access to electoral politics, small business loans, venture capital and so much more. We must identify and understand negative disparities as part of systemic racism rather than behavior deficiencies in black people. We must root out injustice and inequities based on race in our policies, forging a community where racial equity centers our public conversation about the larger political good. So many Austinites of good will recognize aspects of the problem, but are unsure of where to begin, what organization to join, what would be the best use of their resources.
The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s Justice and Equity event is the first step in what we hope will be a socially impactful, politically relevant, and politically transformative movement in Austin to not only redress past mistakes but to acknowledge, repair, and build a future Austin worthy of our citizens.
Peniel E. Joseph is an American scholar, teacher, and leading public voice on race issues who holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.
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Outrage is justified. And anyone who is not outraged in today’s America should be.
“Everybody knows, no matter what they do not know, that they wouldn’t like to be a Black man in this country,” Baldwin said in 1968. The ills he spoke of remain; some have even worsened. Stark income and wealth gaps persist along racial lines, failing schools and paltry social services put a giant foot on the scale against Black youth, biased judges and juries disproportionately imprison Black men, and the severe health disparities suffered by Black Americans now include a higher death rate from COVID-19. But the most poignant picture of racial injustice in America is repainted in blood whenever a police officer, armed and sanctioned by the state and wearing the uniform of the law, kills a Black citizen with impunity. With the video of the death of George Floyd under the knee of white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, Black Americans once again relive a brutal nightmare that dates back to the country’s founding. Their lives are deemed dispensable, even and sometimes especially by those whose job it is to enforce the law.
And on Tuesday, the day after the incident, it took civil unrest in the streets to spur his arrest and murder charges on Friday. The three officers who helped him during the arrest, who either held George Floyd down or stood by as he said he could not breathe and cried out for his mother, have not faced charges. The camera footage shows a group of officers who acted as if they knew they would not be punished.
It is a form of Baldwin’s “willful ignorance” that the country’s politicians, policy makers, prosecutors, and police departments have not done more to prevent and punish acts of violence against Black people on the part of police and it is a form of willful ignorance that more citizens are not outraged. Piecemeal reforms to diversify police forces, train officers to de-escalate conflict, and require body cameras have fallen abysmally short in protecting Black people from errant law enforcement officers. Derek Chauvin had nearly 20 complaints and two letters of reprimand filed against him and had opened fire on two people before he knelt on the neck of George Floyd. Across the country, there is still too little accountability for police, including here in Boston, where the city has stopped releasing stop-and-frisk data.
That more and more Americans are refusing to accept the violence against Black Americans presents political leaders and law enforcement agencies around the nation with an imperative to act. State and federal lawmakers must use this moment to enact bolder policy reforms than those to date to reduce sentencing disparities, raise juvenile justice ages to keep young people out of the prison system, reform civil service laws that make it hard to hold cops accountable for wrongdoing, and strengthen civilian police-oversight boards. Police departments across the nation should press for the authority to remove officers who have any history of racial violence or aggression toward citizens; police chiefs should show that they have zero tolerance for such acts. They must send a loud and clear message that the era of sanctioned police violence against Black citizens is over.
With so many Americans moved by the death of Floyd and the callousness of Chauvin, this could be the country’s watershed moment for finally addressing police violence and racial injustice. But even after the fires stop burning, Americans of all races must be unwilling to accept the loss of Black lives.
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A Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of an African-American man named George Floyd for several minutes on Monday, as Floyd begged the officer to stop, said, “I can’t breathe,” and eventually lost consciousness. Floyd, who was forty-six, was pronounced dead at a hospital that evening. After video footage of Floyd’s asphyxiation, which was taken by bystanders, circulated online, the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, announced on Tuesday that the four officers who had been at the scene had been fired. “This is the right call,” Frey said on Twitter. “Being Black in America should not be a death sentence.” The police had responded to a call that Floyd had used a forged check at a nearby deli and, in their first statement about the incident, noted only that he appeared to be “suffering medical distress.”
On Tuesday, the F.B.I. joined Minnesota’s criminal investigation of the incident, as Floyd’s family called for the four officers to be charged with murder. That afternoon, thousands of people gathered for protests in the streets of Minneapolis, which were followed that evening by clashes between riot police and protesters outside a precinct station. Protesters chanted “I can’t breathe,” which became a Black Lives Matter slogan after the death of Eric Garner, in New York, in 2014. The Minneapolis area has been the site of several contested police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests—most notably, after Philando Castile was pulled over and fatally shot by police in a suburb of Saint Paul, in 2016. The officer who killed Castile was fired from the police department but acquitted of manslaughter.
On Wednesday, I spoke by phone with Leslie Redmond, who, at twenty-eight, is an attorney and the president of the Minneapolis chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we talked about racial inequities in Minneapolis, how activists are thinking about protests in the midst of a pandemic, and what steps she wants authorities to take regarding Floyd’s death.
What have the past couple days been like in the Minneapolis area?
It has been crazy. People on the ground are very upset and sad and disheartened, and rightfully so. I think about our young people, and how hard they are taking this. If people put it into perspective, for young people, they have grown up their entire lives watching black bodies murdered on social media, in real time, with no grief counsellors, with no therapy, with no one to help them make sense of it. And, to be honest, I don’t even know if we could make sense of it if we wanted to, because we are all just outraged and trying to figure it out.
What I have also seen, though, is black leaders coming together, and I am super thankful for Medaria Arradondo, who is the first African-American police chief we have ever had in Minneapolis. The way that he stepped up and brought us together during this time is just so honorable, and I know we wouldn’t be having the progress we are having if he wasn’t the police chief. And I think about five years ago—in the fall before Philando Castile, there was Jamar Clark, who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. We had a completely different police chief, a woman named Janeé Harteau, and it was horrible. It was a completely different response. You didn’t see any action or accountability. [The Minneapolis Police Department conducted an internal investigation of Clark’s shooting and determined that the officers had not violated its use-of-force policy.] So for Chief Arradondo to do the right thing and fire all four of those officers, and for the mayor to support him, was a major step in the right direction. It doesn’t take away from the pain and hurt people are feeling on the ground, but it moves us in the right direction of getting some justice for Mr. Floyd.
What is your level of trust in the mayor on these issues?
I am thankful for Mayor Frey. I think he has been showing good leadership. But it is not just about what happens in this specific situation and this moment. It is about what follows it. Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. I tell people that even before covid-19 we were in a state of emergency, and then that put us into a state of emergency times two. And now imagine having to deal with a black man being murdered by the government, by police officers, during this global pandemic. And so the burden has just been added to African-American communities, but the resources and the support have not been added. There has been no big lump sum that was poured into the community for us to pour into ourselves. And so that’s what I mean about it not just being about this moment—it’s about the moment that will follow, and the resources and communication that will follow this moment.
There were some demonstrations last night, but how do you think about organizing and marching and protests when there is a pandemic going on?
Protests are essential, and they have always been a part of the strategy. They are a tactic. But we are protesting to build power, and that is what people have to understand. A lot of people don’t really understand what goes on before and after. Black leadership was in communication with Chief Arradondo and in physical meetings with Chief Arradondo since 10 a.m. that morning. The protests didn’t start until 5 p.m. And so there was a lot of work being done before and after.
At the protests, for people who were on the ground originally, there was a really good effort and intent to push people back. And not only did most of the people in the crowd have masks on, but there were community organizations passing out masks, as they were already doing because of covid-19. People asked why I didn’t have one on. Because of the tear gas, a lot of us had to remove our masks, but it wasn’t people blatantly trying to not social-distance and protect themselves.
Protesting feels generally like a much harder thing to do, with so many additional complications now.
It’s very complicated, and the reality of the situation is that we shouldn’t be in it. That is the biggest issue here. Had even one of these officers stepped up to say, “Hey, this man is in handcuffs already. He is down on the ground. He doesn’t need officers on his neck and back for over three minutes, with bystanders pleading, and telling you he is bleeding and that he can’t breathe.”
And, you know, Isaac, one of my biggest things is that this is not just a civil-rights issue—this is a human-rights issue, and the fact is that black people’s humanity is being denied constantly. And I worry about the humanity of individuals, and not just the police, because we know a lot of black people are dying at the hands of non-police officers. But specifically police officers—how can they turn off their humanity and kill black people in cold blood for what a lot of the time seems like nothing? It reminds you of much of the history of lynching in America. And now we are just being lynched without the ropes.