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.
“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.
Inside the “Most Incarcerated” Zip Code in the Country 53206, a heavily African American neighborhood north of downtown Milwaukee, suffers from all manner of ills—not least of which are the myths of criminality that continue to surround it.
Robinson’s family came to Milwaukee from Chicago in the 1980s because, as Robinson put it, “Chicago was getting out of pocket.” With crime rising and jobs disappearing in the Windy City, she told me, “my mom wanted a better place for us to live.” But Robinson’s mother could never have anticipated the crucibles awaiting her daughter in Wisconsin—the array of social and political deficits associated with the five numbers that came at the end of her listed address: 53206, now notoriously known as the most incarcerated zip code in the country.
The neighborhood’s rectangular outline sits like a brick just north of the Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in downtown Milwaukee, where the 2020 Democratic National Convention will be held next summer. In addition to its high incarceration rates, 53206, a heavily African American district, suffers from every manner of social ill, from socioeconomic stagnation to poor health. The Democratic primary field is teeming with proposals to address these ingrained injustices, and the party’s eventual candidate will also have a personal incentive to pay attention to what is happening in 53206: Its residents, among others in Milwaukee, may well prove to be the key to Democrats’ hopes of winning the battleground state of Wisconsin and unseating Donald Trump in the presidential election.
As long as those residents can gain access to the ballot, that is.African Americans represent nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population, but their political clout has been diminished by laws that suppress the black vote. There is also the problem of African Americans choosing not to vote: Black turnout in Wisconsin dropped nearly 19 percent between the 2012 to the 2016 elections—a clear sign that, despite their historic need to mobilize black voters, Democrats haven’t been meeting the challenge especially well of late.
Patriarchy functions in much the same way, particularly with respect to how the many life-destroying dynamics of anti-Black racism are erased and redubbed into a baby-simple saga of negligent Black mothers and absent Black fathers. Whether the inequality at issue is the police killing of Black people, the mass incarceration of Black communities, anti-Black violence, disparities in health and wealth, crumbling schools, abandoned cities, or diminishing political power, the patriarchal neuralyzer manages to make it all vanish in a blinding flash. Neuralization isn’t new.
In fact, a telltale sign of its impact is just how enthusiastically stunned and disoriented witnesses lapse into incoherent analysis. In Jay-Z’s case, his viewers became mired in a vastly oversimplified bit of pop psychology when the hip-hop legend conjured up an explanation for Black death at the hands of police that had been recycled from generations of earlier commentators who rest the blame on Black gender disrepair: “You’re like, ‘I hate my dad. Don’t nobody tell me what to do. I’m the man of the house.’
And then you hit the streets and run into a police officer and first thing he says, ‘Put your hands up, freeze, shut up,’ and you’re like, ‘Fuck you!’”Meanwhile, during September’s Democratic presidential debate in Houston, the party’s front-runner, Joe Biden, was asked to address earlier views in which he angrily rejected any responsibility for addressing slavery.
Given the opportunity to talk concretely about the contemporary legacies of slavery, Biden produced his own neuralyzed script. Regurgitating a tangled fur ball of tropes from policy debates past, Biden delivered an impressionistic, stereotyped word-picture of Black family life that only made notional sense because of the exhausting familiarity of the narrative.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is the founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum. @sandylocks
Michael Tidwell’s blood sugar reading was at least 15 times his normal level when sheriff’s deputies took him to the hospital. But before they loaded the inmate into the back of a car, deputies propped up his slumping body and handed him a pen so he could sign a release from the Washington County Jail.“I could barely stand up or keep my eyes open,” he recalled.Tidwell said that he didn’t know what he was signing at the time, and that he lost consciousness a short time later. The consequences of his signature only became clear in the weeks that followed the 2013 medical emergency.By signing the document, which freed him on bond from the small jail in south Alabama, Tidwell had in essence agreed that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office would not be responsible for his medical costs, which included the two days he spent in a diabetic coma in intensive care at Springhill Medical Center in Mobile.It’s unclear whether Tidwell, who was uninsured at the time and in poor health afterward, was billed for his care or if the medical providers wrote it off. Neither Tidwell’s attorneys nor the hospital was able to say, and Tidwell was unable to get answers when he and a reporter called the hospital’s billing department.
Michael Tidwell at Springhill Medical Center in Mobile, Alabama. (Courtesy of Michelle Alford)
What is clear is that the sheriff’s office avoided paying Tidwell’s hospital bills.
Tidwell had been on the receiving end of a practice referred to by many in law enforcement as a “medical bond.” Sheriffs across Alabama are increasingly deploying the tactic to avoid having to pay when inmates face medical emergencies or require expensive procedures — even ones that are necessary only because an inmate received inadequate care while incarcerated.What’s more, once they recover, some inmates are quickly rearrested and booked back into the jail from which they were released.Local jails across the country have long been faulted for providing substandard medical care. In Alabama, for instance, a mentally ill man died from flesh-eating bacteria 15 days after being booked into the Mobile County Metro Jail in 2000. And in 2013, a 19-year-old man died of gangrene less than a month after he was booked into the Madison County Jail. In both cases, officials denied wrongdoing and surviving relatives settled lawsuits alleging that poor jail health care contributed to their loved ones’ deaths.But the use of medical bonds isn’t about inferior care. It’s about who pays for care.
“The initial rollout of the family-separation policy, and then its denial, showed the Trump administration that its campaign of dehumanization against Latino immigrants is weakest when it targets children. This is the reason for the secrecy behind the squalid conditions at immigrant-detention facilities holding minors, which contrasts sharply with the very public announcements of “millions of deportations” by the president himself.“They don’t want eyeballs on the actual conditions of these places,” said Amy Cohen, a doctor who consults on cases involving the 1993 Flores settlement, which continues to govern the conditions for children in immigration custody. “What they tell you is that they are protecting the privacy of these children. That makes no sense. What we need to be doing is protecting the lives of these children. And unfortunately, that does not seem to be a priority of the government.”The journalist Jonathan Katz argued in May that given the intent behind these facilities, and the conditions that migrants are being held in, they are best described as a concentration-camp system in the United States. That assessment was echoed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was promptly accused of trivializing the Holocaust. “Allegations that somehow the United States is operating in a way that is in any way a parallel to the Holocaust is just completely ludicrous,” Representative Liz Cheney wrote. Although Ocasio-Cortez did not mention the Holocaust, the association between the Shoah and concentration camps is strong, and attacking an opponent for hyperbole is easier than defending the torture of children—not that Cheney is at all opposed to torture.”
“It’s no secret that the U.S. incarcerates a shocking number of its own people, primarily the poor and people of color. With 2.3 million Americans currently being held in prisons, the country has the largest prison population in the world. But even as awareness of mass incarceration grows, two crucial questions remain at the heart of the debate on prison reform: Why does the U.S. imprison so many people, and how do we change our toxic approach?
These are the issues Tony Platt, author of “Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States,” and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer discuss in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.”“When I started writing this book,” says Platt, a scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. “I was trying to answer the question: Why is it so difficult to make any kind of fundamental, decent, humane change in criminal justice institutions? Why are [our leaders] so resistant to this?”
When They See Us is primarily focused on the racist logic of the policing, court, and prison systems that cost the five defendants their childhood. The series also profoundly illuminates some inherent problems in American criminal justice from a range of perspectives. Viewers get an intimate glimpse of mothers, fathers, and siblings fighting for the freedom of their loved ones; law-enforcement authorities classifying these same boys as “animals”; and protesters on both sides holding signs, declaring “it’s not open season on women” or the real rapist in court today is the New York police and the D.A.
Ultimately, the hysteria surrounding the Central Park Jogger case gave rise to new language about black-youth crime, and to new laws that caused more children to stand trial as adults than at any other time in American history.
When They See Us gets the audience closer to understanding why juvenile and adult prison populations exploded through the 1990s, and how the United States became home to the largest incarceration system in the world.
” . . . the report’s authors said the local government should be doing more to support those who are justice-involved, including those who are formerly incarcerated and those with parole, probation, and community supervision.These individuals and their families struggle with access to housing, employment, educational opportunities, and meeting health and mental health needs and experience a patchwork of services that are under-resourced and not targeted to meet the complex challenges that come before, during, and after justice involvement, FPWA officials said.The result is a continuing cycle of poverty and incarceration that has a devastating impact on families for generations, they said.“If we are serious about ending mass incarceration, if we want to disrupt systems that criminalize the poor, we must better utilize and resource the organizations that are already providing critical services in these communities,” Jennifer Jones Austin, FPWA CEO and Executive Director, said in a news release.“Systemic racism drives both poverty and the mass incarceration of low-income people, especially people of color. This cycle of poverty and criminal justice involvement feeds on itself and creates herculean barriers to achieving economic and social advancement, for those who have been justice involved and for their loved ones,” Jones said.“There are proven ways to support communities experiencing high levels of poverty, income insecurity and incarceration. Human services organizations are a key part of those solutions,” she said.”
“The Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are confined, though they are barred from voting in 48 states and return to their homes after being released. The practice also defies most state constitutions and statutes, which explicitly state that incarceration does not change a residence.”