Sometimes the artist Winfred Rembert can’t sleep at night. His wife, Patsy, says that it has to do with his work. “Whenever he do one of those pictures, he gets sick,” she explains. “He has to double up on that medicine in order to get some rest.” Rembert first draws his scenes, full of faces and patterns, on paper, then carves the images onto a sheet of tanned leather by hand, texturing the surface with tools that look almost surgical, before filling in the etchings with vivid dyes. His paintings depict scenes of Black life in the Jim Crow South, and making them means dredging up painful memories from his youth, when he worked in cotton fields and on a prison-labor chain gang. Some artworks are healing or serve as sources of hope, Rembert says, in the documentary “Ashes to Ashes”—but not his.
When he was nineteen years old, living in Georgia and participating in the civil-rights movement, Rembert, now seventy-five, was lynched by a mob of white men. They shoved him into the trunk of a car, stripped him, hung him upside down, stabbed him, and made it clear that they intended to castrate him. The attack was brutal and dehumanizing—“There I am, bleeding like a pig, hanging up in a tree, ready to be slaughtered,” Rembert recalls. The attackers were moments from hanging him. They stopped, Rembert says, only because one man said they had “better things” to do. Rembert survived, but the scars have stayed with him.
Whitaker has a physician’s reverence for history. She says that, when patients come to see her, they may need to have difficult conversations about what has happened in that patient’s life. Those conversations can’t be ignored or elided, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. “Sometimes, patients come and they tell you horror stories. But I can’t discard it, because I need it in order to help that patient live,” she says. Without that information, she says, the patient will never get toward a cure. It’s a striking parallel to the words she delivered at the homegoing ceremony: “Some bad things happened in this country, where Americans tortured other Americans. . . . So we’re looking back in history,” she says, to a church full of mourners. “This patient”—and, here, the patient is something more collective than an individual in her exam room—“can only live and get stronger if we’re willing to look back.”
Taylor Rees, who directed the film, told me that working with Rembert and Whitaker has expanded her thinking about what it means to heal from racial and political violence. “That healing process might never look like a complete recovery from an injury, but it’s the courage to face an injury,” she told me. “Looking at that thing that has caused harm is sometimes the hardest part.” The attack that Rembert describes is so vicious, his attackers so lacking in human decency, that the temptation is, if not to look away, then to dissociate, to ascribe the actions to a distant place and time. But neither Rembert nor the brutality he lived through are relics of history. “The person who endured this is alive. This isn’t generations ago,” Rees said. The truth of that statement could hardly be clearer. We spoke just days after a mob had breached the Capitol building, many of its members wearing white-supremacist insignias and at least one waving a Confederate flag. On the National Mall, some of the group erected a scaffold and noose.
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.”
Long before the internet caught wind of him, Henry Earl was already a local legend. By the time the Charleston Gazette dubbed him a “cult-status hero” and Newsweek called him the “town drunk,” Earl was already known around Lexington, Kentucky, as James Brown. He liked to dance, and he’d do a few moves in exchange for a couple bucks, money which he’d usually promptly spend on alcohol.
Earl was born in the Jim Crow South and adopted at age seven. Drinking was a habit he picked up as a teenager after his mother died, one he never could quite shake. By age 19 he was homeless, and by 20 he’d been arrested for the first time. That was back in 1970. Over the next several decades, Earl was arrested more than 1,500 times, almost always for alcohol intoxication. This is how he became known as the World’s Most Arrested Man. Over the years, he spent a total of more than 16 years in jail, usually in couple-day spurts. He was never once charged with violence or theft. “I like to drink,” he said once. “Alcoholic, that’s what I am. Every police knows me on the force. They see me drunk; they pick me up; I get five days.”
For almost 50 years, this was Earl’s life. No home, no family, just alcohol and jail. He was a regular at the local bar scene, known for sometimes overstaying his welcome. The locals would see him at house parties sometimes; he’d go for the free beer. He tried court-mandated rehab a few times, but it didn’t stick. “It’s a weekly, if not every-two-or-three-days thing,” said a police spokesperson in 2013. “He’s never doing bad or illegal things purposely…. He’s just so highly intoxicated that he’s posing a danger to himself.”
Interest in Earl peaked a few years back, with websites dedicated to his mug shots that amusedly tracked his arrests. Late-night TV cracked jokes at his expense. National outlets ran stories on him. Around town, people called him harmless and happy, a “lovable loser.” But there were times Earl saw it differently. “It’s a sad life, it ain’t worth a dog,” he said in 2003, tearing up. “I got more sense than some people think I do. I’ve seen what it’s doing. It is ruining my life.”
Over the past 10 years, the American public has been subjected to countless videos of civilians being killed, beaten, or tortured by law enforcement. Each new story is more documentation in the growing mountain of evidence, detailing how the state casually inflicts violence against its citizens. Henry Earl is not in any of those videos. He hasn’t been tortured on the street. He hasn’t been shot in the back. He has not been injected with a lethal dose of ketamine. But year after year he has been the victim of state violence—subject to arrest and the dangers of jail. But what Henry Earl shares with Walter Scott, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain is the problem of American policing—the consistent application of violent solutions to nonviolent, and often nonexistent, problems. The solution has been tried over a thousand times on Henry Earl, to no effect. Perhaps it’s time for something new.
Last year Attorney General William Barr addressed the Fraternal Order of Police’s biennial conference. “[W]hat stands between chaos and carnage on the one hand, and the civilized and tranquil society we all yearn for,” Barr told his audience “is the thin blue line of law enforcement.” Barr is a right-wing Republican who has for years advocated for a harsher and more robust police state. But his proclamation reflected a deeply held idea in American politics—that police are essential to an ordered and just country. Barr’s worldview is time-honored and bipartisan. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might not be the same politician he was when he championed the 1994 crime bill, but his belief in the necessity of American policing—Biden proposes to pump $300 million in federal dollars to the police—has not changed. And it’s not just politicians who proselytize the necessity of policing. Boilerplate TV procedurals, true-crime podcasts, and the evening news sell us a world where the police, beleaguered and badgered, are ultimately all that stands between those of us who wish to live in society and the others who would choose savagery.
This is a myth. Despite much reporting of a spike in murder this year, the long-term trend still shows the murder rate hovering roughly in the same place it was in the 1960s, half of what it was in 1980. And while procedurals may paint a picture of cops chasing serial killers weekly, the actual face of police is more mundane. In June, the New York Times culled available data and estimated that police spend roughly 4 percent of their time addressing “violent crime.” Most of their time is spent dealing with noncriminal matters. And yet no matter the call—the loud party next door, the permit for a parade, the expired car tags, the escort for a funeral procession, the elderly welfare check, the frolickers barbecuing in the park, the schoolyard fight, the opioid overdose, the homeless person outside in the cold, the stray dog—the state’s answer is to respond with armed agents blessed with the near unimpeachable right to kill. The impact is not theoretical. After James Smith noticed the door of his neighbor’s home was open and the lights were on, Smith called the police, hoping an officer would conduct “a wellness check” on his neighbor. Instead, Officer Aaron Dean shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in her own home as she played video games with her young nephew. Smith was left to draw a grim conclusion. “We don’t have a relationship with the police because we don’t trust the police,” Smith recently told the BBC.
Even the impact of policing on violent crime is debatable. “We are fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society,” Barr claimed at the FOP conference in New Orleans. But the “never-ending fight” in the very city in which Barr was speaking is not going well. New Orleans has the fourth highest murder rate in the nation but clears only 35 percent of homicide cases. In 2018, the city’s police cleared only 2 percent of all rapes. The country at large isn’t much better. Last year, the Washington Post launched an investigation into murder clearance rates in 50 cities over the course of 10 years. The results were bracing. “Despite a nationwide drop in violence to historic lows,” the Post reported, “34 of the 50 cities have a lower homicide arrest rate than a decade ago.” In St. Louis, during the period the Post studied, it calculated that 54 percent of all homicides resulted in no arrest. In Baltimore, during the period it studied, the Post calculated that only 35 percent of all homicides resulted in an arrest. In Chicago the rate was 26 percent. The “line” isn’t just thin and blue—it’s porous and arbitrary.
One argument for policing holds that while police may not solve much violent crime, their very presence helps ensure safety. In a survey of research, the National Institute of Justice concludes that “hot spot policing” was “associated with reductions in violent crime relative to control areas.” What is “hot spot policing”? According to the survey, it includes “order maintenance and drug enforcement crackdowns, increased gun searches and seizures and zero tolerance policing.” This isn’t just a list of policing tactics; it’s a list of prerequisites for the present moment. For “order maintenance,” Eric Garner was suffocated on a New York sidewalk. For “drug enforcement crackdowns,” Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home. For “gun search and seizure,” the Black neighborhoods of New York endured Stop and Frisk. For “zero tolerance policing,” George Floyd was choked on a Minneapolis street.
It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.
It is impossible to imagine American policing without the institution foundational to America itself—enslavement. Indeed, from colonial times up through the Civil War, the largest police force in the country wasn’t primarily found in the early towns or the bustling metropolises, but in the slave societies of the South, where to be a white man was to be deputized. Enslavement, where the enslaver is both the maker and enforcer of law, was the first experience of policing for Black people. But through the invention of slave patrols, militias charged with enforcing the law against the enslaved, the policing powers were expanded. “All white persons were permitted and in some regards required to exercise a police power over slaves,” the white supremacist historian U.B. Phillips noted. In many states, white people were not only allowed but required to whip, capture, and jail enslaved people they encountered. They had a mandate to “prevent all caballings amongst negros [sic], by dispersing of them when drumming or playing,” meaning they could punish any enslaved people for simply interacting with each other. The patrollers operated, as one of their number put it, “without warrant and at my own discretion.” The shadows of American policing are here—in the prisons, we find the absolute mastery once enjoyed by the planter class; in the wide discrepancy granted the slave patrol, one sees the echoes of broken windows policing; and the bodies of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery reflect the extension of police powers far beyond official police.
Slave patrols were born of the propertied interests of white people seeking to maximally exploit Black labor, an endeavor that did not fade with emancipation. In many ways, it was reinforced. Planters may no longer have owned their labor force, but that didn’t stop them from seeking out means of preventing the formerly enslaved from freely selling their labor. Policing was key to this effort, which saw control lost through slavery regained through a panoply of laws that threatened arrest for everything from not having an annual work contract to “malicious mischief” and criminalized “persons who led idle or disorderly lives.” Depending on the state, the arresting officers could consist of urban police, militias drawn from former Confederate soldiers, or merely any white man. While there was a brief reprieve during Reconstruction, after federal troops departed the South in 1877, white Southerners employed policing to ensure a permanent and pliable source of labor. When Blacks tried to go north for jobs during the Great Migration, “the South resorted to coercion and interception worthy of the Soviet Union,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns. “In Brookhaven, Mississippi, authorities stopped a train with 50 colored migrants on it and sidetracked it for three days. In Albany, Georgia, the police tore up tickets of colored passengers as they stood, waiting to board, dashing their hopes of escape. A minister in South Carolina, having seen his parishioners off, was arrested at the station on the charge of helping colored people get out.”
It is tempting to think the Northern police departments unsullied by white supremacy. The assumption would be wrong. Throughout the entirety of Jim Crow, Northern police often parroted their Southern counterparts. “From the moment the emigrants set foot in the North and West,” writes Wilkerson, “they were blamed for the troubles of the cities they fled to.” Indeed, police departments took the cue and regarded Blacks much as the broader society had—as outcasts and threats. In 1917, in East St. Louis, Illinois, white workers angered by Blacks brought in to replace them during a strike rioted and “fired shots into colored homes,” writes Wilkerson. “The police, charged with quelling the riot, in some cases joined in, as did some in the state militia.” In 1943, during the Detroit race riot, “Police openly sympathized with the white rioters,” writes historian Thomas J. Sugrue; “17 blacks were shot to death by the police, no whites were.” Ten years later, as Black families tried to integrate Chicago’s Trumbull Park Homes, they were granted minimal protection from the police who sympathized with the whites who terrorized the families. Still, the greatest indicator of the role law enforcement in the North played in suppressing their Black populations lay in the prison population. Even in an era of relatively low incarceration, the rate in the Northern cities stood at seven to one—exactly the same as today.
That the police were not concerned with neutrality nor “law enforcement” was always clear to Black people. In 1967, after a series of riots, President Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to report on the riot’s origins and recommend a series of reforms. Read today, the report is bracing for a haunting quality—its timelessness. Just like the countless commissions that have followed it, the Kerner Commission found a police department with too many responsibilities, filling in for the defunding and decline of societal institutions. Just as today, the Kerner Commission found Black communities complaining of “stop and frisk” tactics. And then, as now, voices of authority blamed police violence on the inherent pathologies of the Black population instead of the learned brutality of the police. Among the commission’s recommendations: an intolerance for police brutality, “a clear and enforced policy…of law enforcement in ghetto areas as is the same as in other communities,” and eliminating a focus on smaller crimes such as “gambling or loitering” in favor of crimes that threaten “life and property.” After the report was published, it became a best seller, but Johnson quickly scuttled it, and the era of “law and order” commenced.
It is common to note, as the Kerner report does, that Black communities frequently complain of crime right alongside police brutality. This is not surprising. Black communities are on every level less safe than white communities. And yet it is curious the ease with which police, who never fail to note this safety gap, abandon these vulnerable neighborhoods. Calls for accountability are often met with indignance and threats to desert those most affected by crime. The practice of officers, at the slightest sign of public critique, calling in sick en masse and refusing to do their jobs has long been called “blue flu.”
At times, retaliation is even uglier. After becoming the New York City’s first Black mayor in 1990, David Dinkins angered the union by calling for police reform. The response was open defiance of the law. Police officers derided Dinkins as a “janitor” and a crack addict, drank openly, blocked traffic, and assaulted journalists. A photographer seeking the protection of a lieutenant after being assaulted by an officer was essentially told to flee. “I can’t protect you up here,” the lieutenant said. In 2011, after the NYPD was investigated for corruption, officers again rallied at the courthouse, blocking the cameras of journalists, mocking poor people by chanting “EBT” at people attempting to collect their benefits. In 2014, in the midst of a conflict with Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NYPD largely stopped policing, at the behest of the union.
This is all very strange behavior for a group which takes an oath “to serve and protect.” But policing is often revealed to be about something muddier. In June, the Times asked Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot her opinion on the effort to “defund the police.” Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, didn’t even bother to defend her department—probably because a department with a history of torture, black sites, framing innocent people, and child killing is not easily defensible. Instead Lightfoot seemingly deflected to the lack of opportunity for Black and brown people in Chicago. Defunding “means you are eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to create middle class incomes for Black and brown folks.” That America’s second largest police department can only be defended as a kind of violent jobs program is a clear indictment of policing as an act of public safety. Furthermore, the fact that policing is one of the few tools available to bolster a racially diverse middle class is yet another indicator that police have far too much responsibility.
But America has never truly had a system of “public safety,” if only because Black “safety” has historically been imagined as being secured by more policing, whereas white “safety” is ensured by altogether different means. America does not flood the dorms of Harvard with cops because they are areas of “known drug activity.” It does not station armed officers in the cubicles of Wells Fargo. The white parents of Westchester do not generally have to subject their teenagers to The Talk. White safety, itself built on a foundation of enslavement and segregation, is ensured through familial wealth, home ownership, well-funded public schools, stable employment, and health care. Black safety is ensured by “zero tolerance policing” and “stop and frisk.” White safety is cancer prevention. Black safety is all-day chemotherapy.
Abolition seeks to eradicate this Jim Crow system of public safety—not merely a two-tiered system, but a system where one tier benefits by extracting from the other. To “reform” policing, to subject it to bias training of dubious import, to push for the return to an illusory past where Officer Friendly provided sanctuary, is to attempt to patch up the more nefarious features of a system that should be obsolete. Without the history of policies and practices that make up white supremacy, without enslavement and slave patrols, without black codes and miscegenation laws, without poll taxes and courthouse lynchings, without redlining and housing segregation, without mass incarceration, policing as we know it would not exist.
The outlines of the possible are already upon us. Defunding the police—divesting money from the back-end solution of policing and investing it on the front end—is a first step along the path. To meet the very real concerns about neighborhood violence, we could look to preventative programs like Cure Violence and Save Our Streets in cities like New York. These organizations view gun violence as a public health question rather than evidence of community moral rot. Both have been able to successfully reduce and prevent gun violence without inflicting more violence on communities they claim to protect.
Nowhere is the extra layer of unnecessary violence more reflected than in our insistence on sending men with guns to resolve mental health crises. In Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS, a crisis intervention program, was able to respond to 20 percent of the area’s 911 calls last year. Through the program, teams of medics and experienced mental health professionals are dispatched to handle certain emergencies instead of the police. For people suffering from mental health crises, addiction, and homelessness, introducing law enforcement in moments of desperation is an invitation for disaster. CAHOOTS reduces the risk of unnecessary violence and criminalization.
And removing police from our long and futile war against drug abuse is essential to abolition. This requires us to consider the role of harm reduction, rather than abstinence, as a possible avenue toward reducing the associated drug use. This solution is not theoretical. In countries such as Norway, Germany, and Canada, drug users can go to a safe injection site and use in regulated, medically supervised, and sanitary conditions. These facilities avoid relying on the stigma and shame that trails many of those suffering from addiction. And it works. When people have access to a safe environment for drug use, they are more likely to seek treatment on their own.
Abolition looks like justice for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. According to RAINN, for every 1,000 sexual assaults, only about 230 are reported to law enforcement. Of those, less than five result in incarceration. In other words, 75 percent of sexual assaults go unreported and 99 percent go unpunished. Policing does not protect women from sexual assault, it facilitates it. Prison sexual violence, not only at the hands of other incarcerated people but also from correctional officers, is a persistent problem across the gender spectrum, including the thousands of juveniles housed in adult prisons. In place of our current system, abolition envisions providing domestic abuse survivors with crisis counselors and violence intervention teams trained to specifically navigate intimate relationships, available at a moment’s notice. What would a future look like for rape survivors if there were professionals or organizations that could provide not just physical safety but mental, emotional, and financial resources as well?
But more than an array of solutions to discrete, isolated issues, abolition envisions something more fundamental—entirely different values. A world where the resources put into not just policing but our robust system of prisons and jails is invested in the people to eventually render the present justice system obsolete. This is a world focused on the reduction of violence and harm. Certainly you would still need professionals responsible with holding accountable those who violate the social contract in the extreme—rape or murder—and an improved investigative system to catch the perpetrators. But even in that case, ensuring society’s protection should look very different. Even in the most extreme circumstances, it would demand an end to the conflation of public safety with public vengeance. Removing someone from society to stop them from enacting violence does not require subjecting someone to the current prison system, where solitary confinement, assault, sickness, torture, and rape are par for the course.
This is the world I imagine when I picture what I want for my children—a world where social consequences are weighted along with criminal consequences, where incapacitation is not conflated with torture, and murder and rape are taken so seriously that we do all we can to prevent either from happening in the first place. But ultimately abolition is not about a suite of options imposed by someone else—even me. The promise of abolition is the promise of democracy itself—one long denied Black people: the promise inherent in constructing an order of public safety originating in the needs and desires of a community, and not those who have, for so long, exploited them.
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.
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.
Following several nationally publicized police killings of unarmed Black Americans in the United States, Eva L., a fitness instructor who identifies as Black, started to experience what she describes as “immense paranoia.” She would often call in sick, because she feared risking an encounter with police upon leaving her house. She also started to second-guess her and her husband’s decision to have children. “Seeing Black bodies murdered and physical/emotional violence online and on the news” was a trauma she could no longer bear, Eva says. “I was terrified of bringing a child into the world we live in and experience as Black people. I thought not having kids was a truer sign of love than risk them being harmed by this world.”
A recent study sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania—released just before the anniversaries of the deaths of Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), John Crawford (2014), and Philando Castile (2016)—found that there could be millions like Eva, for whom these killings have been a mental health trigger. Research included data from the Mapping Police Violence Project database for police killings between 2013 and 2016 and information from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System of over 103,000 Black Americans. The results indicate that police killings of unarmed Black Americans are having a population-level impact on the mental health of Black Americans.
According to researchers, the incidents may contribute to 1.7 additional poor mental health days per person every year, or 55 million more poor mental health days every year among Black Americans across the United States. That means the mental health burden for African Americans caused by police killings of unarmed Black victims is nearly as great as the mental health burden associated with diabetes. African Americans have some of the highest rates of the disease, which contributes annually to 75 million days of poor mental health among them.
African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but they accounted for 26 percent of people fatally shot by police in 2015 and 2016. While the death of a loved one can be tragic for the family and community of any police-shooting victim regardless of race, the study reveals that there is a deeper trauma for African Americans, related to the victim or not. Eva started seeing a therapist who diagnosed her as having generalized anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s been two years now, and she admits that her progress toward healing has been slow, yet steady. Jacob Bor, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, says the responses in his social circle to police killings of unarmed Black victims is what interested him in conducting this study. Bor noticed that White people were able to comprehend “the injustice on an intellectual level but did not experience the same level of trauma.”
The study findings confirmed Bor’s personal observations. The research team did not observe spillover mental health effects in White respondents from police killings. It should also be noted that among respondents of either race, there were no spillover effects for police killings of unarmed White people or killings of armed Black people. The research is essential in considering our own personal experiences, says Bor, adding that the findings speak to the overall “value of different people’s lives.” This society “has a long history of state-sanctioned violence” toward racially marginalized groups, he says. The mental health sector is only now researching the impact of police brutality, a concern that has affected African Americans for decades. “Clinicians can go through medical school without [gaining] any experience in treating the effects of racism,” Bor says. Studies like his, he adds, can help to create long overdue critical mainstream discussions about the effects of racism on mental health, such as, “How do we in public health, society, and among the clinical and mental health services support people when these incidents occur?” and “Can a profession dominated by White providers effectively treat the emotional struggles of ‘living while Black’ in this country?” According to Bor, these discussions are needed to implement change. “Among many White Americans, there is an empathy gap … and a failure to believe when people of color say ‘this hurts me,’” he says.
“Mental health is the ultimate intersectional concern.”
Adding to the deficiency of culturally competent therapists, poverty and other formidable socio-economic challenges—also stemming from structural racism—remain steadfast barriers to African Americans accessing mental health care, according to the American Psychological Association. New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, has also become a passionate advocate for what she describes as a movement for “culturally competent mental health care.” “When you talk about people of color, who are obviously facing discrimination and legacy of racism and poverty in huge numbers, you are talking about something that is really tough to overcome,” McCray says. Inadequate care undermines benefits from policies and resources designed to mitigate the burdens of systemic oppression. “Mental illness along with substance abuse disorders are hardship multipliers,” she says. Struggling unsupported with “mental illness can make everything that much harder.” For example, holding on to affordable housing, staying enrolled in college, and even surviving encounters with law enforcement can be extremely more difficult for those suffering from mental illness or trauma, McCray says. In fact, the most recent annual numbers from the Washington Post’s database of fatal police-shooting victims indicate that “nearly 1 in 4 of those shot was described as experiencing some form of mental distress at the time of the encounter with police.” “Mental health is the ultimate intersectional concern,” McCray says. “It is reflected in all of our policies … education, housing, school, relationships.” In 2015, she and her spouse, Mayor Bill de Blasio, launched Thrive NYC, a $850 million mental health program that incorporates 54 initiatives. Among the program’s several core objectives is the aim to address the stigma around mental illness and increase access to treatment across the city. McCray believes that ThriveNYC’s community focused approach is one of several necessary steps toward reaching historically underserved groups. “Culturally competent care to me is all about trust,” McCray says. “It improves early identification, accessibility, and outcomes.” Also, she says, “People have to be seen.” From her advocacy experience she has observed that “people have to feel that they can turn to someone that they trust.” Connecting people with the appropriate resources, however, means surmounting many challenges. “There is great deal of work to be done to eliminate the stigma,” McCray says. There is also the matter of affordability and infrastructure. “We’ve never had a well-coordinated mental health system in our country—ever. People who have the money find ways to manage.” She says she wants to fight for everyone to get the resources they need to cope. Eva recognizes that her path to healing has taken a significant amount of work and support beyond the means of many African Americans. “Access to therapy is a privilege,” she says. “I know that most people can’t afford weekly sessions at $150-plus.” Yet, she adds, “[going through therapy] is the only reason why I’m OK planning for kids at 32.”
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 body of Frances Hall, one of the few victims of the massacre who can be identified by name, thanks to the journalists Robert Whitaker and Ida B. Wells, near Elaine, Arkansas, October 1919
In America’s bloody history of racial violence, the little-known Elaine Massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas, which took place in October 1919, a century ago this week, may rank as the deadliest. The reasons why the event has remained shrouded and obscure, despite a shocking toll of bloodshed inflicted on the African-American inhabitants of Phillips County, speak to a legacy of white supremacy in the US and ruthless suppression of labor activism that disfigures American society to this day.Phillips County, located deep in the Arkansas Delta, was largely rural and three-quarters African-American; in the small town of Elaine, there were ten times as many black residents as white. The African Americans of Phillips County, like those throughout the South, were subjected to segregation and disenfranchisement, those twin pillars of white supremacy. But the black sharecroppers and tenant farmers there were also the victims of a particularly harsh form of repression known as “debt peonage.”
Under this system, they were loaned money or rented land by plantation owners; they were then forced to sell their crops to the owners at below-market rates and to purchase their food and other supplies from over-priced plantation stores, trapping them in a cycle of perpetual debt, with the owners keeping—and often doctoring—the accounts.In the spring of 1919, a group of Phillips County African-American sharecroppers and tenant farmers, many of them veterans who had recently returned from service overseas in World War I, decided to challenge this system by joining a union called the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA), which had been founded the year before by army veteran Robert Lee Hill, a black tenant farmer in Winchester, Arkansas. The union’s goal was “to advance the interest of the Negro, morally and intellectually,” and its constitution ended with a proclamation: “WE BATTLE FOR THE RIGHTS OF OUR RACE; IN UNION IS STRENGTH.”
” . . . This is not only a British phenomenon. In the US, black people are more likely to be arrested for drugs offences even though they are not more likely to use or sell drugs, and as a result make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population. They also have a higher chance of getting shot by the police than white or Hispanic people. In today’s Brazil, black people are still treated as second-class citizens; while in India, students of African origin are persecuted. In South Africa, a majority black country, 72% of the country’s private farmland is owned by white people, who make up 9% of the population. During the apartheid era there was a clear racial hierarchy: whites at the top, Indians and “coloureds” in the middle, and black people at the bottom.
Historically, though slavery covered a range of civilisations, countries and races, for the black race its legacy lives on. From the 16th to the 19th century, around 12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas by European slave traders. Millions more were born into slavery and spent their whole lives enslaved. And after slavery ended in the US, African Americans were subjected to segregation laws, the denial of civil rights and lynching.
And between AD 650 and the 1800s, almost 10 million Africans were sold by Arab slave traders to Arabia and the Indian subcontinent. In fact the Arabic word abeed, which means “slave”, is still used to describe black people in countries from Algeria to Yemen.
In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo notes that black people are the “ultimate racial other”. In the US, they are called “nigger”, in Brazil they are termed macaco; in South Africa, they are nicknamed kaffir; in India, bandar; in China hak gwai . . .”