Venkata: Foot on the pedal – don’t let up

Protests have catalyzed change, but the momentum cannot stop.

Morgan La Casse

Morgan La Casse

by Uma Venkata

It looks like things might actually start to change: Minneapolis Police Department has been slated for dismantling by a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council; Mayor Frey does not intend to abolish police, but he does plan for “massive, structural and transformational reform.” Those may sound like buzzwords, but, municipally, police transformation is possible, and it will take years. If protests keep their message coming, policing might successfully be reconstructed progressively.

There have been other developments. Breonna Taylor’s case has not been reopened, but the FBI has launched an investigation into the events leading to her death. One day maybe the Louisville police officers who killed her, which happened in the most unnecessary of circumstances, will be punished. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is redirecting $250 million to nonpolice community spending, and up to $150 million will come out of LAPD’s budget.Yes, $150 million is less than 10% of the LA police budget, but this is just a stepping stone, and we must keep pressing for the next step to come. (I am a Garcetti supporter: When the pandemic started, I was in the LA area, and he showed true leadership and understanding in every address broadcast on NPR.) 

Derek Chauvin was charged with second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The three accompanying officers were charged with aiding and abetting Mr. Floyd’s murder. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser dedicated a Black Lives Matter Plaza, even though D.C. police are slated to increase their budget and capital spending. As the capital, that must be a fairly intricate negotiation — but BLM support still belongs in D.C. And, importantly, Trump’s evangelical edge is appearing to slip. Maybe a Trump-supporting Bible study will finally recognize a connection between the Israelites’ deliverance in the Book of Exodus and the Black community in America today. That connection is that they are breaking free of their persecutors. 

American police perpetuate violence and keep the Black community underfoot successfully enough to merit a proportionate response. Every day since Memorial Day, without stopping yet, is a proportionate response. Black people have been trampled in America since 1619. Maybe the staying power of these protests will last long enough to keep turning a few more hearts and minds. Conversations with our families and friends and neighbors will do even more. And hard cash is what’s going to keep bail funds and peaceful protesters safe. As a reminder, don’t touch a commercial bail bondsman with a 10-foot pole. We might realize, as a union of states, that police officers with weapons are not always — indeed, very usually no — the answer to citizens in need of service and protection. 

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. When your only tool is a police department, every problem looks like a matter of force. Broken tail lights, parking violations, homelessness, mental illness and breakdowns, and more common events that police are usually dispatched to, are far from issues that need an answer of physical means. What they need are intricately supported social-work networks. If by abolishing the police, we redefine what policing is, it should include — and perhaps mostly be — those networks. 

A note: My knee-jerk reaction to the concept of a world without police is fear for the victims of domestic violence. I initially think that the type of people who would beat a spouse or partner would probably only respond to being beaten into submission themselves. But as it is today, police response to domestic violence is just a Band-Aid. Far from every state requires automatic arrests at domestic violence dispatches, and even when they do, rules can be nebulous. Plus, cops can be famous for a higher rates of domestic violence toward their own spouses than the general public. The insular environment of fraternal orders of police are a haven for the power-hungry, no-accountability type. To rescue a domestic violence victim, the necessary response requires safe housing for the victim and children, introducing or maintaining a job to support them and thoroughly sweeping a home and devices to stop an abuser’s surveillance. Without a full reconstructive response after an initial extraction from a violent home, the victim often has no choice than to return to the abusive home because a family and children need a place to live and food to eat. The vast majority of domestic violence response is not a police matter. It’s a matter of social work and continued material and mental support. 

Maintaining or increasing police funding while other services atrophy — education, social nets, child care, et cetera — is textbook myopia. If you wanted a sink to stop overflowing, you don’t perpetually plug the drain. You turn off the tap. 

If we want to stop overwhelming American society with violence and brute force, against both the police and the policed, then we start incubating an environment of education, agency and self-worth.

By abolishing the police, we mean to abolish the police as they exist now. We mean to rebuild a service that actually, truly, serves and protects. This will include employment for a lot more social workers and living-support liaisons who already exist, and we can educate and prepare more. Then, of course, we would hear some complaints of a glut of former police officers who are now jobless. There are all kinds of public fields to channel physical strength and energy in a healthy way!

The FBI ran a counterintelligence project for years to squash the growth of Black agency across the United States in virtually every civil rights group and person whom I have ever heard of. Please read this paper on the FBI COINTELPRO. I was shocked to learn that they were involved in the growing friction, which ended in the eventual split between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. They were complicit in the murder of the Black Panther Party’s Fred Hampton, a young man who could undeniably have grown to the stature and consequence of Malcolm X. The Chicago police then abjectly lied about the murder to discredit the BPP further. There is much more. But what matters the most is that it was a war of culture to discredit the Black man that this Hoover-dream of the FBI was waging, and judging from America today in 2020, they evidently won. The protests ongoing today, plus years of future legislation and re-education, will win it back. But only if we remain united.

A lesson learned from FBI COINTELPRO is to remember our common ground. The more we give in to factionalism, the wider the gaps in our group that external agents can use to split us apart. The more we visibly disagree and avoid adapting and repairing our own group, the easier we are to manipulate and split. That’s how the FBI split up all the civil rights organizations in what should have been the true heyday of racial reparations. 

But by remaining united on the outside front, that must mean you are united inside as well: A my-way-or-the-highway mindset is immediately toxic. We should be open minded and collaborative within our own movements and organizations. It’s okay to admit you’re wrong, and it’s also the rarest human trait. It took me years to learn, and I am an immensely better person for it. Failure to learn and grow is failure to serve and protect our own. The cops have been failing at that enough — we shouldn’t continue their legacy without their help.

FBI COINTELPRO in J. Edgar Hoover’s day, the MPD, Donald Trump today and everyone else who doesn’t believe that Black lives matter are that way because they are afraid of losing their automatically elevated stature as white men. 

Before the pandemic hellfire, the 2019 film “Queen and Slim” was released. In it, Queen asked Slim if he wanted to get on a horse they saw on the side of the road. Slim had never ridden a horse, but Queen’s uncle had taught her to when she was young. 

“He told me nothing scares a white man more than a Black man on a horse.” Slim asked why: “Because they have to look up at him.”