Thoughts from a police abolitionist in the wake of George Floyd’s heinous murder by law enforcement thugs.
There are a few things I need tell you right up front. First of all, I have been a police critic and activist for years. I was once editor and chief contributor of a major police criticism organization. For years almost every waking hour was consumed by studying these issues and tracking police abuse. I organized and attended protests and filmed police on the streets and at major events. I am not bragging here. I just want it to be clear that I am fully informed, and have considered the issues I am about to discuss very deeply for many years. I have also been abused by police, on more than one occasion, so I have first hand experience.
The second thing I want to get out of the way before this goes any further is that it would be intellectually negligent of you to make judgments about me based on the fact that I am going to call into question the prevailing narratives of racism and policing. I am legitimately concerned about the struggle that people of color face in this country, and by expanding the view on these matters, I hope to inspire changes that will alleviate and end those hardships. Many people act as though you either support and parrot the prevalent narrative, or you are a racist. That is a dismally oversimplified reduction of the many possible perspectives to be had here. I am not a racist, nor a bigot, which leads me to my next point.
Bigotry is an attitude of hate, fear and superiority held by individuals. Racism is systematic, institutionalized bigotry. For many years I have had to explain this to white bigots who attempted to label people of color as racists, but now I find myself having to explain it to the liberal-minded folks who oppose bigotry and racism. It is essential to understand that difference, because it is key to understanding why addressing policing issues by leading with race is a mistake.
Slavery was racist. The reason why it was racist is that the system and its institutions wrote laws and policies that specifically oppressed people based on their race. It was literally written into the legal code. Today those laws have all been purged from the books, and legislation and legal code is written without any regard to race.
Without a doubt the system is full of bigots. Policing is a perfect career path for those who want to denigrate, oppress, dehumanize, abuse and kill people of color. I have no qualms agreeing that many cops let race guide their actions. But the laws and policies themselves are colorblind. That is not a brag about how woke the system is, but a recognition that if you attack policing using racism as the chief complaint, you will not find a specific target to aim solutions or alternatives at. It would be easy if we could just dispose of racist laws and policies, but there aren’t any.
Nor can we just make new laws to prevent racism. We already have hate crime laws and other similar measures meant to stop racially motivated aggression. They are impotent in stopping bigoted cops because they are the ones that enforce the laws. Making laws to address law enforcement abuses is a completely irrational solution. It is like if you discovered your babysitter was hitting your children, then made a ‘no hitting’ rule to be enforced by the babysitter. You cannot expect the police to police themselves, and as we have seen numerous times, neither can you expect the rest of the justice system to keep them at bay. They are part of a single system which must support itself. A thing divided cannot stand, so the survival and fitness of the system depend on preferential treatment for those working within that system.
The reason so many people believe that policing is racist is because 24% of people killed by cops are black, but only 13% of the population are black. However statistics can be misleading. There is a far greater indicator than race in determining who is most likely to have an interaction with law enforcement and potentially be killed by them, and that is socioeconomic class. 21% of US citizens under the poverty line are black, which is close to the percent of people killed by cops who are black. That is a very meaningful distinction which suggests that income is a greater determining factor than race alone.
Make no mistake, socioeconomic policy is written by people taking advantage of historical racism to keep people of color down. By the time racism was taken off the books, enough damage was done to perpetuate inequality for a century or more. However the socioeconomic policy is itself written without regard to race and is intended to affect non-blacks as well. This is how the system protects its agenda, by burying its prejudices in ways that they cannot be extracted by attacking it with complaints of racism. In fact, that is how they want you to attack it, because they know they can easily defend from that angle.
The corporate owned and sponsored media who helps steer the conversation towards race are the same people who profit from inequality and the products of policing. They have a vested interest in pointing the conversation where it can do them the last amount of harm; where it can create a wildfire of outrage that will quickly burn out, and where it can be addressed by empty gestures and toothless laws and policies that are of no threat to the status quo.
What they want to distract you from are the socioeconomic policies that perpetuate inequality, as well as the many problematic issues of policing as a whole. They don’t want questions or concerns getting too big for them to control, so they make sure the perception of the events and issues is one which they do not have to worry about.
By now this should be clear. This is not the first time we have been where we are right now. In the recent past we have seen massive outcries charging police with racism after the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Grey, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and others — but things quickly go back to normal and nothing has been changed. Racism as the chief criticism of policing has been a dead end road every time, and that is not by accident.
However the general public are led to believe that the media are objective, bias-free messengers, and that groups like Black Lives Matter are responsible for loading the rhetoric. BLM do address the killings of people of color by police, but nobody pays attention to them until the mainstream media shoves them onto the front of the stage and lets them become the scapegoat for how the narratives are shaped. This is just another way the ruling class take advantage of black people, by using their trauma to make them volunteer as public whipping posts to distract us from the more fundamental abuses of policing and politics. And middle class white people hoping to mine some woke gold come out of their apathy hibernation to join the rhetorical blaze, to boost their racial reputation and polish their self-image of goodness. Opportunism abounds at the expense of people of color who do not recognize the harmful outcomes of having fair-weather allies, and many black activists have taken great risks believing they would be supported, only to later find themselves in a predicament, but then all that support had already gone back to their normal lives and forgot all about the activists now left struggling alone with the aftermath of risks they took for the cause.
I do not blame BLM for addressing the deaths of black people killed by police, nor for shaping public narratives and perceptions. They are doing valuable work and their message needs to be heard, even if not taken as the whole picture. However I do believe that their very existence, as well as their methods and message, can provide a stumbling block for progress. But before I open that can of worms, I want to tell you about the most potent experience I have had with the phrase “Black Lives Matter”.
On occasion I also write true crime articles, especially about cold cases and unsolved murders. These take a massive amount of research, and in doing it I have come across thousands of cases. When it comes time to narrow them down to an appropriate amount for an article, I have to find the ones which are the most interesting. I look for murders where there is a sense of mystery and intrigue that appeals to our dark curiosities. I look for something about the killer, victim or method of mayhem that causes me, and hopefully the reader, to think more deeply about being human. To consider the morbid potential in each of us. Murder should probably not be so interesting, let alone entertaining, but it is.
Eventually I noticed a trend in which cases I had chosen to write about, or more specifically those I had not chosen to write about, which were the cases of young black men who had been killed by street violence. These killings just did not have the appeal I was looking for, and I had to take some time to reflect on that. Why did I always find pretty, young, white women being killed by some cracker rapist to be interesting, but not the death of young black men by gang violence? To me the former suggests something intriguing about what human desire is capable of, while the latter just seemed routine. Normal. Uninteresting. When I realized that my mind operates this way, as do those of most people — as indicated by the lack of representation of those murders of young black men across all true crime media — I instantly understood the deeper meaning of “Black Lives Matter”.
We have normalized the death of poor blacks. We consider it a problem that won’t affect most of us, so we are not interested in it. We do not pay attention to it. We do not put it on the front page, on the tv, or in true crime entertainment. And that indirectly says that those lives did not matter as much to us, even if we did not think or express that outright.
So the message that Black Lives Matter, well it matters. It matters to black people, to white people, to everyone. We need to stare it in the face until we can see our own reflection in it, so that we can do better. These are the roots of bigotry. They are hard to see, but if we look, we can see pieces of them buried in each of us. Calling them out is how we prevent ourselves from backsliding into the horrors of racism that existed in the not-too-distant past.
However what begins as an attempt of inclusiveness by some can be seen as exclusion to others, and this inadvertently became the case with BLM. In response to this perceived exclusion came the phrase “All Lives Matter”. Make no mistake, there are people who use that phrase to avoid discussing black people killed by police. There are cop apologists and bigots who use the term in service of their vile agendas. But by no means are these the only people using that phrase.
During my time as an activist I met many families of people killed by the police. Black, Hispanic, Native, Asian and Caucasian alike. These families often form communities and support each other, and usually include people from all races. They work tirelessly to make the public aware of the murder of their loved ones by police, even when nobody will stop to listen to them. And then every year or two the same people who ignored them suddenly present themselves as social justice crusaders for a hot minute while it is trending. Imagine that you are a Native or Hispanic or Asian or white family member of a victim of police who has spent years trying to get people to listen to you warn them of the dangers of policing, only to have them gaslight you and your experiences and change the topic to race, mostly just to benefit their reputation and self image. Can you not empathize with how frustrating that would be? Can you not see how these people might say “All Lives Matter” without meaning harm to BLM or people of color, simply because they want to be heard? If you cannot understand that, you may want to adjust your empathy.
In the past weeks I have watched these non-black families of police victims deal with this frustration. And when they broke out “All Lives Matter” it was not as bigots, but as frustrated policing critics trying to widen the narrative to include all victims of law enforcement violence, hoping that this would be the time when the public finally got it, and real changes were made. But meaningful changes involve addressing all police issues, not just the killing of black people. Seeing it steered to race alone all over again has made them hopeless that change will ever come, which just multiplies their grief.
I have seen activists tell these people that they should just join the BLM movement, but that is seriously misguided. How does preventing the killing of people of color help them get justice for their non-black loved one?
Black Lives Matter is an important message that transcends policing issues, but policing issues cannot be reduced to Black Lives Matter. I support BLM and will continue to, because we have quietly absorbed a jaded perspective in which the deaths of people of color has become normalized. That needs to change. But when it comes to policing issues, it is not enough. In that circumstance we need to be inclusive of not just all races, but all policing issues, because killing is far from the only harm policing does.
We have, and by a very massive margin, the largest prison population of any nation in the world today. Those prisons are increasingly becoming used to provide free or cheap labor to corporations, effectively becoming a new form of slavery. 86% of those prisoners are serving time for victimless crimes, mostly related to the disastrous and destructive War on Drugs. And black people are far more over-represented in prisons than in the 1,000–1,200 people killed by police in the US every year.
I get frustrated, too. The past few weeks I have watched friends who ignored my police activism for years start to speak up, but they are getting the message all mixed up. Their outrage and performative empathy are focused on race, and they are not suggesting solutions or alternatives. The reason I quit activism was because it became clear that outrage and public performance was going nowhere. That if I wanted to see change, I had to create solutions and alternatives myself. So I did. But they went ignored, and because of that, the problems continue. My friends who only contribute their voice to the cause every year or two see themselves as allies, but I see them as image obsessed opportunists who contributed to the death of George Floyd by ignoring the alternatives I (and others) have been desperately trying to get them to consider for years. If we had abolished the police and began instituting the socioeconomic ideas I have tirelessly promoted, his murder might have never happened and we might already be on the path to greater equality. You cannot imagine how frustrating that is. I do not seek credit or gratification, and my ideas may be replaced by far better ones, but the conversation has to start somewhere.
You can be against racism and bigotry, but also see the problems in policing as bigger than racism and bigotry alone. The current rhetoric forces us to pick one side or another. Not only is that a false dichotomy, it is a recipe for perpetuating the status quo, which means more black people being killed by police. So if you really care, you need to think bigger and help widen the discussion. Because if you help steer the conversation away from the big picture, all of the deaths from here on out will be, in some small way, on you. Seriously. Your silence would be less dangerous than your well-intended noise.