Another year. Another day. Another story of police brutality.
It’s been a little under a year since George Floyd was murdered by a cop kneeling on his neck for an uninterrupted 9 minutes and 29 seconds. The killing — captured in it’s excruciating entirety — ignited fury; as millions watched second-by-second, minute-by-minute as the life slowly drained from his defenseless body, while desperate by-standers shouted in vain at Derek Chauvin to stop. The anger at Floyd’s killing — which saw record-breaking numbers of people take to the streets — quickly evolved into anger not just with Floyd’s murder, but with the murder of a sleeping Breonna Taylor, the murder of the autistic Elijah McClain and, the thousands of other people whose lives have been senselessly snuffed out by law enforcement.
A year later and depressingly little has changed — the officers who killed Breonna Taylor aren’t charged, Jacob Blake’s murderer is returning to work and the headlines are once again dominated by the killings of — and abuses towards — Black people by police. A triad of injustices — the police holding a Black lieutenant (Lt. Caron Nazario) at gunpoint and, the killings of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo (the latter of whom was just 13 years old) — are once again prompting furious response.
Each case is horrifying in it’s own individual way. There’s something incredibly uncomfortable about watching the police angrily confront a clearly non-threatening, uniformed, Black lieutenant while telling him he “should be” afraid. There’s something instantly soul-crushing about the photos of Wright that have emerged in the wake of his death; like that of him holding his one-year-old child; his youth and sense of parental pride shining through, while also serving as a haunting reminder of the irreplaceable loss his family is suddenly subjected to. Meanwhile, there’s something inerasably twisted about the killing of Adam Toledo; with body cam footage showing the 13-year-old comply with police orders to drop his gun only to be fatally shot anyway.
The disproportionate force used against each of these individuals is made particularly sickening by the context that surrounds it. In Adam Toledo’s case, the body cam footage clarifies what many had suspected from the outset; that the ‘official’ story which claimed Toledo was armed when he was shot is in fact false. It raises the question of how many official police narratives have we, as a society, accepted wholesale that are in fact largely false?
Each act of police brutality against these Black individuals is made increasingly nauseating by the backdrop of the Capitol insurrection that occurred just months earlier. The contrast of the light treatment offered to the vast majority of the insurrectionists — who were actively assisted by members of law enforcement — to the excessively — and even fatally — brutal treatment of Toledo, Nazario and Wright is an ugly reminder of the continuing stain of America’s original sin.
There is a general agreement on the progressive/liberal side of the aisle that these examples of police brutality both represent a much wider problem and are unquestionably unjustified. I’d like to say — and in a healthy, functioning society, would be able to say — that there is a wider consensus that these acts of brutality are obviously wrong, but a quick glance at the output from a whole range of right-wing pundits and contrarians™ will quickly sour any such hope.
Even still, agreeing that the killings of Floyd and Taylor and Wright are wrong is hardly a solution, so much as it is a first of many steps to achieving progress. As protests heat up and tensions continue to rise, there’s still little consensus on how to move forward with regards to America’s system of policing — to defund or not to defund? To abolish or not to abolish? Even where there is an emerging consensus, making our ideals reality can feel near-impossible.
Small tweaks around the edges will never be enough to confront what is a systemic and long-running epidemic of police violence and miscarriages of justice
As much as it may benefit members of law enforcement to advance such a narrative, it has been made more than sufficiently clear that what we are dealing with is not so much a ‘few bad apples’ as much as it is — in the words of Trevor Noah — a “rotten tree”. To say all this is a case of a ‘few bad apples’ would be to assume that all these acts of brutality are few-and-far-between examples within an otherwise just system. In truth, these cases are not particularly rare and the criminal legal system is not just and is, unfortunately, working exactly as intended. The criminal legal system, as we know it today, has never been fair or even handed and has always come down hardest on societies most vulnerable groups. As a result, small tweaks around the edges will never be enough to confront what is a systemic and long-running epidemic of police violence and miscarriages of justice.
For many activists, who are also well aware of this uncomfortable truth, the natural response is to call for the abolition of, or the ‘defunding’ of the police (I, by the way, happen to largely agree with the goals of the ‘defund’ movement). However, as important as it is to call for radical change, it’s also important to step back and realise that the communities most impacted by police brutality and state-sanctioned violence aren’t always on the same wavelength as well-meaning but often detached progressive voices. Rapper Cardi B ignited a fiery backlash on Twitter this week when she fired back against proponents of ‘defunding’ the police (“We need cops and that’s facts”). However, her views are far from an outlier among minority communities — a 2020 poll found that 81% of Black American’s *don’t* want a decreased police presence.
Again, this isn’t to shutdown, or deny the good arguments of, the ‘defund’ movement; but it should provoke a pause for reflection — if even the people you’re advocating for aren’t on your side, maybe you should reconsider your messaging and your own sense of righteousness. White activists can’t shout down their opponents with cries of “listen to minorities” without actually doing so themselves.
So, where next then? I could, and plenty have, written all day about intra-movement divisions and the supposed strengths and weaknesses of various slogans and messages. But it all feels somewhat trivial right now when people are dying unjustly at the hands of cops on a regular basis. It’s easy to call for change, but it’s harder to say what that change should look like or how to achieve it.
Police brutality isn’t a uniquely American problem, but at the same time, many Western countries don’t face quite the same intensity of this plight as America does. Sweden offers an example America would be wise to follow: their legal system prioritises rehabilitation over punishment and as a result has seen much lower rates of recidivism than America and has closed many of it’s existing prisons.
In many cases, however, America doesn’t even need to look beyond it’s own borders to find ways forward — many states and cities have made promising moves in recent years to make their law enforcement and legal system more just; often with glowing results. In 2008, Cincinnati closed a facility that made up over one-third of the cities jail beds. This sharp decrease in capacity led to a similarly sharp decrease in felony and misdemeanour arrests. The move forced a much-needed change of attitude among law enforcement officers; no longer could arresting citizens be the default response for wrong-doing, but instead a last-resort measure for the most serious offences. As Victoria Law points out in her latest book on mass incarceration, contrary to critics fears, the move didn’t lead to a spike in violent crime (in fact, violent crime fell 38.5% in the six years following the closure of the facility). The decrease in prison capacity instead forced police to move their focus away from low-level offences, to the most serious and pressing needs of their citizens. When considering the importance, and benefits, of such a change in perspective and priorities, remember George Floyd’s ultimately fatal arrest was over something as minor as the use of a counterfeit $20 bill.
Of course, moves such as those made in Cincinnati aren’t silver bullets — nothing is — but at a time where progress can feel hopeless, it serves as a reminder that there are specific, concrete, realistic changes that can be made to address injustice. Right now we have a President who, while imperfect, has shown willingness to listen to, and act upon, the wishes of the more progressive and liberal-minded elements of his caucus. Nihilism and hopelessness are tempting defences against disappointment, but the fact is that progress is possible; and George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright and all the other victims of police brutality are owed nothing less than our full-throttled fight to make right the great wrong of police violence.