Why #abolishthepolice doesn’t actually mean abolishing the police

The slogans “abolish the police” and “defund the police” are a common sight at demonstrations against police brutality and racism. Jacob Frey, the earnestly liberal mayor of Minneapolis, was mau-maued out of a protest when he wouldn’t commit to police abolition. Even in Truro, Nova Scotia, this past weekend’s march had people carrying a large “abolish the police” banner at the front.

Are people actually proposing to get rid of police altogether, or reduce police departments’ budgets to zero? Law professor Christy E. Lopez says no – at least not any time soon:

To fix policing, we must first recognize how much we have come to over-rely on law enforcement. We turn to the police in situations where years of experience and common sense tell us that their involvement is unnecessary, and can make things worse. We ask police to take accident reports, respond to people who have overdosed and arrest, rather than cite, people who might have intentionally or not passed a counterfeit $20 bill. We call police to roust homeless people from corners and doorsteps, resolve verbal squabbles between family members and strangers alike, and arrest children for behavior that once would have been handled as a school disciplinary issue.

Police themselves often complain about having to “do too much,” including handling social problems for which they are ill-equipped. Some have been vocal about the need to decriminalize social problems and take police out of the equation. It is clear that we must reimagine the role they play in public safety.

Defunding and abolition probably mean something different from what you are thinking. For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever. Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.

The word “abolition” is used explicitly to highlight the comparison with slavery, according to Lopez:

Police abolition means reducing, with the vision of eventually eliminating, our reliance on policing to secure our public safety. It means recognizing that criminalizing addiction and poverty, making 10 million arrests per year and mass incarceration have not provided the public safety we want and never will. The “abolition” language is important because it reminds us that policing has been the primary vehicle for using violence to perpetuate the unjustified white control over the bodies and lives of black people that has been with us since slavery. That aspect of policing must be literally abolished.

I’ve seen many of my Facebook friends (and even some of my Facebook enemies) freaking out about the Minneapolis City Council’s proposal to disband the troubled Minneapolis police department. In practice, I suspect this is not about recreating The Purge, but about dismantling the current department and rebuilding a new one in its place, a plan undertaken with some notable success in Camden, New Jersey.

Honestly, I think many of these suggested reforms are long overdue, and agree that American and Canadian cities are using police to perform functions they really weren’t designed for.

I just wish they’d use another hashtag. As Matt Lewis points out in his latest email newsletter, it doesn’t make any sense to choose a slogan that specifically makes it look like you’re promoting an unpopular fringe idea, especially when that’s not even your actual goal.

My rush to judgment

This week there were two viral stories online that really set me off. The first was about a doctor in Campbellton, New Brunswick who travelled to Quebec, didn’t self-isolate and inadvertently brought COVID-19 back to his home province. The other, complete with shocking video, involved an 18-wheeler barreling into a crowd of peaceful protesters in Minneapolis.

I lashed out against both on Facebook. (I would have done it on twitter, too, if I hadn’t wisely deleted my account.) I called the New Brunswick doctor shockingly irresponsible and said the trucker was literally a terrorist.

Now that the dust has settled, it turns out that stories lacked crucial context.

John Hinderaker at the conservative Minnesota-based blog Power Line notes that the trucker wound up on the closed highway by mistake and did his best to warn and avoid the protesters when he saw them. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt or killed.

Vechirko, it turns out, had made a delivery to a black-owned gas station and innocently ventured onto the highway before authorities had effectively closed it. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but Vechirko was hauled out of his cab and beaten by “protesters.” He was rescued before they could murder him. [Co-blogger Scott Johnson] wrote:

Trailer truck driver Bogdan Vechirko has been defamed by House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and disparaged by Governor Tim Walz. Driving his rig on Highway 35W in Minneapolis, he was surprised to come upon “protesters” packing all lanes of the road in front of him. If he had wanted to hurt them, he could have taken them out like bowling pins. Instead, Vechirko blared his airhorn and brought his rig to a stop before he hit anyone.

Vechiko was beaten by the crowd and denounced by several Minnesota politicians…and by me.

Meanwhile, a Facebook friend of the New Brunswick doctor has a lengthy post explaining why he shouldn’t be scapegoated:

He was also savaged by politicians. And again, on my own Facebook page.

The Covington incident from early 2019, in which a group of teenagers were subjected to a witch-hunt based on misleading photos and video, was a defining moment for me. Even when I thought the boys were in the wrong, I believed the response was unnerving and over-the-top. When it turned out they were innocent but even professional journalists kept piling on anyway, it made me fear for society itself. Social media is whipping us up in angry mobs.

(People say mainstream media is making it worse, but I believe the opposite: mainstream media is under pressure to join the mob after it’s flared up. By my reckoning, the average American liberal angrily cancels his or her New York Times subscription five times a year because of an insufficiently judgmental headline or doubleplusungood op-ed.)

For all of my self-righteousness about these online mobs, it turns out I’m just as guilty. I have to be better. We all do.

Here’s how a great man 150 years ago avoided publicly flying off the handle:

Abraham Lincoln had a brilliant tactic to dial down his anger during the Civil War, a time when the country wasn’t just divided–the house was “on fire,” according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times.

[…]

According to Goodwin, when Lincoln was angry at a cabinet member, a colleague or one of his generals in the Union army, he would write a letter venting all of his pent-up rage. Then–and this is the key–he put it aside.

Hours later or the next day, he would look at the letter again so he could “attend to the matter with a clearer eye.” More often than not, he didn’t send the letter. We know this was Lincoln’s tactic because years after his death historians discovered a trove of letters with the notation: never sent and never signed.

Lincoln practiced this habit for three reasons. First, he didn’t want to inflame already heated passions. Second, he realized that words said in haste aren’t always clear-headed and well-considered. Third, he did it as a signal–a learning opportunity–for others on his now famous “team of rivals.”

Twitter wouldn’t be such a dumpster fire if it held your tweets for 24 hours before they become public.

Iran stands up for social justice (stop laughing)

I love the compare-and-contrast in this Reuters story:

Iran took Washington to task on Saturday over the alleged killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer that sparked protests in the United States over racial injustice.

“Some don’t think #BlackLivesMatter,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter. “To those of us who do: it is long overdue for the entire world to wage war against racism. Time for a #WorldAgainstRacism.”

[…]

Separately, Iran’s interior minister indicated in an interview that the death toll in November street protests in Iran over fuel price hikes was below 225.

The reported toll has varied between an Amnesty International figure of over 300 and a Reuters account of 1,500 – both dismissed by the authorities.

No one tweets #IranianLivesMatter.

That said, just because Iran says America has problems with racism and police brutality doesn’t mean it isn’t true. My message to the American government would be to work toward making it harder for hostile governments to speak out against human rights abuses in the US, just as Soviet propaganda embarrassed Americans into supporting the goals of the Civil Rights Movement.

My message to the Iranian government would be: خودت را جدی بگیرید

(I love Google Translate)

Where were the cameras?

Like I said the other day: Canadians shouldn’t get too smug and self-righteous about police brutality in the United States, because it is very much a problem here. Maybe not to the same degree, but definitely a problem.

And now we have this controversy brewing in Toronto:

Questions are swirling about exactly what happened to a woman who apparently fell to her death from an apartment balcony in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood on Wednesday.

What began as a 911 call for help for Regis Korchinski-Paquet ended in her death, her family told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.

[…]

The family’s news conference comes after video of Korchinski-Paquet’s mother and cousin emerged on social media alleging police pushed her from the balcony. 

“The police killed my daughter,” Korchinski-Beals said in one video. 

Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, said in a news release Wednesday night that while officers were inside the apartment unit, they “observed a woman on the balcony.”

“A short time later, the woman fell from the balcony to the ground below. She was pronounced dead at the scene.”

In a second release Thursday, the SIU said it is “aware of allegations made by certain family members of the deceased” and is looking to speak with anyone with information. An autopsy was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

[…]

…Toronto’s police chief is urging any witnesses to contact the SIU.

“We know this incident has caused a great deal of concern, and our thoughts are with the family and the community,” Saunders said in a statement. “Let me be very clear that we want the facts as much as anyone.”

Saunders said the force is co-operating with the SIU but is not “legally permitted to discuss the incident at this time.”

At a news conference Thursday, he suggested no body cameras were in use at the time, saying, “This might be a textbook case in which body cameras should be provided.” [emphasis added]

This case is more ambiguous than what happened in Minneapolis precisely because there’s no video. And the question is, why not? Aside from undercover operations where officers’ identities could be revealed, why aren’t they always wearing them?

Body cameras would document police misconduct, and that’s precisely why officers should want to wear them. It’s like Mike Pence’s rule about not being alone with women to whom he isn’t married, so he’s not accused of anything improper.

We’ve entrusted police officers with power and authority unavailable to civilians. It would be nice if we could trust them with it, no questions asked – and it is very heartening to see several officers from the US and Canada speaking out on social media – but for our own safety we need video footage. And so do they, for their own safety and for the sake of their reputation.

Two things that can be true

One: When unarmed African-American men keep dying at the hands of police, and these police officers aren’t promptly charged and ultimately convicted of murder or manslaughter, and the police departments in question have long, disturbing histories of singling out Black people for mistreatment, and all of this is happening on the watch of a President who plays footsie with racists and neo-Nazis and even personally spreads conspiracy theories about his African-American predecessor, it is perfectly understandable that frustration will eventually boil over and some desperate people will resort to violence.

As Martin Luther King Jr., an advocate of non-violent civil disobedience whose life was taken by a white racist, said: “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Two: whenever people protest peacefully against an injustice by the state, there are always a few shit-disturbers and self-professed “antifascists” who break off, start wrecking things and ruin it for everybody. Even Sean Hannity is on their side for once, but they’re going to piss away an opportunity to advance real social change. And among those rioters are opportunists who see an opportunity to cash in by stealing things. Burning down Autozone isn’t going to end police brutality. Burning down a freaking affordable housing development isn’t going to end racism.

As The Onion‘s “Our Dumb Century” book put it, “L.A. Rioters Demand Justice, Tape Decks.”

As for Rod Dreher’s headline, are these riots “unintentionally pro-Trump”? I dunno. Rioting in the late sixties certainly helped Nixon get elected, but his whole message was that he could restore law and order to a country falling into civil unrest under a Democratic President. By contrast, the 1992 Los Angeles rioting certainly didn’t help George H.W. Bush’s re-election chances.

Trump will use violent imagery from Minneapolis in his re-election campaign, with the clear message that he can protect Americans from these people, wink wink. But the fact is, this is happening on his watch. Joe Biden, second-in-command to the first Black President, might be able to do something about it. Trump has proven that he cannot.

The problem with police goes beyond racism

Another week, another police killing of an African-American man caught on video, this time in Minneapolis:

Four Minneapolis police officers have been fired for their involvement in the death of a black man who was held down with a knee as he protested that he couldn’t breathe, officials said Tuesday.

The FBI is investigating the incident, which drew widespread condemnation of the officers after a video showing part of the encounter circulated on social media.

The death of George Floyd, 46, drew hundreds of people to the streets of Minneapolis on Tuesday.

Protesters — many wearing face masks — held “I can’t breathe” signs and chanted together near the site of Monday’s incident. Some motorists honked in support.

[…]

Mayor Jacob Frey has said the technique used to pin George Floyd’s head to the ground was against department regulations.

After several minutes of pleading with an officer pressing a knee to the back of his neck, the man appeared motionless, his eyes shut, his head against the pavement.

Frey, speaking during a town hall streamed on Facebook, said the officer had no reason to employ the hold on the man’s neck.

“The technique that was used is not permitted; is not a technique that our officers get trained in on,” he said. “And our chief has been very clear on that piece. There is no reason to apply that kind of pressure with a knee to someone’s neck.”

The video shows two officers by the man on the ground — one of them with his knee over the back of the man’s neck. The video did not capture what led up to the arrest or what police described as the man resisting arrest.

“Please, I can’t breathe,” the man said, screaming for several minutes before he became silent. Bystanders urged the officer to release the man from his hold.

When white police officers kill an African-American suspect, there’s really no way to remove racial issues from the case. As Snopes notes, African-Americans and other racial minorities are sadly overrepresented among people killed by American police officers.

And yet, as the same article concedes, a plurality of police shooting victims are not people of color:

Any “analysis” of police killings will of course show that in absolute numbers, more white people are killed in police shootings than black people, because (non-Hispanic) whites comprise a roughly five times greater share of the U.S. population (62% vs. 13%). So any “analysis” that is based on nothing more than absolute numbers and does not take demographics into account is inaccurate and misleading.

[…]

According to Fatal Encounters, the database created by former Reno News & Review editor and journalism instructor Burghart (which tracks all deaths resulting from interactions with police), a total of 1,388 people were killed by police in 2015, 318 (23%) of them black, and 560 (40%) of them white. So roughly 23 percent of those killed by any police interaction in 2015 were black and just over 40 percent were white. According to those statistics (adjusted for racial demographics), black people had a 2.7 higher likelihood of being killed by police than whites.

The grim trend has carried over into 2016. …

If systemic racism were the only reason this keeps happening, I suspect these already disturbing numbers would be even more disproportionate than they already are. Not to mention the fact that sometimes – as in the heavily publicized Freddie Gray case in 2015 – some officers involved in the killing of African-American suspects are themselves Black.

(And then there’s this freaking lunatic, who represents everything wrong with American law enforcement, and who had a bad habit of letting people die of dehydration in his jails before he was finally forced out.)

I wonder if the increasing militarization of police forces, as documented in Radley Balko’s excellent, disturbing book Rise of the Warrior Cop, is a major factor. The recent Waco miniseries which aired on Netflix has some major problems – it is way too charitable toward cult leader David Koresh and his inner circle – but there is a very memorable scene in which Michael Shannon’s FBI negotiator character surveys the military equipment deployed by law enforcement and discusses the difference between the mission of police officers and that of the military. Police are supposed to defuse volatile situations; military personnel are trained to kill.

It’s now very common for surplus military equipment to end up in the hands of law enforcement – aided and abetted by the Trump Administration, because of course it would be – and it’s hardly a stretch to imagine a militaristic kill-everything-that-moves mindset trickling down even to the lowest ranking police officers.

When you see the public as potential enemies instead of citizens you’re trying to serve, you’re going to have more and more incidents like the killing of George Floyd. That’s why I say it’s always – always – your duty as a citizen to take out your phone and film whenever you see police arresting a suspect.

I don’t feel this way because I am opposed to the police. I feel this way because I respect police officers – who, like Cst. Heidi Stevenson, regularly put their lives on the line to protect us – and want them to do their jobs properly. A free society must be able to trust its police forces.

By the way, if you’re a Canadian reader feeling characteristically smug about another racially tinged police killing in Donald Trump’s America, stop pretending things like that don’t happen here:

A B.C. woman who uses a walker for mobility has been awarded $55,000 in damages after a judge determined she was “falsely arrested, falsely imprisoned, assaulted and battered” by an RCMP officer in the province’s north.

Irene Joseph was 61 years old when Const. Darrin Meier forced her to the ground and tried to handcuff her outside a Mark’s Work Wearhouse in Smithers back in December 2014.

The officer suspected her of shoplifting, according to a court decision that was posted online this week, but let her go after a search of her purse failed to turn up any stolen merchandise.

Joseph, who is reported to be an elder from the Wet’suwet’en Nation, sued the Attorney General of Canada over the encounter, and a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled in her favour on Friday.

Ms. Joseph thankfully survived. Otherwise, the cases are remarkably similar. (As I’ve long said, we Canadians are not as similar to Americans as Americans think, but not as different from Americans as we like to think.)