The protests in America should not really come as that big a surprise. They represent an outpouring of pent up rage and repression. We’ve seen the US police use tactics that would not be out of place in a totalitarian regime. And its also worth noting the violence against journalist, with a CNN reporter even arrested live on air. One has to draw a parallel between this police harassment and Trump’s constant attacks against the media.
Yet the so-called “libertarians” on the right are nowhere too be seen. An unarmed citizen is murdered by the government, no reaction. Government forces drive vehicles into protesters, no reaction. The president threatens to take away the right to protest and put troops on the street, no reaction. President steals money off veterans, no reaction. State officials ask non-essential businesses to maybe close for a few weeks due to a disease pandemic, Tyranny!
But it does raise the question about how to solve the problem. Some states are talking about banning certain forms of restrain or making police more accountable for their actions. But I’d argue this doesn’t really solve the underlying problem. Its like proscribing a few aspirin as a cure for cancer. The problems here are much more deeply rooted.
First of all we need to acknowledge that racism in America is a very real thing, its not the exception its more the norm. The reality is that in some parts of the US, segregation ended in name only. America is a melting pot under which the fire was never lit. And this makes ending inequality very difficult. Its all too easy to lavish funding on a schools and public services in a white neighbourhood, while neglecting those in poorer districts. The statistics for covid-19 deaths, where BAME fatalities are much higher, speaks volumes as to the extent of this inequality. Hell, there’s even been times they’ve build flood barriers that protect a wealthy white suburb at the expense of flooding the poorer neighbourhood downriver.
However, its not quite this simple. After all, there are racists over here in the UK, or in the EU, including some racist cops. Just look at any recent election result! Yet we don’t see the same volume of violent arrests and racist incidents nearly as often this side of the Atlantic. While a black person is significantly more likely to be shot by the police than a white person in the US, Americans are 70 times more likely to be killed by the police than UK citizens.
Then again, as I’ve pointed out in a prior post, cops over here don’t have to worry about guns as much. While in the US, thanks to the NRA, every tom, dick and harry has an assault rifle (because having more guns makes everyone so much safer…we’ll just ignore all the evidence that says otherwise). Thus US cops can justify going in with guns blazing and using excessive force (we thought he had a gun), while its a little harder for a British cop to get away with that. Yes it has happened, but not nearly as often as in the US.
So the problem does go a lot deeper than simple racism. Gun culture is part of the problem. But its also the mindset it has created in the police, who have been increasingly militarised, with military style equipment (much of it on display in the last few weeks) as well as military style tactics. To be clear, while yes there were some looters taking advantage of the protests, the protests themselves were mostly peaceful. Using anti-riot equipment and tactics is completely out of proportion (again, can you imagine the outcry if they used those tactics against Trump supporters protesting the lockdown).
It is indicative of an attitude that has developed within the police, where they seem to think that they are above the law and they know best. And many of the policing methods used by the US police are outdated and discredited. Let’s start with the matter George Floyd was murdered/
arrested over. He was accused of passing a counterfeit bank note. Most other police forces in the rest of the world would argue that not only is that not grounds to conduct a violent arrest with guns drawn, but probably not even grounds for an arrest at all.
You don’t have to arrest people for non-violent offences (generally you have to pose a threat to public safety, property or be otherwise acting in a disorderly manner and even in the later case you’ll usually get a police caution first). Its a waste of police time to do so (you have to cuff him, drive him down the station, book him in, put him in a cell, have someone guard him, interview, etc.). Its far easier to just pop a letter in the post and issue the suspect with a court summons, or issue a fixed penalty notice (which basically means you get a letter offering you the choice between paying a fine, going on a course of some kind, or doing some community service or you can take the matter to court and dispute the charges).
Similarly, the so-called zero tolerance policy is discredited. When NYPD got the hump over a previous Mayor’s efforts to reform the service and staged a “slowdown”, crimes rates instead went down. And research suggests that aggressive policing for petty crimes, or punishing poverty can ultimately lead to more crime. An end to NY’s “stop and frisk” policy did not see any rise in crime.
In fact, that’s another problem with US justice, the frequency with which people are locked up. America has a prison population of 2.2 million, the highest in the world (equivalent to the populations of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham all behind bars) and the highest prison population per capita (beating out many totalitarian regimes!). And again, yes blacks and latino’s are far more likely to be banged up in the US. But Americans in general are 5 times more likely to end up in jail than people here in Scotland (and if you’ve ever seen Sauchiehall street on the night after an old firm game, you’ll know that’s not because Scot’s are a bunch of law abiding teatotallers).
And as, with the issue of arrests, there are many good reasons to question whether prison is the best form of punishment. After all if prisons were so effective, surely crime rates in the US would be significantly lower (and isn’t the point of lax gun laws to lower the rate of crime as well?). Yet the opposite is true. They are basically the university’s of crime.
And part of the problem here is how US policing is organised….or should I say disorganised. In a lot of cases positions such as prosecutors and sheriff’s are elected. Which sounds like a good idea, until you see some of the wackos who have been elected over the years, the poor management of taxpayer funds and the corruption that has resulted .
But even the competent ones can struggle to change things. Crime figures in the US have been falling for decades and its questionable if you need so many officers. In most other countries its recognised that you don’t need large numbers of officers on patrol (we have CCTV cameras and all sorts of electronic evidence gathering methods), not least because crime is increasingly moving online.
But when your job is dependant on votes from a bunch of illiterate Karen’s (who want to speak to the manager), who “feel” less safe (cos you are getting older, nothing the police can do about that), statistics ain’t going to cut it. These voters, and the police themselves, put pressure on US cities and districts to provide the police with more and more funding. And it has now run completely out of control. Consider that LA spends nearly half of its city budget on policing. NY spends about $6 billion to police one city, yet England and Wales spends about double that to police the entire country.
Put a whole army of heavily armed and bored cops on the street and tell them to go looking for trouble and guess what, they’ll find it. Not with criminals, who one assumes are smart enough not to break the law while a police cruiser goes by (and in any event thanks to the NRA they are heavily armed, the cops won’t go near them, way too dangerous!). No instead, like any bully, they’ll pick on someone who can’t fight back. Like a man relaxing on his mom’s porch, or another picking up rubbish outside his apartment block, or a fireman sitting in his own car, or even the state attorney on her way to work! (what links all of these people? I think you can guess!).
In short, America has spent the last few decades running a massive version of the Stanford prison experiment, with the same predictable outcomes. And that experiment was terminated with the advice that nobody should try to run it again.
Finally, we need to acknowledge the lack of a social safety net that exists in the US. If you are poor you likely have little to no access to healthcare or social welfare. Getting seriously ill can mean dying. Losing your job can mean going hungry (and losing your health care coverage!). And this isn’t just at the federal level, but also the state and country level, as all of the cash has been hoovered up to pay for police forces. Which in itself makes the problem worse, as it means the police are often the only social service available for some communities, meaning they get drawn into things that are none of their business (what the UK police refer to as FATDOB, or Fu*k All To Do wt Old Bill).
And with the ladder pulled up some time ago (by the boomers, aka the worst generation), this state of affairs has created a whole host of massive social problems in the US, ranging from drug abuse, the opioid crisis, gang culture and of course racism. And these social problems are self reinforcing. If only a handful of rogue police treat the local community like they are the enemy, well pretty soon that community aren’t going to trust the police, they won’t call them if they see a crime (a factor with regard to those falling crime figures I mentioned earlier, they could in some cases represent people less likely to report crimes because they fear the cops will show up and shoot them or some innocent bystander). At this point the police cease to be a police force, but instead, an occupying military force, not unlike what you’d find in a totalitarian regime.
Which is why some are calling for pretty radical reform, such as defunding police forces entirely (which appears to be the fate of the Minneapolis police department at the centre of this crisis), disbanding the service, rebuilding a force from scratch while diverting funding into community projects. This may seem extreme, but there isn’t really many other options that would realistically work. There has been attempts at reform before, but institutional resistance from the police themselves makes it impossible.
Case in point, officers in Buffalo nearly killed an elderly man and were suspended from duty, prompting 50 of their snowflake fellow officers to resign from the riot squad, but still stay on the force and draw their salary (to draw a comparison, suppose one of my colleagues nearly beat a vulnerable student to death, left them on the ground bleeding and when the uni fired said lecturer we all refused to do any work, but continued to draw a salary, how would the DailyFail/Fox news react to that?).
Meanwhile in Washington, there is of course zero chance of any help from Trump and the democrats just voted to extend the Patriot Act, expanding Trump’s powers as regards policing. Meanwhile Mr Vanilla’s reaction to all this was to have a brain fart about how maybe the cops could shoot people in the leg rather than the head (hate to break it to you Joe but even a leg wound can be fatal & what if they miss and the bullet buries itself in the skull of a nearby child?).
It should be noted that there is some precedence here. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was reorganised as the PSNI as part of the NI peace process. The city of Camden in NJ, after a major scandal, disbanded their police force and replaced it with a reformed service. But doing so with a service as large as the NYPD would be a bit of a challenge to say the least.
But of course, without the right measures in place to stop the same rogue officers simply re-applying for their old jobs, you’ll only be changing the sign on the door. If the same morons elected in the past as sheriffs keep getting elected, nothing changes. And I’d argue that there needs to be a complete change of attitudes within the police. I’d suggest a rule that if they are caught breaking the law, they should get double the punishment a citizen gets (so if the penalty is 5 years, they get 10). A policy I’d also extend to politicians (and their special advisers).
A policy of collective responsibility is also needed. The police can’t just shrug the shoulders and blame a couple of bad apples, they need to take responsibility as a force for the short comings of all officers (and thus encourage them to report rogue, incompetent or racist officers). And that also goes for companies as well, notably
Fascistbook Facebook which is making no effort to reign in racists spread miss-information on its platform (personally, if I had a Facebook account, I’d have deleted it by now).
But, as I’ve pointed out, this goes way beyond a couple of crooked cops. It cuts right into the heart of a whole bunch of deeply rooted social and economic problems many in the US have chosen to ignore for many decades. So long as you have these massive poverty traps, you will have all of these social ills and the crime that results.
And to bring things back to the UK, this is the scary truth. The post-brexit end state the Tories are aiming for is basically the mess we see in the more deprived parts of the US today. Meanwhile, the rich in their gated communities and home counties estates can just plug their ears and ignore all that. Hence why the removal of the statue of a slave trader in Bristol is probably a positive signal that this policy will go down like a lead balloon.
But in America, resolving this crisis means a change of policy nationwide. It will not be easy, it will take time. If there was a quick and simple solution, someone would have already tried that. But certainly at least the first step is acknowledging there is a problem here and everything is not okay.