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It’s Not Just About the Cops


Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has an excellent essay at The New Yorker today, showing how current protests and uprisings have fewer parallels to the 1960s than they do to the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, exploring how the current climate is shaped by the politics and political logics of the 1990s, and arguing (correctly, in my opinion) that these events require a much deeper analysis of the American social arrangement than just focusing on the cops. I recommend the whole.

We cannot insist on “real change” in the United States by continuing to use the same methods, arguments, and failed political strategies that have brought us to this moment. We cannot allow the current momentum to be stalled by a narrow discussion about reforming the police. In Obama’s essay, he wrote, “I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it.” If we are thinking of these problems in big and broad strokes, or in a systemic way, we might ask: Why there is only a single grocery store in this woman’s neighborhood? That might lead to a discussion about the history of residential segregation in that neighborhood, or job discrimination or under-resourced schools in the area, which might, in turn, provide deeper insights into an alienation that is so profound in its intensity that it compels people to fight with the intensity of a riot to demand things change. And this is where the trouble actually begins. Our society cannot end these conditions without massive expenditure.

In 1968, King, in the weeks before he was assassinated, said, “In a sense, I guess you could say, we are engaged in the class struggle.” He was speaking to the costs of the programs that would be necessary to lift black people out of poverty and inequality, which were, in and of themselves, emblems of racist subjugation. Ending segregation in the South, then, was cheap compared with the huge costs necessary to end the kinds of discrimination that kept blacks locked out of the advantages of U.S. society, from well-paying jobs to well-resourced schools, good housing, and a comfortable retirement. The price of the ticket is quite steep, but, if we are to have a real conversation about how we change America, it must begin with an honest assessment of the scope of the deprivation involved. Racist and corrupt policing is the tip of the iceberg.

We have to make space for new politics, new ideas, new formations, and new people. The election of Biden may stop the misery of another Trump term, but it won’t stop the underlying issues that have brought about more than a hundred thousand covid-19 deaths or continuous protests against police abuse and violence. Will the federal government intervene to stop the looming crisis of evictions that will disproportionately impact black women? Will it use its power and authority to punish police, and to empty prisons and jails, which not only bring about social death but are now also sites of rampant covid-19 infection? Will it end the war on food stamps and allow African-Americans and other residents of this country to eat in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? Will it finance the health-care needs of tens of millions of African-Americans who have become susceptible to the worst effects of the coronavirus, and are dying as a result? Will it provide the resources to depleted public schools, allowing black children the opportunity to learn in peace? Will it redistribute the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to rebuild devastated working-class communities? Will there be free day care and transportation?

If we are serious about ending racism and fundamentally changing the United States, we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it. But, more importantly, the quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police alone. It must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals. Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay.

We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers, and therein lies the three-hundred-year-old conundrum: America’s professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality.

The unfolding revolt in the U.S. today holds the real promise to change this country. While it reflects the history and failures of past endeavors to confront racism and police brutality, these protests cannot be reduced to them. Unlike the uprising in Los Angeles, where Korean businesses were targeted and some white bystanders were beaten, or the rebellions of the nineteen-sixties, which were confined to black neighborhoods, today’s protests are stunning in their racial solidarity. The whitest states in the country, including Maine and Idaho, have had protests involving thousands of people. And it’s not just students or activists; the demands for an end to this racist violence have mobilized a broad range of ordinary people who are fed up.

The protests are building on the incredible groundwork of a previous iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Today, young white people are compelled to protest not only because of their anxieties about the instability of this country and their compromised futures in it but also because of a revulsion against white supremacy and the rot of racism. Their outlooks have been shaped during the past several years by the anti-racist politics of the B.L.M. movement, which move beyond seeing racism as interpersonal or attitudinal, to understanding that it is deeply rooted in the country’s institutions and organizations.

This may account, in part, for the firm political foundation that this round of struggle has begun upon. It explains why activists and organizers have so quickly been able to gather support for demands to defund police, and in some cases introduce ideas about ending policing altogether. They have been able to quickly link bloated police budgets to the attacks on other aspects of the public sector, and to the limits on cities’ abilities to attend to the social crises that have been exposed by the covid-19 pandemic. They have built upon the vivid memories of previous failures, and refuse to submit to empty or rhetoric-driven calls for change. This is evidence again of how struggles build upon one another and are not just recycled events from the past.

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