Across the land and across the world multitudes are expressing outrage over the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the latest among countless victims to be killed at the hands of U.S. police. They are shouting an ultimatum that unchecked racism yields despicable injustice that can no longer be ignored, placated, justified or excused. The marches continue daily in many locations, and as they do, pressure is mounting on legislators to effect real and systemic change.
Among the voices demanding to be heard are those advocating for police reform. But many demonstrators, communities members, and some legislators, no longer accept training and retraining as the solution. They say that training means little to biased cops determined to engage Black and brown civilians with disrespect. Neither does it move aggressive members of the force who appear to relish brutal encounters and repeat them with impunity if there was no prior penalty.
Body-cams mean little if they are turned off at pivotal moments or if the footage is “lost.” Diversity hires matter little if the new hires are shunned, harassed or coerced into silence, and policies to defeat racial profiling are toothless if that culture is accepted while the complaints of community members fall on deaf ears.
NY Times columnist Charles Blow and actor David Oyelewo took part in Oprah Winfrey’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” a simultaneous discussion on OWN and multiple other TV networks that aired on 6/9 and 6/10. Like others who write about race and justice, Blow says the entire structure is meant to protect an age-old objective of submission and low-cost labor.
“… This is about power. It has always been about power,” said Blow. “It’s just that the police are the lowest cog in this machine. That’s the one that touches you. They were born out of a need to protect property and control bodies. And the crime that was being committed in the beginning — is the slave was running away.”
Oyelewo shared the emotional effect of Floyd’s killing on him.
“I didn’t realize how deep the wounds were,” he said. “I had spent so much of the last two weeks crying. And one of the moments where that began, was when I went to speak to my son, and I didn’t have the words. Because George Floyd wasn’t resisting arrest. So it’s not like saying to my son, ‘Put your hands on the dash, don’t be confrontational.’ Those conversations are already emasculating. To basically say, ‘Forget about justice in an interaction with the police. Come home alive.’
No More Business As Usual
Irate New Yorkers don’t believe that true reformation is in the cards without a citizen/legislator takeover of the police force. Civilian Complaint Review Boards haven’t worked and the judicial system fails to convict — and seldom even prosecute — cops charged with murdering civilians or damaging or stealing their property. Activists are calling for the defunding of departments nationwide. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, its City Council voted last week to disband the police department entirely. They plan on reconfiguring it for the benefit of the people whose taxes pay the salaries of their police force. The veto-proof bill has yet to be signed into law by Mayor Jacob Frey, but he and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights have filed a joint Temporary Restraining Order against the Department, forcing immediate reforms while a date for a human rights investigation into the department is being set.
Here at home, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio last week.
“Mr. Mayor, you have an opportunity here,” he said. “$Six billion? You’re saying we can’t hire no teachers, no counselors. The only thing, however, that we can add more to, is hiring a class of police. We are here to change the framework of how this city can move forward; you are setting us up for failure.”
The mayor initially pushed back against the proposition to cut the NYPD budget by $1 billion. But pressure built as demonstrators were handled roughly by police while irate viewers watched at home. The mayor announced a change of heart on his daily address across TV networks.
“Our young people don’t need to be policed, they need to be reached,“ he said. “We will be reallocating funds from the NYPD to youth initiatives and social services. The details will be worked out in the budget process in the weeks ahead.”
Some City lawmakers would like to see him restore funds to the Summer Youth Employment Program, to education, mental health services and housing. They believe such an investment will help reduce violence and crime, resulting in money well spent.
Although the defunding discussion is characterized by speculation, it’s about allocating resources elsewhere, particularly in scenarios where police presence seems to escalate, rather than resolve matters — such as when mental health professionals would do a better job, and cops don’t relish responding to those calls anyway. Students often report being harassed by police at school, a place where security personnel might do fine.
New York State Assembly candidate Stefani Zinerman underscores the need for responsible reform that includes community input.
“I believe in a community policing model that includes partnerships with the NYPD,” said Zinerman. “I’m concerned that the programs we fought for to bring about change, that they would defund those programs first and what we would be left with is a total racist and militarized police force that would be, again, wreaking havoc in our communities.”
In Camden, NJ, where the police force was disbanded and reconfigured in 2017, Police Chief Joseph Wysocki has learned to share power with the community. He was on television Wednesday morning telling a local reporter he had called Yolanda Deaver, organizer of a protest march held there last week, to ask about the plans for the demonstration, if they expected any trouble, and if he could march with them. She accepted and things went smoothly.
Austin, Texas already has a measure of the defund/reallocate strategy in place, having saved funds using phone operators to handle responses to emergency calls and send the needed city personnel, who are not usually police. San Francisco and other cities are adopting or considering it. Mayor Eric Garcetti aims to divert $100-$150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department to fund programs designed to help communities of color.
So it appears George Floyd lit a spark for a wholesale revamping of our criminal justice system, involving not only hiring, firing and administration, but also, in some cases, the closing of prisons and the reexamination of penalties and enforcement. Citizens have long charged the system with brutality, corruption, racial profiling and other abuses of power. Some are now open to the idea of police chiefs being hired by, and held accountable to, the community, to civilian review boards with the power to remove bad cops, and to have potential police officers take psychological exams.
Some police forces have been required to make significant changes already, and have done so with dramatic results. Other locales have always employed cops, commissioners, wardens, corrections officers and parole officers who do their jobs within the guidelines of the law, but find their impact diminished by a Blue Wall of Silence or a system of patronage.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of jurisdictions remain frozen in amber, specimens of powerful, entrenched unions and compromised elected officials.
“We must be clear when we talk about defunding the NYPD,” said Wilfredo Florentino, East New York Community Advocate. “We are calling for a reallocation of $1 billion of the NYPDs budget, a sizable chunk of a city’s overall budget, and to reallocate funds to Black communities, where the most violent policing occurs. By defunding the NYPD, we are standing up to systemic racism, and the intentional and deep-rooted Anti-Black terrorism by the NYPD.”