From the perspective of tens of thousands of protesters around the nation this week, the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in Staten Island reflected an unfathomable decision by white police officers to kill unarmed black men engaged in trivial criminal (if any) behavior. To thousands of police officers (and their families), these deaths fit in a different narrative, one where very large and powerful men responded to lawful police efforts to complete a stop (in Brown’s case) or an arrest (in Garner’s) with violent resistance.
From the first perspective, these are cases of outright murder, and the failure of grand jurors in Missouri and New York to indict them, evidence of clear racism. From the second perspective, these cases are work accidents, tragedies that might have been avoided with better technique but hardly felonies.
The gulf seems wide indeed. No wonder President Obama and Mayor Bill DeBlasio wring their hands, utter somber statements about bridging the gap between police and community, and suggest more training. But the gap between police and the black community has always been wide (it’s ironic that yesterday was the 45th anniversary of the execution-style police killing of Chicago civil rights leader and Black Panther Fred Hampton in 1969 — an event that made this then-10-year-old wannabe political activist permanently afraid of the police), and today’s police have never been better trained and equipped (especially the much vaunted NYPD).
The problem, I believe, is not the people or the police, it’s the political “war on crime” that simultaneously valorizes cops as warriors in an existential struggle with violent crime and compels them to engage in a necessarily brutal campaign to clear the streets of those widely perceived — not just by police but by the majority culture and their politicians — as a threat to public safety, i.e., young men of color.
The war on crime may be a metaphor, but as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Metaphors We Live By) taught us long ago, metaphors are a political DNA that reorganize institutions and lives. Wars are about three things: territory, populations, and security.
The goal in war is to dominate a territory by eliminating or repressing resistance, pacifying the population, and establishing a regime of security that maintains both states of affairs (just pay some attention to the Israel/Palestine conflict if you need a refresher on what that looks like in its explicit form).
America’s war on crime, declared by top political leaders of both parties in the face of the high violent crime rates, and political polarization of the 1960s (see chapters 1 and 2 of my book, Governing through Crime), has made local police forces the front-line troops of a relentless campaign to clear urban areas of those perceived to be a threat to public safety. Whether dubbed “STRESS” (as it was in Detroit in the 1970s), “Broken Windows” (the 1980s) or “Zero Tolerance” policing (1990s), this war strategy has required police officers (sometimes with powerful workplace disciplinary techniques) to confront young men of color on a daily basis, and to use the opportunity of minor criminal violations to both clear the streets of them and create a security regime in which they choose to avoid public spaces.
This war on crime descended on American policing at a moment when it was only beginning to address the culture of ethnic and racial hierarchy that dominated mid-20th century police forces, leaving much of this culture intact and carrying it over into the greatly expanded (and much more diverse) forces of the 21st century.
If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s time to stop focusing on individual cops like Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo and whether or not they get indicted (does anyone here in Oakland really feel that much better because Oscar Grant’s killer was prosecuted, convicted, and went to prison?).
Instead we need to place responsibility at the top, where leaders in the White House, Governor’s mansions and Mayor’s offices have glorified the war on crime as a patriotic American mission. It’s time President Obama and other leaders to come forward and formally declare this war over. The damage it is has done to our society through mass incarceration, militarized policing, and wartime judicial retreats on human rights is already immense.
Just as important, the context has changed enormously. Violent crime is down to historic lows (and neither prisons or policing have made more than a partial contribution to that) and many of the sociological processes that drove high crime in the period 1965-1995 (deindustrialization, suburbanization, mass addiction to novel drugs) have run their course. As Bill DeBlasio’s campaign for mayor demonstrated, voters today are increasingly repelled by the war on crime and believe that the city and nation face other challenges.
A formal declaration of an end to the war on crime should include several key elements:
1. Recognition that the war on crime was an undeclared state of emergency that severely comprised the legal and political rights of Americans.
2. Instruction to law enforcement agencies that this state of emergency is over and they are to return to maximum fidelity to the principles of our constitution including respect for the dignity, liberty, and equality of every person.
3. Creation of new human-rights agencies to enforce point 2 and to identify the steps necessary to remediate point 1.
Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.