As we all watched (or participated in) the Black lives matter protests of the last two weeks over the killing of George Floyd, a simple answer began to show up on signs in cities across the country – Defund the Police. The slogan showed up because it is simple and fits easily on a protest sign or can be easily painted on a street. But, is it a real answer to a very complex and deep-seated problem within our American society? Probably not.
Even within the various protest groups, there is little agreement about what the phrase Defund the Police actually means. For most it includes reducing the militarization of the police and changing policing tactics away from the use of chock holds and the use of deadly force; however, from there the changes demanded are all over the map. That is because the problem itself is too complex to be reduced to a simple answer that fits within a slogan.
Like many approaches in healthcare, the Defund the Police seeks to mitigate one of the symptoms of the problem, rather than seeking to make changes that will have a preventative effect on the root causes. From well before the emancipation of the slaves there has existed a mentality of “Them” vs. “Us”, where the easy way to know which was which was by appearance (mainly the color of their skin).
The freeing of the slaves changed the equation from owner and slave model into a model based upon “owners of everything else” and “the ex-slaves”. The oppression of ownership slavery became the oppression of economic slavery. The hardships of the freed black people shifted from their white masters using whips and chains to control them to the use of economics and laws (and the police to enforce those laws) designed to keep them in their place.
While America had no official Apartheid laws as such, we did have our Jim Crow laws at the states level, which were overlooked for far too long and which had great influence on shaping our society’s thoughts about race. As a nation, we maintained (and still maintain) a “Them vs. “Us” mentality based largely on identifying the members of those groups by skin color.
That mentality greatly affected everything from education to job opportunities to law enforcement. It led to the simplistic approach of building more prisons to house “them”, as opposed to figuring out how to change things to provide more opportunity; so that some many of “them” wouldn’t end up committing crimes and filling those prisons. It also facilitated looking the other way when so many of “them” received poor and often fatal treatment by the police. After all, the police were protecting “Us” from “Them”.
We always knew that the situation was wrong and not sustainable, but it was easier to look that other way, so long as our police kept things under control (even if they had to keep their methods under wraps, too). That all exploded when outrage over the death of George Floyd tipped things beyond the ability of the police to control. All of a sudden, the root cause problems could no longer be swept under r the rug. The problems were exposed for all to see on the nightly news and the search for answers begun.
Thus popped up the simple answer – Defund the Police. There’s not room on protest signs for the more complete thoughts underlying that phrase – to defund the police as it exists today in its aggressive and militarist form and shift the responsibilities and funds to groups that are more focused upon defusing and resolving problems than just on physical control and incarceration. The idea of Neighborhood Policing is often mentioned, with only a vague idea of what that means given. Stories have pointed to several successes in American cities of that shift, as proof that a different approach works.
Sharing successful alternatives to the current police environment is a start, but it really only focuses on one small aspect of the bigger, systemic racism problem in our society that is the real problem. We seem to have more success as a nation when we are facing an “It” problem vs. facing a ”Them” problem. “Us” vs. Smoking was a big success. “Us” vs. Cancer has had wide support. More recently the fight of “Us” vs. Corona Virus was almost universally supported (at least for a while). Maybe we need to refocus upon “Us” vs. Racism.
Like with the recent Corona Virus response, there will always be those who are so self-centered and selfish that they will rail against anything that they feels impinges upon their personal freedom. They are the ones who refuse to wear a mask in public places or to maintain social distancing. There will be those who refuse to admit to racism, but who continue to discriminate in their words or deeds, with the claim that they somehow have a Constitutional right to speech and actions that cause pain or harm to others. Until we get to the herd mentality that racism is fundamentally bad and harmful for our society and make it uncomfortable for people to exhibit racism, we will be providing cover for the racists and allowing their laws and behaviors to continue.
There are no simple answers to this problem, but there is a simple starting point – it starts with you and me. If we say and act like racism is wrong and bad, and we change our ways; we will begin influencing others to say and act like it, too. If enough of Us do it together then It will fade away. Quite frankly, it feels better to be part of that “Us” group against racism than to be a part of the “them” in this battle.
Won’t you join “Us” in this fight?