The national awakening and catharsis of the last two weeks since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of 4 police officers in Minneapolis, MN has been a remarkable moment in the history of racial justice in America. All citizens with a heart reacted in horror, and many of us non-blacks have turned our eyes and ears towards people and voices that we have previously ignored or dismissed. Protests have scooped up the well-meaning in a broad spectrum of ages, races and religions. The national cancer of racism, known but unresolved, has been laid bare and society has become open to ideas that just 3 weeks ago would have been received as the crackpot schemes of an unstable fringe.
I have followed the protests, watched hours of instagram, and heard what seem to be the primary points of the organizers. Much of what is being said I have been preaching literally for many years.
- There is systemic racism in America which imbues our economic structures, city planning, health care system, education, and more.
- The experience and opportunities of black Americans of any economic level or creed is different, and mostly disadvantaged, compared to their white colleagues of similar economic level or creed. Exceptions only prove the rule.
- The experience of policing in America is different for blacks than whites, not just in high crime neighborhoods but broadly across the country, and the difference is profoundly negative.
It is my hope and prayer that these 3 items will be moved, pushed, prodded, healed, solved, eliminated by our combined efforts in the new awakening that we are experiencing at this moment.
And a major piece of this is accountability. Police unions are predictably rallying to the badge to protect the wave of officers being disciplined, fired and/or prosecuted for assault on civilians in recent days. The police are justifiably astounded at the feeding frenzy demanding blue blood. We are fortunate to live in a media age, and I hope for a day when all police behavior is documented in video and audio recordings. This can only help. Yes, accountability is a non-negotiable and police forces will need to accept that it is only going to grow and it is here to stay.
But the larger issue is the systemic racism behind it all. That will not change with a city council vote or a march.
But if that is to happen, it will only be through institutional change. And that takes a more moderate approach, not a bullhorn. It takes investment, not divestment.
Our democracy, too often distracted by carnival barkers and political manipulators has risen up again to debate and advance a genuine issue of the people. It is profoundly gratifying. Examples of racial policing is one symptom of a much larger disease.
There is, nevertheless, a very real danger that it will all fade away in the months ahead. First, it is easy to be horrified and to flood the streets, but it is hard to coalesce a consensus around practical ideas that will pass muster in our democratic system. Second, the COVID virus restrictions are being lifted and people will be in severe need of work, and security. When people go back to work, and their food is in question, their ability to pursue sustained political advocacy will decrease. Any significant disconnect between the leaders with the bullhorns and the broad spectrum of people engaging racial justice seriously for the first time will hamstring the movement's momentum.
These two slogans can kill the racial justice movement's new coalition, because at their face value they are absurd:
"Defund the Police"
"Dismantle the Police"
The Minnesota Mayor was booed off the stage this past weekend for refusing to commit to defunding the police. That is the same mayor who, from the beginning, defied his own police department and demanded the arrest and prosecution of the murdering officer(s) in the Floyd case. The movement also needs to listen. The movement also needs to learn how to identify friends of the cause and not continue to use tools of extreme protest on the cusp of their ultimate victory. They must learn to create institutional change. Burning it down will not work, and will lose the support of the vast coalition that has currently rallied to the cause.
The simple truth is that society demands the police more than it needs civil rights. Look at the excesses of the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11 and see how many liberties have been unthinkingly cast aside in the name of security.
Most people want the police. We all need the police. The police exist as a necessary and desirable arm of our government in a social contract with the citizens of a free republic to defend and protect, to serve and support the laws of the nation and her citizens of all races and creeds. We want racial justice in our policing, which will take additional investments in our police training and management.
Defunding a large and complex system of individual organizations that you actually want to invest in makes no sense.
What happens when there is no police? We are literally only days away from open rioting, looting and shoplifting in NYC when it was (correctly) assessed that the police had no power to prevent those actions. I lived in Los Angeles after Rodney King, and the same was true there. My friends in Quillota, Chile have seen the same in the past year. This is human behavior. One of the largest industries in America is the security camera industry, which is useless without the police to investigate the images they capture. People will want the police.
The prophets of Israel and the Talmud knew this lesson well:
Jeremiah 29:7 Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.
The rabbinic tradition recognizes the need for authority and governance, and embraces even bad government over anarchy. For example, R. Hanina famously interpreted Jeremiah, saying "Pray for the welfare of the government, for if it were not for the fear of it, people would swallow up their neighbor alive" (Pirkei Avot, 3:2).
Policing is not a zero sum game. There are still murderers, thieves, domestic violence, fraud and more going on every minute of every day. If you defund the police, it won't take away the racism of some or the systematic racism of many. It will take the police away from what you need them to do. If you want a major initiative, you must invest in it. And it's worth it.
Yes, demand racial justice. Invest in real change. Invest in the police to make it happen.