August 23rd, 2020

Social Justice and Defunding the Police

One of the changes that some people have been advocating for since the police killing of George Floyd is to "defund the police". In some quarters, it's certainly a less than popular idea--nervously worried people glance at each other and try to visualize what our world would look like if the police all just packed up and went home. Most of these worried citizens haven't required a rescue from the predations of dangerous people in the last year, but still they think of the police as necessary protectors, a force without which there would be violent crime threatening us around every corner.

Me, I think there's something out of whack when our official organized response whenever there's a conflict between people is to go in with the attitude that somebody is the bad person, that somebody is the perpetrator, the evildoer. As if no two people could ever end up frustrated and feeling mutually thwarted and angry unless one of them was a bad person and the conflict was their fault. I think if you're a parent and your children are fighting, or you're a teacher and your students are furious and yelling and making threats, or you're a supervisor on the job and your employees are arguing and screaming and shoving each other, that you go in with the expectation that you need to listen to both sides, and the anticipation that there's going to be some way that everyone can get what they need out of the situation or at least enough of what they need that there's a solution everyone can live with. I'm not saying it's always going to work out that way, mind you, but you go in with that attitude. Not with the attitude that someone's in the wrong and needs to be stopped and then punished. And frankly if that's not your approach, if you don't go in looking to see how to make peace between these squabbling people, you're not a very good parent, a very good teacher, a very good supervisor. That over time you're going to contribute to the problems and make the fighting worse.

So why do we have police, when what we generally mean by "police" is a professional force that goes in to intervene specifically looking for lawbreakers to arrest? There are, in fact, some police forces in some locales where the officers are more inclined to go in and get people settled down and listen to all sides and remind the people in the community that we need to stick together and work together. That does exist. But you know, and I know, that that's the exception, not the general rule. People who aspire to become police officers don't imagine themselves doing inpromptu counseling sessions on the sidewalk. The people who wince at "defund the police" aren't worried about not having mediators in blue uniforms to get both sides listening to each other and working towards a mutually acceptable solution either. Instead, we've all been brought up to think of the police as the ones who get the bad guys. They have fast cars and radios; they have sticks, guns, and handcuffs on their belt. They will stop the criminals and put them in jail. Yeah, that model.

I'd like to see the police as we know them replaced with people who have been trained in defusing and mediating. And if the existing people wearing police badges feel like they didn't sign up for that, replace them with people who took social sciences and humanities courses in college.

I'm reading a book, mainstream entertainment fiction. Michael Connelly, The Closers. Like the overwhelming majority of police procedurals and mysteries, it's about murder. Because our steady diet of laudatory praise and respect for the police is centered around murder. It's not so easy to see why the enforcement of the rule that you shouldn't go around killing other people is somehow reinforcing our existing social inequalities--I mean, yeah, sure, you can no doubt come up with a scenario or two where somebody is in a situation where they have a moral right to kill someone (their rapist, the slaveowner who stands in the way of their freedom, etc), but it's a reach. We think it's a rare situation where killing someone isn't just plain inexcusable.

But most of the situations that police officers intervene in aren't murders. They investigate property crimes and occurrences of people shouting and shoving, and respond to situations where one person feels threatened by another; they look for violations of drug laws and they watch for people misbehaving in their vehicles; and they show up to investigate when there is vandalism or theft.

We didn't always have them around, you know. Yeah. We haven't always had a professional police force in the modern sense. Furthermore, the history of their existence is pretty tangled up with maintaining and enforcing an "us versus them" division or two in our society. The kind where one group is defined as "them". The bad people, the criminal elements that the other group needs to be protected from. And in the United States, the number one "them" group has been black folks. The entire notion of "criminals", the widely shared belief in a "them" who would otherwise threaten our safety and security here in our own homes and on our downtown sidewalks, is heavily interwoven with our notions about race. It's not always painted as overtly so, but we're made to fear the anger and hate of black people. (Why, because maybe we think they've been mistreated and deprived and just might have an understandable reason to be angry and hate us, ya think? Little bit of white guilt turned inside out to become a fear of a righteous wrath, perhaps?) Several white people have pointed out that it's an act of white privilege to call the cops any time there's a possible conflict, especially when the people with whom we're having a conflict are nonwhite people. They point out that for a nonwhite person to make a similar call, there's a legitimate worry that the police, upon arrival, will not help but will instead treat them as the cause of the problem. I watched a video earlier this week where a group of black teenagers called the police when they'd been physically attacked by someone else, only to have the police pull out guns on them when they showed up.

Meanwhile, we have the calls for social justice. I've never liked that phrase. "Justice", as in Department of Justice, as in dispensing justice from the judge's bench in the courtroom, is part and parcel of the police model. The notion that somebody is a culprit, an evildoer who is at fault and deserves for bad things to happen to them for the evil that they've done.

You can't really have it both ways. If it's a better approach to get everyone talking and listening instead of barging in designating somebody as the bad person, I don't think that changes when the alteraction is not about a cluster of teenagers arguing in a parking lot but instead is about different broad social factions arguing about oppression.


You're secluded in quarantine, and all the performances and events have been cancelled, so it's a good time to read a book!

My book, GenderQueer: A Story From a Different Closet, has been published by Sunstone Press. It is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback and ebook, and as ebook only from Apple, Kobo, and directly from Sunstone Press themselves.

Links to published reviews and comments are listed on my Home Page


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