Sunday Service | October 4: “Abolition Today; Part 2 Police” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
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“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” But who shall guard these guardians? It is a question as old as western philosophy, as contemporary as today’s headlines, or tomorrow’s election. Or, if you prefer your classics from the British mode, there is Lord Acton’s 19th century observation that “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s not that we don’t understand the problem; it’s that neither our social engineers nor our ethical theorists have come up with a solution over the centuries. Plato had one answer – put all your resources into the moral education of those designated to rule, and keep everyone else well away from the levers of power. Jesus had another – let only those without sin themselves first cast a stone at wrong doers. Machiavelli, along with many others, had a third answer – let power do what power does, and just worry about whether you yourself are on the comfortable side of it. Those patrician colonial instigators in the closing decades of the 18th century, playing at designing a new nation, had yet another thought; separate the powers, and make each accountable to different authorities, so that they might balance each other out. As history goes, it has been an interesting experiment so far.
The devil is, as they say, in the details. In this case, the detail was slavery. They knew it was wrong, those ‘Founding Fathers’ – several of them acknowledged it, but they all knew – and they hoped they could sweep that annoying detail under the constitutional rug long enough to get their envisioned government up and running. Kick that troublesome can of worms down the road for another generation to deal with. Which is what they did, and we all know how that turned out, and we are all living with the reverberations of that chickening out to this day. We all know how they made up the famous rule that an enslaved black person would be equal to 3/5ths of a white person when you were counting how much population a state had. Another detail that they slipped into the constitution of their new government was the recognition that individual states would need something other than a Continental Army in order to keep the insurrections of enslaved people, as well as the indigenous resistance of Native American tribal people, under control. From these anxieties among the colonialist landed gentry arose what the Second Amendment calls “a well-regulated militia,” part of the forerunner of today’s local police forces.
It was, as Ibram Kendi demonstrates, stamped from the beginning. Racism is baked into American law enforcement from its earliest days. Policing in this country has had all kinds of functions over the centuries, but one of them has always been the protection of white people and communities through the control of communities and individuals of color. And it has never been about the protection of communities of color through the control of white people. The more I read and learn, the more difficult I suppose it is for anyone who lives in this culture with white skin to comprehend how historically rooted and justified is the deep distrust of the police in black experience.
This is brought home to me all the more starkly in the awareness that every direct encounter that I have ever had with a Kansas City police officer, either in my life as a private citizen or as a member of the clergy, has been courteous, professional, earnest, and helpful. As a well-off, white, older woman, I receive deference; I am clearly on the ‘serve and protect’ side of the equation. And yet I know the names and stories of Ryan Stokes, Terrence Bridges, Jr., Cameron Lamb, and Donnie Sanders, all unarmed black men killed by members of the KCPD. And, I have heard first person accounts from peaceful protesters and journalists at the Plaza in May and June, who were tear gassed, assaulted, and threatened by police units in riot gear, and I have seen video tapes of these same brutal actions. If I were black, I would have no confidence that any law enforcement professional actually had my best interests at heart in any given moment. I would be having that heart-breaking and soul-wrenching conversation with my child, begging them to let their dignity go, so that they would come out of a confrontation with police alive. Just alive – everything else, every other humiliation, can be endured, but not losing your child because they tried to fight back, or mouth off.
As I ponder these things, I have come to reject the ‘bad apple’ theory of police brutality and misconduct. The officers who hid behind their riot gear and gassed my colleagues and parishioners are not different from the ones who were so helpful in the first days of our congregation’s emergency warming center. I think it’s not the specific people who are the problem; many of them deeply want to do the right thing, to genuinely serve and protect, and in the appropriate circumstances, they would. They do, in fact, serve and protect what the institution of policing was created to serve and protect, which is the safety of white bodies and property from the resistance of people and communities of color against systemic harm. It is unfair, in a way that those involved deeply and properly feel, but cannot usually articulate, to punish individual officers who get caught in a moment of doing something that the system functionally exists to accomplish.
If this is indeed the case, it becomes understandable why advocates who have been trying for decades and centuries to protest the injustice at the heart of policing as an enterprise are substantially unimpressed by various plans for reform of that enterprise. It is perhaps instructive to consider the analogies from two hundred years ago, when people who were morally appalled by the violent practices of slavery ran around trying to reform the behavior of slave owners. Owners ought not to be brutalizing their slaves, overworking them, raping them, separating their families, providing only squalor for their living situations. It was these mean-spirited, irresponsible masters and mistresses, who were giving the institution of slavery a bad name, the reformers argued. It was unchristian. If only things could be a little more considerate, a little less oppressive, then enslaved people would have less to complain about, and less tendency to rise up and rebel, which would be better for the owners after all. The whole system could work so much better, and be more acceptable, if those in power would just control their worst impulses. There were initiatives to try to create legal consequences – usually in the form of fines, payable to the state – against owners who abused their slaves. The slaves themselves, you might imagine, were not deeply impressed by these efforts.
When the activists of today speak of ‘abolishing’ the police, their choice of language is not an unfortunate accident. Rather, it is a hearkening back to the truth of what was at stake for enslaved people in the abolition arguments of the early 1800s. Certainly grievous harm was done by the arbitrary and deliberate cruelty that some masters practiced, but the goal of those at risk was never to create a benign class of lenient, more appreciative owners, nor to try to mitigate the behavior of the worst through legal constraint. The problem was the system and the premises upon which it was founded, not the ways in which it was badly manifested by individuals. Do you see how the efforts of ‘slavery reform,’ well-intentioned as their advocates may have been, continued to center the motivations and actions of white people, leaving the privilege and power unchanged in their hands? And how, in this scenario, black bodies and black lives remained objects within the institution of slavery, stripped of agency and dependent on the changeable will of a dominant white culture and legal structure?
In a June 10 op-ed column, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean and professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law, describes preparing an investigative study of the Los Angeles Police Department Rampart scandal, which was published in September of 2000. Professor Chemerinsky writes:
I believe most police officers are hard-working, honest and responsible individuals who are doing their best, often under the most difficult circumstances. Indeed, my respect for the police was greatly enhanced by my contact with them in preparing the report.
I came to realize that Los Angeles was in a repetitive cycle. First, there would be a major incident of police abuse. Then, investigative commissions would be created and issue reports. Some of their recommendations would be adopted, some not. The city would declare victory over the problem until the next incident, when the cycle would repeat itself. I think this is true of our entire country with regard to problems in policing.
I saw that, inevitably, incidents were dismissed as the result of a few bad cops. This was the reaction to the officers who beat Rodney King. This was the reaction to the officers in the Rampart scandal. Most recently, this was the reaction to the officers who killed George Floyd. This minimizes the problem and fails to recognize its systemic nature.
I learned that a crucial problem in the LAPD was a deeply embedded code of silence that kept officers from reporting misconduct of other officers. Many police officers told me that they were afraid that, if they reported misconduct, they would be transferred to less desirable positions and locations or, even worse, other officers would not protect their backs when they were in trouble.
I saw, too, that relying on prosecutors to expose police misconduct is inherently problematic. Prosecutors rely on police officers for testimony and evidence every day in their cases.
Many of Chemerinsky’s observations can also be found in the 1968 report of the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission. Several such reports were issued detailing instances of police corruption in Miami and New York City during the 1980s surge in crack cocaine, and the resulting ‘war on drugs.’ These cycles of scandal and attempted reform go back to the private security forces like Pinkerton’s Agents, and vigilante groups like the KKK, that were prevalent in the late 19th century, following the civil war. Like America’s prison system, America’s policing system has never actually worked as its theory claims, and has always been plagued with eruptions of corruption, conspiracy, and abuse.
It is no doubt true, as Chemerinsky recounts, that efforts at reform are made more difficult by codes of silence and mutual protection among officers, by the reluctance of local prosecutors to pursue the very officers on whose work their own success depends, as well as by police unions, which often collectively bargain for provisions that make firing or disciplining officers for misconduct all but impossible. These barriers can frustrate even the most reform-minded of administrators; the average tenure for a police chief in a major city department is two and a half years.
Family systems theory teaches that when a number of persistent, good-faith efforts to solve a problem have achieved nothing, it is likely that the problem isn’t really the problem. The interwoven history of white supremacy and policing in this country suggest to me that it is fruitless to seek change through greater accountability, in an organization that is already doing what it is historically and systemically intended to do. What, then, would it mean to “abolish” the police in this current cycle of crisis?
I invite you to indulge for a moment in a thought experiment. What might it look like if policing was designed to protect communities of color from white control? Even by violence, if necessary? Because that, after all, is the fundamental premise of all armed intervention – that violence should only be used by those who are designated by the state, to protect the interests of the state. And throughout our history as a nation, the interests of the state have always been identified with colonial European power and property. What if the interest of the state was, to protect vulnerable people from harm? You may think that’s already in there, somewhere – like the Ragu sauce – but it isn’t. It’s a radical idea, in the literal meaning of the word; it goes to the root of the thing.
One change that it might mean is a rather drastic re-allocation of local government resources, toward services that can only be provided awkwardly and badly by police.
In many cities, the police spend a lot of time “on traffic and motor-vehicle issues, on false burglar alarms, on noise complaints and on problems with animals,” the law professor Barry Friedman writes in The University of Pennsylvania Law Review. What if Americans retrained ourselves to expect armed officers to come only if they truly think there’s a real risk of someone getting hurt? The dispatcher would route calls that aren’t about crimes or a risk of harm to social workers, mediators and others. When a police report leads to criminal charges — only a subset of the whole — about 80 percent of them are for misdemeanors. Friedman argues that we should hand off some part of what the police do to people who are better trained for it.
“There has been such a massive disinvestment in the social safety net that should exist to give black communities an opportunity to thrive,’ says Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter. “Now we’re having a conversation that’s not just about how black communities are policed, and what reforms are required, but also about why we’ve invested exclusively in a criminalization model for public safety, instead of investing in housing, jobs, health care, education for black communities and fighting structural inequality. Budgets are moral documents, reflecting priorities and values.”
Like me, many members of communities of color think that any society needs its guardians; black, indigenous, and other people of color do not want to live in unsafe, lawless communities. The trouble is, too many of them already do. If they cannot trust the police as currently organized, then they have no legally sanctioned way to respond to behavior that they regard as truly harmful within their communities. If calling the police is likely to make a bad situation even more dangerous, for bystanders as well as those who might do harm, then it is less likely that anyone will call them, or really assist them if they come.
When New York congresswoman Alexandria Octavio-Cortez was asked, “What does an America with defunded police look like to you?” she responded in a way that got my attention:
The good news is that it actually doesn’t take a ton of imagination, she said.
It looks like a suburb. Affluent white communities already live in a world where they choose to fund youth, health, housing and so on more than they fund police. These communities have lower crime rates not because they have more police, but because they have more resources to support healthy society in a way that reduces crime.
When a teenager or preteen does something harmful in a suburb (I say teen because this is often where lifelong carceral cycles begin for Black and Brown communities), White communities bend over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration for their loved ones to “protect their future,” — like community service or rehab or restorative measures. Why don’t we treat Black and Brown people the same way? Why doesn’t the criminal system care about Black teens’ futures the way they care for White teens’ futures? Why doesn’t the news use Black people’s graduation or family photos in stories the way they do when they cover White people (for example, Brock Turner) who commit harmful crimes?
Affluent White suburbs design their own lives so that they walk through the world without having much interruption or interaction with police at all, aside from community events and speeding tickets (and many of these communities try to reduce those, too!)
Just starting THERE would be a dramatically and radically different world than what we are experiencing now.
To abolish policing as we know it in the present is a way to talk about something different from the unending cycles of corruption, abuse, and attempted reform that our society has endured for more than a century. These struggles will never bear any useful fruit as long as control in the service of privilege and property continues to be the unwritten systemic agenda. To defund the police is to re-conceive how we invest in the safety and protection of our neighbors. It is a call to think again about what it is that we are truly trying to accomplish, and what we are asking of those who offer to serve and protect on our behalf. We owe them, as well as our marginalized, vulnerable, and at-risk fellow citizens, the effort of creative imagination and care that would go into building a new way for our guardians to work. It’s in our own mission, after all; to create change toward a just and compassionate society – a dramatically and radically different world than what we are experiencing now. In that aspiration, let us join together and sing.