We are in a decisive moment. In some sense, we’ve been inexorably moving toward this time and place since the Ferguson Uprising. However, we’re not at the proverbial crossroad. We took a right turn toward fascism four years ago. What this time represents is a moment in which we can turn back, reverse course and move decisively in the opposite direction, toward another place.
This moment is pregnant with radical possibilities. Calls to defund, dismantle, and reimagine policing create openings for the total transformation of U.S. society. Reconstructing policing — replacing police departments with public-safety divisions in which policing is only one function — can generate models for transforming all U.S. institutions.
Will the struggle against police disregard for human life, especially black life, and particularly the lives of black men, give birth to a transformative social movement? Or will it be aborted, suffer a miscarriage or be stillborn?
The Trump regime intends to abort the emerging movement through repression. President Donald Trump brazenly derides the demonstrators as “terrorists” and illegally deployed the military on U.S. soil to repress citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. And while the fascists have chosen repression, the liberals are opting for co-optation.
The Congressional Black Caucus, the Democrats, liberal foundations, think tanks and civil-rights activists aim to induce a miscarriage or stillbirth. In a masterful piece of political theater, Democratic leadership adorned in kente cloth knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck. This bit of symbolism seeks to present neoliberal Democrats as “woke” and in concert with the people’s desire for fundamental change. The size, militancy and duration of the protests have forced Democrats to move faster and further than they envisioned.
Their “Justice in Policing Act” would ban chokeholds and those that press on the carotid artery, end “no-knock” warrants for drug arrests, create a national database to track officers’ misconduct and limit police departments’ access to military hardware. It reiterates the need for body cameras and training in de-escalation, “racial bias, implicit bias, procedural justice, and the duty to intervene.”
Most importantly, this bill would change the current mens rea criteria for determining police accountability for injury or death from “willful” to “knowingly or with reckless disregard.” It would abolish officers’ qualified immunity (protection from being sued), fund independent investigations of police misconduct, change the standard for use of force from “reasonable” to “only when necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury,” and mandate deadly force be used only as a last resort.
Two points. First, as currently crafted, it is too progressive for the Senate to enact. And having staked out a crude and cruel anti-black, pro-repression and pro-violation-of-civil-rights position, Trump would veto it, if it passed the Senate.
In “Time, Space, and Revolution,” a chapter in “The Challenge of Blackness,” author Lerone Bennett observes, “It’s hard to tell time by revolutionary clocks. Everything, including time, changes in a revolutionary time, and the clocks inherited from the old regime are usually too slow or too fast.” The Democrats’ liberal reforms are synchronized to the “old regime’s” clock. We’re past the time for reforms.
Unlike her neoliberal colleagues, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., understands that we have entered “revolutionary time.” She calls for the complete dismantling of the Minneapolis Police Department. Omar contends, “The Minneapolis Police Department is rotten to the root, and so when we dismantle it, we get rid of that cancer, and we allow for something beautiful to rise, and that reimagining allows us to figure out what public safety looks like for us.”
The proposed Democratic reforms are inadequate. Shifting significant funding from the police budget is necessary but insufficient. To effect meaningful change, police “unions” must be abolished. It’s instructive to remember that police acquired collective-bargaining rights during the civil-rights and black-power movements.
Scholars have uncovered a strong link between police acquisition of collective-bargaining rights and their use of excessive and deadly force, especially against black men. Dhammapala Dhammika, Richard H. McAdams and John Rappaport discovered that “collective-bargaining rights led to about a 40 percent increase in violent incidents of misconduct.” Rob Gillezeau, founder of the Racial Uprising Lab, concludes that police collective bargaining is largely “the protection of the right to discriminate.”
Police “unions” bargain over things beside wages, hours and conditions of work. They negotiate the time between an incident and their interview; the conditions of interrogation; and restrictions on the release of video evidence and revealing an officer’s identity; and bargain for the right “to huddle” with other officers before going on record. Most collective-bargaining agreements require removal of disciplinary complaints and findings from officers’ personnel files, often as soon as six months.
To effect structural change in policing requires removing the police from state labor relations acts, such as the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act. Transformative change requires dismantling police departments and creating public-safety divisions composed of social workers, psychologists and community activists who are mandated to privilege human life above property.
This is a transitional moment. Repression will be resisted. But it’s too soon to say whether the black rebellion will fall for social reform or stand for social transformation. Reimagining policing opens possibilities for reconstructing U.S. society. This requires transcending reforms and fighting to radically reconstruct the U.S. toward political democracy, economic equality and social justice.