The nation has been rocked by the death of George Floyd after he was choked to death by four Minneapolis police officers placing their body-weight on Floyd’s neck and body during an arrest. Officers ignored Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe as well as witnesses calling on the officers to stop. And this was no accident, but a deliberate choking that went on for nearly 9 minutes despite Floyd’s pleas.
Four officers were finally charged with murder, with the officer who sat on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, facing 2nd degree murder charges – but not until after the community rallied protests and cities across the country and even the world began to hold their own rallies in support. The officers should have been arrested and charged immediately, that’s what would have happened to anyone else that murdered someone.
Over the coming days and weeks, we are going to need a community process to discuss the issues and what must be done to make sure tragedies like this never happen again. Some will look to “police reform”, but many cities across the country, including Minneapolis itself, had already adopted these “reforms”. The reforms are not good enough to protect Black lives. Police are still heavily armed and empowered by the government to act with impunity and even when called out for misconduct, local officials are quick to defend the police from any sort of consequences or responsibility. For example, Amy Klobuchar, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and thought to be likely pick for vice-president, was district attorney for Minneapolis in 2006 and declined to bring charges against Derek Chauvin, who was involved in the killing of a Native American man. Had Chauvin received proper disciplinary action and criminal charges, Chauvin probably would have been removed from the police and maybe George Floyd would still be alive today. But this sort of defense of police by officials and prosecutors has even created a legal precedent known as “qualified immunity” in which courts often let officers off the hook for crimes they commit while on the job. No other job in the country has this amount of legal protections, and so it is tragically unsurprising that the police often act like they are above the law – in many cases, they effectively are since no one will hold them accountable, not even the courts. That’s not justice.
And this is just some of the issues with the criminal justice system – racial justice also demands economic justice, environmental justice, and more, to truly say that Black Lives Matter.
So over the next days, weeks, months, we’re going to have a discussion on how to move forward. I don’t know all the answers. Probably no one has all the answers, as racism is institutionalized, systemic, and runs deep. It’s going to take a lot of work to identify solutions to fix it permanently. But we’ve seen enough, and we know we need real answers and not just the same platitudes politicians have been giving us for decades.
Some ideas in active discussion in our community include:
Demilitarize the Police. Police are trained with a “warrior mentality” to rely on violence rather than de-escalation and non-violent action. That sort of training must end, use of force must be restricted and non-violent solutions always encouraged. We should also cut access to military-style gear.
“Democratize” the Police, or Community Control of the Police. From a policy paper by Howie Hawkins, “Community control means elected neighborhood review boards with real investigative and policy-making powers in their communities and a citywide elected police commission to set citywide police department policies and determine disciplinary sanctions for police misconduct.”
Defund the Police. Specifically, this means recognizing that police, arrests, and criminal charges are not the right response to many issues, and transferring responsibility and funding from police departments into schools and social programs as appropriate in order to promote racial, economic, environmental justice. As one article put it, “…crime is a response to social conditions. More policing cannot fix social conditions; only investments in communities can.” Eventually, the democratized police will become a democratized public safety board that will examine these issues and propose the best way to budget and use resources to create justice.
Empty the Jail. Over 80% of the people in the Allegheny County Jail have not yet had a trial and are simply waiting because they cannot afford bail. Many will eventually be found Not Guilty and released, but only after waiting days or weeks or even months. Many others will be found Guilty but of things like personal cannabis use that shouldn’t even be a crime. The jail does nothing to help people, only violates human rights. Everyone facing non-violent offenses should be sent home immediately. In particular, protesters arrested during the Black Lives Matter protests should be sent home immediately, no bail and all charges dropped.
Restorative Justice. Ultimately, we’ve got to change our whole concept of justice. Today’s policing system is all about punitive revenge on people for committing crimes, but we need to change to a system that promotes discussion and non-violent resolutions to personal conflict.
I support all of these ideas and look forward to discussing with the community how to best implement them. I assume the ideas above are only a starting point, not an ending point, and invite other ideas and conversation. The “8 To Abolition” website for example provides many more ideas we should pursue, and there is a lot of research on police reform available in Alex S Vitale’s book “The End of Policing”. Justice cannot wait and we will keep fighting for more and more change.
Justice for George Floyd and all of the lives ruined and lost at the hands of a violent, racist policing system. Black Lives Matter.
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