Opposing Police Violence Should Not Be Controversial

bad apples

Two “bad apples” the rest of the police department mysteriously failed to smell for years.

Conor Friedersdorf watches a new cell phone video of police brutality and comments:

What do you think is more likely, that this traffic stop just happened to bring together the only two bad apples on the Gwinnett County police force? Or that there is a larger problem in its culture, illustrated by the fact that a young officer hired four years ago expected no consequences for needlessly kicking a handcuffed guy in the head in front of a sergeant? If I were the U.S. Attorney General, I’d dispatch someone to study whether civil rights are routinely violated in Gwinnett County.

The actual attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is aggressively ratcheting down federal oversight of local police departments, even as President Donald Trump leads a coalition that is actively hostile to Black Lives Matter, the policing reform movement.

I support praising good cops for the dangerous, sometimes heroic work that they do; and I acknowledge that they are frequently put in almost impossible situations, only to be second-guessed by legions if anything goes wrong, even when they are not to blame, or error in a way that millions would. What’s more, I don’t always agree with the tactics or the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, a diverse movement that attracts both impressive, sensible reformers and less responsible fringe elements.

But the Black Lives Matter movement is portrayed wildly inaccurately in conservative media outlets, which focus on the most extreme, unrepresentative rhetoric from the coalition, and all but ignores the actual policy demands that it has put forth.

That reform agenda doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as I’ve noted before.

Dubbed Campaign Zero, it draws its strength largely from the fact that many of the policies that it recommends are “best practices” taken from existing police agencies.

“They’re practical, well-thought out, and in most cases, achievable,” wrote Radley Balko, one of the country’s most knowledgeable law-enforcement-policy journalists. “These are proposals that will almost certainly have an impact, even if only some of them are implemented. The ideas here are well-researched, supported with real-world evidence and ought to be seriously considered by policymakers.”

Professor Harold Pollack, a policy expert at the University of Chicago, concluded in his assessment that, “One does not need to embrace every element to recognize that this well-crafted document provides a useful basis of discussion between grassroots activists, elected officials, law enforcement professionals, and policy analysts … And based on my own research on urban crime and policing, which has included the implementation of randomized-violence-prevention trials, interviews with incarcerated offenders, and collaboration with public-health and criminal-justice authorities, several proposals in Campaign Zero struck me as particularly smart.”

Read the whole thing. Opponents of Black Lives Matter have always tried to obscure the basic decency and reasonableness of black demands. They must do so, because admitting the reality of racial oppression raises too many questions about how they see the world and their place in it. Among those generally opposing BLM are white evangelicals, because in this, as in so many other ways, being white is more important to us than being evangelical.

The 1950s: A Golden Age of Housing Discrimination

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Levittown, Pennsylvania

In the summer of 1957, Levittown, Pennsylvania was a new suburban community north of Philadelphia. Each of Levittown’s sixty thousand residents was white. The developer of the new community—a man not given to humility—was William J. Levitt. He had built his namesake town, he said, “with no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice.” The racial character of the town was, instead, an unfortunate reality of doing business in America: “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 per cent of our white customers will not buy into the community.”

The veracity of Levitt’s claim would be tested In August, 1957, when William and Daisy Myers and their three children moved into Levittown. Mr. Myers was an army veteran working in Trenton as a refrigerator technician, while Mrs. Myers was a stay-at-home mother. They seemed to fit the profile of the ideal suburban family. But they were black.

Angry crowds hundreds strong began gathering in front of the Myers’ house each evening. After some stone-throwing teenagers broke windows in the house, the Governor of Pennsylvania sent state troopers to keep order. When the largest demonstration yet left a policeman unconscious from a rock to the head, authorities banned any gathering of more than three people. A hastily organized “Levittown Betterment Association” sought means other than rioting to force the Myers family out.

Meanwhile, white neighbors who dared to be friendly with the new arrivals faced intimidation tactics: “KKK” painted on the wall of a house, a sign planted in a yard warning of surveillance, and a cross burning. Over a month after Mr. and Mrs. Myers moved in, with tensions unabated, state police resumed a 24-hour guard of the area. The campaign of intimidation soon descended into farce. Some Levittowners turned the house next door to the Myers’ home into an ostensible “clubhouse.” With a confederate flag flying, dozens gathered to sing racist minstrel songs, blow bugles as loud as they could, and “shout insults at the Negro family.”

A mystified William Myers said he was surprised by the extent of the controversy his move had caused. Surprised, but not shaken in resolve. The day after they moved in Daisy Myers told a black reporter, “We had a good night’s rest in our new home and we intend to stay here.”  If it was hard to believe she had really slept well while crowds threw rocks through the windows, her comment nonetheless showed her determination. While many left-leaning religious and civic groups expressed support for Mr. Myers, one man seemed to speak for many ordinary Levittowners when he said, “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”

Meanwhile, Professor Dan W. Dodson, Director of the Center for Human Relations and Community Studies at New York University, decided Levittown would be an ideal site to explore his ideas about the integration of American communities.  The resulting documentary is one of the most fascinating sources to emerge from 1950s suburbia. Below are some clips from the documentary. If you’re not familiar with the realities of housing in the 1950s it might be shocking.

Department of Injustice

sessionsWhile the daily news cycle features a deluge of political controversies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is quietly setting out to implement the racist agenda he has advocated throughout his career. Adam Serwer gets us up to speed:

On March 31, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was cynically sold by his defenders as a champion of civil rights, ordered a review of the Justice Department’s approach to policing, asserting that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” During his confirmation hearing, Sessions said federal investigations of police departments were bad for “morale,” and waved away the idea that police abuses could be systemic, rather than the actions of a few bad apples.

As attorney general, Sessions said he read a summary, but not the full Ferguson report, which found that “95% of Manner of Walking charges; 94% of all Fail to Comply charges; 92% of all Resisting Arrest charges; 92% of all Peace Disturbance charges; and 89% of all Failure to Obey charges” were filed against black residents. But on the basis of the summary alone, Sessions concluded that the report was “pretty anecdotal” and “not scientifically based.”

The refusal to believe police abuse could be systemic rather than individual is, in the aftermath of all the data collected by the very agency Sessions now leads, a form of denial. Nor can Sessions’s decision be justified by the familiar excuse that police reforms lead to higher crime rates—the notion that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” is a normative standard that would eschew federal oversight of local police regardless of the crime rate or the gravity of any abuse that might occur.

Sessions is an advocate of an old false choice: some Americans have to choose between safety and the protections of the Constitution. You can have one or the other, but not both. Systemic police brutality is merely the price black neighborhoods have to pay for safety.

Serwer continues:

Sessions’s memo reads as an announcement that it is no longer the business of the federal government if American citizens’ rights are violated by those sworn to protect them and empowered with lethal force to do so. When local governments violate the basic constitutional rights of citizens, Americans are supposed to be able to look to the federal government to protect those rights. Sessions has made clear that when it comes to police abuses, they’re now on their own. This is the principle at the heart of “law and order” rhetoric: The authorities themselves are bound by neither.

Sessions says American policing doesn’t have systemic problems. This is the language of the uninformed, but Sessions can’t plead ignorance. In his case, it’s the language of cowardice, a man unwilling to admit that he supports racism.

The Absurd Violence of American Policing

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The aftermath of a no-knock raid in Cornelia, Georgia.

The New York Times today has a great investigation of the dangerous “no-knock” SWAT raids that occur all over the country. The article begins like this:

CORNELIA, Ga. — This town on the edge of the Appalachians has fewer than 5,000 residents, but the SWAT team was outfitted for war.

At 2:15 a.m. on a moonless night in May 2014, 10 officers rolled up a driveway in an armored Humvee, three of them poised to leap off the running boards. They carried Colt submachine guns, light-mounted AR-15 rifles and Glock .40-caliber sidearms. Many wore green body armor and Kevlar helmets. They had a door-breaching shotgun, a battering ram, sledgehammers, Halligan bars for smashing windows, a ballistic shield and a potent flash-bang grenade.

The target was a single-story ranch-style house about 50 yards off Lakeview Heights Circle. Not even four hours earlier, three informants had bought $50 worth of methamphetamine in the front yard. That was enough to persuade the county’s chief magistrate to approve a no-knock search warrant authorizing the SWAT operators to storm the house without warning.

The point man on the entry team found the side door locked, and nodded to Deputy Jason Stribling, who took two swings with the metal battering ram. As the door splintered near the deadbolt, he yelled, “Sheriff’s department, search warrant!” Another deputy, Charles Long, had already pulled the pin on the flash-bang. He placed his left hand on Deputy Stribling’s back for stability, peered quickly into the dark and tossed the armed explosive about three feet inside the door.

It landed in a portable playpen.

It’s a long piece but worth the read. Policing is the most pervasive and intimate way in which Americans face real oppression at the hands of their government. But because this oppression is directed disproportionally at people of color and the poor, people who claim to be skeptical of government power are usually happy to support this kind of government overreach.

How can we stop these immoral and counterproductive uses of state violence? Attention to the issue has definitely waned as the 2016 campaign and now the Trump presidency have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. We need to continue to draw attention to police misconduct and promote the goals of Black Lives Matter. One of the reasons Black Lives Matter is such a noble movement is that its solutions would both improve the lives of people affected by systemic racism and make police officers safer. But too many people refuse to see how violent policing produces toxic feedback loops of distrust and danger for police and residents alike. Indeed, in our gun-obsessed culture, many Americans seem to think safety is achieved through violence. God help us.