By Kalen Abe
Sitting in front of a poster of his book released last week, entitled N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice, and the Law, Jody David Armour said, “Whoever puts on that blue uniform is an adversary of Black interests.”
Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, spoke with three other experts to a Zoom audience of 400. Speakers included Richard Rosenfeld, a Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Pamela F. Rodriguez, President and CEO of TASC, Inc., and Ashley Nellis from The Sentencing Project, who moderated the discussion.
The discussion, titled “Crime, Race, and Politics in the Era of COVID-19,” came at a crucial time, as the U.S. struggles to reckon with centuries of unresolved racial tensions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
These experts discussed the highly-politicized increase in violent crime rates, answering questions that Nellis posed, such as, “How do we respond to both crimes and the narratives around crime?”
Armour responded, “How do we address violent crime while defunding the police? We must make clear that the police have not been defunded.”
Rodriguez stated that “defunding the police implies that the funding goes back to communities: without investment in communities, no necessary experiment is occurring, and money allocated is reinvested in the justice system.”
And Rosenfeld claimed that, according to his research, while there are concerns that police are “drawing back” in retaliation to protests against police brutality, “police activity has in fact declined due to COVID-19.”
Following this question, referring to heavily-policed majority Black neighborhoods, Nellis asked, “What do these communities need?”
Rodriguez discussed the risk that Black and brown people take by reporting crime to the police, especially violent crime, explaining, “Say you have a two-year prosecution, can your safety be guaranteed during this time?” Noting Rodriguez’s point, Armour called for resources to be reallocated from “turnstile jumpers,” to “witness protection.”
Rosenfield called for “experimentation now,” at a federal level, though it wasn’t clear if the speakers agreed on what “experimentation” should look like. Afterwards, he stated that “because people join police departments to prevent and investigate crime,” he “believes there is common ground.”
Following Rosenfeld’s statements, Armour depicted the Los Angeles Police Department’s failure to solve homelessness with “therapeutic policing.” Rodriguez agreed, explaining that studies have shown “problems caused by disinvestment” were best addressed through affordable housing, engagement in school/jobs, and supporting families.
Highlighting how race and the criminal justice system are intertwined, Armour urged that “we must understand racial policing,” because everyday citizens “otherize black criminals, which affects our policing policies.”
Following Armour’s point, Rodriguez rhetorically pondered, “What would happen if we valued black lives?” Armour responded in agreement: “When we put a black face on crime, it’s easier for people to demonize the criminal.”
Rosenfeld clarified that “some areas need no experimentation,” such as federal-level policies that provide jobs, maintain income, and improve education, and that “do not exclude anyone.”
Amour described the “bipartisan characterization of social systems as handouts to Black people.” He described how, while a greater number of whites utilized programs such as the AFDC, the program “was given a black face,” which allowed for the program’s termination.
Rodriguez underscored the fact that “the needy includes lots of whites.” She described how, in Illinois, social programs are being funded through taxes on legalized marijuana, a “revenue stream that doesn’t draw money away from the state.” She called upon the press to “call out the obvious race-baiting,” noting, “good reporting is an incredible tool.”
At this point, Nellis cited one of Trump’s recent statements, that “they want to destroy our suburbs,” where “they” was used as a euphemism for Black people.
With that, the speakers turned their attention to the upcoming November election.
Rosenfeld described Trump’s statement as “tone-deaf,” and stated that officers unfamiliar with local communities are ill-suited to serve them, adding that “we have to improve police-community relations, especially with communities of color, where both police violence and community violence tends to be concentrated.” He recommended that the police “get out of their vehicles, on the street, and knock on doors.”
“I don’t want police officers knocking on my front door,” Armour responded. “I’ve had police officers knocking on my front door and draw guns on me.” Advising against neighborhood check-ins by police, he stated, it’s up to the police to solve violent crime…and figure out what it’s gonna take to get there.”
In response to Armour, Rosenfeld posed, “How should the police build the trust and confidence necessary?”
Armour responded, “Stop getting caught on tape abusing people, stop getting caught on tape abusing protestors and ordinary citizens, stop getting officers caught on tape with all of their compromising situations.”
Here, Nellis steered the conversation to police unions. Rosenfeld said, “I’m a supporter of police unions. What I do not support is unions operated by older white police officers. He clarified his point by explaining that police unions should represent the communities they serve.
To this point, Armour said that “police unions are a special breed,” describing how three out of six of the officers that killed Freddie Gray were Black. “The split isn’t black and white when it comes to Black Lives Matter, but Black and blue.”
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