By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – From a jail in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King penned perhaps his most famous writing and he aimed it squarely at his own allies and the leadership in the Black community.
He wrote: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’…There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
It could well have been aimed at the John F. Kennedy administration – erstwhile allies who were slow and cautious in their approach to civil rights.
If we are students of history we can learn important lessons. The lesson of the Civil Rights Movement is the push-pull relationship between the activists and the leaders. Ultimately the Kennedy administration and finally the Johnson administrations did the right thing and remade history, but it took the activists pushing every step of the way to get there.
I think for a lot of activists today, we are seeing the same thing. Last year after the death of George Floyd there was a rush to change the world and erase the legacy of racism. But that momentum has stalled. Yes, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in Floyd’s death, but the movement to change the police has at best slowed if not completely stalled and perhaps even reversed.
I view the piece written by Francesca Wright last weekend in that light. Frustration over slow progress and attempting to restart the momentum.
I know from the response I got from several on council, that there was frustration in the piece itself.
From the council’s perspective – and one that I can certainly appreciate – they have made progress. Last week, council voted 5-0 to take steps towards the Crisis Now Model. The city over the past six or seven years has added to their reforms – body worn cameras, RIPA data, a remade police oversight model complete with civilian review, and now the Crisis Now Model.
Are they moving forward? Most certainly. It took a few years to implement the civilian review board even following the Picnic Day incident in 2017. We don’t move rapidly here. But we are moving.
The response received here can be summed up in two comments from Sunday.
On the one hand: “Is the role of a city council supposed to be implementing changes put forward by a small group (relatively speaking) of activists? My view is a council should represent the broader community and not automatically kowtow to small factions of loud voices. Sure sometimes changes can initiate from small groups if a council feels that they’re needed, but no council should feel pressured or browbeat into having to accept any proposals from any group of activists regardless of what their cause might be.”
On the other hand: “2015 minus 2006 equals nine years. Are you saying that Francesca, the community, and the three council-appointed commissions that unanimously supported nine recommendations on public safety should wait nine more years before expecting anything to get done?”
Interestingly I disagree with both views – but they beautifully capture the dilemma that the council has in navigating these waters.
In defense of the council, I will note that I have put forward a number of different proposals for addressing racial profiling and disproportionate police stops. Having had discussions with several members of council I do believe there is support for those measures.
They feel like they have to be cautious in their speed to not get too far in front of the public which relates to the other comment – is this just a small group of activists pushing an agenda or a reflection of the community as a whole.
One thing we lack in Davis itself, generally speaking, is good data on public opinion. But I do believe we can look at data from outside of the city and make useful inferences.
There is good pulling from the spring – pre-Chauvin trial even – that shows strong support for things like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
This is significant because look at the range of initiatives this entails: national database of police misconduct, prohibiting racial profiling, banning the use of chokeholds, and requiring body cameras to be used by all police officers.
(One of my frustrations here is that I keep asking people to list their concerns with the proposals and I rarely get a concrete answer).
Data For Progress’s poll is a good place to start. They found overall strong support for the proposals, but when we look at Democrats for instance, we see that the proposal had the polled support of 88 percent including 65% who strongly supported the proposals versus only nine percent who opposed them.
Again this is where inferring data is helpful. We know that Davis is overwhelmingly Democratic in voting, and in fact, in the last presidential election favored Biden by about 85-11.
Given those two pieces of data, why would a reasonable person believe that the residents of Davis would not support the kind of police reform being put out there?
Indeed, when the issues have come before council, we have seen very little if any opposition to them. And the DPOA which is certainly informed and tracking these changes has said not a single word in opposition to the proposals.
On the other hand, we have seen unusually large numbers of people come forward both during public comment and in signature drives to support these measures.
All of that, at least in my thinking, would argue against the notion that this is a small group of activists getting ahead of public opinion.
None of these proposals would remove resources from policing. On the contrary, most police support alternative responder or co-responder models to mental health crises because they themselves recognize that they lack the skill to respond to a lot of these types of calls.
If and when we get to changing the way police stops are conducted, I suspect we will see more discussions and opposition, but I think there is strong evidence that many in the public are ready to look at alternatives to the way we have been doing things.
At the end of the day, the council is really not that different from either the Kennedy or Johnson administrations in the 60s. They know these things need to change, but probably need activists to push them across the finish line.