By David M. Greenwald
Is your cup half full or half empty this week? I can tell you mine is empty and I’m soaking wet from the water sploshing around as the rollercoaster of life rolls on. And that’s how I feel in general – I’m not an optimistic or a pessimist, I’m just hanging on for dear life.
Heather MacDonald, the apologist for American policing is celebrating. “Minneapolis voters saw life without police — and soundly rejected a Defund ballot initiative,” she wrote yesterday. “Reality has caught up with the Defund the Police movement. Minneapolis voters, suffering through a bloody crime wave, resoundingly rejected a ballot initiative Tuesday that would have dismantled the city’s police department and replaced it with social workers. The vote has significance for public safety nationwide.”
That’s one way to look at it for sure.
But it ignores a lot. For one thing, Austin. The city council in Austin cut and transferred policing functions. Conservatives put a measure on the ballot to expand policing and undo some of the changes enacted by council – and voters by a nearly two to one margin rejected it.
The problem in Minneapolis might have been that the measure was too complicated whereas the question in Austin was really simple.
Polling showed that people on both sides of issue in Minneapolis agreed the current situation wasn’t working.
Voting yes meant the creation of a Department of Public Safety, police officers would work under that department, and removed would be a minimum threshold for the number of officers, and split authority for the new department between the mayor and city council.
In short, this moves goes a lot further than simply moving some functions like mental health responses or homeless coordination out of the police department.
Polling by the local paper in advance of the election showed about 49 percent of the voters replacing the police department with a department of public safety, but 55% of voters said the city should not reduce the size of its police force.
So one key difference between Austin and Minneapolis was that while Austin’s measure would have increased the number of police (voters said no), Minneapolis could have led to a decrease (voters said no).
The Minneapolis measure in short probably combined too many issues for which the voters were torn on. It was in short fairly radical, although it stops short of the notion that it would end policing in Minneapolis as was promised last summer by leaders of the city in the park.
At the same time, I don’t see it as a wholesale referendum on the “defund the police” movement.
I tend to take the long view. For white America, the public did not wake up to the fact that Black people were subject to a different sort of policing until the images of four LAPD officers beating Rodney King was indelibly seared into their collective consciouses back in 1991.
It would take another nearly quarter of a century for the deaths of people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner to start galvanizing a movement. All of that set the stage for George Floyd.
56-44 is not a narrow defeat of course. But if you take the long view rather than the short view, you see progress.
For me, in 2006, I watched as the city council in liberal Davis, California voted to disband a city commission that pushed for the creation of civilian review of the police. 11 years later in 2017, the council implemented that same oversight body.
In 2020, over 1000 people marched in response to the death of Georg Floyd and the council passed sweeping changes to its policing without a murmur of protest.
We have to take the long view for as Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In his eulogy of George Floyd, Rev. Al Sharpton also reminded us of that slow but real progress.
Al Sharpton describing an encounter from the 60s in the south where a young white woman yelled N- go home and contrasting it with a moment from the previous month where he felt a tug on his sleeve, turned and saw an 11 year old white girl.
She approached him and as he braced, she raised her fist and said, “No justice, no peace.”
So you can take the view that a proposal for defunding the police went down to defeat in Minneapolis as a defeat or you can look through the lens of the roller coaster.
Think about it – in 2018, we were not polling voters as to whether they supported disbanding police departments in major US cities. And here we have Minneapolis, a history of police brutality that only was willing to try and convict Derek Chauvin of murder, but 44 percent of the citizens were willing to take a chance on a radical change of policing.
The idea that the idea of radically restructuring policing is dead because of a vote in one city that while wasn’t close also wasn’t overwhelming is ignoring the important changes happening across the country.
Still the fact that the Heather MacDOnald’s of the world rejoice does not give me comfort.
For her, she argues, “the premise of Defund ideology was as wrong as its results were lethal. Police officers are not a threat to black lives; criminals are. A black Minneapolis resident is 480 times as likely to be shot by a criminal as by a cop, according to Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.”
But she doesn’t get it. Police violence matters. It is a reminder that the government continues to sanction or at the very least not punish in most cases repression against Black people by agents of the government is what differentiates police violence from random street violence.
Make no mistake, street violence is itself part and parcel to the legacy of racism too – that has allowed large numbers of poor people without economic opportunity to be concentrated in areas of deep and concentrated violence. That remains very much a threat to Black lives – but police violence remains central to the system of mass incarceration where the school to prison pipeline traps generations in an endless cycle of poverty and incarceration.
Are we making progress on this? Depends on which day you ask me. My rollercoaster is twisting and turning and sometimes it is hard to tell which direction it is headed.