On Contact: Police reform
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to activist, writer and PhD Candidate at Yale University, Philip McHarris, about the latest calls for police reform in the US.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss police reform with Philip McHarris, a writer, activist, and PhD candidate in sociology and African-American studies at Yale University.
PM: This entire system has to be unearthed. There's no way to reform and tweak. You can't tweak or reform your way out of mass incarceration, or this current, you know, policing apparatus that we have, or the culture of surveillance. That--it's actually undergirded by a broader culture of punishment and control that is--it's actively harming certain people but it's also not operating in this way of giving public safety in a way that the broader public conceives of it, too. And so the entire thing has to be unearthed. There is no tweaking it. But along that way, there are certain steps that can be taken in order to begin dismantling and shifting resources our way. And the invest-divest framework, which is fundamentally about divesting from systems of punishment in this specific context, policing and reinvesting those funds into community resources and institutions because we know what makes the safest communities is resources. When we look around the country, the safest communities have the most resources, not the most police.
CH: Our national conversation on race and crime is based on a fiction, it is the fiction that the organs of internal security, especially the judiciary and the police, can be adjusted, modernized, or professionalized to make possible a post-racial America. We discuss issues of race while ignoring the economic, bureaucratic, and political systems of exploitation, all of it legal, and built into the ruling apparatus that are the true engines of racism and white supremacy. No discussion of race is possible without a discussion of capitalism and class. And until that discussion takes place, despite all the proposed reforms to the criminal justice system, the state will continue to murder and imprison poor people of color with impunity. Once again, we see proposed legislation to mandate police reform. More body cameras, consent decrees, revised use of force policies, banning chokeholds, civilian review boards, requiring officers to intervene when they see misconduct, banning no-knock search warrants, more training in de-escalation tactics, a requirement by law enforcement agencies to report use of force data, nationally-enforced standards for police training, and greater diversity. Proposals made, and in several cases, adopted in the wake of numerous other police murders including those of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The Minneapolis Police Department, for example, established a duty to intervene required by police officers after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, this requirement did not save Floyd. Joining me to discuss the role of the police, and what we must do to end the power of police to inflict indiscriminate violence is Philip McHarris, a writer, activist, and PhD candidate in sociology and African-American studies at Yale University. So let's begin with a history, because it's not new. We go all the way back to the Johnson administration and all of the mechanisms--and this has been bipartisan, that has been used to ostensibly reform the police have actually boomeranged and made the police more omnipotent and more lethal. Can you take us through that history?
PM: Right. Yeah, I mean, we can even go back a bit further when we think about the origin of modern policing developing as, you know, the first form of slave patrols, right? The apparatus of policing was developed in the south in order to protect the capital, the interest of slave owners. And in many ways, you know, to prevent revolts and to prevent people, enslaved people, from trying to free themselves. And then when we see across, you know, different places in the north, policing emerges as a way to protect the interest and capital, you know, of business owners and merchants. And so when we look over time, we definitely see this tight link between capitalism and sort of developing the social control apparatus. Lyndon B. Johnson in the--in the mid-'60s passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which became the first federal pathway to imbue local policing with more and more resources and as he called the--you know, during this war on crime, the police officer with the frontline soldier. And over time, you know, we can--we can date back even to decades previously when we see that reforms come out of this sort of idea of liberalism. But what they do is they create and they imbue more and more power into police and into policing, which then create this massive apparatus that becomes very difficult. And really just increases the capacity of the state and police to engage and control and harm disproportionately against black people, but not only against black people as we see throughout the protests across the country, that police are using violence and, you know, militarized equipment and tactics in order to really protect police power, right? To really prevent any kind of protesting and then we see the state also engaging in the criminalization of protesters, and you can be out protesting and all of a sudden you're being charged with assault on an officer or resisting arrest. And, you know--and there was a case in Philadelphia at Temple where we saw that someone was being charged with assault on an officer. When you look at the video, what was actually happening was that officer was beating the person in the head with a baton and another cop was forcing their face into the pavement with their knee. And so, you know, but when we just…
CH: Okay. Let me just interrupt there because that--if--in New York State, assault on a police officer, which as you correctly point out, is interpreted, you know, very speciously by the police, is a seven-year sentence. But I want to go back to--when you talk about liberals, because--and ask whether there's a difference, so during the '60s, '70s, Johnson administration, is it that the liberal class, the liberal elites, so especially in the Democratic Party, were justifying this as opposed to the 1994 Crime Bill pushed through by Clinton and Biden where it became their project and, you know, the attempt to wrest back the law and order issue, or were they, before the 1994 Crime Bill, also the architects of increased police power?
PM: I mean, it was--it was--it's always been a multitude of activism but liberals had been at sort of the forefront from like the '40s, '50s, into the '60s with, you know, with Johnson is that in many ways, the thrust has been by liberals as well as, you know, across the political spectrum. But when we look from Lyndon B. Johnson to the '40s and '50s with progressive-liberal reforms, into the '90s when we look over time, a--the--you can't--you know, the--a part of the core engine behind these pushes had been largely resulted of liberals. And which--and which is a part of the…
CH: But you don't make a distinction then in the 1994 omnibus crime bill where essentially this was a political calculation on the part of the democratic leadership led by Joe Biden to outlaw and order, you know, the republicans. You see this as a kind of continuity.
PM: There is a continuity, but it is--it's different in a way because in the '60s, the police--in 1960, the United States spent $2,000,000,000 on policing. In 2018, the number was $137,000,000,000. And so their--the rapid growth and increase creates different context. And so, you know, it was a different time where policing hadn't had--been as developed. And so it was still sort of the early days, in a way, of really developing and channeling resources in the way that we see today. And so the context was different because the time was different. But they--it was also, in many ways, linked to the movements of the day and sort of capitalizing on the sort of like fear of, you know, people who were--who were engaging in activism and protest and dissent and unrest, that the national sentiment and feelings were structured in such a way that it was inclined to be able to say, like, you know, "Yes, we actually do want more and more police." And so in some ways, you can't de-link the social unrest and the activism of that time, you know, from this broad [INDISTINCT] in some ways, it's directly linked in many ways.
CH: Well, there was a huge push to criminalize not only black people but also any war protestors and there was an attempt to criminalize all forms of dissent. You grew up in Newark, New York City, you know, you must've had some contact with this new form of policing, police terror, I mean, we should be clear that since George Floyd has been killed on average, three American citizens, almost all unarmed, have been murdered by police daily. Since George Floyd was strangled to death, talk about your own personal experience and, you know, kind of what you've seen on the streets. I mean what policing looks like in parts of Newark or I guess you were in the Bronx--you lived in the Bronx, too, as well.
PM: Yeah. I mean, what people are seeing now is policing, it's just on camera and it's being circulated, and there's times where it's sort of in the national attention, but violence and, like, different kinds of police violence happen every single day. And, you know, from being very young, I learned that the police were not legitimate. They--I never have--I never accepted the idea that the police were a legitimate institution that could be reformed. It was always a sort of position that they were not legitimate and not the providers of safety. And, you know, the first time I was assaulted by the police, I was 13. Like, my family, we can--you know, different members of my family. And there's also just like different legacies that I--that I've known stories of previous generations of people in my family who've been brutalized by the police. And so, you know, and it's the brutalization, it's also--people kind of think of the sensational forms. But the everyday--like till this day, when I'm driving, I get pulled over, I fear that it might be the last thing that I see, that that kind of structural violence is also a form of violence. And, you know, the times where people are arrested and, you know, being sort of--violence is used in order to, you know, engage with people in an everyday basis that, like, being arrested for no reason is--it's violent, you know, in many ways. And we can down the line, but the--there's many different forms of police violence that don't always look like the sensational--the killings which is why it's so much broader, you know, and that's why even in these moments where this focus is, "Okay, let's do data. Let's do--" that it--there's no way to actually capture the full extent of violence. There's no way to document it, right? Because we know that, one, most people don't report violence and misconduct that they experience on behalf of police. But also there's certain things that you can't capture, you can't capture the adrenaline spike of being pulled over and not knowing if you're going to die, right? Like, that--that's something that you can't--you can't capture that. And so, you know, I think that--and the other--the other aspect of this is we know that the second-most commonly reported police misconduct is sexual assault. The third, which is domestic violence. Forty percent of domestic--forty percent of police households experience domestic violence. And that is likely to be underreported. And so there's all kinds of violence that when you create this massive institution that basically, you know, is untouchable, and basically you create good guys and bad guys, and police are the good guys that what you create is a context in which people can do harm and violence. And the--one of the most important things that have happened which really takes off, like, in the mid-1900s is the idea that the police are a legitimate institution. Which is--hasn't always been the case. For most of history, police were not seen as the providers and sort of the stewards of public safety. It was a--it's a relatively new idea but that legitimacy then obscures the actual core of what police actually do, which is on a day-to-day they engage in violence and control. And, you know, when we look at the statistics, for example, there was a recent study in The New York Times, less than two percent of police 911 dispatch calls were actually even involving anything having to do with violence. Less than five percent of arrests in this country have to do anything with--and that's not to say that we also need to transform how we think about in response to violence because the model of policing doesn't work. But even what police are framed to do, it's not actually what we see that they actually do. And so the system doesn't work for black people in the marginalized groups, but it doesn't work for the country more broadly.
Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about policing and police reform with Philip McHarris. I want to make it clear that this--and let's call it what it is, police terror and it functions the same way, lynching function. I remember speaking to the great theologian, James Cone, grew up in segregated Arkansas. He said as a small boy, as soon as it got dark, he would stand by the window, even though he was a child, fully cognizant that for a black man to walk down a road in the dark in segregated Arkansas, it meant that his daddy might never come home. And he talks about that trauma as a child. And it's--this is by design, you create police terror and I think you described it very well, in these neighborhoods, as a form of social control, deindustrialized pockets where there is no work unless you're forced into the illegal economy, and of course then they invent crimes, selling loose cigarettes, which is how Eric Garner was murdered, or obstructing pedestrian traffic. I mean, it's just endless, not mowing your lawn and mowing your lawn. But it's not accidental what's happened, is it?
>> PM: It's--the way that the structure and the systems are built, you know, is that police have the power and opportunity to kill and brutalize people. And so the focus right now is shifting in reducing police power and shifting away from a context where police have the opportunity to engage in contact with people. And so I think the important thing here is that we have to look at it as a contact exposure perspective that if police have the power and the resources, and the opportunity to engage in violence that they will, you know. And so I think that's key here. And a part of it is also, you know, the ways in which every manifestation of, you know, the current economic order, all of the social that result from it, the response is, "Okay. Let's try to police and control out way out of this." You know, and so in many ways is the system is structured in a way that focuses on control and punishment, and profit over people. And just as an example, I do work in a public housing development in New York and right now, there's no gas in the building, they haven't had gas since March. And so imagine navigating a pandemic not having cooking gas, the elevator isn't working, and now there's recently a flood that just--on the 19th floor, there's a flood. And so there's water leaking into people's apartments. But--so--and that's only result of capital divestment and the fact that this building is not properly maintained because there's nothing structurally that changes or shifts, you know, structurally that building from a building in the middle of Manhattan, that's a high rise luxury building. The only difference is resources and upkeep, and making sure that it's, you know, prioritized. But you know what the community does have? Right outside, there's a police station--police car station there, 24/7. There are two officers that are usually inside the lobby or directly out front. And then if you go down the street one way, there's another cop car that's stationed there, and you can go down the other way, there's another cop car that's stationed there, and the lights are on day and night. And so what we have is what would it look like to take those resources and to channel it towards the people as opposed to creating this context in where it's--you--if you just drive through, you'll see it's about punishment and control and not actually giving people the resources that they need to thrive and be safe.
>> CH: And yet that's where all our resources--city resources have gone. Up to 50% of city budget, $6,000,000,000, a year in New York City are spent on police. We invest in control, as you pointed out, not in people. And I think--you know, I don't know what your sense is, but my sense is looking at these protests on the street, there's now an understanding of the institution, I think, and then it's not reformable, it has to be dismantled. Would you agree?
>> PM: Yeah. And I mean sort of being involved in different spaces and, you know, thinking back to Ferguson and the social movement that emerged out of that is like this work--there had been people for decades that had been saying, you know, policing not reformable, when you look at critical resistance, people like Andrea Ritchie, Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, we see that there have been people who have been saying this for a very long item. I think five years ago, coming out of the--that social movement, that moment, the movement for black lives had emerged and sort of that brought out ecosystem, you basically had also a proliferation of people that started to really think about what does it look like to develop alternatives to policing, what does it look like to develop campaigns and efforts to shift resources away from policing towards communities, and also develop alternative emergency response model, that this has been a part of, like, conversations, but it's been largely sort of more niche, but what happened is, is that, for example, Reclaim the Block, which is a--was a collective in Minneapolis, I actually wrote about in January that they were pushing to defund the police department to reinvest the money in community resources and alternatives to emergency response, but the mayor and the city council didn't listen. And, you know, then months later, we see, you know, that same coalition was at the heart of the push and the successful push to dismantle the department, you know, the broader collective being Black Visions Collective and now MPD150. And so what happened is, is that people have--over the past few years, have been engaging in deep study and conversations, and organizing around all of this. And so when this moment happened, previously, police and city leaders, and politicians were able to always define what happens next, were always able to define the narrative on what do we do moving forward around policing and what reforms will we implement. But now what happened is because of this--these past five years, the narrative wasn't able to be controlled by them is that activism organizers got ahead of it and said, "No, we don't want your reforms, we want to divest and defund and dismantle, and abolish.
>> CH: I want to ask you a couple of questions. First about the gas lighting by corporations, even the NFL, Nancy Pelosi with the Kente cloth, and even police officers taking the knee, are people buying it or do you think they see through it?
>> PM: Many people see through it. There might be some people who might see it as symbolic gestures, but the people who have been, you know, engaged in deep sort of study and work and organizing around, and even just people, you know, people more broadly in general, you know, I think that many people are seeing you're taking a knee and then you're also brutalizing and beating and pepper spraying and tear gassing, and flash banging protestors, that the level of--like, the discordance between, you know, what the police are symbolically doing with what they're actually doing is just so loud that I think people are able to cut through and say, like, you know, "No, this is--this is symbolic." But some people are, and I think that's why there's a push to try to say--to try to maintain the narrative that this system is not reformable.
>> CH: Let me--before I go into what has to be done, I want to ask about police unions because I visit Mumia Abu-Jamal, a great revolutionary frame for this crime and, you know, the Fraternal Brotherhood of Police in Philadelphia, which essentially functions as a white hate group, has mounted a war against him. And even when you get reformist mayors, even reformist police chiefs, these police unions are so powerful and we must not forgot that they give huge amounts of money to politicians, Cuomo's got over $600,000 in his gubernatorial runs, they have the power, in essence, to block any kind of "reform" and they are hugely obstructive and powerful.
>> PM: No, I mean, they definitely are and they've sort of been on the front lines of pushing back against transformation as long as police unions have existed. I think that the key to this is developing enough pressure and power that the political capital that usually comes from pandering to police unions becomes outweighed by the broader public, right? Because a part of this is about the money but also their endorsement and their support. But if you have a context that--where people--majority of people are saying, you know, that cuts across races that, you know, it actually sort of--it becomes this broader movement that it becomes difficult because that political power outweighs the power of the unions. But some of it is also the contracts and just the broader, you know, the level of resources and the power that they have. And so a part of this is also a push to remove and expel police unions from broader union collectives, and I think that'll be--that would be a really important part of all this.
>> CH: And let's just close with, you know, and you've written about this, what has to be done? What do--what do we have to do? When we talk about dismantling police power, what are--what are those steps?
>> PM: Right. I mean, it can look different ways. I think the end goal has to be this entire system has to be unearthed. There's no way to reform and tweak. You can't tweak or reform your way out of mass incarceration or this current, you know, policing apparatus that we have, or the culture of surveillance. That--it's actually undergirded by a broader culture of punishment and control that is--it's actively harming certain people but it's also not operating in this way of giving public safety in a way that the broader public conceives of it, too. And so the entire thing has to be unearthed. There is no tweaking it. But along that way, there are certain steps that can be taken in order to begin dismantling and shifting resources, and power away. And the invest-divest framework, which is fundamentally about divesting from systems of punishment, in this specific context, policing and reinvesting those funds into community resources and institutions because we know what makes the safest communities is resources. When we look around the country, the safest communities have the most resources, not the most police.
>> CH: I want to--I just want to ask a couple of specifics because it's about, you know, if you're dealing with somebody who's unhoused, living on the street, don't call a guy with a gun, call a social worker that can help house them. If you're dealing with somebody who has--is struggling with substance abuse, don't call guys with guns. I mean, can you just begin to talk about how we should respond to crises within our communities with a--with empathy, compassion, and frankly, a certain degree of concern rather than punishment.
>> PM: People have the resources and the teams that they can respond to homelessness, drug use, traffic violations, and enforcement. Or rather not traffic enforcement, but sort of this--if there's something that is in the name of safety around traffic, somebody who can stop him and say, "Hey, you know, I noticed that you were engaging in this way." And as opposed to trying to enforce some kind of criminal code saying, like, you know, approach from it a--from a public health perspective, "You might hit somebody and this might happen." And also developing ways of responding when someone--you know, people might not engage in the--in the--in the sort of agreed upon ways. How do we respond to those moments as well with frameworks like transformative justice and restorative justice, and giving people the resources and whatever they need to transform themselves and the, you know, the entire context through that process. And that that is a different--and for--like, just to hone down on one example, if someone is robbed, usually the model is that if you call the police and we know that the vast majority of people don't call the police when they experience, you know, what can be qualified as crime, but the model is, someone comes, they ask you some questions, which might be triggering, you know, they ask you these questions, then they leave, and usually nothing happens. The clearance rate between--with police is incredibly low. So even though what they say they do is not, you know, what they actually do, but what would it look like if a team came and said, "Hey, you know, we have--we come from a trauma-informed perspective. We know that this encounter might've been harmful to you. What do you need right now in this moment to restore? Oh, your iPhone got tooken and you--taken and you need, like--you know, you use that for your livelihood, right?" What would--we have these resources and these funds to say, "Okay. Here's this amount of money and now you can be restored from what you have--what you lost and, you know, we'll try to figure out who did this and what would it--what would it look like to go by the process where we can ask this person, "Well, why did they rob--why are they robbing people to begin with? And what would it look like for you to have a way of have--feeling a--like a sense of accountability through this process and that there can be a collective transformation about this entire encounter? That's a very different model than…
>> CH: We're going to have to stop there. Although, I mean, I think you would agree there will never be justice until there's economic justice and people are integrated into the economy as you pointed out. And neighborhoods with low crime are neighborhoods with resources. And I think that's, you know, what you and other writers on this issue have correctly pointed out. Thank you very much. That was Philip McHarris on policing in the United States.