Monday, June 01, 2020

America Riots While Baltimore Doesn't

So, over the past weekend, in response to the Minneapolis Police Department murdering George Floyd (a black man, known as Big Floyd to fans of DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Click), and his death being caught on camera for all to see, and the delay in any action to arrest the officer responsible for murder, there have been a series of protests nationwide. In Minneapolis, these protests gave way to rioting and looting, a police station was burned down. Many of the protests in solidarity have also escalated into large-scale property destruction. I believe this was largely escalated by police showing up in riot gear but I'm also sure that after many people saw the actions in Minneapolis and considered them beautiful and inspiring, people were excited to set their own city's police cars on fire.

I have no interest in condemning looting or rioting; I definitely think it's cool on a certain level. But regardless of how cool I think something is, I remain skeptical of its efficacy as a political act, because I don't see this being the political revolution that ends policing through brute force. There's no real possibility of the protesters killing all the cops in the country. (To the best of my knowledge, no cops have been killed.)

I worry about the spread of COVID-19, and can certainly see there being a spike nationwide resulting from this. Everyone arrested and placed in a jail was presumably stripped of the facemasks which reduce contagion and protect one's identity from face-tracking software. That said, I'm proud of everyone who participated for not being cowed by this threat. While the right-wing "protestors" of previous weeks basically insisted that people be forced to go back to work in unsafe conditions to serve them in a capitalist society, these people performed an act of solidarity with one another to manifest a world of direct democracy not defined by financial transactions.

But more than I worry about the spread of Coronavirus, I worry about the spread of fascism. I worry about the white supremacist gangs who might take advantage of perceived chaos to come into cities they don't live and declare open season on black people. I say this referring to militia movements and the alt-right, but to a very real extent, this describes the police.

The police force is where the fascist tendencies in American life find an outlet. The reactionary and the repressive find employment there. The idea that being a police officer is a dangerous job means that the people who work it demand respect, and they then view any actual presence of danger or threat as disrespectful to them, justifying the violence that emerges from their hurt feelings. The rationale for their actions is premised on a Catch-22. They then gain an enormous amount of political clout stemming from their mafia-style codes designed to protect themselves, not from the criminal element, but the consequences of their own actions. Officers charged with police brutality are not fired, and when transferred to new departments, tend to make the places they are transferred to worse.

Agreed-upon ideas of common sense gun control laws run aground when confronted with the demographics of the police. There can't be laws preventing people charged with domestic violence from owning a gun because many police officers are domestic abusers. I can speculate about why the behavior patterns that lead men to beat their wives are to some degree conditioned by the cop mentality, but that quickly gets into a sort of chicken-egg situation. Similarly, I won't get into talking about why many police officers are racist. Suffice it to say that they just are.

One place where protests remained peaceful and did not escalate into riots is the city of Baltimore, where I no longer live. By all accounts, the protests they had were large. Baltimore had a riot a few years back. Some people insist on calling it an "uprising." I hate this sort of rhetoric for a handful of reasons, one of which is that there weren't much in the way of material gains that followed. Officers were charged with murder for the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. There's an argument to be made that the district attorney only did this as a political move, to advance the careers of herself and her husband, and their agendas are not particularly radical despite the posture such basic attempts at accountability suggest in their rarity.

There's also a pretty solid case to be made that things got worse in Baltimore afterwards. Crime certainly increased. Police were at least partially responsible for this: The DEA found a particularly corrupt faction of the BPD, the "Gun Trace Track Force," took advantage of the looting of a CVS to steal drugs and connect them with a dealer, putting them on the streets. The police were also were pretty hung up on tracking down the people involved in the property destruction, reviewing footage to track down those tangentially involved months after the case. And, again, the police got their feelings hurt, and that means that the many many police who are just not particularly smart or good at their jobs probably felt justified in doing even less, and treating the public with more contempt.

Obviously, some of these problems are particularly endemic to Baltimore, which is a city hollowed-out by neglect and distrust of its institutions in ways that a city like Minneapolis, largely considered a pretty nice place, isn't. I don't know what will happen to Minneapolis. I don't know what will happen to Philadelphia, the city I live in now, which participated in solidarity protests that escalated into rioting. Philly has a wild reputation it loves to cling to, but it nonetheless feels considerably safer than Baltimore does, and it possesses a much stronger infrastructure and a much wider tax base. (There are two major train lines! And trolley service! And there aren't water main breaks shutting down multiple city blocks several times a year! And there are way less vacant houses!)

But I'm worried that, in the wake of all this nationwide rioting, rather than legislators making changes in keeping with the implicit demands of the people doing the rioting, the reactionary and repressive impulse will instead do the opposite, and insist on increasing the funding for police, so they can have more weapons, and riot gear, and replace the vehicles that got torched with ones better at driving into a crowd. Or, if the powers that want to be want to avoid such obvious displays of militarization, they'll invest in higher-definition cameras and place them everywhere. Whether this will happen because of people electing Republicans or because the Democrats in office now decide on it, I don't know.

This is what's funny, or disgusting, about the incredibly condescending tendency on the part of politicians to look at a mass movement of protestors and to tell them to "Vote to make your voice heard." Many Republicans have been quick to point that these protests are happening in cities with Democratic mayors and majority-Democratic city councils (Minneapolis is 12 Dems and 1 Green), in states with Democratic governors. They point it out, partially, to fear-monger, and argue the need for "law and order" politicians and right-wing vigilantes to set it right. There are many reasons why cities lean Democratic: Black people live there, and the white people that live there are generally comfortable enough with the existence of black people to be willing to be their neighbors, so they're more liberal than elsewhere. (Or, alternately, it's living in close proximity to people you're demographically dissimilar to but still able to get along with OK that makes people less racist. Again, it's a chicken-egg thing.) But being "more liberal" doesn't necessarily mean there's any genuinely progressive will to, say, make corporations pay their share of taxes so the city's adequately funded, or have art education in public schools, or disallow cars from accessing streets so they can be strictly for bicycles or pedestrians, or make sure officers charged with police brutality get fired, or ensure settlements from citizens suing the police are paid by the officer, rather than have a massive part of the city's budget set aside for handling such lawsuits. To a certain extent, having a nominally liberal governing body probably blinkers its goals for what's possible: I think requiring police to live within the limits of the city where they work would impart a sense of community that would allow the police to be better equipped to do their jobs, as they would have a greater familiarity with what is normal and what's genuinely suspicious. But I bet if a city as nice as Minneapolis were to require police to live within city limits, the culture of the police and the culture of a progressive city would remain somewhat at odds, and many would probably end up concentrated within a single neighborhood, and maybe this would result in a Republican being on their city council. What's funny is that Republican would then have incentive to not change the law requiring police to live within the limits of the city of the work, and so one basic regulation of a politically powerful entity would come to find bipartisan support.

But perhaps I am now being too speculative. Let's go back to talking about rioters. I think it's safe to say they don't vote! And I think that's fine. Over the course of generations, they have lost all faith in the electoral process to represent them. If that's the case, that's not really their fault, but the fault of the elected officials. The people elected to serve do not think of themselves as being accountable to all the people who do not vote. But they are, and that's what a riot is. Rioters shouldn't be thought of as potential voters, but viewed instead as similar to how journalists are the 4th estate, a check on institutional power. While covering the riots, many journalists are being attacked by police, and shot by rubber bullets. This is awful, and transparently so. However, the same 1st Amendment that guarantees a free press guarantees the right to assembly as well, and protestors should not be shot either. Furthermore, the volunteers medics on hand taking care of journalists, protestors, and rioters getting hurt by police themselves then being shot by the police constitutes a war crime. None of this should be happening, but it is all essentially one thing. MLK said a riot is the language of the unheard. When it's spoken, it's a news story, and should be a scandal, with real political consequences.

It highlights an institutional failure, one a healthy press should've been covering in real time as it occurred beforehand. A progressive party in office should have lived up to its ideals and done the work to diminish the power of the police already. They should've delegated services to mental health personnel and social workers so the vulnerable have less interaction with people whose only solution is to beat up or arrest someone. They should've worked to make sure they didn't have military weaponry, they should've rooted out and fired all of the racists, everyone charged with police brutality, everyone on the take, everyone who beats their wife, and hopefully doing this would make it so there aren't riots! And if there are riots, and people then want to elect right-wing politicians, at least those new leaders aren't inheriting a fascist private army that operates according to mafia logic.

It's not my place as a white person to say what I think black people's demands are. I don't even think it's my place to insist the people protesting formulate a list of demands. What I am comfortable with, as a white person, is pointing to something that was said I think fairly casually, and saying, yes, that's an excellent point. There is a billboard at the corner of North and Charles Street in Baltimore that has been fairly contentious. For a while, after Freddie Gray's death, it read "Whoever died from a rough ride?" and at a later point "The whole damn system is guilty as hell." It has also, if I'm remembering this right, been a billboard for Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland. I believe he had a campaign office on the corner too, the billboard sitting atop the building, but I also think no one ever actually went in there to work. It's unclear to me. It also became a billboard advertising Jack Young's Mayoral campaign, after he was made the interim mayor following Catherine Pugh's resignation following a corruption scandal.

Again, I don't live in Baltimore anymore, I live in Philadelphia. I lived in Baltimore for eleven years, and it feels like home to me in way that South Philly does not, although I live in hope that maybe if I were to live in West Philly, which really does resemble a nicer version of Baltimore in many ways, I might feel differently. Still, I find myself interested in and caring about local Baltimore news in ways I can't imagine doing for anywhere, because there's a level of corruption that becomes comedic. The Healthy Holly story that led to Catherine Pugh's downfall is really funny. The ubiquity of the Chad Focus billboards a few summers ago, and the later revelations of just what the deal was with that, was amazing. Jack Young being a huge dope, who when asked what he was going to do about crime in Baltimore became defensive and said "You're acting like I'm going around killing people," is really funny. But I'm digressing right when I should be getting to the point. Which is that the Jack Young billboard got defaced a few weeks before all this to read "Cancel rent and fuck the police." But the funny thing that came after that is a cover-up job where it was altered instead to read "Cancel hate and thank the police," which is such a hilarious miniature of meaningless sloganeering intended to cover up radical sentiment.

Because I think "Cancel rent and fuck the police" is great, it says it all. First off, fuck the police. Pretty straightforward, but not to be taken literally, despite the fact that the movie Bridesmaids, if memory serves, takes place in Minneapolis and is about a lady marrying a cop. We should stop treating the police with an insane level of deference, and we should defund them considerably. They will surely take this as a grand insult, but such basic reforms if implemented could potentially have grand and sweeping effects in the long run. It is in the best interest of not just the Democratic party, but the whole notion of democracy, to not let the police be too powerful.

Derek Chauvin, the man who strangled George Floyd to death, should absolutely be prosecuted. So should the police officer in Minneapolis who acted as an agent provocateur to burn down an Autozone and escalate the conflict with protesters. So too should police caught on videotape making hand gestures associated with white nationalism be investigated. Pretty much anyone who wants to be a police officer should be viewed with extreme suspicion before being given a badge, and the threat of losing one's baton and gun should be held over the head of anyone with a badge afterward.

I say this taking it as a given the police aren't going to be dissolved anytime soon. I know "abolish the police" is the radical position. And I will offer this compromise: We should act like that is the long-term goal of our project, as a society, is that we get to a point where we no longer act as though we believe the police are a necessity, and we dissolve the organization, and I wholeheartedly encourage any cities that think they could get by without police to give it a go. For my part I think it's kinda suspect for white people to claim a desire for abolition of police and prisons. My dad's interaction with the police has been getting tickets and threatened with jail time for driving drunk, and I have no desire to act like I don't think that should be a crime, or even have that be suspected as being my ulterior motive. My tone's become much more digressive and jokey than how I started off, because I've been working on this for hours and it's now 4 AM.

We still need to talk about canceling rent. I've been talking about the police as a fascist paramilitary organization that shouldn't really be held in high regard by polite society but the racial dimension that characterizes the conflict between the police and the urban communities where they work is the product of white supremacy. White supremacy is a complicated thing with a long history, but it's built, to a large extent in contemporary America, around property ownership. Specifically, the affluence afforded to white Americans by the post World War II G.I. Bill was not extended to black people, so they weren't able to build wealth in the same way. Yes, I know about slavery, and that the police grew out of patrols for runaway slaves. But I'm talking about a more recent moment where there was a brief instance of something approaching equality, and then the snatching of that away, that the development of basically the entire landscape of cities versus suburbs emerges from. Property value becomes inflated if a property is in a majority white neighborhood and decreases in a majority black neighborhood. This barrier exacerbates growth of wealth for white people, and this wealth can then be used to buy more property, largely considered a safe investment, especially since you can rent it out at a profit.

Implicit in acts of rioting, looting, and property damage is a response to property ownership. In all likelihood, the people most upset about these acts own property. Property is not worth more than a human life, the destruction of a shop window not tantamount to a life lost, or even an eye lost, shot out by a rubber bullet. The demand to cancel rent emerges out of the Coronavirus pandemic, when people are told to shelter in place, but the homeless, unable to afford the inflated rents a landlord would charge, remain at risk. Meanwhile, unemployment skyrockets, and more people become vulnerable. If the vulnerable do not lose their job outright, they are more likely to have retained a job that they actually have to to in person, while white people, particularly those affluent enough to own property, are more likely to have jobs they can safely telecommute to. Such economic pressures, alongside widespread unemployment are certainly contributing factors to why people are able to go out and riot feeling like they have nothing to lose. If cities governed by Democratic majorities want to quell civic unrest, "cancel rent and fuck the police" is the platform they should adopt in order to mobilize the masses that have lost faith in the political process to rally and offer their support in the future.

No comments: