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A Response to Conor Friedersdorf
When White America Offloads its Failures on to Civil Rights Movements
This was supposed to be a Twitter thread - a response to the recent newsletter in the Atlantic written by Conor Friedersdorf in which he announces that “the Black Lives Matter approach” to ending police violence against Black people “has largely failed.” https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2023/01/public-outrage-hasnt-improved-policing/672840/ His post contrasts the muted public reaction to the recent killing of Keenan Anderson at the hands of the LAPD in early January, with the outpouring and response to the video of the murder of George Floyd. And he correctly notes that police killings have continued and even increased according to some studies.
But now that the video of the brutal and savage murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis has also been released, and the 5 officers (all Black) charged, what I have to say cannot be managed in a Twitter thread. Because I suspect that many white people - and perhaps Black people as well - will ask as Friedersdorf does: “What happened to national outrage over police killings?” And perhaps like Friedersdorf they will even take the step to conclude after viewing this latest horror, that the demand to end police violence - “the Black Lives Matter approach” has failed.
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And this, the willingness to cast the failure of white people to effectively confront and contain the manifestations of violent white supremacy as Black civil rights failure, deserves a strong response.
Black Lives Matter was first a call to action, a statement of demand for respect for our humanity first made prominent on social media by Black women activists after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida - not by a police officer, but by a random racist man who imagined himself part of a “neighborhood watch.” Black Lives Matter also became the rallying cry and social media hashtag for Black people protesting around the country after seeing the video of police officers killing Eric Garner in New York, and after protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Mike Brown by a police officer. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” moved around the world as the videos of subsequent murders ignited a firestorm of attention and outrage about police violence in the U.S. Indeed journalists and politicians have used “Black Lives Matter” as a shorthand for the larger civil rights ecosystem that has worked to end police brutality - from traditional civil rights organizations to the more radical Movement for Black Lives - even when expressly asked not to do so. https://library.law.howard.edu/civilrightshistory/BLM
Of course, Black Lives Matter is also an organization that was formed in those days by the three women activists who coined the phrase after the killing of Trayvon Martin. A national, indeed global organization with local chapters, it garnered tremendous support among many activists and allies, and more recently lost reputation and influence as a result of the in-fighting and scandals Friedersdorf outlines in his piece.
I want to work with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as it has come to be used to describe more broadly the collective spirit that drove Black activists and Black-led organizations working most intensely to end police violence against Black people since 2014. So what was the “Black Lives Matter approach” and how did it “fail” as Friedersdorf claims? Well first, I know of no jurisdiction that embraced the “Black Lives Matter approach” - by any definition - to policing. Whatever modest reforms to policing have been adopted, were undertaken after long, pitched battles with those determined to maintain the status quo.
Indeed the recent, more radical demand to “defund the police,” came only after reforms were resisted or watered down in ways that activists believed could not result in substantive change. That is not to say that some important progress hasn’t been made. The broader movement did demand and obtain greater awareness and confrontation with the truth of police violence. Even Friedersdorf admits that. Was it successful in removing from white people the plausible deniability about police violence behind which whites have shielded themselves for over a century? Yes, devastating videos of vicious murders by police put paid to that. Did it move the conversation about police violence from the margins of political discourse to the center? Yes. Did it demonstrate the systemic nature of police violence and damage the myth of unreproachable law enforcement actors to which so many white people and institutions cling? Yes. Did activism and attention increase the number of cases in which officers were charged and convicted for brutality and murder? Yes. Did it increase federal oversight and intervention in departments engaged in systemic racist practices? Yes. And every one of these very modest reforms were hard-won over vigorous and unrelenting resistance.
The movement that rose against police violence also widened the lens to include the complicity of prosecutors in ensuring impunity for brutal cops. There was no cohort of “progressive prosecutors” who would commit themselves to addressing race in the criminal justice system, before activists drew attention to the conduct of prosecutors in Florida, St. Louis and New York State.
Some other proposals advanced early-on - removing police killings from local prosecutors to state Attorney Generals, increasing federal pattern and practice investigations, body cams, removing police from schools, and transparency measures - have been adopted in a range of jurisdictions.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would have removed insulation from legal liability for police officers who violate the civil rights of civilians, failed after first passing the House in the wake of Floyd’s murder. Because of Black Lives Matter? No, that legislation failed because not one Republican Senator (and not all Democratic Senators, I’m betting) would support it. And the one Republican Senator identified to negotiate for it - Sen. Tim Scott - essentially up-ended it.
And what about the more recent, radical demand to “defund the police”? Well, that has not happened either, despite claims to the contrary. Indeed police budgets have by and large increased. But out of that demand has come a clear and widespread belief that matters such as mental health calls, youth conflicts, and homelessness are not best handled in most cases by armed law enforcement officers. A number of jurisdictions have created programs to remove some of those duties from police officers. Moreover, police budgets are receiving more scrutiny than in the past.
What has been most successful is the building of a movement of people who work every day to reimagine a new kind of public safety. Most people who are not afraid to imagine that our lives could really matter, now agree that the current system cannot be reformed and must be made over. Indeed it seems inevitable. The under-staffing and recruiting failures of police departments around the country demonstrate that no matter how much money is thrown at policing, the work itself has lost its appeal to a significant number of young people and is unlikely to reconstitute itself in the same form.
That is the moment that we are in. The outrage is perhaps even more intense, albeit less inclined to express itself in mass protest. It is combined now with the growing sense that the current system is simply not sustainable. The failure of the police response in Uvalde, and the lack of support shown by the most rabid pro-police political factions towards the Capitol Police officers assaulted on January 6th, 2021 has been a huge blow to law enforcement that will have repercussions for years to come, as will the revelations of infiltration by openly white supremacists groups into law enforcement agencies. Unraveling mythologies is a long process. But once it starts, the end is inevitable.
And that leads back to the premise of Friedersdorf’s piece. Where should we assign blame for continued police violence? On the failure of the movements created by racial minorities to resist police brutality? On crime within our own communities, as some suggest? Yes, violent crime is real, and felt most profoundly in minority communities. We want solutions more than anyone, but refuse to believe that we must surrender our dignity and the lives of our sons and brothers to police violence, in exchange for protection from violent crime.
I suggest that what Friedersdorf sees as failure, is instead his own inability to recognize the power and resilience of white supremacy, and its hold on the institution of American law enforcement. Those of us in this work have long explained the systematic and cultural hard-wiring of racism in policing, while so many leaders in the white community have insisted that it is only “bad apples.” We explained that so deeply-imbedded is the culture of white supremacy in policing that even Black police officers can participate in brutality against Black victims, because they too are responding to the messages of white supremacy in their profession that promotes and rewards officers who know whose lives matter and whose don’t.
Given the overwhelming strength of this system, why would Friedersdorf describe Black-led movements that have been arrayed against police violence for decades as having failed, rather than reckon with the failure of whites who have looked to Black people to solve a problem fully in control of white political, economic, social, business and faith leaders?
So I have some questions for Friedersdorf. Is the white evangelical church ever asked by white media to describe in detail whether they stand against police violence? Which news organizations will be reporting on what is preached in white evangelical churches this Sunday morning? Are prominent white economists ever compelled to calculate the economic cost of police violence and racism? Are political leaders pressed when they pass the buck on to police chiefs and so-called “bad apples” and cynically vow to hire even more police officers without first demanding change? Are journalists blameless when they feed and promote falsehoods about the rise in violent crime, or platform misinformation about legitimate criminal justice reform practices? And what about the white people who marched in June 2020, but then returned to a state of disengagement on this issue? Why should white people need Black-led movements to hold their hands in confronting a problem that emanates from their own community? Or will the race of the officers in Memphis provide cover for the roots of white supremacy that are the foundation for this kind of police violence?
Black Lives Matter continues to be a rallying cry for the very reason that the phrase became so popular. Every new police killing or beating of innocent Black people reinforces that in this country our lives are afforded little respect - especially when what is at stake is the myth of white supremacy that lionizes armed white men and distressed white women, and protects at all costs white masculinity and property and power structures. I believe Friedersdorf is sincere when he says “I wish I knew the best way forward.” We all do. But there is one thing about which I’m sure: the way forward to ending the white supremacy that fuels systemic police violence at this moment, begins with white people.
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