Experimenting With Our People’s Safety

The current attempt to challenge the powerful Minneapolis Police Department – by way of a city charter amendment known as Question 2 – is a “dangerous experiment.” At least, that’s the verdict of media pundits, downtown business interests and community gatekeepers. Take a listen:

“The city of Minneapolis is about to become the center of a crude experiment.” Rav Arora, New York Post.

“Minneapolis deserves better than this dangerous experiment.” All of Mpls.

With “the proposed ‘Department of Public Safety,’ the city becomes a social experiment for untested policing proposals.” Don and Sondra Samuels

“We are pawns in a political experiment that has no plan.” Sondra Samuels

“So we are an experiment.” Sondra Samuels, again.

“I see this, unfortunately, as an experiment.” Nekima Levy Armstrong

“Minneapolis needs comprehensive structural reforms… not a dangerous experiment in eliminating the police department with NO PLAN for what’s next.” All of Mpls

“And if you don’t have a plan for how you’re going to move forward, it becomes a dangerous experiment.” David Wheeler, city council candidate

In place of this dangerous experiment they offer a well tested strategy with an established track record: keeping the police force in place while making the usual sounds about reforms. This has been implemented in city after city, decade after decade. It has failed each time but, hey, at least it’s a plan!

We should be well past the point where the “police reform” promise is taken seriously by anyone. Lucy will always yank the football no matter how hard Charlie Brown runs at it. Reforms get put in place after there’s been some major police outrage. They linger for a few years, getting steadily chipped away, reversed or ignored, and eventually die a quiet death. They’ll be pulled out and brushed off the next time cops kick a handcuffed teen in the face, shoot a motorist for “fitting the description” or charge into the wrong apartment, guns blazing. This time it’ll be different, we’re being told, because of the chief. We have a chief who not only returns our phone calls, but talks dreamily about the police of tomorrow (never mind that his response to police misbehavior in the present has been lethargic at best).

There are some things that can be fixed and there are others that can’t. The debate boils down to which category the police system falls into. Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass had sharp words for the liberal reformers of his day who believed that slavery could be reformed:

“The apologists for slavery often speak of the abuses of slavery; and they tell us that they are as much opposed to those abuses as we are; and that they would go as far to correct those abuses and ameliorate the condition of the slave as anybody. The answer to that view is that slavery itself is the abuse; that it lives by abuse, and dies by the lack of abuse.”

This is the pivotal question: are police brutality, racism and political persecution just unfortunate missteps on the part a public service agency intended to keep us all safe? Or are these abuses hard-wired into the very identity and purpose of the police system? If the first is true, reform might work. If the second is true, fix-it projects will always fail and the eternal promise of “police reform” is how they play us for fools.

The obvious starting place for finding the answer would be to look into the history of the problem. That’s how we avoid repeating it. But defenders of the police status quo don’t like talking about history. They want to keep the focus on that dreamy future vision in which police are trusted community partners in the quest for social justice. This is quite understandable, though. A real look at the history of the police would reveal their unwavering commitment to enforcing racial oppression and persecuting social justice voices (see MPD150’s 2017 report, “Enough is Enough: a 150 year performance review of the minneapolis police department”).

Historical amnesia is absolutely essential in order to keep liberal community leaders drinking the police reform koolaid; the idea that if we just give them more training, oversight and screening, cops will abandon the job they were established to do in the nineteenth century: protecting the interests of the rich and powerful. In fact, last summer when Don and Sondra Samuels and several of their neighbors sued the city to demand more cops on the street, their case was litigated and paid for by a right wing law firm notorious for it’s hatred of historical honesty.

This firm, the Upper Midwest Law Center (co-founded by the far-right Center for the American Experiment) is particularly furious about “critical race theory” (a catch-all label for non-white perspectives in education). CRT, according to them, is an “abhorrent, racially-divisive ideology, grounded in Marxism and anti-Americanism” that’s promoted by “the Marxists of CRT, BLM and the 1619 Project.” Critical race educators, they claim, are absurdly challenging “some mythical white supremacist historical narrative that hasn’t existed for at least two generations” and are responsible for “incitement of hate for Whites, Christians and traditionalists…”

Our lack of historical perspective limits our sense of possibility. It causes us to think that our system of violent policing and mass incarceration is just the way things are and the best we can do is work to limit the damage. Frederick Douglass often found himself pushing back at people’s inability to imagine – and unwillingness to support – real change. The arguments he had to respond to might seem familiar:

“It is one of the strangest and most humiliating triumphs of human selfishness and prejudice over human reason, that it leads men to look upon emancipation as an experiment, instead of being, as it is, the natural order of human relations. Slavery, and not Freedom, is the experiment; and to witness its horrible failure we have to open our eyes not merely on the blasted soil of Virginia and other Slave States, but on a whole land brought to the verge of ruin.”

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