The Capitol, policing, rhetoric, and the left

The January 6 failure of the Capitol police to block the entry of a mob bent on reversing the result of the presidential election altered many perceptions. Some Americans were seeing QAnoners in the light of day for the first time. Some scattered newly woke Republicans even decided they now wanted to give Donald Trump the bum’s rush. Outside the country, there are entire nations that will never take the U.S. quite so seriously again. And on the American left — and even well into the center, including president-elect Joe Biden — few failed to note the disparity between that day’s events and the seriously harsher response accorded last year’s Black Live Matters protests.

Some understandably view the disparate treatment by law enforcement almost exclusively in racial terms. After all, in recent times, the anti-police violence and pro-BLM protests have been the only events drawing big numbers into the streets from the other side of the political spectrum. But long memories can recall mostly white anti-Vietnam War protestors greeted in the nation’s capital by military police in riot gear — and 10,000 arrested in a single day. Historians will also note the less than friendly treatment the mobilizations of the unemployed and aggrieved received during the Great Depression. And even now, the Guardian reports a US Crisis Monitor database showing that just last year “law enforcement officers were about 3.5 times more likely to use force against leftwing protests than rightwing protests” — an assessment encompassing not just BLM, but demonstrations organized “by left-leaning groups such as Abolish Ice, the NAACP, or the Democratic Socialists of America; and protests associated with anti-fascists or left-leaning militia groups and street movements.”

The extent of the government’s inaugural preparations will likely mute the topic in the next news cycles, but the fact remains that the disparity did suddenly thrust people who had become accustomed to anger over what they considered overly aggressive police actions into the unusual position of faulting law enforcement agencies for not being aggressive enough. Surprising as this sudden turnabout may have been though, most of those people probably wouldn’t have found it contradictory. After all, the point of the BLM protests was ending excessive police violence, particularly violence disproportionately directed at the nation’s African-American population. It was not to argue that there was no legitimate place for law enforcement in our society.

Unfortunately, many people outside these circles might be readily forgiven for thinking that such was not the case at all. And to the extent that such misperception exists, its principal cause lies not with faulty reporting upon the part of the news media, but with the rhetoric of protestors who have widely raised the call to “defund the police.”

Most BLM sympathizers beyond the inner core of defund protestors may take the attitude that whatever the movement’s specific slogans may be, they “understand what they mean” and remain supportive of its overall goals. After all, the specific demands raised under the “defund” rubric generally involve shifting government “crime fighting” spending toward anti-poverty ventures and assigning more appropriately trained social service workers to certain areas such as “quality of life” and drug-related issues involving the homeless.

That, however, is not the way that people without a personal connection with the movement are likely to see the “defund the police” demand. They will probably not “understand what they mean,” but, quite logically, assume that the protestors simply want to seriously reduce — or even eliminate police presence in their city, a presence that many may consider inadequate as it is, particularly in the midst of rising violence in the Covid era.

This language question is not brand new. As far back as September, members of the Minneapolis City Council were already walking back their previously passed defund-the-police resolution. One councilor who voted in favor later said that he had supported the resolution “in spirit,” while another allowed that the language was “up for interpretation.” What the council ultimately did was to direct $8 million, about 4.5 percent of its police budget, toward the city’s Office of Violence Prevention for a team of mental health professionals to respond to crises not requiring police presence, and transferring parking violations and property damage complaints to other city workers. Whether or not these changes will ultimately be deemed adequate or appropriate, they were precisely the type, if perhaps not the scope, of action widely supported by those who felt they’d understood what the movement meant — and not what its non-supporters feared.

Why then the persistence of the widely misunderstood and arguably misleading “defund the police” slogan? It’s catchier or more radical than “reform the police” or “reorganize public safety?” A hot-house atmosphere pressures activists toward cutting edge slogans? Whatever it is, only the movement itself knows. But you gotta hope that internal considerations aren’t preventing them from effectively delivering their word to a wider public.

No doubt there actually are a few within the defund-the-police ranks who do really want to eliminate police forces; very few I suspect, though. But there is an actual prison abolition movement that in the final analysis might also benefit from a rhetorical make over. Here too, we can find broad sympathy with the general goal of reversing the country’s increased level of incarceration over the past half century. But this movement’s stated goal obviously goes considerably further than that.

“Abolition” is an historically charged word in the U.S., immediately bringing to mind the abolition of slavery. When that abolitionist movement spoke, it clearly did not have in mind the gradual phasing out of slavery by some date in the future. It demanded the immediate and final termination of a horrendous system absolutely without redeeming qualities. It took a civil war to get there, but that is what ultimately happened. And that is the historical connotation that abolition carries in this country to this day. So, to many outside observers, the call for prison abolition appears to be advocating freeing all prisoners tomorrow.

Do prison abolition supporters actually advocate this? Do they even believe that this could happen in their lifetimes? Or is their call for prison abolition ultimately of the same stuff as expressing the wish that we might live long enough to also see crime abolished on this earth? The answer is not entirely clear. While examples of the substantial reduction in the use of prisons are suggested, in some Scandinavian countries for instance, the only models offered for their actual elimination come from tribal or intentional communities. And even some of its advocates do display a certain tentativeness that belies the certitude in their movement’s name. For instance, in one essay in the anthology, “We own the future: Democratic socialism — American style,” three paragraphs after advocating prison abolition, the author declares that “A democratic socialist society would imprison far fewer people.” Not “no one,” but “far fewer.”

So here too, it may be that what’s actually meant is prison abolition “in spirit,” a phrase that’s “up for interpretation.” Sounds more inspiring than “prison reduction” or “decriminalization,” though. Maybe an instance of responding to frustratingly slow progress by turning up the rhetorical volume? Whatever the reason, no slogan is useful if comes at the cost of being dismissed as, well, hopelessly naive. If it’s a question of language with greater appeal inside a movement versus language more effective at reaching those outside, the choice should be obvious.

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