Virtually unnoticed in the cacophony of the Trumpian news cycle, a bill to place more power in the hands of police slithered through the House of Representatives with overwhelming bipartisan support – including from such progressive Democratic luminaries as Luis Gutiérrez, Raúl Grijalva and Keith Ellison. The “Serve and Protect Act” (H.R.5698) comes packaged as a necessary measure to protect our brave officers “who put on the badge every day to keep us safe” from the dangers of an imaginary “War on Police.” Specifically, it would impose prison terms of up to ten years for harming or attempting to harm officers of any local, state or federal agencies of what is euphemistically called “law enforcement.” If convicted of carrying out or attempting a kidnapping or killing of an officer, the accused could be imprisoned for life. The Senate version even designates police as an oppressed “protected class” under hate crime laws.
The legislation is designed to increase police power in communities of color, strengthen the fortress of police impunity and reinforce the plea-bargain-to-prison conveyor belt. Its targets are anyone the police decide they want to see locked up. These are the same police, after all, who routinely insist that children playing with toys, young men shopping at Walmart, residents reaching for their ID, teenagers trying to drive away, neighbors holding cell phones and motorists calmly disclosing their legal firearm to police are aggressors poised to kill them. It should be noted that each of the cases referred to above only became public thanks to the existence of video footage. When there’s no video to contradict it, even the most far-fetched police narrative about fearing for their lives is treated as credible. In the police world, however, lying – by falsifying (or not filing) incident reports, planting, tampering with or destroying evidence and in perjured court testimony – is a routine practice. This bill – which should be called the “Do Not Resist Act” – serves notice on overpoliced communities that anything short of complete obedience could net you many years in prison on the whim of a cop (and even total submission cannot guarantee your safety).
Most significantly, H.R. 5698 bolsters the plea-bargain-to-prison pipeline – the express lane of mass incarceration. Over 90 percent of state and federal “convictions” are obtained through plea bargains, not trials. Under the system, a defendant pleads guilty of an offense to avoid the prospect of a longer sentence should they lose in court. The plea bargain pipeline feeds into the positive feedback loops of racialized “justice.” Black and brown poor people released from their cages find their access to decent employment and housing opportunities blocked, their voting rights revoked and their risk of being locked up again enhanced by parole conditions that are easily tripped over. Since jurors are drawn from the voter rolls, the systematic disenfranchisement of black people results in a whiter jury pool, further skewing the odds against defendants of color.
The Do Not Resist Act extends its protective cloak beyond municipal police departments to encompass state, county, federal and “special jurisdiction” police departments such as those in transit and park systems, campuses, port authorities, airports, the FBI and, importantly, ICE – the militarized federal immigration force renowned for its contempt for legal niceties and human rights.
No one will be surprised at Republican enthusiasm for such a bill, but what’s up with liberals and progressives climbing on board? Out of 193 Democrats only 24 voted no. The logic behind this calculation, however, is deeply embedded in contemporary politics. It has to do with the difference between gains and power. Liberal politicians and the nonprofits they align with are permitted to lobby for gains that benefit their constituents while the corporate aristocracy plays for power. Gains are temporary and reversible whereas power is cumulative, resulting in a political and legal landscape steadily sliding rightward.
The “gains-vs-power” formula reached its most absurd expression in the second Obama administration. Gains for the masses would be paired with related power transfers to the elite. Thus, the expansion of the surveillance authority of the National Security Agency was followed by a pardon for whistleblower Chelsea Manning; a junta of hedge fund and banking predators given control over the people of Puerto Rico was paired with the release of political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera; the enlargement and militarization of ICE was “balanced” by the temporary relief of DACA. I don’t doubt that if Obama had decided in favor of the Dakota Access Pipeline he’d have pardoned Leonard Peltier. The administration’s cardinal achievement, the Affordable Care Act, delivered a truckload of gains for the public while entrenching the insurance industry at the power center of the system (from where it systematically set about to eliminate the gains). In each case the gains achieved matter a great deal to the those most affected but do not disturb the balance of power. The power increases bestowed on the corporate class, in contrast, function as levers with which to amass even more power.
The Democratic progressives who voted for this latest power grab are often passionate advocates of local police reforms. Such reforms, like more police training, requiring cops to live in the cities they patrol, having other police agencies investigate officer misdeeds and an endless procession of civilian review boards, are either ineffective from the start or are neutralized within a few years. These are “gains,” suitable for calming outraged communities but useless as remedies for police abuse. Police officials and unions push back against them on principle but they are more annoyed by them than alarmed.
It is a liberal article of faith that police brutality and racial profiling are failures, rather than features, of the system. This belief is instilled through an endless drumbeat of pro-police propaganda, not based on actual historical analysis. In fact, enforcing the racial order and destroying social movements are the only constants throughout police history. Police had a role in the restructuring of white supremacy in the aftermath of Emancipation, often participating in white mob violence and wielding the racist Black Laws to sweep large numbers of recently freed workers into the prisons from where they were leased out to labor on plantations and in factories. This was the dystopian future Frederick Douglass had foreseen in 1863. “…[A]s another mode of escaping the claims of absolute justice,” he warned, “the white people may Emancipate the slaves in form yet retain them as slaves in fact… or then may free them from individual masters, only to make them slaves to the community.”
The template set in place at that time – and still in operation today – treats whites as collectively innocent – even though individuals may commit crimes, while blacks are collectively guilty – whether the individual has done anything wrong or not. This helps indoctrinate white people with the perception that blacks are a constant threat, thus cementing their loyalty to the police. Firmly anchored on this ideological foundation, and enjoying a secure base of support, the police system has defeated every reform placed in its path for the last hundred years.
No politician can afford to understand this reality, however. They might object to specific police abuses but reliably soften their criticism with expressions of appreciation for the police as a whole. Moreover, with mid-term elections approaching, any Democrat seen to be “anti-police” would be considered a liability by their party leaders.
Douglass had little patience for the liberal evasions of his day. “The apologists for slavery often speak of the abuses of slavery,” he fumed. “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 to ameliorate the condition of the slave as anybody. The answer to that view is, that slavery is itself an abuse; that it lives by abuse; and dies by the absence of abuse.”
Populations denied their basic human needs and rights respond in three predictable ways: crime, protest and mental health crises. Police have been tasked with enforcing unsustainable conditions on large segments of society – kept divided along racial lines – to safeguard the accelerating flow of wealth into the gated communities of the rich. It is against this backdrop that we encounter the absurdity of mayors demanding police “accountability” while calling for more cops, and Congresspersons denouncing police killings while handing the cops more power to abuse.
Approximately $105 billion are poured into police departments each year. Another $90-120 billion (the lower estimates don’t account for court costs) are spent to imprison more than 2 million inmates and manage close to 5 million people on probation or parole. These vast sums are being used, in effect, to punish people for having needs. What if they were instead invested in meeting those needs? The question itself is highly destabilizing to a system devoted to the concentration wealth in ever-fewer hands, not expanding access to it.
Local jurisdictions often have laws allowing for the demolition of “nuisance properties,” homes that are the scene of so much violent or antisocial activity they are deemed unsalvageable. The edifice of the US police system is such a structure – generating, protecting and justifying abuse on such a scale and so consistently that repair is not feasible. The only viable solution is its complete demolition and its replacement with tested and new forms of mutual aid, community empowerment and conflict resolution.
This perspective – known as police abolition – is experiencing a rapid transformation from utopian fantasy to urgent necessity. The courage to give it voice will not come from the offices of mayors, the halls of Congress or the wishful thinking of reform-minded police chiefs, invested as they all are in the legitimacy of the status quo. It is emerging, instead, from multiple locations in the educational, social service, community and street protest arenas, with its epicenter in the very communities that police occupation, surveillance and harassment are intended to immobilize. Police abolition is a piece of the unfinished business of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman’s generation. It’s time to wrap it up.