Coming up with effective protest slogans is hard. Take Black Lives Matter, for example.
First and foremost, protest slogans need to be short and memorable. Answering a call (“What do we want?”) with over 3,500 words of citation-filled opinion column (you’ve just been warned), is both impossible and farcical. Black Lives Matter is short, it’s memorable, and it’s easily chanted in the streets.
Second, an effective protest slogan needs to inspire the activists who live, eat, and breathe the underlying issues motivating the protest in the first place. Black Lives Matter is based on an utterly uncontroversial premise — black lives matter much less to those with power than whatever lives are deemed “white” at any particular moment. This premise is so uncontroversial and obvious, it was repeatedly played for laughs over twenty years ago in, for example, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (in one scene, a general is asked if he has ever heard of the Emancipation Proclamation; “I don’t listen to hip-hop,” he replies, nicely summarizing race relations during the late ‘90s, at least as understood by two white comedians from Colorado). A few years later, Dave Chappelle built a very successful career by using comedy to highlight the ways black lives still didn’t matter to everyone else — a career he cut short when he realized a lot of the people who were making black lives matter less in the first place were laughing, too.
Since circumstances for black people haven’t meaningfully changed much since the Clinton and Bush administrations, the idea behind Black Lives Matter is that if you understand the problem well enough to laugh at it, then you understand the problem well enough to stop laughing and do something about it. Put that way, it sounds like common sense, even to this columnist’s admittedly white and privileged ears. It’s honestly disappointing it took this long to get as popular as it is.
Finally, protest slogans need to be anodyne enough to attract those who might be inclined to agree to the cause once awareness of the underlying issue is brought to their attention, but they also need to incite enough controversy to drive off those who repel those same potential supporters. As common sense as observing Black Lives Matter might seem, those three words do a wonderful job of getting under the skin of the very people who make black lives miserable in the first place. As some of those people like to point out, by saying that Black Lives Matter, doesn’t that imply other lives don’t? After all, if I, a white columnist, say White Lives Matter, that certainly has particularly unpleasant implications (boy is that undeniably true).
So what’s the difference?
Well, ignoring two and a half centuries of slavery, the century of Jim Crow that followed abolition, and the violence and death imposed by white people on black people to enforce those institutions, absolutely nothing, I suppose. Of course, ignoring all that would be about as disingenuous as someone complaining about how I can order a drink at a bar without anyone getting on my case while, the instant they walk into the same bar, they’re shooed out because of that one time they got drunk and tried to fight every black man in the bar... well, and that one time they got drunk and tried to feel up every black woman in the bar... oh, and that one time they got drunk and started screaming racial slurs at the black bartender.
No, hypothetical angry drunk person, “all customers” don’t matter. If you matter, then the rest of us who had to put up with your violent, irresponsible behavior the last time you walked in don’t. Yes, even those of us you left alone because we’re not black. Even if we were misanthropic and selfish enough to solely care about our individual safety and well-being, there’s no reason to think you’ll limit your violence to black people just because you focused your anger on them the last time you visited.
Put more succinctly, historical context matters. It’s the same reason Germans don’t get to wear swastikas and American schoolchildren don’t get to wear ghost costumes with pointy hoods. Again, common sense.
That is why sticking with Black Lives Matter as a protest slogan is genius — it pushes away exactly the sort of unpleasant people for whom black lives never mattered one whit. It doesn’t just remind everyone there’s unfinished work that needs to be done (and promptly — lives are literally on the line), it also gets under the skin of the people who are preventing the work from getting done at all and keeps them away from the table.
With that in mind, let’s talk about defunding the police.
“Defund the police,” like Black Lives Matter, is a very short slogan that, in three easy words, addresses some (not all, but some) of the very serious institutional issues facing the American criminal justice system today. “Defund the police” is not a call to completely defund law enforcement; even those who advocate for abolishing the police (a centrist moderate position, by the way) largely acknowledge laws require enforcement of some sort. The key question is whether or not we can find a way to enforce the laws on our books without using well-armed government employees primarily trained to achieve order through steadily escalating levels of violence to do so.
For many Americans, the police have historically been viewed somewhat like Star Trek’s Starfleet, continuing on their mission to protect and serve, seeking new lowlifes and new criminals, boldly patrolling where no one’s patrolled before, all with tasers set on stun. Why not let friendly police captains and their merry away teams beam into our schools and bring peace and justice to our children? Why not deploy Constitution-class police cruisers into troubled neighborhoods to defuse legally troublesome situations with stern speeches and high speed chases? What could go wrong?
Well, for starters, Star Trek’s Starfleet was (fictionally) made up of explorers and scientists who reluctantly concluded an armed galaxy is a polite galaxy. If our police forces were like Starfleet, they wouldn’t be a natural destination for military veterans — they’d be prestigious organizations we’d apply to for the chance to do jury duty right. Instead, American police forces are paramilitary organizations assigned social work by their municipalities to justify their unconscionably wasteful budgets.
The end result looks a lot like what we might imagine would happen if we started assigning pit bulls as therapy dogs. Yes, most pit bulls are sweet, cuddly, and energetic, and most police officers I’ve met have been similarly pleasant as well, though I’ve certainly never tried to pet the belly of one. When a pit bull loses its composure, however, the consequences are considerably more potentially dangerous than when, say, a dachshund loses its cool; that’s certainly true of a well-armed police officer as well.
So, instead of throwing large percentages of our municipal budgets towards law enforcement agencies that fundamentally assume laws must be enforced violently, what if we redirected our scarce resources to other agencies that prevented people from hurting other people (my preferred definition of “crime”) in the first place? For example, instead of deploying the police at homeless encampments, what if we used those resources to provide safe campgrounds with adequate sanitation, or, better yet, actual housing? A campground is certainly cheaper than a military surplus MRAP and considerably more humane and consistently useful, too.
Like Black Lives Matter, calls to defund the police are also attracting the right enemies.
For many people, cruelty is rather the point. For these people, the goal is not to actually reduce crime. Instead, the goal is to communicate, through violent government-sanctioned force, who’s in charge and who’s not, as Richard Nixon famously did against the antiwar left and black people. Placing a well-armed paramilitary force as the first point of contact for law enforcement is consequently a very convenient way to use the law, whatever it might happen to be at any given moment, to inflict violence against undesirable populations, for whatever definition of “undesirable” is fashionable. For these people, defunding the police means defunding their taxpayer-subsidized goon squad.
Most people, however, are not intentionally cruel — certainly not in public, anyway. That makes the few exceptions very easy to argue against, especially when they start ranting about “color credentials” or the “perceived sin of being white” as an aid to Reno City Councilwoman Bonnie Weber did recently. Chances are, if you’re still reading this, you’re not, either.
How will defunding the police make law enforcement less cruel and better focused on actual harm reduction? That’s a fair question — below are some ways we can reduce resources assigned to the police so we can reassign them more peacefully and productively elsewhere.
Abolish police unions and restrict direct political activity
Police unions help police officers evade accountability and, in doing so, expose their municipalities to severe civil liability. That’s why police officers must have one chain of command and it needs to have the people at the top. Our military isn’t allowed to unionize because the military must answer solely to the commander-in-chief and the rest of the civilian chain of command. Similarly, police departments should be solely and directly accountable to whatever municipal and county governments they serve. We currently have more direct political control over the behavior of a 19-year-old grunt in Afghanistan than we have over the behavior of a 39-year-old police officer in Henderson.
That must change.
Additionally, military personnel are required to be largely apolitical. They can vote, but they’re not allowed to otherwise support a particular political party or candidate while in uniform. That is vital because the military is equipped with more than enough firepower to easily dominate any meaningful political discussion if it chose to, as militaries throughout the world historically have and continue to do throughout the world. Similarly, police departments have the means to decide whether or not criminal activity will be meaningfully addressed during a particular politician’s term and how much violence will be exercised to do so, and they’re not afraid to do so. Police officers in New York City, for example, protested a few years ago against changes to departmental policy after Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD officer. To ensure public trust, they must lose the legal right to exercise that power.
Here in Nevada, police forces are not only allowed to unionize, they’re allowed to hold candidate endorsement interviews while in uniform. I know this because I participated in one in 2016 during my quixotic run for state Senate. Elected officials are responsible for determining how much police officers will be paid, under what conditions they’re allowed to work, and what laws will be used to hold them accountable. This creates a conflict of interest that produces measures to evade responsibility in several jurisdictions, including Clark County and Reno.
Also, and utterly unsurprisingly given that police unions get to choose who they’re negotiating with, the pay and benefits they negotiate on the backs of taxpayers are quite handsome. Eliminating police unions would go a long way towards making police department budgets more responsive to municipal finance conditions.
Reset law enforcement culture
Some police departments can’t be reformed. Even with new police chiefs, new guidelines, increased training and body cameras, when people are accustomed to behaving certain ways and are surrounded by people accustomed to behaving certain ways, they’re going to continue to fall back on bad habits. This happened in Camden, New Jersey, which famously fired their entire police force and rehired it — this time as a more directly accountable non-union force with fewer needless desk jobs and better training. The result was much lower crime, much greater trust from the community, and significantly less wasteful spending on needless administrative positions.
Now a similar approach is about to be tried in Minneapolis. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but it’s definitely worth paying attention to.
Additionally, research by Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, revealed smaller community police departments frequently outperform — in other words, experience less crime, earn greater trust from their communities, and cost less per-taxpayer — than larger police departments, even in communities of color. To be clear, it’s easy to go too far in the other direction; part of what made Ferguson’s police department so dysfunctional in the first place was that the community it was responsible for serving was too small and too poor to fund itself using comparatively equitable methods, so it relied on excessive fine enforcement instead. However, communities with enough financial stability to support themselves without relying on fine and fee enforcement may benefit from leaving regional police departments like Metro and enforcing their own laws instead.
Take away the toys
Ordinarily, when you give government workers a Lamborghini, it’s considered a bribe. When you give the Los Angeles Police Department a Lamborghini, however, well, you’re just helping them advance their public relations strategy.
It must be nice to drive a free exotic sports car on taxpayer time.
As egregious as it is to accept bribes, however, it still pales in comparison to Section 1033 purchases and civil asset forfeiture.
Section 1033 is a program that allows police departments to purchase military surplus equipment. The increasingly common use of MRAPs by municipal police forces — mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, which were developed for deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan — are an especially visible manifestation of the militarization of American police, but certainly not a unique one. As even the FBI has pointed out, many police officers have expressed concern over the increased militarization of domestic policing, including increased reliance on tactical gear and SWAT teams.
The trouble with SWAT teams and military equipment is two-fold.
First, their budgets need to be justified. Where SWAT teams exist and military hardware is used, they will be deployed into situations where more peaceful and tax-efficient methods of policing should be used instead. This is a problem for smaller rural counties with SWAT teams, like Elko County, which might experience what a larger community would deem as a SWAT-worthy call maybe once a decade.
Second, if you’re wearing body armor and armed to the teeth, you’re going to have a lot less to lose from a conflict that escalates violently than you would if you were wearing plain clothes and carrying only a taser. Consequently, where a nurse or a primary school teacher might rely upon well-practiced methods of de-escalation because they lack any other alternative, military-equipped police officers will be more likely to let a situation grow violent and out of control because they know their personal safety remains assured.
At least Section 1033 is largely voluntary, however — or, at least, as voluntary as any taxpayer-funded program. Civil asset forfeiture is just legalized highway robbery.
The idea behind civil asset forfeiture is that resources used to commit a crime — say, selling drugs — are similarly illegal and should be seized. This doctrine, however, has been used to justify seizing thousands of cars in Detroit, as well as millions of dollars in cash and property each year throughout Nevada, frequently seized from our poorest communities. In theory, the property is returned if the owner proves it was not, in fact, used to commit a crime (if it sounds like this flies in the face of assuming people are innocent until they’re proven guilty, that’s because it does). In practice, legal fees frequently exceed the value of the seized property, which means the police department that seized the property usually keeps it, as the Nevada Policy Research Institute noted in 2017. Sometimes they sell the property; other times, if the property is “fun” enough to keep, they’ll repaint it in police livery and openly brag about how they stole it from someone.
In 2019, AB420 promised to at least ensure police departments wouldn’t directly profit from the assets they seized. Unfortunately, despite passing the Assembly 34-6, it was never heard in the Senate.
“Donations for political relations purposes,” Section 1033 purchases, and civil asset forfeiture programs all feed into the idea that police officers have a legal right to play with toys at taxpayer expense, by force if necessary. We wouldn’t tolerate that sense of entitlement from a DMV clerk; we shouldn’t tolerate it from our law enforcement, either.
Abolish qualified immunity and other special legal privileges
Qualified immunity — the idea that public officials get to escape accountability as long as they don’t violate rights that are “clearly established” in existing case law — is something I already wrote about two weeks ago. Since there’s nothing new to add (it’s still terrible), there’s no point in repeating myself. I am, however, gratified Rep. Justin Amash, America’s first and only Libertarian congressman, introduced H.R. 7085, the End Qualified Immunity Act, which is now the first tripartisan bill in modern American history.
Closer to home, meanwhile, NRS 289.060 requires police officers under investigation for misconduct to be notified in writing at least two days in advance before they undergo an interrogation. This written notice must include a description of the nature of the investigation; a summary of alleged misconduct of the peace officer; the date, time and place of the interrogation or hearing; the name and rank of the officer in charge of the investigation and the officers who will conduct any interrogation or hearing; the name of any other person who will be present at any interrogation or hearing; and may upon request have two representatives of the peace officer’s choosing present with the peace officer during any phase of an interrogation or hearing relating to the investigation, including, without limitation, a lawyer, a representative of a labor union or another peace officer.
Those are fantastic requirements. It would honestly be nice if they extended to everyone under investigation for criminal misconduct in Nevada. I know that, were I arrested, I would be thrilled beyond measure if I had a few days to prepare before I was questioned, knew what questions are going to be asked and knew the interrogator personally.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t enjoy that suite of protections. Until we do, police officers facing criminal misconduct charges shouldn’t, either.
Change the laws
Like a lot of people I know, John Oliver’s video about the history of American policing caught my attention. Though I generally agreed with much of it, I disagreed with one part in particular. It’s true that capturing fugitive slaves is an important part of the history of American policing; however, it isn’t the root of American policing. We never needed chattel slavery to justify police brutality — just ask the Sheriff of Nottingham.
That we have sheriffs in the United States is a clue that our police practices are ultimately descended from a considerably longer tradition than chattel slavery. As the story of Robin Hood hints, sheriffs were common in feudal England, long before Europeans had the technology and bureaucratic acumen to meaningfully enslave African populations and ship them to the New World. Since the early history of the United States is primarily a history of English colonialism, we inherited several legal traditions from formerly-feudal England, including sheriffs and a reliance upon common law (meaning, we usually interpret laws based on past legal precedent instead of trying to reinterpret the original meaning of our laws over and over again, a lá Justice Scalia’s constitutional originalism).
The catch, however, is sheriffs, along with the rest of our law enforcement, are supposed to enforce the laws as they’re enacted. Consequently, when slavery was the law of the land and the Fugitive Slave Act required slaves to be returned to their masters, local law enforcement was indeed responsible for rounding up slaves, by force if necessary, and returning them to their owners. When segregation was the law of the land, law enforcement was responsible for enforcing those laws as well. Similarly, the reason Governor Sisolak was in a position to pardon so many small-scale marijuana convictions is because, until laws surrounding marijuana changed in Nevada, law enforcement was responsible for enforcing Nevada’s Drug War laws.
Our law enforcement, whether it’s conducted by the police, mental health professionals, or anyone else, can only be as just and equitable as the laws we require them to enforce. Laws that criminalize poverty and victimless crimes will be no more just or reasonable if they’re enforced with a smile and a prescription than if they’re enforced with a tear gas canister. The problem with enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act wasn’t that law enforcement was too violent in its enforcement — the problem was that it was the Fugitive Slave Act. We should similarly reconsider the justice of all of today’s laws as well.
As we watch hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of videos of police brutalizing protesters (now at 480 and climbing), it’s become increasingly clear we need to radically rethink our approach to law enforcement. We can’t equip and train our police for war and then act surprised when they fail to keep the peace. It’s time to defund the police, refocus the police’s remaining resources back on peacefully keeping our communities safe, and use the resources freed from that refocus towards preventing the conditions that produce harm in our communities in the first place.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].