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One day the whole nation will take to its knee

By Bill Press, Tribune Content Agency on

Is George Floyd today's Emmett Till?

Is the nation moving beyond, oh God, its third manifestation of "legal" racism? The first manifestation was, of course, slavery, which was eliminated via the Civil War. The second manifestation was the Jim Crow/KKK era, with its lynchings, black vote suppression, unending segregation and unquestioned white supremacy; the civil rights movement undid at least the legal aspect of this horror, but hardly the racism itself. The third phase, which started percolating in the '70s and came to a full boil in the '80s and '90s, began with expanding the prison-industrial complex, militarizing the police and, of course, engaging in endless wars abroad. This, along with quasi-legal vote suppression, kept American racism institutionally intact and -- son of a gun! -- turned out to be enormously profitable. And people of color continued to suffer.

Is the brutal murder of George Floyd -- knee on the man's neck, smirk on the cop's face -- a tipping point for social change? Outrage bubbles across the country: protests in the middle of a pandemic. "I can't breathe!" Police mostly meet the outrage by "standing tough" and giving it the middle finger, with teargas, rubber bullets, arrests. The racist-in-chief wields a Bible, poses in front of a church, declares war (on "them") and, in various ways, calls for increased bloodshed and punishment to stop the protests.

"You have to dominate," he tells America's wimpy (Democrat) governors in a video teleconference. "If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time -- they're going to run over you, you're going to look like a bunch of jerks. . . . You've got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for ten years and you'll never see this stuff again."

Yeah, racism lives! Stupidity lives! Let's make America great again! What we're witnessing, on one side of the protests, is a desperate grab for the old normal, which is on its way out.

But what's on the other side? Is real change emerging, or just its illusion? What, in God's name, is real change?

 

In a country founded on racism, real change must be deeply structural. Alex Vitale, writing in The Nation, makes a crucial point: Most attempts to "reform" the police are superficial and accomplish very little. But even when procedural and training changes are more than sheer PR, they fail to address our deepest social wrongs.

"These kinds of reforms," he writes, "turn out to have a lot more to do with providing political cover for local police and politicians than with reducing the abuses of policing. In part, that's because they assume that the professional enforcement of the law is automatically beneficial to everyone. They never question the legitimacy of using police to wage a war on drugs, arrest young children in school, criminalize homelessness, or label young people as gangbangers and superpredators to be incarcerated for life or killed in the streets. A totally lawful, procedurally proper, and perfectly unbiased low-level drug arrest is still going to ruin some young person's life for no good reason. There is no justice in that -- and giving narcotics units anti-bias training will do nothing to change this fact."

He writes: "It's time to rethink superficial and ineffective procedural police reforms and move to defund the police instead."

In other words, let go of the war on drugs, dismantle the prison-industrial complex and stop pouring money into over-militarized American policing; instead, begin diverting the money into social programs that will actually help people. And get the police out of the schools, i.e., take steps, as Vitale writes, "to undo the damage done by the 1994 Crime Bill, like defunding school policing in favor of providing more counselors and restorative justice programs. . . ."

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