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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign“

  • Black Lives Matter

  • All Lives Matter

  • No Justice, No Peace

  • I Can’t Breathe

  • Silence = Violence

  • Are We Great Yet?

  • Defund the Police

  • Abolish the Police

  • 1312 (ACAB – All Cops Are Bastards)

These are just a few of the signs I’ve been seeing a lot of lately. All are provocative. All serve to stake out territory. I am not yet in a place where I’m prepared to stake out any clear territory for myself on this. Still gathering data. Still trying to understand the landscape. Still asking questions in an effort to see a viable path forward.

Two nights ago, I watched Trevor Noah engage five activists, including:

  • Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter

  • Sam Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero

  • Alex S. Vitale, The Policing and Social Justice Project, Author - The End of Policing

  • Mychal Denzel Smith, Type Media Center Fellow - author, Stakes is High: Life After the American Dream

  • Josie Duffy Rice, President, The Appeal

Typically, I only watch the first six or seven minutes of Trevor’s show. This one was different. All five had interesting viewpoints to offer. I watched the whole show twice that night, and then once again with my family yesterday. I’m still thinking about it. A frequent challenge for me is in listening to such provocative statements, while resisting the temptation to dismiss both the statements and their sources.

The notion of abolishing police forces, for instance, seemed immediately outrageous, a non-starter for me. Then I watched an interview with former police Chief Scott Thomson, in which he described how the city of Camden, New Jersey did just that. Everyone, including Thomson, was fired in 2013, then interviewed to be part of a re-constituted force with an entirely new framework. Not everyone was rehired. Crime is way down, complaints are way down, community relations are way up.

Always looking for answers to the question, “what next?” I found myself wanting to learn more from Alex Vitale, Brooklyn College Professor of Sociology. With five participants on the show, Vitale didn’t have much chance to put flesh on the bones of his framework. So… my daughter picked up my iPad, and five minutes later, Vitale’s book, “The End of Policing” was downloaded ($11, about 220 pages). That’s how I spent much of yesterday, reading this book from cover to cover.

Vitale offers a history of policing, from the Middle Ages when a force was created to maintain order among the peasants and preserve the establishment. I’m imagining Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, with Robin Hood and his Merry Men as medieval protesters. The assignment… keep the working class in line, and keep the powerful in control. Vitale would argue that modern-day police forces were created with the same reasoning in mind. Serve and protect, and maintain order, but for whom?

Working his way through several chapters, Vitale describes how policing has evolved in the United States as an instrument of intimidation and control. He describes how assignments given to police, rather than social support services, have criminalized each of: homelessness; mental illness; drugs; the sex trade; school misbehaviour; and border crossings. He makes quite an appealing case for funding the front end of social ills, rather than the back end. He argues that front-end investment in education, health care, and social services will both cost less than policing and mass incarceration, and at the same time, eliminate the revolving door syndrome afflicting so many disadvantaged people.

Police are not social workers. They’re not trained to deal with the mentally ill or the addicted or the homeless, or kids with ADHD. They’re trained and armed to control. One of Noah’s guests asked, “what are police good at, other than whupping ass?” As you might guess, he was the one in favour of abolishing police forces altogether.

It was intriguing for me to hear another guest, Patrisse Cullors, argue that it’s better that Black Lives Matters not have a central leader, vulnerable to attack, when police brutality is the subject of the conversation. My naivete almost had me dismissing this idea out of hand, but I resisted. I’m trying to more fully understand the mindsets that created each of these signs.

While I’m not convinced that abolishing police forces will be a sweepingly successful answer, in some cases, it might also be of value. I think there’s a strong case for the notion that policing structures and systems have not shaken off the historical class basis for their existence. Vitale argues that much of policing in the early history of the United States related to maintaining control of slaves. Protect the establishment from uprisings. As you might imagine, this still represents a fair bit of baggage for the African American community to carry around. In Canada, the RCMP today remains viewed in a similar light by many indigenous people. History has a long arm.

Where does all this lead? Well, I’m left thinking that the case for defunding, abolishing, or overhauling policing needs to consider the language it employs very carefully. I watched an interview the other night with Samuel L. Jackson, as he described how, in 1969, he was an active protester, wanting to blow everything up. He still wants to blow things up, just not physically. The challenge, as he sees it, as it always seems to be, is to be patient, persistent, and smart. Blowing things up, physically, is not the right answer.

If you’re going to make the case, as Noah’s guests did, that violence at the hands of police is not the best response to criminal violence, well… then, citizen violence is not, in turn, the right answer to police violence either. Peaceful protest must be protected against infiltration by violent interlopers. Know that these people are out there waiting, see them coming, and be smart.

Just as teachers are not equipped to handle all the tasks that have been assigned to them in recent decades, police officers are also not equipped to do what is being asked of them. When escalating armaments appear to be the response, we’re definitely not heading to a happy place. Remember the Cold War? Mutually assured destruction?

When all you’ve got is a hammer… everything is treated as a nail. When all you’ve got is a weapon… everything is treated as a criminal. If we were to re-invent policing today, with no baggage and no preconceptions, what would it look like? From where I sit, this cannot be achieved without asking how we would re-invent society at large, starting from scratch. I return once again to universal access to health care and education. Without equal opportunity to engage, no changes to policing will make meaningful change for the better. Without meaningful opportunity for the under-class to participate economically, we’re only treating symptoms.

When I look at all these signs, it’s easy for me to dismiss the ACAB sign without hesitation. Not only is it not true. It also does not serve. It does not take us anywhere except mayhem. The other signs all have merit, but often at a price. Being provocative is one thing, but protesters need also to be smart. They need to be careful that their call for change is not hijacked, either by opportunistic looters, vandals, or anarchists, from either the left or the right, or subjected to ridicule by extremist language (ACAB), or even by their own language.

“Defund the police” for example, is scary language to most. It was scary to me before I read past the headline. Be aware that 95% of people don’t read past the headline. I almost didn’t… and I love to read. Ask yourself where you want to end up and choose your words accordingly.

Start by knowing your audience. The language of your sign determines immediately whether you’re in for a conversation or a conflict. When you have a choice, go for conversation every time.

Just as I have listened to protesters while trying to understand their point of view, I suspect that any successes they enjoy from this effort will come only from engaging in conversation or debate with the establishment while trying to understand their point of view. What is that point of view? What turns their crank? The answer is simple. It always ends with “ka-ching”.

This conversation will need something at the bottom of the page that says dollars and cents. The case for re-assigning current police responsibilities elsewhere, and for re-framing the police responsibilities that do remain, will need to demonstrate convincingly that these changes will ultimately pay off in cold hard cash. Only when you can show that investments in health care, education, and social services will cost less, and serve and protect better, will there be any hope for change. Among a host of downsides, failure to carry this conversation will ensure that the country retains nearly one-quarter of the world’s imprisoned, costing both unimaginable sums of money and unimaginable losses in productivity.

Those in the establishment will not give up their power, but they might just be convinced to change how they wield that power. They have their own signs, blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ your mind. These signs cannot be ignored. Do this. Don’t do that. Can you read the signs? With a clear understanding of how the system works, and what the signs say, the key may just turn. Without it, that door will absolutely remain locked.

At this point, this is where I see the bottom line… but I’m still studying.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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