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What the protesters want and why they might not get it

How past movements against police brutality inform the current unrest.

A woman holds a cardboard placard above her head calling for the abolition of police and white supremacy.
A woman holds a placard calling for the abolition of police on June 1 during a demonstration against the death of George Floyd.
Toby Scott/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

In the glowing embers of dumpster fires and amid the plumes rising from smoldering police SUVs, the age-old question in American political life has once again returned: What do the protesters want?

After the police killings of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other black people, the United States has been struck by protests, both violent and nonviolent, expressing grief and anger, and demanding change after centuries of racism. Yet with America’s deep-rooted bigotry and political dysfunction, stiff headwinds threaten to undermine the protesters’ agenda.

In the broadest possible terms, anti-racist protesters, politicians, and thinkers advocate for a less-policed existence and investment in impoverished, segregated communities — as well as more self-determination for those who live there. The policy specifics favored within this coalition diverge widely, from the institutionalist reforms of the Democratic Party to the radical proposals outlined by the Movement for Black Lives. Yet, generally speaking, the consensus focuses on less police, more community control, more investment.

For activists and their allies, however, uprisings against police brutality and policies aimed at unraveling systemic racism often fall far short of the reforms they aim to achieve. The cycle is familiar. Following the police violence comes the protest decrying it. Then enter the commissions and panels. But absent is the enduring investment and reform — a failure that too often dooms communities to endure poverty and brutality. Essentially, this means that protests, when they end, do not end well.

Days ahead of the uprising in Baltimore following the killing of Freddie Gray, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates critiqued the role police officers have been assigned: “Police officers fight crime,” he wrote. “Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference.”

One year after Baltimore’s uprising, this hadn’t changed. In a speech on criminal justice reform then-President Barack Obama gave in the wake of yet another uprising in Dallas, he castigated the United States for eschewing mental health programs, under-investing in schools, allowing poverty to fester, underfunding drug treatment, and then telling police “you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.”

In 2016, a robust coalition of racial justice organizations under the moniker the Movement for Black Lives published a policy platform distilling this frustration into federal, state, and local proposals and demanding “investments in the education, health, and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people.”

This platform — broad, sweeping, ambitious — was not taken up by federal policymakers. To the contrary, it was published the same year that President Donald Trump, who threatened to send military forces to police black residents in Chicago, won the presidency. In the years since, his administration has not just ignored proposals created by the Movement for Black Lives, for example, but actively pursued policies damaging to black lives, from rolling back oversight of policing to creating pathways for the militarization of police.

But the Trump administration is only part of the problem. Stretching back into the middle of the 20th century, decade after decade, protest after protest, anti-racist activists have been met with a reoccurring political blockade, effectively thwarting many of the most robust societal-level policy changes that they seek.

How the civil rights era unrest didn’t lead to lasting change

Near the end of the civil rights era, violent protests swept the nation. In cities like Newark, Los Angeles, and Detroit, black residents took part in uprisings to protest police brutality and generations of discrimination. For years, local activists had been advocating for community control of law enforcement. They were met instead with brutal force.

To better understand the unrest, the federal government created the Kerner Commission. Officials were tasked with answering three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

The group found “white racism” and the “racial ghetto” were principally responsible for the underlying conditions that sparked the uprising.

“Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment,” the report read. “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” it continued. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Despite sweeping recommendations for broad-based investments in these communities, the policy suggestions of the Kerner Commission were never followed. “Kerner was one of the most ambitious documents that never was,” says Johns Hopkins political scientist Vesla M. Weaver. “It was discredited the day after it was produced.”

Weaver notes the racial justice activists of this era understood crime not as a behavior but as a social condition. They fought for democratic control of the police and broader communal investment. Yet these reform-minded activists and politicians were ultimately unsuccessful in winning the broader public policy debate.

“It’s really difficult to say, ‘Okay, we’ve got social conditions that lead to levels of safety deprivation, that then lead to the need for police. And, instead of police, how about we fix the social conditions?’ That discourse lost. It lost in the ’60s,” says Weaver. “That was liberal rhetoric that totally fell by the wayside by the time you get to the 1970s and ’80s.”

That change in focus led to centuries of economic and racial inequality in black communities being addressed through policing and prisons, thereby creating the modern era of mass incarceration. Beginning in the 1970s, America’s prison population quadrupled in the span of 20 years, according to crime data analyzed by Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson.

And just one generation later, as American policing and the carceral state metastasized, the country would again heave under the weight of mass protest.

The lessons of 1992 were the same as the lessons of 1968. As was the action taken based on that knowledge.

In 1992, Los Angeles County was engulfed in the uprising following the beating of Rodney King. With dozens of deaths, thousands of arrests, and $1 billion in property damage, the nation watched in awe and horror.

And just as in the 1960s, after the dust settled, investigations revealed the same underlying causes: community divestment and undemocratic police systems. Describing the conditions in the Nation, Dave Zirin portrays the city as being pushed “to the bursting point by urban neglect and rampant, unchecked police violence.”

“It was the 45 percent unemployment-rate of African-American males in South Central,” Zirin wrote. “It was Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates and his violent programs of police enforcement like the infamous Operation Hammer. It was deindustrialization and the loss of union jobs.”

The government’s assessment of the situation was the same. The California State Legislature’s Tucker Commission — charged with reexamining the cause of the LA uprising — concluded that “the causes of the 1992 unrest were the same as the causes of the unrest of the 1960s, aggravated by a highly visible increasing concentration of wealth at the top of the income scale and a decreasing Federal and State commitment to urban programs serving those at the bottom of the income scale.”

Yet as socioeconomic statistics on racial inequality and policing show, the 1992 riots did not successfully catalyze the United States to embark on a mission to radically reimagine its political economy and policing policies. The failure to heed the warning of the 1992 uprising meant that the country entered into another generation of violent policing — one fueled by the 1994 crime bill, which further corroded communities and grew prisons in a way that directly leads to the problems that sparked America’s more recent protests.

How recent uprisings fit into a cycle of inertia on racial justice

Baltimore rose up in 2015 — and the cycle began again.

Again, the police violently arrested and ultimately killed an unarmed black person.

Again, demonstrators protested. Agitators destroyed property for six days.

The community’s concerns were illuminated, and subsequent federal government reports were filed. The investigation by the Justice Department revealed that Baltimore police “routinely violated the constitutional rights of citizens, used excessive force, and discriminated against African Americans.”

Studies outlined the underlying socioeconomic conditions that contribute to crime and a lower quality of life. Yet for all the chaos and rhetoric, the uprising in Baltimore was not followed with broad-based national police reform that would create local democratic control of law enforcement or divestments from unnecessary policing.

Protected by an interlocking web of police unions, Supreme Court cases, and “law-and-order” legislators, many of the macro political and economic factors undergirding aggressive policing remain unchanged. As revealed in the violent policing tactics levied against black individuals and common in black communities, theories of racialized criminality and punitive policy continue to anchor American public policy.

Protesters have taken to the streets. Again, the country is confronted with the same questions and presented with many of the same solutions. Congress is considering discussions on policing and racism — the same discussions that led to the creation of the Kerner Commission, the same ones that occurred in 1992. The familiar dance is in full swing.

Yet this time, the nation is strutting closer to the breach than ever before, with coast-to-coast demands for racial equality that are amplified by the presence of a global pandemic and economic crisis. Whether the elected officials will heed the demands long made by activists and experts might determine if the US falls over the edge. With President Trump flirting with increasing law enforcement through martial law — and the current prospect for legislative action remaining scant — whether this generation of protesters will be able to successfully change America’s policing paradigm will likely be determined not just by the duration of these protests, but by the elections in November.