After the Protests: What Then?

How to translate understandable frustration at injustice into tangible reform?

A blogger at Medium offers some useful insights into the ongoing protests over racial injustice and police brutality and, particularly, how to turn the understandable frustration into social justice. Or, in the words of the post’s headline, “Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change.”

First, the waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.

On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.

Second, I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobediencethat the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

Moreover, it’s important for us to understand which levels of government have the biggest impact on our criminal justice system and police practices. When we think about politics, a lot of us focus only on the presidency and the federal government. And yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it. But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels
.
It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well. Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.

So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.

Finally, the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away. The content of that reform agenda will be different for various communities. A big city may need one set of reforms; a rural community may need another. Some agencies will require wholesale rehabilitation; others should make minor improvements. Every law enforcement agency should have clear policies, including an independent body that conducts investigations of alleged misconduct. Tailoring reforms for each community will require local activists and organizations to do their research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best.

There’s more at the link, but you get the gist. Acknowledging that the writer comes from a position of privilege in our society and therefore still has faith in the power of our imperfect democratic institutions, I think these are nonetheless useful points.

While US politics has been a subject of intense interest for me going back four decades, and was something I studied to some extent for three political science degrees, my specialization is US foreign and defense policy. Ultimately, it comes down to translating policy to strategy to tactics. Far too often, we are superb at tactics but fail to ask the question, Then what?

We’ve been great at regime change, for example, getting rid of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafy in Libya. But we didn’t much plan for how to go from there to achieve the desired endstate.

Unlike the civil rights protests of the 1960s, the current wave feels organic and bottom-up. Their policy aim is much smaller this time and one that it’s hard to imagine any decent person opposing: to have police officers stop treating black men as the enemy, routinely brutalizing and even killing them for no good reason.

The ubiquity of mobile phones that can easily capture high-quality videos of these incidents and instantaneously transmit them to the public has made us all more viscerally aware of an outrage that black society has lived with for generations. One would hope political leaders, regardless of race or political party, would be racing to find a solution without the need for large-scale protest to spur it on.

But here we are. I’m not as optimistic as my fellow blogger that this time will be different.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Politics 101, Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    The kind of change we need takes long, slow work with little visibility. Politicians are terrible at this kind of work. Politicians need to make headlines about how great they have been, and before the next election.

    We have to do the work ourselves, and by our votes, get the politicians to go along with it.

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  2. SKI says:

    Your “fellow blogger” has some good insight and experience in this area… lol

    Re-instituting a functioning DOJ focusing on this area is an easy first step.
    Dumping, or at least severely limiting QI is another.
    Public review boards with actual transparency.
    Laws preventing certain provisions in police union contracts that interfere with investigations.
    And that is just the universal ones.

    Ultimately, we need to change the culture of our police forces and change the environment they work in. Michael R., in another thread earlier, traced a bunch of our issues to guns and drugs. I would add mental health to that.

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  3. Modulo Myself says:


    On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.

    This is what the protestors are protesting. History is not the guide: it’s racism that’s makes grocery stores not come back after they’re looted in riots. It’s people who think POC aren’t really reacting to violence and oppression but are lazy, criminally-indulgent subhumans. Every black person gets the fact that to achieve equality being way more ethical than white Americans are might be necessary. That’s why black people produce Barack Obama and whites produce Donald Trump. But you can’t expect this to be the fucking appeal of the American political system or the really great thing about the civil rights movement.

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  4. Scott F. says:

    As noted in the blog:

    The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobediencethat the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

    Eventually plays an important part in his premise that both protest and politics are needed. I would argue that we are still in the “make the powers that be uncomfortable” phase. More discomfort is going to be necessary before the politicians are activated (for reasons @Jay L Gischer explains).

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  5. dazedandconfused says:

    Nearly all law enforcement in the US is local, and there are thousands police depts. Each to a degree develops it’s own culture.

    Change comes slow across such a vastly diverse “nation”. Municipalities have been learning how expensive poorly trained and/or bad cops can be for quite some time now. If they are unable to comprehend this from current events guidance from some higher authority is unlikely to have much effect.

  6. HarvardLaw92 says:

    “Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change.”

    Unfortunately, I believe that moment of opportunity has come and gone for the time being. They lost it the second Mainstream America saw building buildings and looting.

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  7. senyordave says:

    The Floyd case was a front page story because it was particularly egregious, with no possible way of a reasonable person justifying the officer’s behavior. That being said, I believe that if not for the violence and looting it would have quickly faded away after a day or two just like so many cases before. I think a large part of white America is perfectly fine with the way things are. That is why a majority of white America could vote for a Donald Trump, who was obviously unqualified at every level to be a small town mayor, much less POTUS.
    It is possible if there was an MLK around today there could have been a nationwide movement of peaceful protests, but I don’t really know if that could ever happen.
    More than ever I am convinced that the only only think that matters to many white people is their own immediate situation, and making sure that they aren’t on the lowest rung of the ladder.
    If POC want to make sure their voices are heard, they should have a nationwide economic boycott. Stop spending money, stall the recovery. That would force the one and five percenters to give a damn. And the economy is the only thing Trump gives a shit about, because he has no argument for re-election other than that.
    I pray this does not turn into a 1968 situation that badly damages the Democrats. A couple things give me hope on that. Trump is so historically bad and incompetent that most people who weren’t for him were very against him, and those people are not likely to suddenly switch. While it will energize his base, but it will also energize the opposition, and I think whatever meager black support he might have had will be reduced (maybe from 5% to 3%, but each bit helps).

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  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    James, this fellow writes well, perhaps you can recruit him to be a contributor here at OTB. I understand that he lives on Martha’s Vineyard, which is definitely outside the beltway.

    I believe we know what needs to happen to deal with the underlying issues that have brought us to this point. The question is do we have the political will to make it happen. Is there enough social cohesion or can it be summonsed. Will those with control use that for the greater good and stop using it for their own ends and in service to the more powerful.

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  9. grumpy realist says:

    The trouble is the looters and nihilists have overridden the protestors.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    George Will, no less, using the kind of gentle rhetoric I myself favor, just called the Republican Senate Vichyite collaborators. That’s a bellweather for where the Never Trumpers and neocons are going, and it’s not back to Orange Jesus.

    If we’re not losing those people, who are we losing? Which part of the ~53% of voters who literally hate Trump is going to swing? Are we not likely to see a larger AA turnout? Has the disparity between Trump and Biden perhaps combined to get some progs to get over themselves and get on board? Is it not possible that some Trumpies are seeing Fearless Leader’s weakness and becoming discouraged?

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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    @grumpy realist:

    They sure have, but who can blame them? Honestly, what other message is there? Protest and use free speech, but don’t be divisive to whites who don’t want to hear anything? Get shot by rubber bullets but if you strike back once you deserve to be brutalized? Conform to the banal image of MLK that moronic suburban whites have picked up from clips on tv?

    The problem with Mainstream America is the r-word and I don’t mean racism. You can’t sell total retardation as a solution to anyone but those who benefit from it.

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  12. Modulo Myself says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If Republicans were serious they would have the Secret Service put a couple rounds in Trump’s head, call it a stroke, blame it on Soros for the 40%, and then have Pence go through the effort of trying not to pretend enjoy watching cops murder a black teenager who wasn’t even looting.

  13. Hal_10000 says:

    What then? We need to bave an actual plan for how to stop this. Fewer laws (and thus fewer interactions between citizen and cop), ending qualified immunity, demilitarizing the police and breaking the police union.

    Good luck. I expect instead some feel-good gesture that does nothing.

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  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Modulo Myself: From what I’ve been seeing, there’s a great difference between the protesters and the looters. At least that’s what we’ve been seeing here in Chicago. They’re not the same population. The looters are opportunists, taking advantage to rob and steal–or they’re would-be nihilists enthusiastically smashing and burning for fun and because they think it would be “cool” to live in a Mad Max world. (Suggestion: take such idiots and dump in one of the more chaotic parts of Africa and tell them we’ll come back for them in five months. If they survive.)

  15. wr says:

    @HarvardLaw92: “They lost it the second Mainstream America saw building buildings and looting.”

    As always, “mainstream America” somehow manages to exclude minorities and poor people as well as anyone who understands the underlying problems. It comes down to Sarah Palin’s “real America”– white, uneducated, bigoted. Joe Sixpack. Because of course we live eternally in 1967.

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  16. Blue Galangal says:

    @Hal_10000: Background checks on police recruits and disqualify any with ties to militia groups & white supremacist organisations. To start.