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.