Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash.
Note: The author would like to thank Jim Miller for his editing, and Adam Kent-Isaac, Lisi Kent-Isaac, Debra Kent, Bob Orsi, Mala Htun, and Jeffrey Tulis for their comments. A much longer version of this piece can be read at the author’s blog.
On June 15, 2020, citizens demonstrating against racism in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were stopped in their tracks when four shots rang out. The shots came from a group wearing military garb and carrying semi-automatic rifles. One man was critically wounded, but all the protesters feared for their lives.
The Albuquerque police, who were monitoring the demonstration, immediately arrested a number of the militia group members. “The heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force,” New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said in a statement. “To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry — with an implicit threat of violence — is on its face unacceptable; that violence did indeed occur is unspeakable.”
This was not an isolated incident. The potential for violence from far-right groups is real, and a standing danger to protesters demanding justice for Black people. Also real is the overlap between this paramilitary violence and some police officers who are linked to the far-right.
But it is equally clear that when this far-right violence occurs, and unless we are committed anarchists willing to advocate armed counter-violence, we can only look to the police to step in, arrest the perpetrators, and initiate a process of criminal justice.
After the incident in Albuquerque, Julian Castro posted a video on Twitter:
One of these New Mexico right-wing militia members just shot a person. Notice how calmly they’re all being detained. Don’t tell me George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks and Eric Garner — who did not harm anybody — couldn’t be treated differently.
There is a critique of policing here. But it is not a denunciation of the fact that there were police officers present, who were able to arrest the militiamen. On the contrary: it was a tacit admission that more must be done by law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute violent racists, including some police, and extremist right-wing groups, in order to protect ordinary citizens, especially citizens of color.
Such ongoing threats to public safety from the Right suggest one reason why calls to abolish, or “defund the police” are off the mark. Because the United States remains an extremely violent society, in ways that the rhetoric of “abolish the police” simply ignores.
The U.S. is by far the most armed society in the world not suffering from civil war. It is estimated that in 2019 alone, 13.9 million firearms were purchased by Americans.
This March — a few months ago — more than two million guns were purchased in response to fears of the coronavirus. According to one estimate, Americans own more than 390 million firearms. Most of these guns are legally obtained by law-abiding citizens. Indeed, many of those involved in right-wing “militias” are in fact “law-abiding” even when they tote their semi-automatic assault rifles around state capitol buildings.
That is why the police must be relied upon to deal with the danger of armed violence from the Right. As long as there are lynchings of African Americans or LGBT teenagers, and violent felons and armed neo-Nazi groups and street gangs, and “domestic disturbances” typically involving violent intimidation or rape, genuine “public safety” will require the intervention of police professionals familiar with the neighborhoods in which they work and properly trained in tactics of de-escalation, civil mediation, and the justified and efficient use of force as a last resort.
Of course, all too often police act violently in ways that threaten public safety. This is why the case against the police has been made repeatedly, and pointedly, in recent weeks. I thoroughly support the current protests, their framing around the slogan of “Black Lives Matter,” and their demands for radical reform — to a point.
In a recent piece for the Intercept, activist Chenjerai Kumanyika took Barack Obama to task for calling on police officers and departments to reform themselves so that more police officers can do their jobs in a legal and respectful way. Kumanyika insisted that Obama was idealizing what is essentially a form of oppression plain and simple:
Derek Chauvin was doing his job when he arrested Floyd. You might feel that he didn’t do his job well, but the police union will likely disagree with you… It was not the job of the police to understand why Floyd may have been using a counterfeit $20 bill; it was to ensure that he would be obedient — even though he did not resist arrest… It was also the job of the police to ensure the subservience of the others who courageously attempted to reason with Chauvin and save Floyd’s life… When people hit the streets in outrage, it was the job of the police to enter their neighborhoods in armed trucks, with heavy tactical gear.
We all know that too often this is the way some police behave. That is why Obama’s administration pursued some very serious and consequential reforms. And it is why he is now calling for more substantial change. But Obama refuses to accept that “the job of the police” is to harass and kill people like George Floyd and those who protest on their behalf.
Keith Ellison, the Black and Muslim former civil rights activist and chief supporter of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, who is the recently-elected attorney general of Minnesota, agrees with Obama here. He is insisting that Chauvin and his colleagues were not doing their job properly, they were using force excessively, and that it is his job to have the police arrest these men, charge them with murder and prosecute and convict them for their criminal actions.
Indeed, one of the central demands of the Black Lives Matter movement from the start has been that the murderers of Black citizens — whether they be armed vigilantes like George Zimmerman or police officers like Derek Chauvin — must be promptly arrested and brought to justice. Ellison and other progressive prosecutors across the country — such as Ferguson’s Wesley Bell and Atlanta’s Paul Howard — are doing precisely this, working with police, while also working to radically reform the police, so that justice can be served.
Are Ellison, Bell, and Howard fools who are ignorant about the history of racism, and do they believe that police officers are great? No. They are responsible and responsive elected officials who are trying to use the powers of the government to realize the principle of equal justice under the law. They are also at the center of the debate about the police we should be having: How best to reform policing and the system of criminal justice more generally, through legal and political change, and through the election and selection of prosecutors committed to equal justice.
There is a crisis in American policing, and it must be addressed.
But addressing it means transforming policing, not ending it.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.