Rebellions are clarifying. They not only respond to conditions — they shape them. A month into a popular uprising against policing and the broader edifice of state violence, politicians are rushing to catch up with its energy — or contain its spread.
The Minneapolis City Council is moving to disband the police department that murdered George Floyd, Philando Castile and almost 200 others in the last 20 years. Albuquerque, Los Angeles and San Francisco have moved to create unarmed, non-law–enforcement agencies to respond to issues that have for decades been the province of police. The New York City Council has proposed slashing $1 billion from the world’s largest police force, a move other municipalities are considering as well, albeit to varying degrees and amounts.
A number of concerns await these and other moves, including who will decide what incidents require law enforcement versus social workers or other non-police response teams, and how municipalities will overcome the backlash of aggressive police departments that stand to lose the spoils to which they’ve grown accustomed. Still, a month of popular rebellion has upended a half century of political orthodoxy that has funneled an endless font of technology and resources to police to uphold a system that funneled an endless redistribution of wealth upward and misery downward.
Enter the Republicans. On Wednesday morning, Republican senators Tim Scott and Mitch McConnell announced the “Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere” (JUSTICE) Act. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, said his bill supports both Black Americans and law enforcement.
The GOP senators’ announcement follows on the heels of the executive order on police reform issued by Trump on Tuesday. Our “law-and-order” president’s credibility on the issue is highly suspect. After all, Trump has repeatedly encouraged police to be as brutal as possible — particularly against Black people, immigrants, Muslims and leftists. Early in the life span of this uprising, Trump repeated a 1967 threat issued from Miami Police Chief Walter Headley to kill anyone suspected of looting. Like Trump, Headley’s threat was less about the sanctity of private property than a threat to uphold the racist status quo through murderous violence.
After announcing the order, Trump predictably went off script to tout the stock market, Confederate statues, “school choice” attacks on public schools — and, of course, policing itself. Trump still plans to host a campaign rally on Saturday, the day after Juneteenth, in Tulsa, the site of a notorious racist massacre in 1921.
Neither the executive order nor the Senate bill is blustery. Nor is either particularly surprising. Both repeat many of the same procedural tweaks that have characterized bipartisan police reforms of the last two decades. The executive order stresses the importance of law enforcement, noting that “some officers have misused their authority, challenging the trust of the American people” — particularly “in African-American communities.” The Senate bill similarly promises to restore the “lost faith” in law enforcement.
To restore that “trust,” the order and the proposed Senate bill rehash familiar ground. Namely, they propose more training, funding and monitoring of U.S. police departments. The order requires regular and independent credentialing of local and state police departments, to be determined and certified by the attorney general. It creates a national database to document police use of excessive force. It mandates that “all officers should be properly trained” to address “mental health, homelessness, and addiction.” And it authorizes the attorney general, along with the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the president’s domestic policy adviser, to propose legislation and grants that advance these directives. The grab bag of options to be considered under this rubric include “improved use-of-force policies” as well as “community outreach and listening sessions.”
In addition to repeating these approaches, the Senate bill requires better reporting of no-knock warrants (the use of which resulted in Breonna Taylor’s murder) and aims to “incentivize” against chokeholds (which police used in murdering Eric Garner and George Floyd) — despite bans on them already being in existence. It also returns to the favorite suggestion of modern police reformers, the body camera. Like a bill under consideration by the House, the Senate bill does make lynching a federal hate crime. And its provisions for police training include a proposed partnership with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Let’s begin with the obvious problem of this administration: Much of the order falls under the purview of the attorney general, the top federal law enforcement official. Both Trump’s order and Scott’s bill empower the attorney general to provide the training, dispense the funding and manage the database these acts create. Under this administration, that would leave noted reactionary Bill Barr, a man who never misses an opportunity to defend the imperial presidency against the faintest hint of democracy, in charge of what amounts to a continued transfer of wealth and power to U.S. policing. The current administration, including Barr (author of the 1992 report “The Case for More Incarceration”), has made no secret of its love for the carceral state. And as per usual, what is left unsaid remains as relevant as what is made explicit. The executive order seems to apply only to state and local police (and allows local officials to ultimately determine whether they follow its dictates). It makes no mention of the alphabet soup of federal policing agencies such as the BOP, CBP, DEA, FBI and ICE — despite several of these agencies playing a role in the violent repression of recent protests, the latest in a long history of abuses by these agencies. The Senate bill does prohibit federal law enforcement from “engag[ing] in a sexual act” with anyone in custody.
The problems are bigger than the current administration, however. Indeed, parts of this order functionally have been carried out by a different attorney general. Following the rebellions that responded to the police murder of Michael Brown in 2014, Barack Obama used an executive order to create the “Task Force on 21st Century Policing.” While that task force issued a more ambitious set of reforms than Trump’s executive order, it displayed the same emphasis on small-scale procedural shifts — data analysis, better training, more resources — over structural change.
The top two 2020 Democratic candidates for president have not been much better. Responding to the current wave of rebellion, Bernie Sanders called for police officers to receive a raise while Joe Biden pledged $300 million to community policing efforts, the tried-and-failed highlight of the 1994 crime bill that Biden championed.
Like its corollary in the realm of incarceration, bipartisan police reform is of limited ambitions. The goal of these reforms seems primarily to be stopping the rebellions rather than stopping the abuses that cause them. Despite its narrow scope, mainstream police reform efforts are united by a belief that the problems can be solved with more money for police, either directly in the form of hardware such as body cameras or indirectly, in the form of training.
On the streets, however, reality is continuing to be remade. The beauty of the #DefundthePolice demand is that it refuses the grift at the heart of U.S. policing. It cuts to the chase: Money for police comes at the expense of money for health, housing, food and social welfare. It is the people’s executive order, the call for the world we need, somehow now more in reach than it has been in generations. The problem is not a dearth of data or trainings. The problem is a surplus of police.