For a while now, the U.S. has been poised at the threshold of full-on fascism, and “I can’t breathe” is the future to which those in charge appear willing to consign Black people. Fortunately, today, we’re seeing multiracial and multi-class initiatives pushing the state and communities to respond differently to social conflict and, on a more ambitious level, pushing us all toward a more humane society.
Black people in the United States are oppressed in every sense of the term: institutional and systematic discrimination, personal bias, bigotry and social prejudice interacting in a complex web of relationships and structures that have shaded most aspects of life ever since slavery. Other than the fact that George Floyd’s entire murder was captured on video, it was typical.
In terms of protests, George Floyd’s murder was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The protests that have arisen in the wake of the murders of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others, are about the U.S.’s war against Black bodies. And since that war is taking place everywhere, protests are too. Blaming increased levels of anger and commitment on “outside agitators” rather than on the mammoth problems of the state’s encroachment, domination and control of communal competencies is a clear indication more protest is on the way.
Backed by guns and muscle, the state is by nature a war machine. It has appointed itself as the legitimate negotiator for defining and resolving problems. It has defined harm in terms of injury to itself, the symbolic citizen. Its responses have been executed in terms of war: deprivation of time and space, exclusion, punishment, violence and execution. The state does not recognize the validity of community-based responses to conflict and harm that operate in a restorative and transformative way, which is what many protesters are demanding.
Over the past month, as it became obvious that protests could not be stopped, the state and its agents began asserting that dissent is always welcomed, provided it does not exceed the limits prescribed by law. Laws, however, often reflect the exploitative and racist core of society itself. They should not be our moral reference point.
State officials attempted to remove anger and militancy from protests, turn them into picnics, or worse, a circus. They attempted to divide protest with rhetorical binaries of legal vs. illegal, good vs. bad, nonviolent vs. violent. They attempted to control the duration of protest with curfews. They attempted to control the narrative through the media. Meanwhile, they attempted to control the proposed solutions, pointing the way toward electoral channels or superficial reforms that do not alter the disproportionate imbalance of power heavily in favor of the state.
But protesters continued to demand that as a society we explore how the state is able to blame individual police and deny responsibility for such atrocities — or, if the state does acknowledge responsibility, how it goes on without making the kind of reparations that limit its power in the future. Protesters continued to call for limits and even dismantling police departments. Important calls to defund the police and get police out of schools have taken shape.
Restorative and transformative justice — which most protesters are insisting on — are concerned with both personal empowerment and the collective well-being of all. Transformative justice insists on structural change alongside personal change. It reflects a vision of social life that sees the pain and suffering of all as worthy of community concern, unlike state- and power-based institutions which discriminate between those worthy of attention and those not.
Regardless of what some public officials are saying — and many are adopting the calls and even some of the language of social justice — protesters are right to demand real changes to our social hierarchies. We must not go back to a top-down order manifested in the home, the school, the workplace and the society at large. And they have rightfully demanded some immediate changes, including removing police from schools.
Moreover, many prison abolitionists are encouraging us to imagine a world without enormous structural injustices, stretching beyond police departments. One part of society that causes problems and harm cannot be eliminated without eliminating conditions and relations that make those problems and harm likely to occur.
From this perspective, the scope of our mission is broader than defunding or even eliminating police. We must consider what it would mean to remove policing from all areas of life. That it is an opportunity to build a more caring, more inclusive, and a more economic and politically just society.
Our mission in moving beyond police must have an unlimited range, addressing issues related to the environment, consumer protection, taxation, election processes and beyond. This includes the criminal legal context but also extends to problems in families, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces on both the national and international levels.
We must extend our scope of inquiry beyond our lists of police violence victims, even as we continue to, crucially, lift up their names. We must look at the often unrecognized and unchallenged assumptions and paradigms underlying current economic, political, criminal, judicial and social arrangements. Our fight against policing should aim to effect change on a structural level, to emphasize the nurturing of each and every person’s human potential, and meet each and every person’s essential needs.
We must create a world that recognizes that none of us can be harmed or traumatized without all of us suffering. We must create a world where no one of us can prosper without all of us gaining in our common well-being.
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