When George Floyd purportedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, Mahmoud Abumayyaleh said his employees had no choice. They had to call the police. It’s state policy, he said in a public Facebook post. Floyd handed them the bill, a worker followed procedure, and everyone knows what happened after that. “The nephew of the store owner, who was also present at the time, was yelling for the police officers to stop and was pushed away by one of the cops,” Abumayyaleh said. Floyd, he added, may not have even known the bill was fake. The police didn’t ask before they killed him.
In the U.S., the police are the answer for everything. To an overdose, a noisy party, a counterfeit bill in a shop. They are the first and often the last resort for any complaint, no matter how petty. There’s no end to the responsibilities with which we have charged them and no end, seemingly, to the tolerance they enjoy from the state. Even now, as unrest engulfs major cities for the fourth night in a row, the political class defers to its enforcers. Republicans demand more blood. Democrats, with few exceptions, declare their hands tied.
In New York City, the protesters brought violence upon themselves, Mayor de Blasio said. After the cops drove an SUV into a crowd in Flatbush, the mayor, a Democrat, reserved his deepest concerns for the officers behind the wheel. “It is inappropriate for protesters to surround a police vehicle and threaten police officers,” he said at a press conference, repeating a story that later turned out to be false. The mayor went on, blaming “a different element” for “trying to hurt police officers and trying to damage their vehicles.” The police did not instigate what he euphemistically called “the situation.” Instead, he said, it was “started by a group of protesters converging on a police vehicle.”
Hours later, the NYPD arrested his daughter, Chiara, at a protest. The Sergeants Benevolent Association tweeted a photo of her paperwork, which displayed her address — Gracie Mansion — and the ID on her driver’s license. De Blasio called this “unconscionable” eventually and walked back his defense of the violence in Flatbush. But his epiphany was late and difficult to believe. To believe the police did not start the fight that they tried to end with a car, de Blasio had to blind himself not just to the truth but to his own campaigning. The mayor once ran on a pledge to end stop and frisk. He filmed ads with his biracial son to prove his bona fides and brought the same son up again when he decided to run, briefly, for president. “Something sets me apart from my colleagues, and that is for the last 21 years, I have been raising a black son in America,” he said during one primary debate. So much for all that. He has prostrated himself before the cops, but it hasn’t worked. They recognize weakness. They hate him, turn their backs on him, will never respect him. They don’t have to. He’s told them as much.
But while de Blasio is feckless, he’s no outlier. Since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and sparked a national wave of unrest, many Democrats in positions of power were more eager to delegitimize or shut down protests than they were to challenge the police. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz claimed, without offering proof, that outside agitators had inflamed his state; and in the city of St. Paul, the Democratic mayor claimed, falsely, that most of the protesters his cops had arrested came in from out of state too. The mayor, Melvin Carter, later blamed the police for misleading him. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has called for the National Guard; since protests began, the police in his city have arrested motorists at random and fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds.
It is easy and, for liberals, ideologically convenient to blame Donald Trump for emboldening the police. The president is a racist, shaped by an unshakable conviction in the innate criminal tendencies of black and brown people. But the problem is much bigger, and much older, than the Trump presidency. Democrats might lack the specific ethno-nationalist predilections of the GOP, but when it comes to the police, the parties are both subservient. Minus a few critics, stashed in various levels of power, Democrats and Republicans alike have surrendered civilian power to the police.
In the U.S., the police are everywhere, and their power is commensurately massive. Their presence is both literal and figurative, as the punitive impulse they embody saturates nearly every facet of American life. They take the place of social workers and emergency medical personnel and welfare caseworkers, and when they kill, we let them replace judges and juries, too. They’re in public schools, backed up by zero-tolerance policies applied most often to black students. Research consistently demonstrates that students of color are much more likely to face detention, suspension, or expulsion; they’re also more likely to be arrested at school. A juvenile encounter with the police is no minor setback. It can end a child’s academic prospects for good and trap them permanently in a cycle that brings them into deadly contact with the police over and over again.
The police are responsible for mediating domestic-violence disputes, for wellness checks, though they are not trained to soothe people in crisis. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that a quarter of the people shot and killed by police in the first half of the year were experiencing some form of psychiatric distress. Police wage the drug war, which criminalizes substance abuse and packs prisons with people who need care, not incarceration. In the pandemic era, officials have charged them with enforcing social-distancing rules, too — a decision that in New York mostly put poor black and Latino people in virus-ridden jails. The criminal-justice ecosystem to which the police belong has become America’s answer to everything from the opioid crisis to unemployment, as prisons prop up the economies of struggling rural towns.
Police departments don’t write laws. They can’t cut spending on welfare, and schools, and health care. Politicians did that, have been doing it for decades. But as the state atrophies, it leaves behind absences. Lawmakers rely on the police to fill in the gaps, which are now so large they resemble horizons. It can be difficult to imagine that we could ever be anything more than what we are now, and hardly anyone in power seems willing to try. Cop unions push for more money and for fancier weapons and against criminal-justice reforms that would decrease the demand for their services.
Both parties are too happy to concede. After heavy lobbying from the New York City police, de Blasio and his traditional nemesis, Governor Cuomo, both supported a bill reversing bail reforms that helped keep poor New Yorkers out of jail. In May, de Blasio introduced a budget that would cut funding for the Department of Education by $827 million. The NYPD, meanwhile, can expect a cut of just $23.8 million the same year.
The very concept of broken-windows policing, wrote sociologist Alex Vitale in 2017, can be traced directly to conservative beliefs about poverty, urban crime, and the responsibilities of the state. The same theorists who convinced lawmakers and police departments to aggressively criminalize minor offenses believed the poor cannot be helped — only policed. “Financial investment in them would be squandered; new services would go unused or be destroyed; they would continue in their slothful and destructive ways,” Vitale explained in his book, The End of Policing. As they defined it, he added, “the root of the problem was either an essentially moral and cultural failure” in the poor, or an inadequately punitive response from the state that allowed base instincts to flourish. Stability required badges, guns, and sticks.
A moral and cultural failure does exist. But the architects of broken-windows policing misidentified its source, and so do their descendants. Did the people fail the state or did the state fail the people? The liberal politician might concede the latter. He may even approve some new welfare spending or, in the case of de Blasio, experiment with programs like universal pre-K. On the subject of the police, and incarceration, they advocate body cameras and civilian review boards. But that’s often where they stop. The police still know they can beat, shoot, and kill with almost complete impunity in blue and red states alike. Mayors like de Blasio will defend them and repeat their version of events to the press. Governors like Cuomo will give them more money. Democratic voters will nominate the architect of the 1994 crime bill to be president. Matters will go on as usual — unless protesters force a true reckoning.
To those who oppose it, this reckoning will always look violent, opportunistic, unnecessary. But nothing else has worked. Voting in Democrats didn’t keep George Floyd alive. It didn’t save Eric Garner here in New York. The protests that erupt daily in Brooklyn, and Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, started with the police and with their enablers in office. They follow decades of dysfunction, institutional decay, and neglect. Stoked again by the pandemic, and by mass unemployment that lawmakers could address if so moved, protesters strike at the American order itself. The police, they know, exist to keep them in line, and in place.
As Saturday night’s crowd marched near the Barclays Center, you could hear a man yell. “We’ve got no jobs to go to!” he said. “We’ll be out all night.” What’s left to the public but the streets? They may be the only place democracy survives.