Police Riots and the Limits of Electoral Solutions

Officers arresting a protester.
Officers arresting a protester. Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Despite their open disputation, Democrats and Republicans agree on at least one aspect of the unrest that’s roiled the summer: The party in charge matters for maintaining public order. But for all their blame-laying, it’s become clear that neither side has a compelling answer to a thornier dilemma: the disorderly behavior of the police.

For many in the GOP, the problem is self-evident. Democratic mayors and city council members have managed many of America’s largest cities for decades. Any disaffection that’s built up over that period derives necessarily from the Dems’ unique brand of misrule — particularly if the exacerbating factors involve crime, drug abuse, or homelessness. As for what these Republicans would do differently, their answers tend to be as superficial as they are dubious. President Trump and his allies have called not for more responsive and equitable governance, but for harsher crackdowns. The pattern of escalating clashes with protesters wrought by this very approach — in cities like Portland and New York — suggest its tendency to harm more than it helps, mostly by displacing good-faith problem-solving efforts with demagoguery and more violence.

Often unmentioned in such debates are the migration patterns that helped make these dynamics possible in the first place. The wholesale absconding of millions of white residents from major cities during the mid- to late-20th century, in many cases, left behind a scorched-earth trail of disinvestment and disadvantage. It’s no surprise that the party less flagrantly hostile to minority civil rights was granted a governing monopoly by many of the populations that remained and by others who have gravitated to their neighborhoods. Nor is local government’s failure to resolve the problems associated with racial and class segregation — which would require a degree of commitment and political will that’s proved sporadic at best, and nonexistent at worst, often regardless of the party in charge.

The impulse to frame these issues in partisan terms is partly opportunistic. Members of each party see the unrest as a chance to draw distinctions. For some Democrats, it’s an opening to perform their allegiances. Mayor Ted Wheeler mingling with protesters in Portland and Mayor Muriel Bowser sanctioning “Black Lives Matter” painted in block text on a Washington, D.C., thoroughfare are meant to signal solidarity — even as both officials have demurred on fulfilling the movement’s most urgent demands, such as defunding the police. For many Republicans worried about the political ground that Trump seems to be losing, it’s a chance to rattle their sabers and hammer Democrats with “law and order” messaging. The central theme for both is public order — who’s enforcing it, who would handle it better, who’s letting protesters and rioters run amok.

It’s also a misplaced target. For all the disruption caused by nonviolent dissent and destruction by rioting, both are fundamentally responsive — effects of unaccountable police violence, first and foremost, and a range of failures of government in addition. The police are in revolt, meanwhile. Neither the ghoulish unseriousness of the GOP’s proposals for handling urban unrest nor the underwhelming but moderately more substantive entreaties by Democrats address the fact that, for all the backlash that’s greeted the state’s brutal conduct, nobody seems willing or able to control the police when the police don’t wish to be controlled.

The GOP makes no secret of being almost totally uninterested in reining in the cops. Trump regularly flaunts his endorsements from anti-democratic police unions and proclaims that calls to rein in their violence are preventing them from doing their jobs. Many Democratic leaders have responded to the latest protests with milquetoast half-measures, often met by officer backlash. After Rayshard Brooks was killed in June, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta announced a series of reforms that have already failed in previous implementations, even as many of her city’s police became stricken by the “blue flu” — a form of protest in which officers call out sick en masse to punish meddling officials. New York mayor Bill de Blasio recently tried to justify an incident where officers drove their car into a crowd of protesters, as part of his long-standing campaign to endear himself to a department whose members have regularly threatened and made no secret of their disdain for him. When he dared to criticize them later, a local police union responded by doxing his daughter.

These incidents stand in addition to the roughly 1,000 fatal police shootings that occur annually, and the vicious response by riot police to peaceful protests in cities from Columbus, Ohio, to Compton, California. That liberal or progressive mayors govern most of these cities suggests the limits of election-based remedies. Voting the right officials into office and applying pressure is the key, Americans are routinely told. But while crucial, this is insufficient. Even officials who agree that radical change is necessary are often helpless against a law-enforcement apparatus whose defining feature is its impunity, flaunted enthusiastically by its representatives. The need for systemic overhaul — from what police are tasked with doing to where and how they exist — has rarely been clearer. This mandate transcends the partisan divides that have, regrettably, become so central to Americans’ understanding, and often misled them to simplistic solutions.

You Can’t Vote Out the Police