How Do We Change America?
by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (New Yorker, June 8, 2020)
The national uprising in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old black man, by four Minneapolis police officers, has been met with shock, elation, concern, fear, and gestures of solidarity. Its sheer scale has been surprising. Across the United States, in cities large and small, streets have filled with young, multiracial crowds who have had enough. In the largest uprisings since the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992, anger and bitterness at racist and unrestrained police violence, abuse, and even murder have finally spilled over in every corner of the United States.
More than seventeen thousand National Guard troops have been deployed—more soldiers than are currently occupying Iraq and Afghanistan—to put down the rebellion. More than ten thousand people have been arrested; more than twelve people, mostly African-American men, have been killed. Curfews were imposed in at least thirty cities, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Omaha, and Sioux City. Solidarity demonstrations have been organized from Accra to Dublin—in Berlin, Paris, London, and beyond. And, most surprisingly, two weeks after Floyd’s death, the protests have not ended. Last Saturday saw the largest protests so far, as tens of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall and marched down the streets of Brooklyn and Philadelphia.
The relentless fury and pace of rebellion has forced states to shrug off their stumbling efforts to subdue the novel coronavirus that continues to sicken thousands in the United States. State leaders have been much more adept in calling up the National Guard and coördinating police actions to confront marchers than they were in any of their efforts to curtail the virus. In a show of both cowardice and authoritarianism, Donald Trump threatened to call up the U.S. military to occupy American cities. “Crisis” does not begin to describe the political maelstrom that has been unleashed.
There have been planned demonstrations, and there have also been violent and explosive outbursts that can only be described as a revolt or an uprising. Riots are not only the voice of the unheard, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said; they are the rowdy entry of the oppressed into the political realm. They become a stage of political theatre where joy, revulsion, sadness, anger, and excitement clash wildly in a cathartic dance. They are a festival of the oppressed.
For once in their lives, many of the participants can be seen, heard, and felt in public. People are pulled from the margins into a powerful force that can no longer be ignored, beaten, or easily discarded. Offering the first tastes of real freedom, when the police are for once afraid of the crowd, the riot can be destructive, unruly, violent, and unpredictable. But within that contradictory tangle emerge demands and aspirations for a society different from the one we in which we live. Not only do the rebels express their own dismay but they also showcase our entire social dilemma. As King said, of the uprisings in the late nineteen-sixties, “I am not sad that Black Americans are rebelling; this was not only inevitable but eminently desirable. Without this magnificent ferment among Negroes, the old evasions and procrastinations would have continued indefinitely. Black men have slammed the door shut on a past of deadening passivity. Except for the Reconstruction years, they have never in their long history on American soil struggled with such creativity and courage for their freedom. These are our bright years of emergence; though they are painful ones, they cannot be avoided.”
King continued, “The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”
By now, it should be clear what the demands of young black people are: an end to racism, police abuse, and violence; and the right to be free of the economic coercion of poverty and inequality.
The question is: How do we change this country? It’s not a new question; for African-Americans, it’s a question as old as the nation itself. A large part of the reason that rebels swell the streets with clenched fists and expressive eyes is the refusal or inability of this society to engage that question in a satisfying way. Instead, those asking the question are patronized with sweet-sounding speeches, made with alliterative apologia, often interspersed with recitations about the meaning of America, and ultimately in defense of the status quo. There is a palpable poverty of intellect, a lack of imagination, and a banality of ideas pervading mainstream politics today. Old and failed propositions are recycled, but proclaimed as new, reviving cynicism and dismay.
Take the recent comments of the former President Barack Obama. On Twitter, Obama counselled that “Real change requires protest to highlight a problem, and politics to implement practical solutions and laws.” He continued to say that “there are specific evidence-based reforms that would build trust, save lives, and lead to a decrease in crime, too,” including the policy proposals of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, convened in 2015. Such a simple, plain-stated plan fails to answer the most basic question: Why do police reforms continue to fail? African-Americans have been demonstrating against police abuse and violence since the Chicago riots of 1919. The first riot directly in response to police abuse occurred in 1935, in Harlem. In 1951, a contingent of African-American activists, armed with a petition titled “We Charge Genocide,” tried to convince the United Nations to decry the U.S. government’s murder of black people. Their petition read:
Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.
It has been the lack of response, and a lack of “practical solutions” to beatings, harassment, and murder, that has led people into the streets, to challenge the typical dominance of police in black communities.
Many have compared the national revolt today to the urban rebellions of the nineteen-sixties, but it is more immediately shaped by the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992 and the protests it unleashed across the country. The 1992 uprising grew out of the frustrated mix of growing poverty, violence generated by the drug war, and widening unemployment. By 1992, official black unemployment had reached a high of fourteen per cent, more than double that of white Americans. In South Central Los Angeles, where the uprising took hold, more than half of people over the age of sixteen were unemployed or out of the labor force. A combination of police brutality and state-sanctioned accommodation of violence against a black child ultimately lit the fuse.
We remember that, on March 3, 1991, Rodney King, a black motorist, was beaten by four L.A. police officers by the side of the freeway. But it is also true that, two weeks later, a fifteen-year-old black girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in the head by a convenience-store owner, Soon Ja Du, after a confrontation about whether Harlins intended to pay for a bottle of orange juice. A jury found Du guilty of manslaughter and recommended the maximum sentence, but the judge in the case disagreed and sentenced Du to five years probation, community service, and a five-hundred-dollar fine. The L.A. rebellion began on April 29, 1992, when the officers who had beaten King were unexpectedly acquitted, but it was also fuelled by the fact that, a week earlier, an appeals court had upheld the lesser sentence for Du.
In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, a multiracial throng of protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, chanting, “No justice, no peace!” and “Guilty!” As people began to gather in South Central, the police arrived and attempted to arrest them, before realizing that they were overmatched and deserting the scene. At one point, the L.A. Times recounted, at Seventy-first and Normandie streets, two hundred people “lined the intersection, many with raised fists. Chunks of asphalt and concrete were thrown at cars. Some yelled, ‘It’s a black thing.’ Others shouted, ‘This is for Rodney King.’ ” By the end of the day, more than three hundred fires burned across the city, at police headquarters and city hall, downtown, and in the white neighborhoods of Fairfax and Westwood. In Atlanta, hundreds of black young people chanted “Rodney King” as they smashed through store windows in the business district of the city. In Northern California, seven hundred students from Berkeley High School walked out of their classes in protest. In a short span of five days, the L.A. uprising emerged as the largest and most destructive riot in U.S. history, with sixty-three dead, a billion dollars in property damage, nearly twenty-four hundred injured, and seventeen thousand arrested. President George H. W. Bush invoked the Insurrection Act, to mobilize units from the U.S. Marines and Army to put down the rebellion. A black man named Terry Adams spoke to the L.A. Times, and captured the motivation and the mood. “Our people are in pain,” he said. “Why should we draw a line against violence? The judicial system doesn’t.”
The uprising in L.A. shared with the rebellions of the nineteen-sixties an igniting spark of police abuse, widespread violence, and the fury of the rebels. But, in the nineteen-sixties, the flush economy and the still-intact notion of the social contract meant that President Lyndon B. Johnson could attempt to drown the civil-rights movement and the Black Power radicalization with enormous social spending and government-program expansion, including the passage of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, which produced the first government-backed, low-income homeownership opportunities directed at African-Americans.
By the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, the economy was in recession and the social contract had been ripped to shreds. The rebellions of the nineteen-sixties and the enormous social spending intended to bring them under control were wielded by the right to generate a backlash against the expanded welfare state. Political conservatives argued that the market, not government intervention, could create efficiencies and innovation in the delivery of public services. This rhetoric was coupled with virulent racist characterizations of African-Americans, who relied disproportionately on welfare programs. Ronald Reagan mastered the art of color-blind racism in the post-civil-rights era with his invocations of “welfare queens.” Not only did these distortions pave the way for undermining the welfare state, they reinforced racist delusions about the state of black America that legitimized deprivation and marginalization.
The Los Angeles uprising not only exposed the police state that African-Americans were subjected to but also uncovered the hollowed-out core of the U.S. economy after the supposed economic genius of the Reagan Revolution. The rebellions of the nineteen-sixties were disparaged as race riots because they were confined almost exclusively to segregated black communities. The L.A. rebellion spread rapidly across the city: fifty-one per cent of those arrested were Latino, and only thirty-six per cent were black. A smaller number of whites were also arrested. Public officials had used racism as a crowbar to dismantle the welfare state, but the effects were felt across the board. Though African-Americans were disproportionate recipients of welfare, whites made up the majority, and they suffered, too, when cuts were imposed. As Willie Brown, who was then the speaker of the California Assembly, wrote, in the San Francisco Examiner, days after the uprising, “For the first time in American history, many of the demonstrations and much of the violence and crime, especially the looting, was multiracial—blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians were all involved.” Though typically segregated from each other socially, each group found ways to express their overlapping grievances in the furious revolt against the L.A.P.D.
The period after the L.A. rebellion didn’t usher in new initiatives to improve the quality of the lives of people who had revolted. To the contrary, the Bush White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater blamed the uprising on the social-welfare programs of previous administrations, saying, “We believe that many of the root problems that have resulted in inner-city difficulties were started in the sixties and seventies and that they have failed.” The nineteen-nineties became a moment of convergence for the political right and the Democratic Party, as the Democrats cemented their turn toward a similar agenda of harsh budget cuts to social programs and an insistence that African-American hardship was the result of non-normative family structures. In May, 1992, Bill Clinton interrupted his normal campaign activities to travel to South Central Los Angeles, where he offered his analysis of what had gone so wrong. People were looting, he said, “because they are not part of the system at all anymore. They do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support.”
Democrats responded to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion by pushing the country further down the road of punishment and retribution in its criminal-justice system. Joe Biden, the current Democratic Presidential front-runner, emerged from the fire last time brandishing a new “crime bill” that pledged to put a hundred thousand more police on the street, called for mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes, increased funding for policing and prisons, and expanded the use of the death penalty. The Democrats’ new emphasis on law and order was coupled with a relentless assault on the right to welfare assistance. By 1996, Clinton had followed through on his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Biden supported the legislation, arguing that “the culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work. The culture of dependence must be replaced with the culture of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. And the culture of permanence must no longer be a way of life.”
The 1994 crime bill was a pillar in the phenomenon of mass incarceration and public tolerance for aggressive policing and punishment directed at African-American neighborhoods. It helped to build the world that young black people are rebelling against today. But the unyielding assaults on welfare and food stamps have also marked this latest revolt. These cuts are a large part of the reason that the coronavirus pandemic has landed so hard in the U.S., particularly in black America. These are the reasons that we do not have a viable safety net in this country, including food stamps and cash payments during hard times. The weakness of the U.S. social-welfare state has deep roots, but it was irreversibly torn when Democrats were at the helm.
The current climate can hardly be reduced to the political lessons of the past, but the legacy of the nineties dominates the political thinking of elected officials today. When Republicans insist on tying work requirements to food stamps in the midst of a pandemic, with unemployment at more than thirteen per cent, they are conjuring the punitive spirit of the policies shaped by Clinton, Biden, and other leading Democrats throughout the nineteen-nineties. So, though Biden desperately wants us to believe that he is a harbinger of change, his long record of public service says otherwise. He has claimed that Barack Obama’s selection of him as his running mate was a kind of absolution for Biden’s dealings in the Democrats’ race-baiting politics of the nineteen-nineties. But, from the excesses of the criminal-justice system and the absence of a welfare state to the inequality rooted in an unbridled, rapacious market economy, Biden has shaped much of the world that this generation has inherited and is revolting against.
More important, the ideas honed in the nineteen-eighties and nineties continue to beat at the center of Biden’s political agenda. His campaign advisers include Larry Summers, who, as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, was an enthusiastic supporter of deregulation, and, as Obama’s chief economic adviser during the recession, endorsed the Wall Street bailout while allowing millions of Americans to default on their mortgages. They also include Rahm Emanuel, whose tenure as the mayor of Chicago ended in disgrace, when it was revealed that his administration covered up the police murder of the seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot sixteen times by a white police officer. But Emanuel’s damage to Chicago ran much deeper than his defense of a particularly racist and abusive police force. He also carried out the largest single closure of public schools in U.S. history—nearly fifty in one fell swoop, in 2013. After two terms, he left the city in the same broken condition he found it, with forty-five per cent of young black men in Chicago both out of school and unemployed.
This points to the importance of expanding our national discussion about what ails the country, beyond the racism and brutality of the police. We must also discuss the conditions of economic inequality that, when they intersect with racial and gender discrimination, disadvantage African-Americans while also making them vulnerable to police violence. Otherwise, we risk reducing racism to the outrageous and intentional acts of depraved individuals, while downplaying the cumulative impact of public policies and private-sector discrimination that, regardless of personal intent, have crippled the vitality of African-American life.
When the focus narrows to the barbarism of the act that stole George Floyd’s life, it allows for the likes of the former President George W. Bush to enter the conversation and claim to deplore racism. Bush wrote, in an open letter on the Floyd killing, that “it remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country.” This would be laughable if George W. Bush were not the grim reaper who hid beneath a shroud he described as “compassionate conservatism.” As the governor of Texas, he oversaw a rampant and racist death-penalty system, personally signing off on the execution of a hundred and fifty-two incarcerated people, a disproportionate number of them African-American. As President, Bush oversaw the stunningly incompetent government response to Hurricane Katrina, which contributed to the deaths of nearly two thousand people and displaced tens of thousands of African-American residents of New Orleans. That Bush is able to sanctimoniously enter into a discussion about American racism while ignoring his own role in its perpetuation and sustenance speaks to the superficiality of the conversation. Although many are becoming comfortable spurting out phrases like “systemic racism,” the solutions proposed remain mired in the system that is being critiqued. The result is that the roots of oppression and inequality that constitute what many activists refer to as “racial capitalism” are left in place.
Joe Biden, in a recent, rare public appearance, came to Philadelphia to describe the leadership necessary to emerge from this current moment. His speech sounded as if it could have been made at any time in the last twenty years. He promulgated a proposal to end chokeholds—even though many police departments have done that already, at least on paper. The New York Police Department is one of them, though this did not prevent Daniel Pantaleo from choking Eric Garner to death, nor did it cause Pantaleo to be sent to jail for it. Biden called for accountability, oversight, and community policing. These proposals for curbing racist policing are as old as the first declarations for reform that came out of the Kerner Commission, in 1967. Then, too, as the nation’s cities combusted into a frenzy of uprisings, federal reformers enumerated changes to police policy such as these, and, more than fifty years later, the police remain impervious to reform and often in arrogant refusal to heel. It is simply astounding that Joe Biden has not a single meaningful or new idea to offer about controlling the police.
Barack Obama, in an essay that he posted on Medium, describes voting as the road to making “real change,” although he also writes that “if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.” Obama has developed a tendency to intervene in political debates as if he were a curious and detached observer, rather than a former officeholder of the most powerful position in the world. The Black Lives Matter movement bloomed during the final years of Obama’s Presidency. At each stage of its development, Obama seemed unable to curb the police abuses that were fuelling its development. It is easy to get bogged down in the intricacies of federalism and the constraints on executive power, given that police abuse is such a local issue. But Obama did, after all, convene a national task force aimed at providing guidance and leadership on police accountability, and we can consider its effectiveness from the standpoint of today.
Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing delivered sixty-three recommendations, including ending “racial profiling” and extending “community policing” efforts. It called for “better training” and revamping the entire criminal-justice system. But they were no more than suggestions; there was no mechanism to make the country’s eighteen thousand different law-enforcement agencies comply. The Task Force’s interim report was released on March 2, 2015. That month, police across the country killed another hundred and thirteen people, thirty more than in the previous month. On April 4th, Walter Scott, an unarmed black man running away from a white cop, Micheal Slager, in North Charleston, South Carolina, was shot five times from behind. Eight days later, Freddie Gray was picked up by Baltimore police, placed in a van with no restraints, and driven recklessly around the city. When he emerged from the van, his spine was eighty-per-cent severed at his neck. He died seven days later. Baltimore exploded in rage. And Baltimore was not like Ferguson, Missouri, which was run by a white political establishment and patrolled by a white police force. From Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to a multiracial police force, Baltimore was a black-led city.
Even as the wanton violence of law enforcement has come into sharper focus in the last five years, there has been almost no consequence in terms of municipal budget allocations. Police continue to absorb absurd portions of local operating budgets—even in departments that are sources of embarrassment and abuse lawsuits. In Los Angeles, with its homelessness crisis and out-of-control rents, the police absorb an astounding fifty-three per cent of the city’s general fund. Chicago, a city with a notoriously corrupt and abusive police force, spent thirty-nine per cent of its budget on police. Philadelphia’s operating budget needed to be recalibrated because of the collapse of tax collections due to the coronavirus pandemic; the only agency that will not suffer any budget cuts is the police department. While public schools, affordable housing, violence-prevention programming, and the police-oversight board prepare for three hundred and seventy million dollars in budget cuts, the Philadelphia Police Department, which already garners sixteen per cent of the city’s funds, is slated to receive a twenty-three-million-dollar increase.
Throughout the Obama and Trump Administrations, the failures to rein in racist policing practices have been compounded by the economic stagnation in African-American communities, measured by stalled rates of homeownership and a widening racial wealth gap. Are these failures of governance and politics all Obama’s fault? Of course not, but, when you run on big promises of change and end up overseeing a brutal status quo, people draw dim conclusions from the experiment. For many poor and working-class African-Americans, who still have enormous pride in the first black President and his spouse, Michelle Obama, the conclusion is that electing the nation’s first black President was never going to change America. One might even interpret the failures of the Obama Administration as some of the small kindling that has set the nation ablaze.
We cannot insist on “real change” in the United States by continuing to use the same methods, arguments, and failed political strategies that have brought us to this moment. We cannot allow the current momentum to be stalled by a narrow discussion about reforming the police. In Obama’s essay, he wrote, “I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it.” If we are thinking of these problems in big and broad strokes, or in a systemic way, we might ask: Why there is only a single grocery store in this woman’s neighborhood? That might lead to a discussion about the history of residential segregation in that neighborhood, or job discrimination or under-resourced schools in the area, which might, in turn, provide deeper insights into an alienation that is so profound in its intensity that it compels people to fight with the intensity of a riot to demand things change. And this is where the trouble actually begins. Our society cannot end these conditions without massive expenditure.
In 1968, King, in the weeks before he was assassinated, said, “In a sense, I guess you could say, we are engaged in the class struggle.” He was speaking to the costs of the programs that would be necessary to lift black people out of poverty and inequality, which were, in and of themselves, emblems of racist subjugation. Ending segregation in the South, then, was cheap compared with the huge costs necessary to end the kinds of discrimination that kept blacks locked out of the advantages of U.S. society, from well-paying jobs to well-resourced schools, good housing, and a comfortable retirement. The price of the ticket is quite steep, but, if we are to have a real conversation about how we change America, it must begin with an honest assessment of the scope of the deprivation involved. Racist and corrupt policing is the tip of the iceberg.
We have to make space for new politics, new ideas, new formations, and new people. The election of Biden may stop the misery of another Trump term, but it won’t stop the underlying issues that have brought about more than a hundred thousand COVID-19 deaths or continuous protests against police abuse and violence. Will the federal government intervene to stop the looming crisis of evictions that will disproportionately impact black women? Will it use its power and authority to punish police, and to empty prisons and jails, which not only bring about social death but are now also sites of rampant COVID-19 infection? Will it end the war on food stamps and allow African-Americans and other residents of this country to eat in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? Will it finance the health-care needs of tens of millions of African-Americans who have become susceptible to the worst effects of the coronavirus, and are dying as a result? Will it provide the resources to depleted public schools, allowing black children the opportunity to learn in peace? Will it redistribute the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to rebuild devastated working-class communities? Will there be free day care and transportation?
If we are serious about ending racism and fundamentally changing the United States, we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it. But, more importantly, the quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police alone. It must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals. Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay.
We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers, and therein lies the three-hundred-year-old conundrum: America’s professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality.
The unfolding revolt in the U.S. today holds the real promise to change this country. While it reflects the history and failures of past endeavors to confront racism and police brutality, these protests cannot be reduced to them. Unlike the uprising in Los Angeles, where Korean businesses were targeted and some white bystanders were beaten, or the rebellions of the nineteen-sixties, which were confined to black neighborhoods, today’s protests are stunning in their racial solidarity. The whitest states in the country, including Maine and Idaho, have had protests involving thousands of people. And it’s not just students or activists; the demands for an end to this racist violence have mobilized a broad range of ordinary people who are fed up.
The protests are building on the incredible groundwork of a previous iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Today, young white people are compelled to protest not only because of their anxieties about the instability of this country and their compromised futures in it but also because of a revulsion against white supremacy and the rot of racism. Their outlooks have been shaped during the past several years by the anti-racist politics of the B.L.M. movement, which move beyond seeing racism as interpersonal or attitudinal, to understanding that it is deeply rooted in the country’s institutions and organizations.
This may account, in part, for the firm political foundation that this round of struggle has begun upon. It explains why activists and organizers have so quickly been able to gather support for demands to defund police, and in some cases introduce ideas about ending policing altogether. They have been able to quickly link bloated police budgets to the attacks on other aspects of the public sector, and to the limits on cities’ abilities to attend to the social crises that have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. They have built upon the vivid memories of previous failures, and refuse to submit to empty or rhetoric- driven calls for change. This is evidence again of how struggles build upon one another and are not just recycled events from the past.