The passing of each month in 2020 has been marked by many asking “oh god, what next” and none more so than May, which saw every state in the nation erupt in protests over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The video of Floyd being slowly suffocated as he begged for his life was immediately seen by tens of millions of people and that very night Minneapolis residents took to the streets to make their voices heard. Other cities followed suit and the brutal backlash from law enforcement against those protesting police brutality predictably added fuel to the fire. Story after story after story of police using extreme force against peaceful protestors, often accompanied by corroborating video, has left many with the firm (although vague) conviction that something ought to be done about the police.
With everyone asking “what is to be done?” we arrive at one of those moments when history is just a little too on the nose. In his pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Vladimir Illyich Lenin wrote “The fact that the masses are spontaneously being drawn into the movement does not make the organisation of this struggle less necessary. On the contrary, it makes it more necessary.” Although they almost certainly didn’t hear this from Lenin, liberals as well as conservatives have been struggling in regard to the best method of dealing with the massive outpour of energy among the populace, fully understanding that without a clear and direct goal, that energy exists in a cup without a spout—easily spilled when poured, or simply left to evaporate.
Conservatives would likely prefer the latter, though they seem to understand that this is unlikely to happen any time soon. The lack of outspoken support for Derek Chauvin is notable and suggests that even the arch-conservatives realize that given the graphic and upsetting video evidence—we well as the inescapable fact that, despite the best efforts of law enforcement, protests keep happening anyway—the outrage is not going away anytime soon. Liberals, meanwhile, are left trying to split the difference between meaningful change and meaningful change that won’t upset powerful police unions or the donor class.
8 Can’t Wait
Enter Deray McKesson and the 8 Can’t Wait campaign. Deray is an educator-turned-activist who rose to fame during the 2014 Ferguson protests over the killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, though local Ferguson activists seem to bear no small amount of animosity toward him, charging him with being an “actorvist” and using the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement to further his own career at the expense of actually making real change. Though he was, and still is, invited to speak with very important people on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, with his trademark blue vest and cringe-inducing tweets, his success seemed to other protestors an example of liberal elites choosing to engage only with the most palatable, clean-cut, and overall toothless version of an uncomfortable issue. His very palatability indicted him; he appeared a perfect way for the liberal order to sublimate the radical goals of the spontaneous movement into something safe, sanitized, and largely impotent. Allowing Deray to be the first voice amplified by the political structure in place would derail the movement into a cul-de-sac. Once again the ghost of Lenin materializes to quote from What Is To Be Done: “There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology.”
Deray went on to enjoy great success as an author and host of Pod Save the People on the extremely popular liberal podcast network Crooked Media, formed by Obama White House alums Tommy Vietor, Jon Favreau, and Jon Lovett. He ran for mayor of Baltimore in 2016, coming in sixth place. Meanwhile Ferguson activists critical of his involvement in the protests, such as Darren Seals, were murdered and had their bodies burned in rather suspicious circumstances.
Deray remains a popular figure in liberal media and recently returned to Crooked Media’s flagship podcast Pod Save America to discuss the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, aimed at introducing data-driven policies intended to reduce police brutality. The 8 Can’t Wait campaign, developed by the group Campaign Zero, claims that by adopting these eight policies cities can reduce police violence by up to 72%. The policies are as follows:
- Ban chokeholds and strangleholds
- Require de-escalation
- Require warning before shooting
- Requires exhaust all alternatives before shooting
- Duty to intervene
- Ban shooting at moving vehicles
- Require use of force continuum
- Require comprehensive reporting
Criticism began immediately, much of it mirroring frequent criticisms of Deray McKesson—the policies were too friendly to current political structures; they were toothless and inimical to producing any lasting change in police tactics. It turns out that the “72%” figure applies only to cities that have none of the policies listed above and adopt all of them. Minneapolis-St. Paul already had six of the eight policies in place when George Floyd was murdered, leading many to question their effectiveness.
Questions about the method by which the group arrived at 72% also popped up. Campaign Zero claims its conclusions are backed by evidence and hard data, but Texas A&M economist and director of the Justice Tech Lab, Jennifer Doleac, thinks otherwise. Doleac specializes in crime and racial discrimination and is described by Vox as a “stickler in casual inference”, and in a tweet she claims that Campaign Zero’s recommendations were not based on evidence.
What “Defund The Police” Actually Means
As 8 Can’t Wait spread on social media so did #DefundThePolice, a movement calling for immediate redistribution of funds—typically hundreds of millions of dollars in an average sized city—given to police departments each year. The backlash to #DefundThePolice was also immediate; many politicians and media figures, both liberal and conservative, reject this call to reappropriate police department funding. Conservatives claim that the call to defund police departments is in truth a movement to abolish police departments entirely, while panicked liberals deny this and attempt to define #DefundThePolice as a simple call for reforms in law enforcement.
But despite the claims of those panicked liberals presumably worried about spooking the herd, the call to defund police departments is in no way just a call for reforms. It is, or rather can be, the first step toward the abolition of police (and prisons) as they currently exist.
For decades abolitionists and activists have argued that reforms in law enforcement do not lessen the negative impact police have on poor and minority communities. They claim that curtailing the very existence of a police force as the US currently understands it can lessen crime and injustice, and there is evidence to support this. Only abolition can reach the goals for which reform reaches in vain. (see image)
The argument is easy to grasp—despite decades of police reforms, law enforcement continues to brutalize the black community and get away with it. As previously noted, many cities with terrible records of police brutality already have many of the 8 Can’t Wait policies in place. As an example, the NYPD banned the use of chokeholds in 1993 but twenty years later an officer killed Eric Garner with just such a chokehold on the streets of New York. And what sort of reforms could make the War on Drugs less harmful? It’s very purpose, according to Nixon aide John Erlichman, was to specifically target black and “hippie” communities. As Dan Baum reported for Harper’s Magazine:
At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The policies listed in the 8 Can’t Wait campaign are viewed by abolitionists as an attempt to sublimate the ongoing struggle against police brutality into something more acceptable to the status quo, when the very status quo itself is the primary problem. In response abolitionists have created a campaign of their own: 8 To Abolition, which criticizes and debunks the policies listed in 8 Can’t Wait as well as providing 8 policies that can lead to the abolition of our current form of law enforcement and its negative impacts. They are as follows:
- Defund the police
- Demilitarize communities
- Remove police from schools
- Free people from jails and prisons
- Repeal laws that criminalize survival
- Invest in community self-governance
- Provide safe housing for everyone
- Invest in care, not cops
Both Deray McKesson and Campaign Zero accepted criticisms of their policies gracefully, with Campaign Zero adding a message as well as an apology to its website. “We at Campaign Zero acknowledge that, even with the best of intentions, the #8CANTWAIT campaign unintentionally detracted from efforts of fellow organizers invested in paradigmatic shifts that are newly possible in this moment,” it reads. “For this we apologize wholeheartedly, and without reservation.”
It remains to be seen whether #DefundThePolice will be accepted by establishment leaders, either on its own or as a first step toward radical new change. Police departments, unsurprisingly, are not in favor of either development and persist in painting themselves, the people with military-grade weapons, armor, and vehicles, as the real victims a terrible crime: not being respected enough.