Breaking the System
For three days in May, helicopters circled above our Twin Cities neighborhood. Spring breezes carried a whiff of smoke. Our son’s First Communion Mass was canceled, because shops were being burned and looted literally right around the corner. Walking with our kids in the evening, we explained that our daily outings would have to be cut short so that we could be home in time for curfew. As Covid kids, they took this pretty well. State-decreed curfews are only a slight variation on their normal.
Adults should know better, but it seems many don’t. In the days that followed, our neighborhood filled with yard signs reading “Black Lives Matter.” I pass by them on my morning run, and note them along the shoreline when I paddle my kayak around our local lake. Happily, our neighbors haven’t gone the way of nearby Powderhorn Park, where residents have collectively agreed to surrender the neighborhood to drug dealers and muggers, refusing to call the police under any circumstances. Those sympathies are clearly widespread though, which is fairly remarkable given that these same activist groups were recently torching our cafes and gas stations. Ordinarily, the human drive to defend home and family is one of our most elemental. How did the activists disarm it?
To be clear, I am not entirely without sympathy for groups like Black Lives Matter. A few years ago, I did an extended research project on criminal justice reform, and concluded that Americans should indeed be concerned about police misconduct. At the time, I was particularly eager to understand why the United States has so many fatal police encounters, in comparison to most other Western nations. As the Washington Post tirelessly reminds us, American police officers kill about a thousand civilians each year. In England and Wales that number is generally around five. Last year Sweden became alarmed about the “unprecedented increase” in fatal police encounters. They had six.
I spent some months reading, and also talking to people: policy experts, politicians, policemen, public defenders, parole officers, re-entry workers, former offenders, prosecutors. I ultimately concluded that there were five primary reasons why American cops kill so frequently. First, Americans own a lot of guns. Policing is much riskier when the general population is so heavily armed. Second, the breakdown of family and community makes everything harder. Violence and mental illness are lamentably common in our chaotic world, and the police are not really wrong to see themselves as the “thin blue line” that prevents that chaos from overwhelming civilized society. Third, the War on Drugs professionalized and militarized American law enforcement to a significant degree. They acquired more military-grade equipment, and learned SWAT tactics instead of focusing on community policing and training in de-escalation of tense encounters. Fourth, domestic terrorist threats have increased significantly over the past decade, which places a similar sort of pressure on police to serve as domestic soldiers.
The fifth and final reason is the most complicated. Some communities in America clearly have a long history of fractious relationships with the police. The reasons vary, and each region has its own story; in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, the city was squeezing poor residents with piles of heavy fines, mainly in an effort to raise revenue. Racial injustice is clearly a major part of this story, however. It’s worth noting that race riots have most commonly occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods in the west and north, most of which formed during the Great Migration. As Jill Leovy has explained in her gripping book, Ghettoside, black neighborhoods in American cities were neglected and under-policed for many years. In the absence of real order, young men created their own forms of tribal justice, and opportunistic criminal groups established a presence. Eventually the War on Drugs brought the police back in significant numbers, but their mandate had little to do with improving life for the locals. Remember Daryl Gates, the L.A. Police Chief who told a Senate committee that casual drug users ought to be “taken out and shot,” just two years before his city exploded in the Rodney King riots? At the time, Gates was widely regarded as an exemplary officer. He had fully internalized his mandate to protect the nation by striking fear into its most unruly citizens and neighborhoods.
Today, in some parts of America, the mutual mistrust between police and residents has become deeply entrenched. When people feel threatened by cops, they understandably aren’t inclined to cooperate with them, or address them with courtesy. That makes it tough for even the best-intentioned officers to solve crimes or restore order. Everyone involved deserves a good measure of sympathy here. Nobody alive started this problem; it is rooted in old, ancestral sins.
Activists like to talk about “systemic racism.” It’s often unclear what this means, but if the term simply refers to that diffuse, but very real, causal connection between historical injustice and contemporary social problems, then criminal justice in America absolutely is “systemically racist.” History has long arms. No conservative should have difficulty grasping this point.
How does the Powderhorn Park approach help, though? It doesn’t address any of the problems listed above. It has no data-supported rationale, no end game, and no foreseeable long-term benefit for anyone not involved in organized crime. Even the tent-complex dwellers must surely see this as a temporary arrangement. Will they still want to live there in a normal Minnesota January?
Viewed as a pathological response to recent events, however, Powderhorn Park becomes readily understandable. The leftist residents of this neighborhood insist that we must have an organized, systemic response to racism. Unfortunately, they also believe that the existing system is irredeemable. These two premises neatly foreclose any sane or practical response to police misbehavior; only revolution will do.
Admittedly, Powderhorn Park progressives are the most plebeian and milquetoast of anarchists, bearing little resemblance to Bolshevik Revolutionaries or the Khmer Rouge. This is the nihilism of aging hippies and kombucha-drinking yoga moms, which is far less fearsome than many other forms that have emerged across the past two centuries. Still, on a purely ideological level, there is a recognizable resemblance. Having recognized (correctly) that our society is shaped in deep ways by historical injustice, these citizens have decided that the causal connections must simply be cut, totally and completely, this very day. No gradual or remedial solution is adequate. Every other principle of justice shall be sacrificed, if necessary, to achieve this single end. There is no space for compromise or common sense.
If a person truly believes this, he will eventually come to realize that the only adequate solution is cultural suicide. He is like the man who decides that he absolutely must escape from the scars of childhood trauma, no matter what it takes. There is only one effective solution to this type of problem. Mark Antony and Cleopatra found it, as did Earnest Hemingway.
Americans today are highly excitable. As a resident of the Twin Cities, I am hopeful that “police defunding” will turn out to be a passing political phase, like so many that have flown by us in recent years. Ideally, the insanity of “defunding” would give way to more reasonable and prudent efforts at police reform. Instead of blessing muggers, perhaps we could focus on curbing union abuses, and raising standards of accountability for officers with a history of abuse. Black lives do indeed matter, and predominantly black neighborhoods in America haven’t always received the care and attention they deserve. We should correct that. It is our duty, both as humans and as patriotic citizens. At the same time, we need to understand that we live in a fallen world. Complex cultural problems can’t be fixed overnight. They can’t be fixed at all, unless we can summon the courage and maturity that we need to live with the history, cultural heritage, and legal traditions that our forbears have bequeathed to us. Don’t condone racism. When criminals start taking over your neighborhood, though, you should call the police.