I am furious at the Black Lives Matter organization, but perhaps not for the reasons you’d think. The cultural discussion over BLM has been deafening: debates over ideological commitments, responsibility for riots and looting, the improper use of donated money. These debates are all fair enough, but, bizarrely, they miss the one thing BLM was supposed to do—reform policing. Serious police reform has not occurred in a useful way or among a broad set of police departments.
In the days and even weeks after the death of George Floyd, there was an incredible amount of sympathy for Mr. Floyd, anger at the policeman charged with his murder and thus openness to the question of police reform. BLM’s quite correct point that such injustices are structural, not individual, ought to lead us to reconstitute the incentive structures, the legal strictures and the systems of authority at work in American policing. And we actually know fairly well how to do this because we’ve been thinking deeply about it at least since 2014, when the BLM movement became part of the zeitgeist. Yet this legitimate goal of reforming the police system in America has been neglected in favor of broader (and often conflicting) concerns.
The Utopian Fantasy
Black Lives Matter undermined its own power as a movement in the way that leftists generally do—by being utopian. If reflective conservatism has anything to offer, it’s the affirmation of the doctrine of original sin: that is, people are fairly awful, really great social institutions won’t make people good, and political systems have to be based on the assumption of human imperfectability.
Defunding or abolishing the police—as BLM and others have called for—is a utopian fantasy. Angela Davis calls it “freedom dreaming” because she imagines a world in which achieving material equality through massive redistribution eliminates crime. However, economic hope does not arise from transfer payments but from a blossoming of real economic activity in poor neighborhoods. Moreover, marginalized people are not generally interested in police abolition because, even given their mistreatment by the police, they still live in high-crime neighborhoods that desperately need police. In fact, a recent poll showed that 81% of Black Americans favored the same level, or an even greater one, of police presence on their own streets. What we need is good policing, not no policing. The police abolition movement ought to be condemned because its adherents traded the actual needs of real marginalized people for an unachievable and purely theoretical ideal.
In fact, it’s well known in the criminal justice reform movement that more police on the streets has been the most effective way to reduce crime. This doesn’t bar us from considering new, creative approaches to the “sentinel” or eyes-on-the-street benefit of police or from considering how to employ mental health professionals for noncriminal situations often left to police. But it does bar us from clumsily arguing to “abolish” or “defund” rather than reform, thus alienating potential allies who have power to make real changes.
We need to end qualified immunity for police, which protects them unreasonably from criminal and civil suits for violations of citizens’ civil rights. We must think deeply about the incentives in terms of legal and financial accountability. This is priority number one for organizations such as the Institute for Justice and Campaign Zero. The House of Representatives passed the first tri-party bill ever to undo this bizarre judge-made law. But when I suggested ending qualified immunity on social media, I was told that such a goal was questionable because it fell short of police abolition.
Another utterly obvious step to reform the structure of policing in the United States is to weaken the power of police unions, which protect bad apples such that egregious offenders can often simply be rehired in a different police department! Weakening unions would incentivize both individual police officers to behave better and departments to think differently about liability and training. In fact, when Camden, New Jersey, dissolved its own police department and created a county department, one of the main advantages of doing so was to dissolve the contract with the police union and to force all officers to reapply and submit to psychological testing. But attacking unions is associated with the political right, not the left, so we didn’t hear much about it.
In light of Radley Balko’s work on the militarization of the police since the 1990s, it’s an unavoidable fact that policing in America has changed drastically in the past 30 years. This development reflects the broader changes in our criminal justice system in the past 45 years. There’s already a huge wave in favor of balancing the funding and resourcing of powerful prosecutors with that of overwhelmed defense attorneys, reforming prison sentencing (such as mandatory minimums) and ending the drug war. This movement is deeply bipartisan and has already made huge strides. BLM could have built on this foundation to undo injustices in the most fundamental structural aspects of our criminal justice system. But it didn’t. Why not?
Singleness of Purpose
It’s popular among academic activists to argue that no one’s oppression can be addressed unless everyone’s oppression is addressed. Just as Marx called on all workers of the world to unite, these activists call on all the oppressed to unite, meaning that a movement called Black Lives Matter must also be a movement for women’s lives, trans lives, gay lives and colonized lives on other continents. What resulted was a wildly unfocused BLM movement. If the concern was that Black people are affected by the injustices of our criminal justice system at greater rates than other groups, then the focus should have been on correcting the structural problems in that system. Such a focus would have benefited everyone else’s lives also, as women and gay and trans people are also often mistreated by police.
Instead, the movement turned into a hodgepodge of groups, positions, policy goals and purity tests that failed to accomplish much at all. Since some—even many—of the policy goals we need to pursue are shared with libertarians and even conservatives as well as progressives, much could have been accomplished through cooperation aimed at specific policy outcomes. But that would have meant “platforming trans erasure” (or some such language), so it didn’t happen.
Now we don’t know what is meant by the phrase “Black lives matter.” There’s little to no agreement among the activists themselves about their concrete goals, and therefore we don’t actually know what they want to do. Instead of reforming police or the prison system, the BLM organization has received millions in corporate donations, through which it will, no doubt, develop a well-heeled cadre of diversity trainers. The fact that diversity training has been shown to be worse than useless will not cause the slightest concern.
Then, when real people continue to be abused by police and unnecessarily imprisoned due to our out-of-control criminal justice system, they can tell us that it’s because we’re just not anti-racist enough yet. That is why I’m furious.