Police Reform and the Working Class

The United States is experiencing a swath of protests and social outbursts across the country, set off by a callous display of inhumanity from the Minneapolis Police Department. On May 25, 2020, four police officers committed the heartless and barbarous murder of George Floyd, a black man from Minnesota, while they were fully aware of the cellphone cameras focused on them. However, the immediate public discussion and - rightful - calls for justice have taken a highly racialized character, and I argue that the racialization of the movement against police brutality will necessarily limit its political scope. As we have seen, the police will use force against anyone they deem a “threat.” To move beyond the limitations of the paternalistic racialization of the current movement, the left must expand the push to reorganize police forces to the broader working class and expand the transformative possibilities of our time.

Mr. Floyd was put under arrest after he allegedly tried to pawn off a $20 bill, hardly a capital crime. When the four police officers detained him, these tough men in blue found it rather troublesome to get Mr. Floyd into the police vehicle, and so, with the gentle nature of a male lion falling upon a rival’s cub, officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while Chauvin’s fellows in azure arms, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao, watched the brutal display until its conclusion. For $20, the life of a human being was taken. For the life of a human being, the police precinct building that employed Chauvin was razed to the ground by protesters.

This display of state disregard for life, as Chauvin’s knee pressed upon the neck of Mr. Floyd while onlookers cried, “He’s human!” has been met with an intensely racialized dialogue that seeks in past violence an explanation for the present. But instead of finding an explanation in history, public pontificators instead exhumed it and substituted it as present reality. This framing has the effect, if not the purpose, of replacing cause with effect and erasing the inherent class character of the current police warrior cult. Wielding the racialized axe will not sever “the thin blue line.”

The senseless murder of George Floyd set off a cascade of rebellions and protests across the country. I could see the possibility that members of my own family, who endured centuries of slavery and Jim Crow in the rural South, could have been put in the same situation. In the podcast Intercepted, which covered the protests and aired on June 3, Jeremy Scahill interviewed historian Keisha Blain of the University of Pittsburgh. In this interview, Dr. Blain offers adequate historical context for the violent policing of black neighborhoods. However, when confronted with the question of how this context defines our current political moment, she reaches back in time to tear the brutal historical experiences of our black ancestors and place history in the present:

People will talk about lynching as a thing of the past. IA black man named Smith had an argument with a white woman over an exchange of money in Roanoke, VA. The fight escalated, and the woman claimed a false charge of assault against Smith. Smith was arrested and placed under the protection of Mayor Trout and the town militia, but a mob quickly grew howling for blood. The militia valiantly defended Smith, putting down nine of the ‘demons’ but were overwhelmed. “A squad of twenty men took the negro Smith from three policemen just before five o’clock this morning and hanged him to a hickory limb on Ninth Avenue, in the residence section of the city. They riddled his body with bullets and put a placard on it saying: ‘This is Mayor Trout’s friend.’” get that, as a historian. But is it truly a thing of the past? Now, we may not use the word lynching to the extent that we used the word lynching in the early 20th century, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we would accept that for all of the efforts of civil rights activists, despite the remarkable work of Ida B. Wells, for example, despite all the work done by the NAACP, we would have to be honest and accept that lynchings have not ended in this country. (emphasis mine)

This is an interesting framing of police killings from a historian, considering the monumental work of Ida B. Wells in investigating black lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Wells’ greatest work, Red Record, published in 1895, Wells provides a detailed account of the lynchings and extrajudicial murders used to to suppress black Americans after the abolition of slavery, covering a relatively short period from 1891 to 1894. Before even examining the details, we can draw a solid distinction between lynchings, which were primitive phenomena outside the written law, to state-sanctioned police killings. Among the outlaw killings recorded by Wells, my hometown found a place. Perhaps one of my own ancestors were made victim to these racist outrages, I do not know, but what is certain is that such racial brutality fastened them to the bottom of the Southern economy.

Anyways, let us for a moment look at some of the examples from Wells’ extraordinary work of journalism, that first provided a collective record of the bestial nature of race rule in the United States. I will only provide a few examples:

  • A black man named Smith had an argument with a white woman over an exchange of money in Roanoke, VA. The fight escalated, and the woman claimed a false charge of assault against Smith. Smith was arrested and placed under the protection of Mayor Trout and the town militia, but a mob quickly grew howling for blood. The militia valiantly defended Smith, putting down nine of the ‘demons’ but were overwhelmed. “A squad of twenty men took the negro Smith from three policemen just before five o’clock this morning and hanged him to a hickory limb on Ninth Avenue, in the residence section of the city. They riddled his body with bullets and put a placard on it saying: ‘This is Mayor Trout’s friend.’
  • Lee Walker was lynched and slashed with knives for having an argument with a white woman. “As the body hung to the telegraph pole, blood streaming down from the knife wounds in his neck, his hips and lower part of his legs also slashed with knives, the crowd hurled expletives at him, swung the body so that it was dashed against the pole, and, so far from the ghastly sight proving trying to the nerves, the crowd looked on with complaisance, if not with real pleasure. The Negro died hard. The neck was not broken, as the body was drawn up without being given a fall, and death came by strangulation. For fully ten minutes after he was strung up the chest heaved occasionally, and there were convulsive movements of the limbs.”

These examples draw immediate outrage from anyone possessed of even an ounce of human empathy. However, it is immediately clear that such animalistic carnage has no direct comparison with today’s police brutality, even if Dr. Blain would try to will it so. The horrific ghosts of the past may haunt our minds, but they harm us by possessing our flesh and bodies. That is, historical racial oppression can manifest itself today not only through simplistic, overt racism, as was seen in lynchings (and more recently the disgusting killing of Ahmaud Arbery, but it can also grow out of the economic consequences of past dispossession that carries on through generational poverty and the geographic concentration of the poor.

As I pointed out in a previous article, take for instance the work of Harvard’s Opportunity Insights, an organization which examines issues of intergenerational poverty: “Black households pulling themselves out of the wealth pit formed from centuries of slavery and Jim Crow saw their households’ hit hardest by the financial collapse. In terms of intergenerational income, Harvard’s Opportunity Insights found that black American men have a lower rate of upward economic mobility than their white counterparts and a significantly greater rate of downward mobility, even when controlling for boys from the same neighborhoods.” However, an important finding from this work suggests that after controlling for parental income, the white-black income gap disappears for women, with black women also attending college at higher rates than white men. Additionally, when the researchers controlled for parental income and examined incarceration rates (slide 42), the white-black difference rapidly falls from -8.2 percent at the lower 25th percentile of parental income to -3.2 percent at the top 75th percentile; as with income, this difference disappears for women.

Further, Opportunity Insights identifies a positive correlation between the income of a community (census tracts) and the white-black income gap; as the average earnings in a community increase, we also see white men earning more relative to black men. However, these higher-income communities have higher upward generational mobility for both white and black boys. Such higher income communities include Washington D.C., which an observant eye can see is still highly segregated. Furthermore, this segregation does not manifest only through housing segregation but also strongly through the types of jobs worked within the District: black and Latino people occupy a sizable portion of traditional working-class jobs that do not require a college education. In fact, over 60 percent of D.C. workers without a four-year college degree were black in 2016.

With a mind to this data, I argue that there is an inextricable link between race and class in current disparities between black and white-majority communities. The question of discrimination in policing, therefore, cannot be explained simply by appeals to racial bias and overt discrimination; the class character of black communities must play a role in explaining and combating police brutality. And further, to substitute historical, overt racist violence as the cause of our current plague of police brutality is to isolate the movement within racial bounds. The protests within cities have taken a truly multi-racial character, including within D.C. itself. However, what is also clear from my own observation during these last few weeks of protest is that this multi-racial character also applies to the police presence; Metro DC Police Department has a higher percentage of black officers than white officers, reflecting the racial diversity of the city that employs them.

So it would appear that the connection between racism and police violence is not as simple as some would suggest. Pitting white against black cannot explain the above-mentioned multiracial character of both the protesters and police. To argue otherwise places one group or another into a racially subordinate role: either (1) with black people as heroic rebels against police and white people as cowed allies or (2) with white people as paternalistic champions and black people as weakened victims. “Separate but Equal” supposedly died with Brown v Board, and it should not be revived now for opposite ends. We either succeed together or fail separately.

This is not to say race is irrelevant to this issue. It obviously does play a significant role in violent police interactions with citizens, but it’s not as clear-cut as historians like Blain have depicted. Under Stop and Frisk, New York’s City’s policy of citizen harrassment implemented under Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio, Harvard’s Roland G. Fryer discovered that black people were 19.4 percent more likely to be involved in non-lethal interactions with police where the officers pulled a weapon, when controlling for economic, social, and geographic variables. However, Fryer finds that “partitioning the data in myriad ways, we find no evidence of racial discrimination in officer-involved shootings. Investigating the intensive margin – the timing of shootings or how many bullets were discharged in the endeavor – there are no detectable racial differences.” Now, as Fryer mentions quite clearly in the paragraphs following this quote, these findings are not conclusive in that they derive from a fairly limited dataset, but they do point to the fact that race is not always the determining factor in police violence against people, black, white, brown, or whatever other identity partition one wishes to draw between the victims of police.

Now what is my point in all of this? As I have said above, my small, rural hometown was the site of a lynching of black man a little more than 120 years ago; this act of white vigilantism and savagery likely has a direct impact on, if not the family and friends of my ancestors, the terror of white supremacy that chained them to economic stagnation. However, it is a grave mistake for the left to continue to frame the issue of police brutality purely through the racial lens. Such framing is easily used by the well-connected, the grifting, and the self-interested individuals of all races who wish to increase their own prestige within a race-neutral economy of class stratification rather than fight for the downtrodden and brutalized working class of all races. We have grown past the need of a “Talented Tenth” that W.E.B. Du Bois lauded in 1903. Because once a privilege is acquired by a class of people it is hardly logical, especially for the left, to expect that class to easily expand that privilege on a broad basis.

Take for instance Nikole Hannah-Jones, lead author of The New York Times’ “1619 Project” and who appropriates the name of Ida B. Wells as her Twitter handle (Ida Bae Wells…). Between frequent Twitter struggle sessions, Hannah-Jones has somehow found the time to go onto various shows and news channels, including CNN and NPR, to speak on the rebellions currently taking place against police violence. In these Twitter wars, Hannah-Jones has retweeted praise for Mitt Romney in his week-late participation in the protests and making race-based arguments in defense of some police. Less than ignoring the issue of class, she actively excavated a contextless quote of W.E.B. Du Bois from 1937 seemingly to decry racial solidarity of labor in 2020. However, while substituting the past for the present in the context of American black lives, she proudly took oil money in willful ignorance of African black lives. In fact, historical misinterpretation seems to have paid off for Hannah-Jones with a Pulitzer.

But this is beyond any one individual. In the last week, corporate entities and their political servants have shown unequivocal support for the overarching rhetoric of the moment. A Financial Times analysis showed that at least $ 450 million in corporate donations have gone to race-based civil rights groups. At the funeral of George Floyd, the Mayor of Minneapolis who allowed the police to operate in their gangster manner wept at his casket - for the lost life of a man or the lost life of the mayor’s political career, no one knows - while Al Sharpton gave the eulogy. Neither man knew who George Floyd, the man, was before last week. Indeed, Uber provided free delivery for black-owned businesses, which makes this writer wonder how and why they were collecting racial data in the first place. No matter! Their shares rose by 3.5 percent after the display. In the pages of the New York Times, we can learn of the “boiling blood” of Compass real estates’ cofounder, who laments that “companies don’t care” about the real victims: corporate executives. Comically, considering Compass is one of those companies that “don’t care” about their own representation when flipping homes in New York and DC.

Regardless, the power of the masses has forced real change this time where the more limited protests of the past have not. The Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the police department, whose police union boss Bob Kroll has repeatedly battled against city orders. Indeed, it was the police murder of a white woman that made Kroll denounce the use of body cameras and maintain Minneapolis police violence behind the veil of self-written police reports. And finally, Congress (the House at least) will pass a bill that establishes federal standards for law enforcement, including the ban of chokeholds, which killed Eric Garner, and no-knock raids, which killed Breonna Taylor. No-knock raids are also responsible for the maiming of a two-year-old toddler in Georgia; a flashbang grenade was thrown through a window without the officers seeing what race the baby was. What mattered in the end was that the toddler lived in a house with no money, no power, and no police; it didn’t matter that he was half-white in hue, his color to them didn’t appear blue.

The thrust of my argument here is to not let the momentum and political energy of these protests die upon the racialized rock. The fact that corporate entities, professional managerial class warriors, and conservative politicians have voiced support for these protests indicate that this movement is in danger of commodification, marketing, and sale by those who would wish to profit themselves at the expense of the broad, multi-racial working class of this country, who are, as I mentioned above, all subject to the heavy hand of the police.

I implore the left to not cede the moment: cultural conversations around race alone are insufficient to bring about transformative change in policing and beyond. The uniquely tortured history of the U.S., which subjected black families, including my own, to humiliation, bloodshed, and terror, has also given us the gift of clear sight when it comes to economic injustice in our own country. Crispus Attucks, a free black man, was the first man killed in the Boston Massacre, which set off the American Revolution, a revolution that any student of history knows was no movement for emancipation. However, without the revolutionary spirit born of and shaped by the racial character of the Colonies, colonists may not have found the courage as they did to shrug off the monarchic manacles. This is the true meaning of “intersection,” and we must harness this new spirit of change and strengthen a broad-based message to the workers of America: against police indiscriminate violence and against discriminate economic injustice.

Therefore, I propose: 1) that the left’s message against police brutality be broadened to include workers and low-income earners of all races, who are disproportionately subject to police violence; 2) that the left’s message draw the connection between the violence of law enforcement for working-class crimes and the laxity of law enforcement for financial, polluting, and corruption crime; and 3) that leftist organizations (including DSA) propose real policy-based alternatives to “warrior” policing that center public service and community guardianship over undefined calls for “abolition.” Don’t let this moment descend into corporate marketeering and middle class self-indulgence. Anger at my own treatment by racists growing up is what brought me to the left in the first place: from Letter from a Birmingham Jail to Black Jacobins. It can happen for others. Real change is possible, if only we all reach up together to grasp it.

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