The past few weeks in the United States have been painful – for the nation at large, but particularly for the Black community. The combination of a global pandemic that is disproportionately harming and killing Black people and a police system that is disproportionately destroying and ending Black lives has re-opened wounds that never seem to close.
But, history has shown that some of our most difficult moments often lead to some of the greatest transformations in American society.
This past Memorial Day, George Floyd, a Black man who before his death was a musician and a beloved member of the community, was murdered by a police officer in front of dozens of witnesses and cameras. Floyd’s death has led to weeks of protest against police violence across the country. Even as hundreds of thousands of Americans have come out to protest the preponderance of police violence against unarmed civilians, many police officers have proven the legitimacy of these concerns by using excessive force to crack down on these protests.
What happened to George Floyd has happened many times before around the country – so many times that black parents have a different version of “the talk,” during which they teach their children how to survive interactions with the police.
Despite the fact that none of this is new, something feels different about this moment. This time, it feels like America is finally paying attention. People who have never protested before or never understood the need for organizations like Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero are hitting the streets to demand an end to police brutality. This level of sustained outrage and activism from a multi-racial group of Americans has not been seen since the Civil Rights movement, and it is already leading to radical changes in policy and public opinion. This moment is forcing Americans to try and see the disparate impacts of heavy-handed policing on communities of color. Some surveys have shown that support for Black Lives Matter among white Americans has increased more in the 2 weeks following the murder of George Floyd than in the previous 2 years.
Black communities have been sounding the alarm about police brutality and the over-surveillance of majority-Black communities for decades. They have criticized the modern police as a system that maintains White Supremacy by both failing to protect Black people and causing deep and lasting harm to those communities. For many in the Black community, the obvious solution is to dismantle the current system of policing and replace it with something that actually does the thing it purports to do – serve and protect.
This view is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among young people and people of color. Calls to abolish or defund the police have come from activists and criminal justice experts for decades, becoming louder in recent weeks.
While a complete overhaul of policing in the United States will likely take time and an even more drastic change in public opinion, state and local governments across the country are already taking smaller steps to address the issue of police violence.
Campaign Zero, which aims to end police violence in America, has also seen some success with its #8CantWait campaign, which calls for 8 key reforms:
The campaign, however, has been criticized for not going far enough and for possibly causing harm to the ultimate goal of police abolition by convincing Americans that tinkering at the edges of the issue will eliminate the problem.
Still, hundreds of state and local governments across the country are already implementing some of the planks of the 8 Can’t Wait Campaign. Here are a few examples at the municipal level:
Important changes like these are also happening at the state legislative level. States around the country are also pushing new pieces of legislation to address police violence, and renewing support for older legislation that has failed in the past. Here are a few examples:
While all of these pieces of legislation represent a shift in the right direction, it should be stressed that for many activists and criminal justice experts, the abolition of our current system of policing, as well as the prison industrial complex, is the ultimate goal of any serious criminal justice reform. While there has been little support among lawmakers for such measures, dismantling and recreating the police has been tried with success in the United States before, most notably in Camden, NJ.
One of the few places to seriously consider abolishing the police today is Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was killed. Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council, which constitutes a veto-proof majority, have announced plans to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with something new.
Not every police department is making radical changes, and the changes will be uneven across the country, but this moment has forced Americans to expand our view of what is possible. Public opinion and public policy are moving at a speed that was previously unimaginable, with new proposals coming out everyday.
This moment might be difficult and frightening, but there is reason to be optimistic that it is also transformative. We are seeing hard-won victories around the country from activists and advocacy groups that have been working to make meaningful reforms to policing for years.
None of these changes are enough, and certainly, none of them will bring back the lives we have already lost. But, many of our leaders across the country are working to meet this moment, and it’s our job to encourage them when they get it right and push them to go even further.