Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Beyond Brutality

I write this at great distance from the uprisings now taking place across the US sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. I am thousands of miles distant and witness police repression, and the anger of the protestors, via old and social media. I am a white Oxford professor, whose efforts at understanding events flow neither from experience nor grounded observation. I take seriously the idea that this is a moment that demands listening, not speech. Yet there are things to be said – things that, in my case at any rate, are driven by a commitment to grasp what’s at stake politically when policing is contested and to articulating ideas that can help shape the struggle for a better politics of crime and justice.


Time to read

4 Minutes

Much of what has happened in the last week is gloomily familiar – the latest iteration of entrenched racialized practices. We know that for black Americans in disadvantaged communities, the police are how government is experienced. The policing of black neighbourhoods has long been animated – not by public safety or crime prevention – but by penal control, to keeping people in order and in (their) place. Police brutality and killing is part of the black American experience – and it seems to have got worse not better since Ferguson. So too is the legal impunity, and white endorsement or denial, that accompanies and facilitates such brutality. Maybe this time it will be different. Under the pressure of outraged protests, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who pinned George Floyd’s neck to the tarmac for eight minutes and 46 seconds, has been arrested and charged. He may yet be thrown under the proverbial bus. History tells black America not to count on it.

And yet, there is a sense, watching events of the past week, that this may be a tipping point. Whether that is so, and if so which way things tip, remains an open question. On the one hand, draped in the flag, and waving the bible, President Trump lambasts ‘weak’ local leaders and threatens to deploy the US Army against American citizens. This may simply be bluster – tweeting turbo-charged clichés from the law ‘n’ order playbook. It may though augur a step-change in state brutality. Yet there are also signs of a pivot to a different future. Some of these are small but perhaps telling. The dominant imagery has been rifles and tear-gas and the discarded military hardware that the American police lapped up post—Iraq. But the world has also witnessed scenes of local sheriffs marching with protestors, of armed police taking a knee in front of protestors, of police leaders speaking against the grain. So too – you can be sure - has an incandescent Trump. More significantly, the scale, duration and moral clarity of the protests suggests that perhaps this time – given the cocktail of police killing, a badly handled Covid-19 crisis, and skyrocketing unemployment – enough is enough, that there is no going back, that peace will now depend upon justice. Amid the horror and the anger, hope flickers for a different future.

In a short order of time, Black Lives Matter has become a vibrant movement against racist brutality – in the US and far beyond. Like many social movements it is focused on mobilizing and organizing, tactics and strategies. Its orientation is to expose, publicize and critique. But Black Lives Matter is also – as Christopher Lebron suggests - an idea. It is a movement that draws on ideas, that is animated by ideas, that is generative of ideas. Given this, a different intellectual-political task hoves into view, another way of reading and responding to the events of the past week. Its central questions are these: what ideas can be located in, and distilled from, the angry protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd? What different futures, what alternative political visions, animate Black Lives Matter?

There is no place here to conduct a sympathetic interpretation of these political visions, or to assess the preferred conceptions of a better politics of safety and justice one finds in Black Lives Matter.  A mere sketch of some of these ideas will have to suffice. Some of these have to do with reducing the power of the police in ways that respect and uphold the dignity of black people – to limit police capacity to harass, stop and frisk, detain, maim and kill with impunity. This is partly a question of legal activism and reform. But it is also about disputing the grip of police unions and thinking afresh about the capacity of local politics to exercise effective control over police. A second family of ideas refuses to be seduced by incorporation into existing sites of police consultation in favour of developing and experimenting with deeper democratic forms of neighbourhood control over police departments and public safety budgets. In both cases, the task at hand is to expose the inability of existing reform programme to tackle entrenched patterns of abuse, and to proffer radical alternative paths towards that goal. The work of the group Campaign Zero springs readily to mind in this regard.

The protests of the last week have also seen the renewed application to the police of an idea more typically associated with radical alternatives to prison: abolition. This idea has been expressed in different vernaculars – defund, shrink, disband. It takes forms that are more or less radical, that are reformist or transformative in orientation. It is sometimes a mobilizing slogan, sometimes attended by concrete proposals. But across each case a broadly shared vision can be distilled, one that reimagines urban life and governance, and harm prevention and public safety, without resort to police. The idea – and attendant task – is to loosen the grip of police fetishism. It is to think and act on questions of safety, poverty, education and (mental) health is ways that prevent them from defaulting to the police to handle – with all that has long entailed for black Americans. Only when this is done, when the current US police is shrunk or dismantled, and the idea of police de-centred, might one be able, as deRay McKesson puts it, to return safely to the question of what to do on the occasions when ‘intense intervention’ is actually required.

Black Lives Matter is, in these respects, a movement provoked by police but not in the end about policing. It acts to end police brutality but has a vision beyond brutality. That vision is mobilized by questions of dignified treatment. But it asks whether re-forming a police devoted to racialized penal control is possible without effecting a wider transformation in entrenched patterns of racial privilege and domination. In the last week, that vision has been activated by (another) police killing. But it connects that killing – all those killings - to a more radical question about the capacities and failings of the American state. Can that state, we are enjoined to ask, be reimagined so that it protects and provides for black citizens in ways that enable them to see themselves as its authors, not its disposable objects?