Read this about BLM, even though it’s not “trending”
“Ducking the overnight activists…”
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WHEN IT’S NOT TRENDING
The last year has seen many conversations about reforming broken policing in America. But the focus and urgency on systemic racism has faded since last summer’s protests. Was that predictable?
It was to many activists. And to many people who have spent time working on these issues.
Here’s a protester from last summer, holding a sign that pleads, “Support us when it’s not trending”:
Now, the word “trending” does a lot of work here.
It captures our current viral era, where virtually all topics — even state-sanctioned murder — are reduced to their “viral” elements. An issue or stance becomes “hot,” then fades like it’s some sort of fashion.
That brings us to a close association with “trend” — “trendy” — and the plea to continue backing BLM and reform, even when it inevitably becomes less “trendy” to some.
The Pulitzer Prize winning artist Kendrick Lamar, who tackles civil rights themes in his lyrics and music videos, actually touched on this critique in a new song out just this week.
He raps about ducking “social gimmicks” and “the overnight activists,” and then he declares:
“I'm not a trending topic!”
So there’s a wider discourse here about avoiding the perils of a “trending topic” mindset, and especially when it comes to people who view a centuries-long quest to stop the state murder of Black people as some kind of viral clickbait to gather more clout.
So, it was a very evocative protest sign. I remember seeing it during that intense, emotional period last summer, and viewing it as a kind of future time capsule—it was a prediction, but a sturdy one. It was rooted in broader dynamics that were likely to hold; and in America’s sclerotic, schizophrenic posture towards demands for racial progress.
If there was an urge to “support” equality last summer, what does it mean to continue that today?
The answer can depend on the level—personal, political, societal—and I’m not going to try to tackle all of it in this piece. (For an assessment of specific policies, consider reading my recent piece on how to change policing). Any level, however, requires confronting the basic facts. And on this topic, the facts are not widely known or agreed upon.
POLICE KEEP KILLING AMERICANS AT THE SAME RATE
The fact is that deadly police shootings continue at virtually the same rate this year.
They are on track to be just like last year, which was seen as a bad year for excessive use of force. So that’s not changing, yet.
For a movement sparked by one issue—the discriminatory use of deadly force—that is a sobering fact. There are many other related issues that may require reform, but even the priority is not budging. So simply put, the recent activism and scrutiny alone are not bending the curve of police shootings in America.
Some observers might have thought a year like the one we just lived through would impact some officers' conduct. But when it comes to shootings, in the aggregate, it did not.
What do we do with that fact?
As a journalist and lawyer, I think (a) some of this is complex, but (b) there are two clear and fairly simple ways to break this down:
There are some policy reforms which are perfectly valid, but are also failing to bend that curve.
There have been waves of reform in policing and civil rights, especially since last year. There are some new D.A.s; new training programs; new diversity recruiting at departments; and many more body cameras. These add to mechanisms that can enhance oversight of law enforcement. But, in this past year, these reforms are not reducing deadly shootings overall.
Take body cameras, which have become a feature of how we think we understand (some) policing incidents. The majority of incidents caught on body cameras are never released by police, according to a recent study. So, some of these reforms won't get at the root of excessive force if they are bound by the original dilemma in American policing — that police largely get to police themselves.
Other reforms do have an impact, when they assert truly independent authority over police.
While the overall rates are not changing yet, there is evidence that certain reforms do have an impact, when they assert truly independent authority over police. This is the area of greatest impact, at least for people interested in cutting the rate of improper, possibly illegal use of force against innocent people. (Something any good officer should support as well.)
Evidence shows the reforms that work best to patrol and change police conduct are systems where someone other than the police has more control over what happens.
Take the contrast between police body camera videos and citizen videos. You don't need a study to see citizen videos clearly have an immediate impact. The police do not have control of them in the first place. The video of George Floyd's murder spread swiftly — so fast, in fact, that some officers were still, stupidly, falsely claiming that Floyd died in a medical incident — a cover story that was shredded by the public video. People forced facts into the system that otherwise would never have come to life.
Same goes for reforms where independent prosecutors investigate these allegations against police, instead of the DAs that are (usually) on the police's team. There's also a plan that police unions are fighting the hardest to stop, which is to reform the legal immunity that prevents courts from ever finding facts in the first place. Right now, under the law, most cases against police are actually tossed before getting to a trial because of this type of immunity, so the alleged victims don't even get a day in court.
Not every policy reform will impact the larger problem, which doesn’t mean those aren’t worth trying. The big reforms—and the hardest to pass through a system resisting them—all tend to go after the flaw in the system itself, unchecked police power. It will take a lot more than momentary trends to change that.
P.S. Has anything changed since last summer? Send me your answer or experience in the comments and I will respond to some of them.
I am so grateful that you keep unchecked police use of force and qualified immunity in your essays. Trending or not it is unjust and it should not be tolerated. I am sick of capricious right wing comments denying the need for police reform. Never stop Ari
I will shortly be 81 and can proudly say I have been on the side of poor people since my youth... because I was poor myself. I experienced how all of us, black and white struggled to get ahead. I realized that we were in this together and also experienced black people being prejudiced against. And... I didn't do anything because I was 18 and scared to death. I was ashamed of myself then, but have not been scared or ashamed for decades and solidly stand with all people who are just trying to survive. Black lives matter.