Image by Ryan Kosmides
Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.—The New York Times
My hometown has made global headlines recently, after the publication of the video of what can—at best—be called an extrajudicial execution, in which George Floyd begged for his life, as he was slowly choked to death by a man wearing the uniform of the Minneapolis Police Department, while three other uniformed men stood and watched.
The resulting anger was palpable—and understandably so. But we Americans have seen similar scenes before. More than once. Something was different about the reaction to this—different even from the Ferguson riots of 2014. This was moral outrage with nothing to lose. The Los Angeles Riots of 1992, in response to the brutal beating of Rodney King by members of the LAPD, provide the closest parallel. But, unlike the 1992 riots, this unrest has been global—enabled and facilitated by social media, and encouraged by the fact that we are living through the first true pandemic in a century.
As eighteenth-century historian Barthold Georg Neibuhr once observed, “Times of plague are always those in which the bestial and diabolical side of human nature gains the upper hand.” In his 2009 book Contagion and Chaos, Andrew Price-Smith argues:
Disease-induced morbidity and mortality produces quantifiable negative effects on human capital and reduces the productivity of workers, but economic damage and violence between societal factions may also be induced by the visceral fear of contagion. Fear and anxiety generated by infectious disease may generate responses ranging from Pareto-suboptimal decision making to denial to social dissolution to vicious persecution of minorities or of other polities.
The clashes between protesters, rioters and police forces in the United States over the past several weeks certainly constitute “violence between societal factions.” These clashes are not directly linked to a “visceral fear of contagion,” but it would be naive to think that the phenomena are not linked at all. If it hadn’t been for Covid-19 and the fear, uncertainty and mass unemployment it produced, the violent clashes would probably not have occurred—or, at least, would have been far less severe. The lack of certainty many Americans felt about everything from the continuance of their health insurance to their ability to pay for groceries, must only have exacerbated tensions, making the idea of a righteous cause and a scapegoat all the more attractive.
The protests made sense and even the riots were understandable. But societies who are in the grip of a contagion tend to make poor decisions.
Our Relatively Frail Reasoning Faculty
As Andrew Price-Smith has explained, historically “the visitation of an epidemic [has often] generated enormous levels of affect (emotions of fear and anxiety) that heralded social polarization and generated inter-ethnic and inter-class strife.” As the number of deaths continues to rise and public health experts seem to be at a loss, “extreme uncertainty results in profound levels of fear and anxiety, which typically results in significant displays of affect-induced irrational behavior,” which can “generate or exacerbate in-group/out-group identity formation, resulting in the scapegoating of ‘others.’” In effect, the sociopath who murdered George Floyd became the vector of everything we’ve been fearing for the last six months and thus the perfect target of our collective rage. He was not to blame for Covid-19, of course, but he was scum, so he would have to do. And collective fear leads to bad decisions. As Daniel Deudney writes:
Human rationality is a relatively frail faculty of the human psyche and easily overpowered by the various emotions, most notably fear and anger. Fear is the emotion most intimately linked to security, and how fear is managed—expressed, repressed, directed, or cultivated—is among the most elemental issues of security politics. The dynamics of fear are central to many of the most influential analyses of political security … When human beings are gripped by the emotion of fear, their capacity for instrumental rationality is often impaired. As Thucydides so vividly shows, fear can lead individuals and groups to take actions that are panicked and ill-conceived.
The notion of defunding and even abolishing police departments has roots in the idea of self-policing, proposed by the Black Panther movement of the late 1960s and early 70s, and by anarchist collectives throughout history. While it’s often been proposed by activist circles and radicals of both the left and right, the proposal has usually remained confined to the political fringe. But it’s now being taken seriously by state governments and media outlets. The explanation for this is not the horror provoked by the George Floyd murder tape. That was merely the catalyst. There have been similar videos: of Philando Castile’s murder, also in the Twin Cities, of the killing of Eric Garner—both arguably horrifying enough to cause mass protests, if not riots. But, in this case, the uncertainty and fear caused by the pandemic has affected not only the protestors and rioters, but the people in government. Hence, the Minneapolis City Council has unanimously voted to completely dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a “community-led public safety system.”
Some see this as merely an experiment, some see it as a necessary step toward a better world. I see it as playing with fire.
The Message of the Noose
According to the NAACP, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States between 1882 and 1968. Around 72% of the victims were black people.
I don’t think people fully grasp the horror of lynchings. They don’t just involve being strung up and having the life choked out of you. A crowd of angry people will scream at you, taunt you, throw things at you, as you dangle from a tree or lamp post. Often, if you’re a man, your genitals will be sliced off and shoved into your slack-jawed mouth. There’s something deeply psychosexual about such lynchings. It doesn’t take a Harvard sociologist to see the connections between racist claims about the hyper-virility of black men and this kind of practice.
Sometimes, the lynch mob seem intent on sadistic revenge, as in the case of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, who was castrated for the alleged rape and murder of a white woman in Waco, Texas in 1916. The crowd raised and lowered him over a fire for about two hours, slowly burning him to death while he bled out. This happened in front of 10,000 onlookers, including several children, who were eating lunch.
Mary Turner was lynched by a white mob in May 1918, as part of a string of revenge lynchings following the murder of an abusive plantation owner called Hampton Smith. Mary, who was eight months pregnant, was strung upside down and burned with gasoline. After her belly was sliced open with a “hog-splitting knife,” she watched as her baby was stomped to death, before being riddled by hundreds of bullets and left to rot in the hot Georgia sun.
Psychosexual thrills, racism, sadism: this is why these things happen. Yet there’s a deeper reason why they are allowed to occur by so many people. The 10,000 people present at the lynching of Jesse Washington were complicit, though they did not participate in the actual violence. They were there to send a message. That message wasn’t just that racial undesirables should be kept in their place. They weren’t moustache-twirling villains, who consciously wanted to preserve white power. While those kinds of motivations certainly existed, that wasn’t why so many people took part as witnesses.
These people wanted to believe that lynchings made them safer. Jesse Washington may have been just a kid, but to those people he was a rapist and murderer. The crowd had said so. And thus, he had it coming. The community would be safer without him. The fact that he was black and many in the all-white crowd were racists simply provided an additional motivation.
Lynching, above all else, was about sending a message, usually to a racial community. That is why the victims were always left hanging. There was an infamous anti-Chinese pogrom here in Los Angeles in 1871, perpetrated by white and Mexican laborers, which resulted in twenty deaths—making it the largest mass lynching in American history. It was done in response to the killing of a white saloon keeper in the vicinity of Chinatown. The mob assumed that Chinese gangs—which had caused some trouble in the past—were involved. None of the victims were gang members, but that didn’t seem to matter. The lynching sent a clear—and deeply ironic—message to the Chinese American community: we will not tolerate it if your kind bring violence to our community.
Protecting the Guilty
Lynching is a job done by a mob who believe that the police haven’t done their job. Throughout most of history, the police have protected accused and even genuine criminals from lynchings. After Lee Harvey Oswald was found guilty of assassinating President John F. Kennedy, he was held in protective custody. While he was being transferred to another prison, he was killed by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. The Dallas police department weren’t protecting Oswald because they liked him: they were protecting him from being killed. They weren’t trying to keep Oswald, a criminal, safe: they were trying to keep society safe.
When the police keep criminals in protective custody, they’re protecting due process and the rule of law—things that fly out of the window when the lynch mob approaches. These values—the rule of law, due process—are being increasingly ignored or dismissed as naive, ineffective and even racist. But racism is found within the human heart. Buildings, laws and countries can only be racist because they are made by humans. If the humans are racist, the things they build will be, too.
So, by all means, abolish the police. Abolish the supposedly racist structures instead of ousting the racist people and replacing them with people who aren’t racist or who are willing to change. Establish “community safety departments.” Pretend that the uncertainty and fear produced by a pandemic is not affecting everyone’s judgment. But remember that, throughout American history, community safety has been little more than a handy euphemism for the lynch mob.