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Joey Grihalva is a MPS teacher, writer and author of “Milwaukee Jazz.”
On June 7, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle their police department and replace it with a new system of public safety.
The dramatic decision—a first for a major American city—was made nearly two weeks after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, which sparked what may become the largest sustained protest movement since the Civil Rights era.
A few days prior, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Gov. Tony Evers said that police policy needs a major overhaul, but he does not support defunding and abolishing the police. I think he may be wrong. Here is why.
A series of questions
In the summer of 2000, I was 14 years old. One day, I was hanging out on Milwaukee’s East Side with a friend, who is black. It was getting late and we needed to get back home, but we didn’t know where to catch the bus. We were standing on the corner outside of Oakland Gyros when I spotted two police officers walking toward the restaurant.
“Excuse me, officer, do you know where the 60 bus picks up around here?”
No response. Both officers walked right past us. One of them had a smirk on his face.
As innocuous as that “interaction” may have been, it left a lasting impression and made my young mind wonder, “Who do the police protect and serve?”
Television shows and movies tell us that the police protect us from the bad guys, but it has never been that simple.
Before the incident outside of Oakland Gyros, my understanding of police negligence was shaped by the beating of Rodney King. The takeaway from that case was clear enough for a 6-year-old to understand — police can beat a black person within an inch of their life and face no legal repercussions, even if there’s video evidence. The psychological impact of Rodney King has reverberated for generations.
Growing up a white kid with a brown father and a black best friend in Sherman Park, I became hyper aware at an early age of how race is a source of identity and a cultural force. It wasn’t until high school and college that I learned about institutional racism.
That’s when I learned about the intricacies of slavery. I learned about segregation and Jim Crow laws. I learned about the prohibition of interracial marriage. I learned about the Ku Klux Klan and public lynchings, which is to say, I learned about domestic terrorism against black people. I learned how black people were left out of the New Deal and the GI Bill. I learned about redlining and white flight. I learned about the wealth gap. I learned about disparities in public school funding and drug sentencing. I learned about the criminal justice system, the prison-industrial complex, and mass incarceration. I learned about gerrymandering and voter suppression. I learned about implicit bias and double standards.
This knowledge led me to a new question: “Do the police combat institutional racism or do they enforce it?”
The third question I ask myself when thinking about the police and their role in American society is much more fundamental.
“How do you feel when you see a police officer?”
If the answer were the same for every American, if we all agreed that seeing a police officer makes us feel safe, then there would be a strong argument against criticizing the police. But that is simply not the case.
By and large, Americans of color fear the police, especially if the officer is white. There are people of color who refuse to call the police out of fear that upon their arrival, the caller will be mistaken for the perpetrator. That is an irreconcilable relationship.
This is the reality (we hope) the rest of the country (and world) is waking up to since the murder of George Floyd.
Having answered this essential question, let’s take a closer look at the two more specific questions.
To start, let’s consider an incident that occurred recently in the town of Monona, which is near Madison.
Who do the police protect and serve?
On June 2, a young black man named Keonte Furdge, a former football player at Monona Grove High School, was standing on a porch. The porch is connected to a house owned by one of Furdge’s former football coaches. It was the home of the coach’s mother until her recent passing.
Furdge’s former coach had let Toren Young, Furdge’s friend and another former Monona Grove football player, live at the house. Furdge had lost his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was staying with Young for a few days. Both young men were familiar with the neighborhood from when they did chores for their coach’s mother.
It was about 9 a.m. when Furdge was on the porch talking on his phone. About 20 minutes after he went inside the police showed up. A neighbor, presuming he was an intruder, had called them to investigate.
When the police entered the house, they drew their guns, barked orders and questioned Furdge, who was compliant. Still, the officers handcuffed Furdge and did not lower their weapons until receiving confirmation that he was not an intruder.
Now imagine if Furdge had responded combatively. Imagine if he had a black hair brush in his hand when the police walked in. Imagine if he had a legally licensed firearm. What might have happened then?
We could be hearing “Keonte Furdge” chanted in the streets.
In this situation, who did the police protect and serve? Keonte Furdge or the fearful white neighbor?
It cannot be said enough, that it is not merely the death of George Floyd, or any of the documented deaths of people of color at the hands of the police, it is also the countless incidents like the one in Monona that is fueling this wave of protests, which have brought together people of all ages, abilities, orientations and skin tones.
Since the protests began, a new question has emerged: “If you join the protests, even if you are peaceful, do the police protect and serve you?”
We have seen too many videos and heard too many accounts suggesting they do not. Take the 75-year-old man in Buffalo who was shoved to the ground by police, his head bleeding as other officers callously walk past his body. This is an egregious, well-known example, but there are more.
Do the police combat institutional racism, or do they enforce it?
A cursory reading of American history reveals that police have actively enforced institutional racism. Police are, after all, agents of the state. If the state has a racist law, it is by definition the police’s job to enforce it. Additionally, it was not uncommon for police officers to be members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups.
We would like to think that things have changed. Yet, at the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Va., the “Thin Blue Line”’ flag (a symbol of police solidarity) was flown by white supremacists alongside Confederate flags, suggesting they view police as integral to enforcing white supremacy.
As I have learned, racism may not be as overt these days, but it remains in covert, systemic ways. Here is one example.
On June 5, the Milwaukee Common Council held a special meeting to discuss the Milwaukee Police Department’s use of force against protesters and the implementation of a curfew. Police Chief Alfonso Morales was not in attendance, so Assistant Chief Michael Brunson spoke on behalf of MPD.
In one exchange, Ald. Chantia Lewis asked Brunson to explain how peaceful, unarmed protesters can be deemed an “unlawful assembly” and dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets, while heavily armed protesters at gun rights rallies or the “Re-open the economy” rallies we saw earlier last month are free to walk the streets with military-grade assault rifles.
Brunson reiterated MPD’s stance that no peaceful protests have been met with force. A protest can be deemed an “unlawful assembly” when someone in the crowd “engages in behavior that can put police officers or the public in harm.” That can simply mean one person throwing a water bottle. On the flip side, Brunson said that citizens have a right to carry guns if they are not a felon and have a license.
Lewis asked if his officers approach such people to see if they have a license and to identify whether or not they are a felon. Brunson’s response is telling.
“If you look at the law, as it relates, if there is nothing to indicate that this person is a felon, then we can’t just go and pre-emptively stop individuals who are exercising their right to carry those rifles.”
That is the law, as it pertains to the overwhelmingly white, heavily armed protesters we have seen around this country. They get the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, unarmed people of color are pre-emptively stopped by the police time and time again, with no pretense besides the color of their skin. This is not conjecture, it is well-documented. And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, disparities in policing social distancing have followed the same racist logic.
Milwaukee’s biggest protest so far took place on June 6. It began at the North Point Water Tower and stopped in the suburbs of Shorewood and Whitefish Bay. One of the organizers, Darius Smith, said it was important for him to take the march into Whitefish Bay because it was there that he experienced two episodes of racial profiling by the police when he was young.
The first time, Smith was driving his car and the second time he was walking down the street. In both cases, a police officer stopped him and asked, “What are you doing here?” In both cases the officer had no conceivable reason to stop Smith. He was simply a black man in Whitefish Bay.
If we could ask those officers why they stopped Smith, I suspect their response would be, “I was just doing my job.”
And that is the problem.
What can be done?
Since the protests began, there has been much talk, both in the streets and online, about defunding and abolishing the police. This is not a new idea. There are organizations that have been researching and advocating the issue for decades. As quickly as the idea to defund the police is gaining traction, it is just as quickly being dismissed as too idealistic and impractical.
So why then has it suddenly entered the mainstream? Maybe because police reform efforts have failed communities of color? Is that not the underlying message of this movement?
During the Milwaukee Common Council meeting, Assistant Chief Brunson looked over the “8 Can’t Wait” reform initiatives that many American cities are calling on their police departments to adopt. Brunson claimed that MPD has most of them already in place, and the others would hinder their ability to do their job.
As a public-school teacher, I can understand not wanting to be micromanaged by an administrative body. However, unlike police officers, as a teacher, I am held to a zero-tolerance standard when it comes to using physical force against my students. Yet Brunson and the MPD want credit for the “great restraint” they have shown during this time.
Please. I have had things thrown at me in the classroom, and I have been able to resist using retaliatory physical force every single time. I wish I could say the same about the police.
Before you say, “Well, those are children, police deal with adults,” let me inform you that police have pepper sprayed, tear gassed and shot rubber bullets at children and teenagers all over this country in the past three weeks alone. Also, let us remember that Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in 2014 for having a toy gun, was 12 years old.
The fact is that the police do not want to be reformed. Their unions have fought tooth and nail against such efforts.
Look at what happened in the aftermath of the senior citizen being shoved to the ground in Buffalo. The two officers involved were suspended. Then 57 of their fellow officers resigned from the emergency response team, not because of the conduct of the two officers, but because of the fact that they faced repercussions. This is abhorrent and indicative of how resistant police are to accountability.
Not only are the police unwilling to reform or self-correct, they fabricate reports to cover up their abuse. It happened in the George Floyd case (police falsely claimed he was resisting arrest) and it happened in the Buffalo incident (police falsely claimed the old man tripped). We can only imagine how many times police have lied when there wasn’t video evidence to set the record straight.
In his interview with the Journal Sentinel, Evers claimed that “most law enforcement are in the profession for the right reason.” Anyone who is critical of the police has heard a version of this response. But the existence of “good cops” doesn’t account for a bad system and a toxic culture.
Abolition as a process, not a quick fix
One of my favorite “sad but true” tweets from the past couple of weeks goes something like this, “Defunding the police seems like a radical idea until you realize we’ve been defunding education for decades.”
The fact is that police budgets are excessive while other social sectors are underfunded. Just look at the expensive riot gear police have been wearing compared to what health care workers have had to work with during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As such, we should start by divesting public money from the police and investing it in institutions and initiatives that address the root causes of crime, namely education, mental health, poverty, homelessness and drug abuse.
We tried a similar approach in the 1960s and 1970s with the War on Poverty, but the political winds changed, Ronald Reagan became president, and it was abandoned. A turbo-charged War on Drugs took its place, ravaging communities of color in the process. We cannot let history repeat itself.
I must acknowledge that there is an elephant in the room, pun intended.
If it is this hard to convince a Democratic governor to defund the police, how can we expect the other side to even listen? After all, they either don’t believe that racism is a problem and that police abuse their power, or they welcome police abuse toward people of color.
To be honest, I don’t have an answer to that question. Nor do I pretend to know exactly how a world without police would operate. But I do know that their place in the public imagination has been wildly inflated by their portrayal in Hollywood. I know that instead of alleviating the inequities faced by communities of color, the police exacerbate those inequities. I know that reform efforts have not worked. And I know that, as The Guardian points out, the tragic irony of the recent protests about police brutality is that they have been met with waves of police brutality.
In the three decades since the exoneration of the officers who beat Rodney King, there have been far too many acquittals of killer cops. Let’s not hold our breath for the outcome of the George Floyd case. Let’s shift the paradigm.
Now is the time to start the process of abolishing the police. This is not something that will happen overnight. It will not work unless we also dismantle systemic racism across the board. But it is a logical solution to the public health crisis of racism.
There will be those that say abolition is a distraction from larger institutional issues like the laws and judges that disproportionately send black people to prison, or the educational systems that fail to teach black children. They will say that the police merely enforce and uphold an unjust, racist system, so if we get rid of the police we will be left with the same system and all its ramifications.
There will also be those that say conservatives will use this call to abolish the police as a cudgel to thwart incremental electoral gains in the coming election.
Let them say what they will say. I believe that this call and the momentum behind it are not a distraction. This is an opportunity.
In this moment of national reckoning, abolishing the police can be the opening act to a radical reimagining of society. If we dismantle law enforcement as we know it, we will have no choice but to work together to create a more just, equitable and peaceful society.
America can no longer afford to ignore its history. If we continue to look away from the sins of our past, we are doomed to repeat them.