White Progressives & the Police

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

So much has happened in the last two months!

  • Protests and riots continued around the country, having been sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police on May 25.
  • On June 28, a White couple was caught on film brandishing guns (one of them a semi-automatic rifle) at protesters outside their home in St. Louis. (They are later invited to speak at the Republican National Convention.)
  • On July 1, a White woman was caught on film brandishing a gun at a Black mother and her teenage daughter in a parking lot in Detroit.
  • On July 17, Portland was invaded by federal agents, including unidentified, militarized officers who emerged from minivans to abduct protesters off the street gestapo-style. (The same occurred in other cities like New York and Chicago.)
  • That same day, on July 17, Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis passed away.
  • On July 30, a video is released of the murder of Lionel Morris by police in an Arkansas store for allegedly attempting to shoplift a toy drone.
  • On August 4, police are caught on video forcing a Black family, including the children, to lie face down and handcuffed on the ground in what turns out to be an unjustified stop. The children can be heard crying in the video.
  • On August 23, Jacob Blake was murdered by police in Kenosha, WI. The video shows Blake being shot in the back seven times.
  • Two days later, on August 25, a 17-year old militia member, who was being supported by police, shot and killed two protesters, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and seriously injures a third, Gaige Grosskreutz. A Fox News pundit tweeted that she wanted the shooter to be President.
  • On August 26, the Republican National Convention speakers include a White mother of a biracial son, who previously said it would be smart for the police to profile her son, and the aforementioned White couple who were caught on film brandishing guns at protesters.

And, of course, all of this was happening while we’re in the middle of the biggest pandemic in a century and in the run-up to the election to unseat the most fascist President in living memory. (And I’m sure I left a lot out.)

At the end of July, I helped organize a symbolic funeral procession for Black lives, followed by a police violence awareness rally and die-in at a local police station.

The event was organized in response to a “police appreciation day”, which had been created a community group and endorsed by the local safety board. (The main organizer was the brother of the former police chief who has been charged with sexual battery and corruption.) Organizers of the police appreciation day admitted that it was in response to nationwide criticism of the police. “This year, with everything going on, it’s been a tough time to be a police officer with situations here,” said the current police chief to the local newspaper. No mention of how tough a time it has been for people of color being harassed, beaten, and killed by police.

I don’t know that I had any strategic goal in organizing the protest beyond just not wanting the police appreciation day to go unanswered. To me, holding a police appreciation day under these circumstances was like saying “Blue Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter”; it was an attempt to distract from the murders of people of color by police, to solidify uncritical loyalty for the police among the citizenry, and to discourage people from protesting or calling for the defunding of the police.

In the lead up to the event, someone pointed out to me the curious fact that, while teachers are some of the most vocal critics of the educational system and nurses are some of the most vocal critics of the health care system, police are not correspondingly critical of the “justice” system. In the midst of COVID, we need to be holding appreciation events for teacher and nurses, not cops.

Black Lives Matter rally
Police Appreciation Day

The constituency of the two events could not have been more different. The one group was nearly all White, and the other better reflected the racial diversity of the region. One group had nearly 100% mask compliance, while the other group had nearly 0%. And then, of course, there were all of those American flags. It’s really disturbing to me that the flag has come to represent White supremacy, support for a police state, and flagrant disregard of public health laws. I’d love to see progressives reclaim the symbol of the flag.

Driving this police appreciation and other such police-worship is a myth about how cops “put their lives on the line” every day. This myth is perpetuated to encourage a hyper-vigilence among cops bordering on paranoia and to excuse police violence, especially against Black people. It is part an parcel of a racist view of Black people as inherently dangerous. Consider this list of dangerous jobs and where policing falls on the list. Why aren’t we worshiping construction workers, farm workers, and maintenance workers the way we worship cops? And why aren’t we holding parades for roofers, truck drivers, and loggers?

I expected the resistance from the Right. What surprised me, though, was the resistance I got from many White progressives. It seems that, while many White progressives are finally comfortable saying “Black Lives Matter”, they remain uncomfortable doing or saying anything that shows disloyalty to the police.

For example, my Unitarian congregation recently voted to place a “Black Lives Matter” sign on the church building, but some members want the church to have a talk with the local police before the sign goes up, to give the police a “heads up.” To give another example, a self-described “tree hugging hippie” expressed outrage about the police violence awareness event I organized and told me that she took cupcakes to the police station in her town to show her support for the “good ones”.

These seemingly innocent expressions of support for the police by White people are really disturbing to me, as I know they are to many people of color. (Check out this article, “It’s Not Just A Bunch of Flowers,” by a Black environmental activist, writing in response to White activists bringing flowers to police who arrested them.) They reveal an ignorance on the part of even some progressive White people about the experience of Black and Brown people who are the ones most often the victims of police violence.

It seems to me that this attitude is most prevalent among Boomers. (There, I said it. Now wait for the outrage.) Of course, it’s not all Boomers, and it’s not limited to Boomers. But some of them, like the former hippie described above, seem to think that they are immune to criticism because they “experienced the Sixties.” When they are called out for racism (or sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) or otherwise challenged on social justice issues by someone from a younger generation, they will fall back on a response which sounds something like this: “You can’t talk to me like that! I’m an ex-hippie/lived through the Sixties/did this or that 50 years ago!” I honor those Boomers who did actually stand up during that era. But I don’t think just living through the era counts for anything. (“I think you had two Fifties and moved right into the Seventies.”) And I don’t think being an activist in the Sixties excuses you from examining your racism today.

I think we need to examine where this loyalty to the police, even among White progressives, comes from. A friend recently pointed out that this concern with the feelings of the police comes from the fact that, on a deep, maybe unconscious level, White progressives tend to identify with the police instead of with people of color. The reason is that, since their inception, the police have been an extension of White supremacy. In a sense, an extension of us White people.

I also think there is a deep seated, racist fear–conscious or unconscious–of hoards of Black and Brown people coming to White suburbs to kills us and take our stuff and we are taught that a gun–whether held by the police or private citizens–is the only thing standing between us and them. It’s that same fear I saw in the eyes of the White woman in the Chipotle parking lot in Detroit. And it’s the same fear I saw in the eyes of the cop who killed Philando Castile. That fear is racist. We need to dig it out and expose it to the light, so it can die.

I think another reason for the loyalty to the policy is that White progressives actually do fear the police on some level. They know, on some level, that the police are dangerous and must be placated. (Consider this Nevada sheriff who said he wouldn’t respond to calls from the public library any more after they expressed support for Black Lives Matter.) And that should cause us to question our identification with the police instead of with people of color.

Following the event, I’ve become more strident in my support of calls to defund and abolish the police. I’ve come to embrace the idea of abolishing the police over the last couple of years, as my involvement in protests has brought me into more direct and adversarial contact with the police. I wrote this essay a couple years ago, but I think it explains my feelings today pretty well: “The Police Aren’t Here for You”.

The responses I’ve gotten from White progressives have been surprising. They seem to think that the idea of abolishing the police is utopian, as if the existence of violence necessitates the police. They seem to forget that the police are a relatively recent invention in human society. (Ask yourself, “What did people do before there were police?”) They seem unaware of the coincidence of the growth of the institution of the police with the rise of capitalism. (Ask yourself, “Do the police actually protect people? Or do they spend most of their time protecting the property of the 1%?”) They seem blissfully unaware that the police, when they do respond to violent events, most often arrive after the violence or, if they do arrive in time, escalate it. (Research also shows that violent police are the number one cause of violent protests.) And they seem to have somehow gotten the idea that abolishing the police means just getting rid of police and nothing more, when in fact it means replacing them with something that works better (i.e., social workers, mental health professionals, drug treatment facilities, public school teachers, public housing, etc.) For people who call themselves “progressives,” these responses betray a serious failure of imagination (something I’ll be writing about soon).

Whenever someone tells me they are against police violence, but don’t support defunding the police, I ask them to tell me what job they they think the police do that couldn’t be done better by someone else without a gun. Most are hard pressed to do so. And if they say something like responding to bank robberies, which is pretty rare, I point out that the police don’t usually prevent bank robberies, they just respond to them. Here’s a chart I made to help your progressive friends and family understand what defunding and abolishing the police might look like:

And here’s a couple of good resources when you have that urge to call the police:

“12 Things to Do Instead of Calling the Cops”

“Call on Me, Not the Cops”

“we need to lean on each other and our communities when we feel unsafe – not police. If you’re scared or need help, call me, a friend, or a neighbor instead. Calling someone else instead of the police is a safer option for you and everyone involved. … the safest I feel is when I am surrounded by a close family member or community who loves and cares for me. The police do not protect nor provide resources for our communities, we do.”

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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