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”

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.

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.

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, 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.

I think we need to examine where this loyalty to the police comes from. A friend recently pointed out that on a deep 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 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 who brandished a gun at a Black mother and her teenage daughter back in July. And it’s the same fear I saw in the eyes of the cop who killed Philando Castile back in 2016. 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 fear the police. 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 fear of the police should cause White progressives to question our identification with the police instead of with people of color.

Over the past several years, I’ve come to embrace the idea of abolishing the police, as my involvement in protests has brought me into more direct and adversarial contact with the police. (This essay explains my evolution toward supporting abolition of the police: “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. 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 the police 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.

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 “stopping bank robberies” (which are 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 good resources for when you have that urge to call the police: “12 Things to Do Instead of Calling 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.”

“Call on Me, Not the Cops”

Originally published in a longer form at http://anotherendoftheworld.org on September 4, 2020.



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John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of the book *Another End of the World is Possible*. Find out more at AnotherEndoftheWorld.org.