Moving from a protest to policymaking takes work

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, June 27, 2020

Black Lives Matter and related racial justice groups protesting across the United States since the killing of George Floyd face a more difficult challenge than did the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the antiwar movement of the early 1970s — they need to transition from protest to policymaking without losing momentum. Comparatively, the earlier movements had it much easier. A major focus of the civil rights movement was outlawing discrimination in public facilities and ensuring the right to vote, and the goal of the anti-war movement was to bring the troops home. While difficult to carry out, these goals were clear.

Friends and Peoples Defense that have been visible at some of Columbia’s street activities over the past month that will make policy agreement more difficult. Even what to call the events suggests that 2020 is different than previous years. Are they protests, demonstrations, riots, teach-ins, marches, rallies or social gatherings? Some of each it appears, depending on the particular day and location.

Black Lives Matter might be more of a slogan, a protest chant, a fundamental belief and a yard sign than it is a political organization. The movement was formed after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, and it gained national attention protesting the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. While there are currently 16 chapters in major cities, with none in Missouri, Black Lives Matter is not a unified organization with a leadership hierarchy. In fact, the movement’s aim is not to have national leaders but to promote the nurturing of local community leaders.

The concerns, but not the goals, of street activities are clear: to prioritize eliminating racism, to reduce police brutality and abuse particularly toward black men, to highlight more subtle forms of racism such as microaggressions, and to spotlight the legacy of slavery on artifacts in public places.
The nationwide protests have affected American culture such as the elimination of objectionable images on some consumer products, removing Confederate flags from NASCAR events, and proposing to rename military bases presently named after Confederates.

The mobilization of younger people and newcomers to public protests will have a long-term impact, if they stay involved in the political process. All participants have certainly heard repeatedly that registering and actually voting is a minimum requirement of citizenship.

The 2020 anti-racism events have already had an impact on American public opinion. Polls show that support for police reforms has increased and that white Americans increasingly see police behavior towards Black people to be too aggressive and discriminatory. Two weeks ago, an Associated Press-NORC poll found that 70% of respondents believe that police officers involved in injury or fatal misconduct cases are “treated too leniently by the justice system.” Forty-one percent felt this way in 2015.

Overall, 48% of Americans believe “police violence against the public is a serious problem,” up from the 32% in 2015. Similarly, 39% of white Americans say police violence against civilians is an “extremely or very serious problem” compared to the 19% of white Americans who agreed in 2015.

Less than a third of all Americans say that police departments need minor (25%) or no changes (5%) compared with the 29% calling for a “complete overhaul” and 40% saying they need “major change.” Black respondents are about twice as likely to call for a major overhaul than are whites (57% compared to 26%).
A majority of both Democrats and Republicans favor seven out of 10 reforms but differ mostly on reducing funding of police with only 7% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats supporting reducing police funding. The survey did not ask about “defunding the police,” which is frequently mentioned at street activities.

For the 2020 anti-racism street events to have major and lasting impact on American public policy, activists need to focus their proposals and appeal to the appropriate policymakers. Most importantly they must identify and work with allies. Protesting is confrontational; policymaking is coalition building.

The 2020 protests are certainly the cause of the House of Representatives considering and passing a police reform bill. With the Senate controlled by the Republicans, it is unlikely that major police reform, such as eliminating police immunity and requiring a national registry of “the use of force,” will pass.
Black Lives Matter supporters should be working now to shape the Platform Committee of the Democratic National Committee.

The Rev. Al Sharpton announced a march in Washington, D.C., to take place Aug. 28, the 57th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, to “restore and recommit that dream.” This would be a natural venue for Black Lives Matter to mobilize supporters.

Many police reforms, as well as education proposals, are state and local issues. The 2020 anti-racism activists should reach out to Missouri’s Legislative Black Caucus and the local NAACP and Minority Men’s Network to gain support for shared ideas.

While “defunding the police” and “abolishing the police” seem to have become favorite mantras of 2020 street activists, those expressions will probably have to be put in storage as did “Hell no, we won’t go” and “Draft resisters, Unite” during the anti-Vietnam war movement because they generate opposition to the main goal. My first year in college while I was working on campus education reforms, a professor told me “politics is the art of the possible.” I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but disliked it. Fifty years later, I still dislike it, but I understand what he meant. Social culture and politics are a complex web. The challenge for the 2020 anti-racist movement is to keep an eye on influencing both of them.

Memories of fathers can be bittersweet on Father’s Day

Father’s Day is murkier to appreciate and celebrate than Mother’s Day, accurately reflecting the greater societal uncertainty about fathers than there is about mothers. The great anthropologist Margaret Mead observed that “motherhood is biologically determined, fatherhood sociologically.” Society does not send as clear signals about what is expected of fathers, and what we owe them, as it does about mothers. Traditionally, fathers, of course, were viewed largely as the “breadwinners,” but nowadays they are that plus more — they are expected to be more involved in their children’s lives. There are lots of kids who don’t have fathers involved in their lives and society has not quite figured out how to create male role models, although public policies increasingly include fathers in parental leave provisions.

Most men, if they were asked, would tell you that coming to terms with their fathers, living or dead, present or absent, is an essential step to their achieving personal happiness. Daughters need to do this too, but it often seems to be less crucial and critical.

My father died when I was 25. I respected him, emulated him, and looked to him as a teacher about families, jobs and life. One of my few lifelong regrets is that he has not seen my accomplishments and frustrations and that I have had to make my way without the benefit of his experience and wise counsel. My relationship with my dad didn’t take a lot of work on my part. Dads aren’t always like that. Some take a lot of work. Memories are a funny thing — we choose what to remember and what to forget.

The most inspiring father-child relationship I witnessed in the past couple years involved a once homeless and devoted alcoholic man, Curtis Bartlett (1959-2020), who I met in 2017. Some people know him because I posted “Carl Updates” on Facebook that described lessons I learned about homelessness through knowing him. In February 2017, Curtis was dumped in my lap near closing time at Loaves and Fishes three times in a matter of weeks. Each time Curtis was hungry, had no place to sleep that night, was in considerable pain and was rather helpless.

Curtis was in bad shape. He had lost most of his teeth, had been robbed and beaten, and hit by a truck. An ER clerk told me, “Curtis is a sweet man.” He had a good sense of humor, posed no danger to me, and went through periods of disorientation that made it hard to figure out how to interact with him. He was a lifelong alcoholic. My suggestions that he go to rehab or detox fell on deaf ears. One day he asserted, “I am not going to stop drinking.”

Once when Room at the Inn was full, I gave him a sleeping bag and dropped him off in a parking garage. The next day I went looking for him and I stopped to talk with his buddies in Flat Branch Park, asking about Curtis. One of them said he would turn up in a few days but that I should go ask his daughter, Katie, who worked at a fast food restaurant. After some thought, I built up my courage, stopped for coffee, and asked for Katie. The clerk said, “I’m Katie.” I replied, “I know your dad. I would like to see if there is anything I can do to get him a place to live.” She said, “I have a break in about 15 minutes. I will talk with you.”

After a few minutes of my using polite lingo avoiding words like “homeless,” “alcoholic” or “drunkard,” she said, “Look, I know my dad. I know he is not going to change. I don’t allow him around my children when he has been drinking but I love him and try to help him.” I was blown away.

Since then, I’ve seen Katie Goldman around town a half dozen times and have chatted with her on social media. I learned her dad was a handyman, loved the outdoors and drank too much, causing family dysfunction almost all her life. She describes camping and fishing with her brother and dad in his blue pickup truck when she was a little girl just as I would talk fondly about my grandfather.

Over the years she has spent a lot of money that she did not have on getting her father into housing, seeing that he had a cellphone and checking that he had some food. In the past two years she helped him obtain public housing and medical care. When I asked how she was able to continually care for him, she said, “I was always able to separate the alcoholic from my dad. I loved my dad.”

I got in the habit of checking on Curtis when he was flying a sign out on Vandiver Road. I don’t know that he recognized me but when I mentioned Katie his face would light up and he would tell me that he had just seen her, or was going to see her, and that she was a good mother.

On March 2, Curtis died of cancer, peacefully and off the streets. Katie had a memorial service and balloon release at the open field on Nelwood Road a few blocks from where they lived in happy times and in the field where Curtis would fly kites with her when she was a girl. Her husband, mother, four sons, relatives and friends were there to help Katie honor her father. She loved her dad. I know Katie is missing her father this Father’s Day. She earned it.

Reducing the police and other reforms possible after Floyd’s death

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, June 14, 2020

Street protests across America must transition into policy proposal drafts if permanent change is to result from two weeks of sustained rallies in honor of George Floyd. This is a tall task without a notable central leader such as the civil rights movement had in Martin Luther King Jr.
“Defunding the police” needs to be better focus-group-tested before it is rolled out as a promising response to more than two weeks of citizen action following Floyd’s killing.

Public policy change in America usually requires a good kick in the pants from events such as wars, social unrest and tragedies. Occasionally, social movements such as the women’s movement leading to the 19th Amendment result in change, but it takes a long time. Chief obstacles that the overwhelming reaction to Floyd’s killing will face in promoting policy change are social chaos, political disorganization, human fatigue and lack of pivotal leadership. Defenders of the status quo almost always have an advantage. The challenge for proponents of change is to propose feasible reforms while mainlining political pressure for change.

Last week in this space, I reviewed one set of police proposals “8 Can’t Wait.” This week I will react to another set of more ambitious national proposals called “8 To Abolition” that criticize the “8 Can’t Wait” reforms, claiming they have been tried and failed and that they mislead a public newly invigorated to the possibilities of police and prison abolition.
These “8 to Abolish” proposals are part of broader “abolition” movement that I first heard about relating to abolishing schools because they have failed blacks so persistently since school integration in 1954. This debate goes back to the 1960s and ’70s about reforming the system or starving the system. After 50 years, I cannot shed the idea that the rich will take care of themselves and defunding the public sector will hurt the most disadvantaged the greatest. I guess I am still a moderate, but I am running out of patience.

Here are the “8 to Abolish” reforms.

1. Defund the police by reducing budgets each year until the police are zeroed out. It is hard to see that this is a good, or likely, idea. I wish they used the words “reform” or “reduce” the police. Public oversight of the police is lacking, but better trained police, with fewer guns and tank cars, probably cost more money.

2. Demilitarize communities including disarming police and private security forces, repealing laws that shield the public from knowing about police misconduct, and eliminating police from hospitals. Perhaps we are still in the shadow of 9/11’s concern about terrorists hitting us again anywhere in the U.S., but we have too many military-oriented vehicles and practices.

3. Remove police from schools is a good idea. Fear of another Columbine or Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting understandably makes us cautious, but we do not need to involve the police in every day of school. Everyone in a school who has contact with students should be educated in pedagogy and child psychology. Let’s make “school resource officer” a new degree program.

One idea that “8 to Abolish” mistakenly includes here is “disconnect property tax from school funding.” I have advocated this since the 1970s because unequal school funding is a result of the local property tax system used to fund schools.

4. Free people from jails and prisons which they expand to mean “free all people from involuntary confinement, including but not limited to jails, prisons, immigrant detention centers, psychiatric wards and nursing homes, starting with those who are aging, disabled, immunocompromised, held on bail, held for parole violations and survivors.” While there are too many people in jails and prisons, I can’t imagine abolishing them. We need to take a careful look at sentencing guidelines and ask what the purpose of prison time is. Few people in nursing homes can take care of themselves.

5. Repeal local ordinances that criminalize people involved in sex trades, drug trades and street economies such as panhandling and selling loose cigarettes. I suspect most white middle class citizens’ first response is negative, but proponents make a thoughtful argument that “criminalizing sex work harms sex workers and trafficking victims.”

6. Invest in community self-governance by establishing local neighborhood councils and “non-carceral violence prevention and intervention programs and skills-based education on bystander intervention, consent and boundaries, and healthy relationships.” While this is promising, it requires lots of imagination and funding. Voting rates are quite low in low-income areas. Will the same citizens get involved in neighborhood councils? We had an incident in town this week where bystanders came to the assistance of police dealing with a man who threatened to harm himself at the outset of a protest march.

7. Provide safe housing for everyone by prohibiting evictions for rent nonpayment and repurposing empty houses and hotels for the homeless. Why hasn’t this been done? They specifically mention establishing land trusts, which Columbia is working on, but which needs to move faster.

8. Invest in care, not cops, by investing in child care, free public transit, quality public restrooms and youth programs. Yes, I’m for all of these, but I favor increasing taxes not defunding police.
Protecting the police will also reduce police presence in our communities. Reducing the free circulation of guns in a city will increase police safety as will prohibiting dark windows in vehicles that make it impossible for police to see who is in a vehicle at a traffic stop. We need to examine police practices to reduce police. Many of the times I observe police response, it seems like an over-response with four vehicles approaching a homeless guy lying on the sidewalk.

Police reforms, and broader social change, are necessary if we are to achieve racial justice. Slogans other than “defunding the police” might better focus attention on feasible proposals for change.

Protests need to persist and oversight needs to be permanent

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, June 7, 2020

The current street protests, without the looting, sprouting up across the United States and around the world are a necessary and hopeful, albeit unsightly, step in America coming to terms with our racial history.

Street protests will certainly continue until next Tuesday when George Floyd is laid to rest in Houston. Likely local protests will occur again on Aug. 28, when a protest is planned for Washington, D.C., to mark the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. Local protests will explode in about six months in the event the four fired police officers in Minneapolis do not receive jail time.

It does feel that things are different this time. Police kneeling with the protesters did not happen in Ferguson or after previous well-publicized shootings of black men. An ABC News poll found that 74% of Americans feel that the Floyd killing reflects a systemic problem compared to the 26% saying it is an isolated incident. Compare this to a poll six years ago where 60% thought the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 was an isolated incident. In 2020, most Americans have seen the videos of police abuse and tolerance of racial injustice and say, “Enough is enough.”

Highly televised protests focus immediate yet fleeting attention on racial injustice, but protests and citizen involvement will need to persist and be permanent if fundamental economic, social and criminal justice change is to happen.
Maybe Memorial Day, the day Floyd was killed, should become an annual occasion for taking stock of the progress we have made. I imagine the site of his killing will become a memorial.

Street protests, much like texting public officials, are a relatively easy form of citizen participation and make us feel that at least we are doing something, but they are only the beginning of policy reform. The next step is for all protesters to register and vote. The more than 50 MU student-athletes who registered to vote after their march to the courthouse and taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to show solidarity for Floyd should be repeated by all MU students when they return in August.

To have a lasting impact, protesters must organize to communicate with government officials and to propose specific reforms. A minimal two-year commitment is probably required. Policy change is hard work with more frustration and boredom than street protesting. Police and related criminal justice reforms have been very difficult to enact in part because of the pivotal position that police departments play in local and state government, in part because of ideological conflict, and in part because police abuse are viewed as someone else’s problem.

Of course, we need police. We need better trained and well-qualified police. We need more African American police and we need to make sure all citizens are treated respectfully. We need better oversight of police. A good place to start is to evaluate local police departments using the “8 Can’t Wait” criteria of the “Campaign Zero” movement that grew out of the Ferguson uprising in 2014.

The eight reforms are:
1. Require officers to de-escalate whenever possible. I have watched A&E’s “Live PD” where most encounters by officers, who know they are being televised, are more confrontational than I think they should be. The militaristic orientation needs to be replaced with one of community protector.

2.Require a use of force continuum that define and limit the amount of force that is acceptable in different situations. Not all situations require armed reactions.

3.Ban chokeholds and strangleholds except where deadly force is authorized.

4. Require warnings before shooting whenever possible.

5. Require officers to exhaust all other means before shooting.

6. Require other officers to intervene to stop colleagues from using excessive force.

7. Ban shooting at moving vehicles, except when the fleeing vehicle has a shooter.

8. Require comprehensive reporting that includes both the use of force and the threat of force.

The adoption of these eight reforms is estimated to reduce police’s use of force by 72%. As of 2016, the average large city police department had adopted only three of the eight and none had adopted all eight.

Enforcement of these eight practices is difficult given the standard American view of regulation. Citizen review boards are usually incapable of counterbalancing the authority of police unions and the law enforcement community. An alternative that should be tried is to require police officers to carry malpractice insurance just like other professionals. Rather than having municipalities pay out millions in civil settlements for police abuse, let the insurance companies get involved. Insurance companies have reduced worker injuries, reduced DWI, and removed diving boards from swimming pools. Malpractice police insurers would require “litigation preventions practices” like the eight reforms above. Officers with multiple infractions can expect to pay higher premiums.

An obvious criminal justice reform that should have been adopted years ago is separating the police and prosecutor when police abuse is present. Local prosecutors rely heavily on good police department cooperation when prosecuting citizen crime. It is a conflict of interest for prosecutors to have responsibility for investigating potential police abuse. Perhaps police abuse should automatically be a federal crime requiring FBI investigation.

While public policy reforms are necessary, they will not redress America’s civil rights history themselves. Individual protesters, and all citizens, should commit themselves to making a personal difference in their school, Parent Teachers Association, church, workplace and neighborhood to address racial injustice. All of us need to be more attentive to unexamined practices of racism. Hundreds of thousands of protesters around the world need to ensure that we redouble our commitment to achieving equal justice under the law.