What the People Want

by Daniel A. Rosen |

The people “want law and order. They need law and order. They may not say it, but they want it.” That’s not a quote from Mussolini or Putin. It’s from Donald Trump’s June press conference on police reform.

Apparently, Trump knows what people want better than they do. This is a stunning statement from an American President – the kind of thing dictators and strongmen say. “I know better,” he’s telling us, “I will do what’s good for you, even if you’re too dumb to know what that is.” It’s condescending, narcissistic, and anti-democratic.

In his briefing, Trump mourned the 89 police officers who died on the job last year, as was appropriate. He must have forgotten to also lament the hundreds of unarmed black men who died last year at the hands of police, though some of their families were present. Or the thousands who were brutally assaulted to gain their compliance because the police report says they ‘resisted’ arrest.

The police interact with American citizens over a million times a day across this country. What the people surely want in those interactions is, first and foremost, not to lose their lives – ever. Most of the time isn’t really good enough. Not for George, or Trayvon, or Ahmaud, or Sandra, or Philando, or Tamir, or Freddie, or Eric, or Breonna, or their families – or the thousands of others over the years who have died at the hands of police even though they were unarmed and posed no lethal threat. Too often, police have escaped accountability simply by claiming a suspect resisted or they feared for their lives.

Contrary to Trump’s assertion that the last administration “never even tried to fix this,” Obama’s Justice Department opened 25 civil rights investigations into some of the most problematic police departments, including Chicago and Ferguson. That scrutiny often ended in consent decrees establishing federal oversight and mandating policing reforms, recognizing that the deficiencies found went way beyond a “tiny” number of bad officers.

President Obama convened a national task force to look at best policing practices, community engagement, and crime reduction. That group made its final recommendations in 2015, in a 40-plus page report. His administration also rolled back the sale and grants of heavy military gear to local police departments, which Trump reversed in 2017. Since Trump took office, his Justice Department has consistently undermined those carefully crafted consent agreements with police, and AG Sessions signed an order just before he resigned in 2018 curtailing their use.

I’m sitting in a prison cell writing this, and we’re on lockdown. When this happens, they never tell us the cause behind it. This much is clear, though: we are a long way from freedom. African Americans and other minorities are vastly over-represented among my fellow inmates. When they get out, they’re less likely to find work than I am, and more likely to come back to prison. And if stopped by police for driving or walking while black, they’re more than twice as likely as I am to lose their life. We don’t even have statistics of how often they’re ‘merely’ beaten and assaulted in the course of those interactions.

From the crack epidemic in the 1980’s and the subsequent War on Drugs, to the panic over supposed ‘super-predators’ and mass incarceration, to the militarization of police forces in the aftermath of 9/11, and the blatantly racist reaction to Obama’s election, war has been waged on black and brown communities across this nation. And there’s the weight of 350-plus years of oppression informing those more recent events.

Too often, the cry of “law and order” has been raised by pandering politicians to justify policies that lead to racist outcomes. In housing, health care, employment, technology, criminal justice, and environmental policy, we have put profit over black and brown lives, while inequality grows. And whites who benefit have mostly stayed silent. The end result, as we see in the streets, is plenty of law and not much order.

Maybe the coronavirus opened some eyes to the vast disparities facing communities of color. It might have reminded some that their lives depended on front-line workers who are disproportionately black and brown. And then, an officer sworn to protect and serve used his knee to shatter the illusion that order was the result of the law’s approach to men like George Floyd. It certainly wasn’t what most people of conscience wanted.

What the people want is probably something much bigger than law and order. Call it change, maybe, or call it equal justice under law. On November 3, I’m sure we will see very clearly what the people want at the polls. On that day, I expect we’ll see that we really are, as the song goes, gonna’ be alright.

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