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Less Punishment, More Justice

Chino State Prison
Chino State Prison, Chino, California, 2010

The mass protests spurred by George Floyd’s killing have been more sustained and widespread than any this country has seen before in response to police abuse. When the initial ones prompted even more police violence—officers driving cars into peaceful demonstrators or beating them with truncheons, using chemical agents and flash grenades to clear crowds for a presidential photo op, pepper-spraying young and old alike—the aggression, much of it captured on video, only inspired more people to join the protests.

When it became clear that local police, the National Guard, Customs and Border Patrol officers, prison guards, and Secret Service, FBI, and ATF agents could not quell the unrest, some authorities began promising reform, a more productive approach. Minneapolis, the scene of Floyd’s excruciating videotaped eight-minute-and-forty-six-second murder, announced plans to dismantle its police department. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti dropped a proposal to increase the police budget by 7 percent and instead sought to cut it by $150 million, with the savings reinvested in community programs. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio proclaimed that he would cut the NYPD’s $6 billion budget and reinvest the savings in social services. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed a street in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” and the city council voted unanimously to reform the police disciplinary process.

Democrats in Congress, including Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass, introduced the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban racial profiling, chokeholds, and no-knock warrants; limit the transfer of military equipment to police departments; increase police accountability by imposing reporting and transparency requirements; and eliminate “qualified immunity,” a doctrine created by the Supreme Court that protects officers from lawsuits when they violate constitutional rights. And perhaps most stunning of all, Mitt Romney joined the protests and tweeted a selfie captioned “Black Lives Matter.”

Not all authorities got the message. President Trump castigated the demonstrators, threatened to call out the military using the Insurrection Act, and incited violence himself, tweeting that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He issued an executive order on police reform that is full of empty gestures and insisted that the problems were limited to a few bad cops. Attorney General William Barr, ever Trump’s loyal henchman, dismissed the idea that systemic racism affects policing. And the Supreme Court declined to take up several cases asking it to reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity.

Still, the very fact that Trump felt compelled to issue an executive order illustrates the political pressure the protests have generated. But what exactly can and should be done to address the problems they have called out? “Defund the police” has become the movement’s slogan, reflecting the reality that our society invests far too much in policing inner-city communities and far too…


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