It’s beginning to look a lot like ... a coup? Oops, sorry — I nearly forgot it’s the time of year to drop the cynicism and to wish everyone a joyful holiday season. You guys are really like one big, happy invisible second family to me. I’ll see you again next Tuesday for the last The Will Bunch Newsletter of 2020, the year it all began. Did someone forward you this email? Give yourself a free bonus Christmas present and sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch.
”Let’s start spraying the (bleep)ers!”
A Boston-based civil liberties attorney, Carl Williams, was trying to prove the innocence of his clients — marchers and protesters swept off the streets of the Massachusetts capital and arrested in the frantic first spring 2020 days after George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis — when he and some young helpers reviewed some 66 hours of bodycam footage.
What Williams and his team got instead was more like an indictment — a moral one, for sure, and maybe someday a legal one — of Boston Police Department misconduct, on a massive scale. The footage captured cops in one of America’s founding cities indiscriminately pepper-spraying scores of peaceful protesters, including some who already had their hands in the air, targeting individuals for violent force, and in one case even bragging about plowing through a crowd of marchers in a police vehicle.
“It’s this mob mentality,” Williams told The Appeal website, which broke the story. “And I use ‘mob’ as a sort of a double entendre — mob like the mafia and mob like a group of a pack of wild people roaming the streets looking to attack people.”
It’s a hard thing to write about in a family newsletter like this one, not just because of the R-rated violence but mainly because of the contempt with which the Boston police described citizens exercising their 1st Amendment rights, sometimes with practically every other word a bleep-able profanity.
“We gotta start spraying more,” one officer said, as officers caught on a bodycam were complaining that supplies of the painful irritant were already running low as they pushed back protesters. One of the cops seemed to have a particular demonstrator in mind as he proclaimed, “I wanna hit this a—hole.”
On Friday, in the wake of The Appeal report, Boston Police Commissioner William Gross announced that one sergeant incriminated in the videos has already been placed on administrative leave while authorities conduct a wider investigation. And it’s hard to dismiss the police misconduct in New England’s largest city as “a few bad apples” when officials in other locales are reaching similar conclusions — that cops responded to protests over a police killing by behaving so badly as to prove the marchers’ points about systemic rot.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’d gone out of his way this summer to praise his officers, even after videos showed cops driving into a crowd or tackling peaceful protesters, apologized “with remorse” last week after his city’s Department of Investigation found that police violated the 1st Amendment rights of protesters during the George Floyd protests and too often treated those with political grievances as if they were instead rioting.
Here in Philadelphia, where City Council has moved to severely restrict the use of tear gas after its June deployment against non-violent marchers on the Vine Street Expressway, Mayor Kenney told the Billy Penn website this week that “I’ll regret that” — meaning authorizing the use of tear gas — “for the rest of my life.”
During the 1960s when the modern style of political protest was arguably invented, activists said they wanted to “heighten the contradictions” between the moral fervor of their causes, like ending the Vietnam War or discrimination, and the violent and sometimes unlawful pushback of authorities. In 2020, the over-the-top response to protests of the police killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude and too many others seemed to prove the very point of the demonstrators, that law enforcement has run off the rails.
But while the momentum toward sweeping police reform in late spring and summer did lead to some middling victories — bans on tear gas or chokeholds in some jurisdictions, and moves to shift dollars out of traditional law enforcement and into social services in cities like Los Angeles and Austin — the push for real, radical change seems stalled. It feels like no accident that these watchdog investigations and mayoral mea culpas are coming out during Christmas week, with hopes they’ll be tossed aside with the holiday wrapping.
The problem is that the hateful attitudes voiced by the Boston cops and memorialized by a modern-day candid camera won’t be fixed with two extra days of training. The only cure for systemic contempt, and racism, is a radically different system in which a re-imagined Department of Public Safety solve actual crimes while social workers and drug counselors deal with other widespread ills. The ease with which the GOP and other reactionary forces were able to pluck and distort the meaning of a protest slogan — “Defund the police” — is again proof of what a daunting task this is.
My fervent hope for 2021 is that a handful of progressive cities will launch some bold programs that will show a totally different American way of policing — that keeps residents safe without feeling like a hostile army is occupying their neighborhood — is a possible. And that successful models will convince President-elect Biden and the current cowards atop the Democratic Party in Washington to abandon their paranoia about police reform. Pepper spray and hit-and-run cops shouldn’t thwart the will of the people, and neither should pro-cop propaganda.
Maybe it’s because the soon-to-be-ex-president of the United States has been locking himself in the Oval Office with America’s worst lawyer as well as a just-pardoned ex-general who made a video calling for martial law to overturn the 2020 election, discussing various coup options, but there’s been a lot of talk recently about the intrinsic value of democracy. Well, this week I’m thinking that maybe it’s $600, the amount of the check you’ll be someday getting from Washington now that Round 2 of coronavirus stimulus has passed. To be clear, the $600 figure is rather pathetic — it’s a pittance of what other nations, including our next-door neighbor Canada, have given citizens to weather the global pandemic and deal with large-scale unemployment. But I’m convinced the government check would be $0 if we didn’t still have free and fair elections.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who makes the desert-island-hideaway master villains of James Bond movies look warm and fuzzy — was playing his realpolitik game which aimed to leave incoming Democrat Joe Biden with the worst economic mess possible, public be damned. But the November election revealed a lot of voters who remembered spring’s $1,200 check when they voted for Trump. And McConnell knows he won’t be majority leader after January if Georgia tosses its two out-of-touch millionaire GOP senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, in a runoff election on Jan. 5. Without fresh cash for Georgia voters, Loeffler and Purdue — and McConnell — were political dead ducks. Georgia, of course, had been the voter-suppression capital of America until Black and brown activists like Stacey Abrams worked tirelessly to amp up turnout. The more people vote, the better America is governed — and don’t let the GOP tell you otherwise.