The George Floyd protest movement — the largest in American history, with marches that dwarfed even those against the Vietnam War — exploded just hours after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used his knee to murder Floyd on May 25, 2020. Just 18 months later, the drive to re-invent America’s warped ways of policing is itself dying, with neither a bang nor a whimper — but the imperial words of the ex-cop taking over our nation’s largest city.
New York City’s mayor-elect Eric Adams — a former police captain with a complicated evolution from reformer to “law-and-order” politician — recently capped a series of moves aimed at reversing criminal-justice reform by announcing he’d bring back solitary confinement for prisoners at the city’s notorious Riker’s Island jail. When 29 New York city council members issued a sharp statement condemning the move, Adams quickly flashed a badge of rank authoritarianism.
When Adams moves into City Hall in January, the ex-cop made clear that he’ll “ignore” elected representatives who criticize him, and then he went after anyone who dare question his authority as a former warrior for public safety. “I wore a bullet proof vest for 22 years and protected the people of this city,” the mayor-elect said. “When you do that, then you have the right to question me...”
It’s hard to say which marks a louder death knell for what was briefly a thriving police reform movement in America: The policies of New York’s incoming mayor — who’s also said he’ll bring back a controversial anti-crime unit that was a hub for brutality complaints and was ended during the 2020 protests, and is a defender of the failed policy of “stop-and-frisk” — or his my-way-or-the-highway police-state mentality.
The rise of Eric Adams may be an extreme example of anti-reform momentum, but it’s not an isolated one. Little more than a year after as many as 17 million to 26 million protesters called for a new public safety regime that would mean less money for traditional law enforcement and more spending on social services, we’ve witnessed some promising, if isolated, reforms that are now likely to drown in the rising tsunami of a stronger police state.
Cop budgets are not shrinking but increasing, Democrats like Pennsylvania Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Josh Shapiro are campaigning on hiring more officers, and the push for a sweeping national police reform bill inspired specifically by Floyd’s murder died a surprisingly quiet death on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the abusive and anti-democratic police practices that sparked the protests aren’t getting any better. Consider these things:
An ambitious FBI project called the National Use-of-Force Data Collection database, which was launched in 2019 amid the growing public outcry over police shootings and abusive episodes that are increasingly captured on video, is on the verge of collapse. The simple reason is that nearly half of the relevant police departments — channeling the imperial tone of Eric Adams, perhaps — are simply refusing to cooperate by submitting the requested information.
The alarming trend of police officers arresting journalists exercising their 1st Amendment rights — after an off-the-charts spike in 2020 that occurred during those George Floyd protest marches — continued in 2021. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reported recently that the 56 journalists arrested for doing their job in 2021 (so far) is greater than the tally for 2017, 2018 and 2019 combined. A shockingly large number were arrested by the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department. One freelancer, Sean Beckner-Carmitchel, has been arrested by L.A. sheriff’s deputies four times, while lawfully covering activities like the busting up of a homeless encampment.
The Washington Post, which has taken it upon itself to track police killings since the federal government either can’t or won’t do so, is reporting that 902 Americans have been shot and killed by officers so far in 2021. That would be the least in the six years that the paper has been keeping track yet — given all the hype about police reform after George Floyd — isn’t really that big a drop from the yearly average of about 1,000. And 900 police shootings is still a level not remotely seen in any other developed nation.
Nor does the looming new year — ushering in a season of midterm elections and political pandering — offer much in the way of hope. True, the glass of police reform was partially filled in 2021 by a series of innovative local measures, including a law in Philadelphia that should sharply reduce traffic stops that can become a spark for deadly confrontation. But these small steps toward progress may get stomped by the broader pressures for a resurgence of 1990s-style “law and order” extreme criminal justice.
Two cross-currents are pushing back against police reform. One is the prevailing wind that never goes away -- the political and lobbying clout of police unions, who fight 52 weeks a year to prevent any changes to the modern police state, long after the George Floyd marchers have moved on to the next cause. Now comes the tornado of rising murder rates and — in recent weeks — other disruptive crimes like carjackings that suddenly has nervous politicians quick to pull the plug on reform.
The truth is that criminologists don’t fully understand what caused murders to spike all over the country in 2020 and stay at higher levels in 2021 — although clearly the disruption of the pandemic is a huge driver. The seemingly endless cloud of COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health issues and societal rage, disrupted the routines of young people by closing schools and community programs, and put millions more guns on the streets. Community-based anti-crime programs like one underway in West Philadelphia offer real hope — but these require both investment and patience.
And patience is in very, very short supply these days.
Instead, we have London Breed — the Democratic mayor of America’s supposedly most progressive city, San Francisco — resorting to barnyard epithets against her erstwhile political allies as she declares a state of emergency in the city’s poverty-plagued Tenderloin district, flooding the zone with cops. Increasingly, the Democrats who spoke all-too briefly of real reform after Floyd’s murder was captured on video are likely to emulate the likes of Breed and Shapiro in falling back on the failed mass-incarceration tactics of the 20th century.
The tragedy is that the Joe Manchins of today’s America — the ones who bark about “personal responsibility” when cornered between their yacht and their Maserati — refuse to let us find out if a better-society agenda like the one now suffocating in Congress would really make a difference. Apparently it’s too hard to find out whether a head start on education with universal pre-K or monthly checks to prevent food insecurity would make a dent in crime, when it’s so easy simply to arrest underfed 16 year olds.
I hate to sound so cynical but it feels like the window to re-balance those priorities — the idea that some dared call “defund the police,” the phrase that became a loaded weapon for our growing cult of authoritarianism — slammed shut after just a couple of months. But the pressure for a kind of social control deeply rooted in the slave patrols of the 1800s never disappears.
Nothing will summon the bad old days of the 1970s — not the chaotic end of an unpopular foreign war, nor the return of inflation — more clearly than the bidding war of “law and order” politics likely to mark the 2022 midterms. Comes now Eric Adams as that movement’s avatar, and woe to anyone who questions the man in the bulletproof vest.
» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter