California – George Floyd’s brutal death at the oppressive knee of a savage cop caused a global tremor, and awakened our collective conscience to want to do something about it. With outraged masses filling the streets to protest the brutality of his death and demanding police reform, the various tiers of government went into top gear. The President met with police officials and consulted community leaders based on which he expected to define what his administration would propose to do to address the burning issue of police reform. House Democrats quickly introduced a Bill outlining measures aimed at increasing transparency and accountability of police officers for misconduct, and convened a hearing on policing. At state and local level, Governors, Mayors and elected officials rushed to join the protestors and commit to radical reform. Titled ‘Justice in Policing Act 2020’ the House Bill facilitates civil prosecution of police for misconduct and alters the prosecutorial standard from “willfulness” to “recklessness”. Officers now will be required to prove that use of force was not merely reasonable but necessary. The amended qualified immunity clause will enable the aggrieved to seek redress and recover damages for violation of their constitutional rights by police. To address cultural bias, the Bill mandates racial training. A National Police Misconduct Registry requiring state and local law enforcement to furnish data on use of force disaggregated by race, gender, disability, religion and age will ensure sunlight on the handling of crime.
Specific to Floyd’s gruesome manner of death, the Bill bans chokeholds. Lynching under the Bill will now be a hate crime. That it is not already so deemed is deeply offensive, and in itself, proof of criminal negligence by all current and past elected leaders at all levels of our enlightened seasoned democracy. Interestingly, the Bill stays away from the controversial demand to ‘defund police departments’ (taken by some to mean delete policing entirely) put forth by protesters who have publicly heckled and shamed local elected representatives and Mayors for not committing to it, while intimidating others into supporting it. Initially preferring to keep mum, the Democrat party’s presumptive nominee Biden has since indicated he is hesitant to go down that slippery slope.
In the wake of Floyd’s death, the quick occurrence of another black man’s violent death at the hands of a cop left heads spinning with outrage and incredulity. Unlike the brutal intentional choking death of Floyd, this was what would have been a minor, drunken-driving stop incident, which escalated into a scuffle between the police and the driver. In that flashpoint moment, Rayshard Brooks resisted arrest, snatched the policeman’s Taser, and started to run when he was fatally shot by police. The incident added fuel to fire and caused more mass protests across the country leading the President to respond to the urgency of the situation. He did so by consulting with grieving families that are victims of violent deaths of their near and dear ones in earlier encounters with the police, and also with police and law enforcement representatives, based on which he issued an Executive Order which aims to redress the injustices in the existing policing system. In pursuit of the principle of equal justice for all, the Senate Republicans too have come forth with their own Justice Bill. Both the Executive Order and the Senate Bill include reform proposals some of which are similar to the House BIll. They support national registry or local-level recordkeeping of police misconduct; ending chokeholds through making federal support conditional to ending the practice without specifically banning them; and incentivizing local governments to ensure racial equity in training of police and stricter police accountability for police misconduct and abuse of policing power. The qualified immunity which protects police from being sued by victims remains contentious and unaddressed. Its removal or watering down is one area where the three-way consensus (among House, Senate and White House) is unlikely. Neither the Senate nor the President nor the bodies representing Police have so far shown willingness to go down that route.
Whether the final Bill based on reconciliation of the House and Senate versions will be enacted, and what that would look like is not yet clear. When enacted, how successful it will be, will depend once again on the political will to rigorously enforce it. More importantly, how far it meets the demands of an enraged populace impatient for results, and how far the aggrieved populace is willing to forego those demands that could be deemed outlandish in the interest of securing those that are reasonable, will determine its fate.
In the combustible current ethos, for any public figure – whether in politics, academia, industry, non-profit sector, or the media – to oppose any of what the protesters demand is to face political and social death. Yet, it seems only fair to seek some moderation from protesters. Policing is as indispensable to us as is government, under the social contract of which jurists spoke in previous centuries and to which we are signatories. We can no more totally denude the police department of a funding lifeline, than we can of a government’s various other limbs. Without law and order, our precious human rights are and will be at peril.
However impassioned, the utopian plea to abolish or grossly truncate a police department without suggesting who and what will fill the vacuum implies a death wish among proponents to surrender to anarchy. How many millions of 911 calls have been answered within seconds by cops who have put their own lives on line to help defuse and resolve the crisis? It is painfully ironic and grossly unjust to demonize these frontline workers as brutes when our frontline health workers are daily celebrated as heroes for braving the Corona virus and protecting our lives. Surely, some viciously violent, racial animus driven rogue cops cannot blemish the entirety of the police force. Because some cops are savage does not make all cops savages. And who is to say that the proposed “Peace Force” (i.e. Community Policing) intended to replace the Police Force will be gender, race, color and class blind?
Even when fully supportive of Black Lives Matter, and deeply resentful and ashamed of centuries of enslaved people’s dehumanization, it is not entirely unjust to suggest that racism in police is not systematic or endemic. At least it is no more so than in the rest of us. If the protesters truly believe otherwise, then Floyd’s death serves no purpose. Differentiating is not unique to police. Into this ‘God’ or ‘Evolution’ created world, we are not born color blind. Nature itself is filled with a variety of colors. The challenge is to rise above favoring one color over others.
To be treated equally by everyone is individually and collectively our goal and our human right. But the ugliness inherent in us needs to be squarely faced as well. None among us can claim we don’t feel differences regardless of what principles of equality we uphold. In every society, system, organization, and setting, starting from pre-school, humans are drawn to some and not to others. There are “in” and “out” groups, and the divide between them is painfully opaque. The cruelty of that opaqueness remains with one from school to college years and later in the workplace, in social clubs and Michelin starred restaurants as much as in food banks and unemployment and healthcare benefit seeking lines. The crushing pecking order of “perception” haunts every level of society, culture and history. So when we determine and vow that no death like Floyd’s will ever again occur, we have to go beyond slogans and renamed plazas, and streets painted in yellow, and murals freely available to express one’s rage, and yes, even stricter laws. We need also to delve into ourselves and individually to commit our person to contribute to the equal treatment under law goal by reforming our own moment-to-moment conduct.
Our hope for just society lies not only in anger and protest, or in total dismantling of a society, country or a policing system, but importantly in changing ourselves, and to recall Gandhi, in becoming the change we desire.