Police unions and minorities should be allies in the battle to reduce economic inequality

The right-wing is happy to label initiatives to change the relationship between police and the communities that they protect as “disbanding” and “defunding” the police. As many are pointing out, those on the left who use these terms are playing into the hands of Trump and his merry band of fascists. Much better terms are “reform,” “reimagine” and “reallocate.” 

Language is a powerful tool in the hands of propagandists because for many people, language creates or, at the very least, shapes reality. The presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Joe Biden, is wise to steer clear of “disbanding” and “defunding.” The fact he says he does not approve of either indicates nothing more than his awareness of how people will respond to these loaded terms. He is in favor of a reform that reimagines police forces to make them more sensitive to community needs and, quite frankly, less racist in their use of tactics. Furthermore, he will go as far left as Nancy Pelosi wants to go on any issue, and Nancy wants national legislation to reform police departments across the country.

But exploring the ramifications of “disbanding” brings us to the nexus of a conundrum befuddling the Democrats the union movement. By definition, disbanding a police department kills the union, which gives municipalities the opportunity to rehire a police force at a lower cost. (“Defunding” could theoretically lead to replacing unionized police with nonunionized community workers, but it is likely that the first place municipalities will look to cut police budgets are unneeded and extremely expensive military-grade weaponry and hardware.) Killing unions has long been one of the central tenants of the right-wing, so “disbanding” police departments sounds like a conservative solution. And yet, the voices for disbanding are coming mostly from progressives.

Police unions have dug in their heels for decades, fighting every reform and protecting their bad eggs, apples and seeds. Everything the heads of police unions have said since the George Floyd murder suggests they will continue to support even the most egregiously racist and violent behavior by individual officers and oppose any and all reform. The unwillingness of police unions to consider change puts a deep wedge between them and the Democratic Party. The law-and-order Republicans may look like a better bet for the cops on the surface, but transferring wealth from the middle class and the poor up the ladder to the wealthy remains the alpha and omega of 21st century conservativism. When it comes time to renegotiate union contracts, police unions will face more opposition from Republican mayors and city councils than from Democrats. Think of New York City, where the police worked without a contract for years under the Bloomberg Administration but quickly came to terms favorable to them after Bill De Blasio took over as mayor. That bought De Blasio a lot of credit with the police until the very first time he raised even an iota of an inkling of a question about an incident of police brutality.

The recalcitrance of police unions to change reverberates beyond issues of public safety and equitable treatment under the law. Unionism used to define the Democratic Party. Democrats would depend on union voters to win elections and in return, the Democrats passed legislation that helped blue collar workers. The tight-knit seams binding Democrats to unions began to unravel in 1968, 1972 and 1980, when many union members ignored their leadership to vote for Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan. Racism, often disguised as law-and-order, primarily motivated union members to switch.

Yet it wasn’t just union members abandoning Democrats. Democrats also moved away from a full embrace of the union movement. Many centrist Democrats like both Clintons, Obama, Al Gore, Booker, Yang and O’Rourke have supported charter schools, ignoring that the big money and conservative ideologues behind the idea of charter schools have had as their sole objective the destruction of teachers’ unions. In their eagerness to enact school reform that did not involve increasing school budgets, Democrats in a sense abandoned teachers’ unions in pursuit of the pie-in-the-sky false premise of charter schools. As is usual when non-union workers replace union workers or when government functions are privatized, everyone lost. Studies show that two-thirds of charter schools do no better or do worse than the equivalent public school and that many of the top performing charter schools have cooked their books. Moreover, students who remain in public schools in districts which add charter schools suffer from a reduction in overall funding. 

When we talk about the constituencies of the Democratic Party today, we mention city dwellers, minorities, immigrants, college grads and the LGBTQ community. We hardly ever mention unions, which reflects not only the alienation and racism of primarily white blue collar workers, but also the decline of unions as a meaningful share of the population. It’s a very troubling trend, because no nation in world history has ever been able to create even a modicum of economic equality without a strong union movement. Even when certain unions were slow to admit minorities, minorities benefited from their presence, because unions raise the wages of others at the same company, other companies in the same industry and other companies in the community. Unionism, and not Reagan’s trickle-down theory, is the tide that lifts all boats. 

Progressives talk about raising the minimum wage, universal healthcare, taxing the wealthy and making college free to all. I agree with all these positions, but assert that the most effective way to reduce economic inequality and to pursue economic justice would be to pass legislation that made it so easy to unionize that the percentage of the workforce that is unionized could climb from the current 13% to 30-60% within a few years.

The current situation approaches the tragic. The police and those they are supposed to keep safe should be allies in creating vibrant and safe cities and fighting the predations of the ultra-wealthy. Instead, they are at loggerheads.  

We are not asking much of police unions: Don’t defend cops who use excessive force. Don’t hire cops who have been fired for problems by other departments. Don’t apply a double standard in the use of force, but treat all citizens the same regardless of race, ethnic background and sex. Never shoot to kill. End the use of chokeholds and other inherently dangerous tactics. None of these are unrealistic requests. Police officers and police unions should be clamoring to get behind reform. In return, the Democratic Party should embrace the union movement as both part of the coalition opposed to the right-wing and as the primary strategy for reducing inequality in America.  

Are the George Floyd riots the American Reichstag Fire?

I have to admire the thousands of people protesting the awful death of George Floyd and the unredeemable racism in the criminal justice system that it represents. Even wearing masks, the protestors are risking their lives to show that they are both sick to their stomachs and exhausted by the centuries of racism that have poisoned the United States. Young and old, protestors are more likely to be hurt or die as a result of contracting Covid-19 at the rallies than from police brutality or getting run over by an uncontrollable mob. As is typical, the overwhelming majority of protestors have been peaceful, despite the rage boiling inside them. Congratulations to the thousands of peaceful protestors for their bravery and dedication to the cause. 

There should be no prize or nod of recognition to those who predicted that we would once again see a national series of marches protesting police violence. It was bound to happen again as long as police departments don’t do a good job weeding out racists, as long as police recruitment ads focus on military adventurism and not peace-keeping skills, as long as police unions keep protecting bad apples, as long as we have an administration in Washington that is both racist and brutal and encourages both racism and brutality. It would have also been easy to predict that some demonstrations might lead to violence, because violence will occasionally break out at even a well-organized protest. 

Keeping in mind that we don’t know yet how many of the incidences of violence at Floyd protests were large enough to be called riots and the broader question of what constitutes a riot, let’s consider how riots start. At the heart of the riot dynamic is the simple fact that most people are followers and conformists. Most people look to others to set the tone. One trivial example: In the late 1970’s in Candlestick Park, there were more people in the stands passing a doobie than standing up with their right hand at their hearts during the singing of the Star Spangle banner. Post 9/11, if you don’t put your hand to your heart and sing, people give you dirty looks.  A less trivial example: tattoos. Thirty years ago, tattoos were an expression of rebellion; but nowadays, most people below 50 consider it a lifestyle decision.

A riot consists of two kinds of people: Those who start it and everybody else. Imagine being in a swarm of people that breaks off from a march or has been herded into a relatively confined space by the police and/or urban geography. Three people break the glass of a storefront and start looting. The entire crowd moves that way, sweeping individuals along with it. A few other people—let’s call them early adopters—start taking things. All of a sudden, what was once taboo is now being done by everyone. Keep in mind that everyone there—the good, the bad, the blessed and the cursed—is angry, frustrated and tired of the constraints of quarantine. Many are quite poor and long past disgusted at getting exploited, demeaned and paid poorly by the wealthy.

Or imagine that the same three people set fire to a car. A protestor’s better self knows it’s wrong, but the same primitive instinct that has you yelling for a defensive lineman to cripple the opposing quarterback kicks into high gear, so you start cheering. Your cheers and those of all the other basically good people around you are part and parcel of the start of a riot.

Keeping the three or four riot starters from activating the crowd is the key to making certain that a peaceful demonstration doesn’t steer into violence. Now at this point in history, virtually every group involved in organizing demonstrations for civil rights, criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, immigrants, the poor or any other cause under the banner of progressives and the left knows how to keep protests nonviolent. Additionally, the accurately named incident called a “police riot” really doesn’t happen in much of the country any more, even if individual instances of police brutality are frequent and ubiquitous. Good planning by organizers and police restraint explain why protests usually lead to very few altercations nowadays.

So why have the George Floyd protests been different? Do we blame the added frustration of the Covid-19 quarantine? Were there too few march monitors because of the relative spontaneity of the actions? Did the mix of responsible versus irresponsible people skew too much to the irresponsible, because the responsible ones stayed home to avoid the crowd?

Early evidence is suggesting another, more nefarious reason for the riots: They were started by white, right-wing provocateurs interested in stirring up a race war in America.

Already the police in Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Minneapolis suspect that riots in these cities were started by white nationalists. Mayors from all over the country report that a larger than usual number of riot participants have come from out of town.

What we may be experiencing is an American reboot of the 1933 arson attack on the German parliament building, called the Reichstag, that was perpetrated by Nazis, but blamed on the communists by the recently elected Nazi government. Now I’m not saying that Trump or the Trump campaign is directly or even indirectly paying white supremacists to start riots at George Floyd protests. It could be someone else. For example, we know that Koch-sponsored organizations are financing the anti-Covid 19 protests around the country—you know, the ones in which oversized, evil-looking dudes carry large weapons and are allowed to menace everyone around them. 

But even if Trump had nothing to do with setting up these riots, he certainly is using the Nazi playbook following the Reichstag fire: labelling the protestors and rioters as terrorists and calling for the police to crack down with heavy boots and blazing firearms against rioters, and by implication, against protestors, too. 

Motive is an important element in proving any criminal case, and there can be no doubt that Trumpites have more of a motive to start a riot than do #Blacklivesmatter, Antifa or other social justice and civil rights movements and organizations. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pointed out in a magnificent speech at today’s daily press conference (June 1), Trump and the conservatives are delighted to change the topic from the institutional racism that led to George Floyd’s murder to rioters creating mayhem in the streets and threatening our way of life. By contrast, it was and is in the best interest of those protesting to keep things peaceful.

The facts are slowly falling into place and so far, it looks as if white racists and not legitimate protesters are who started much if not most of the violence. Expect a white wash from the Barr Justice Department, but a thorough investigation by a number of state governments. 

By the way, it’s easy to separate racists from non-racists among so-called friends of social justice by how they react to the violence. The non-racists like Cuomo focus on how the violence helps the right-wing narrative. The racists insist that the rioters have undercut their case for change. That case has not changed. Probably at the instigation or white provocateurs, a few people did some stupid stuff. As some have pointed out, their looting is peanuts compared to the $600 billion large corporations and banks have looted from the American people in the form of Covid-19 financial help, while individuals, small business, states and municipalities have been largely ignored.