Saturday, December 5, 2020

Refund the police? Prefund the police? Confound the police!

Jean Cocteau, "Le Barman du Boeuf sur le Toit" (Bartender of "The Ox on the Roof" aka the Nothing Doing Bar), from Cocteau's scenario for a ballet to the score by Darius Milhaud, via Musica Brasiliensis. In the course of the scenario, if memory serves, there is a police raid, and the bar swiftly turns into a bucolic, innocent "milk bar" (section in slow waltz tempo with massed polychords around 7:00 to 9:20) and the baffled police leave them alone, after which the samba music starts up again.

Here's the thing. People want police. They do not want police who commit crimes. They do not want police who are on the take. In particular, they do not want police who kill children, or anybody. White people don't really want police to kill black people, though they often don't mind as much as they should. They want police who are good, and protect them from crimes. Black people want police to protect them from crimes too—that was a major impetus behind that famous crime bill back in 1994, that the African American community in cities wanted more police than their local governments were willing to pay for. 

Stingy local governments run by white people were shorting Black neighborhoods of policing, out of what was sometimes known in those days as "benign neglect", or maybe not so benign. They just didn't want to spend the money, and some people thought the federal government ought to pitch in. That was the reason a crime bill existed.

As it turned out, the crime bill did indeed provide enormous federal funding—for 100,000 cops. But it did nothing to ensure that the new cops in the inner city neighborhoods had any understanding of the neighborhoods they were going to be working in, and led to a lot of cops acting like occupying forces of a foreign invasion, some corruption, and quite a bit of violence. That was not a good thing. (The other aspect, the Republican part of the bill as it were, the new rules on criminal sentencing, the absurd differentiation between smoked cocaine and snorted cocaine as different kinds of "crimes" and the "three strikes" rules inviting states to adopt them, were a different kind of problem, though by no means a less serious one.)

So it didn't provide Black communities with the policing they actually needed (which obviously would have required a lot more Black cops, for one thing). In a world in which urban crime had already been greatly declining for some five years, it added a countercyclical element that made things worse by getting people tense and angry.

And so on, through the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland, through Brionna Taylor and George Floyd, when so many people started feeling that these murderers should be gotten under control by some means or another. The police are a force of oppression—of homicidal oppression—and it's unacceptable. Defund the police! I get that. But:

But I've been through something similar, with an issue where I felt much more personally involved, in the last couple of years, when the slogan "Abolish ICE!" took hold.

I was wildly enthusiastic about "Abolish ICE". ICE is a terrible agency. I wasn't saying immigration law shouldn't be enforced at all, I was saying the force that does it has to be differently constituted, and prevented from committing crimes against US law and crimes against humanity. That's not a bad thought! But Republicans said we wanted to eliminate the Mexican border, and that's all folk who weren't paying a lot of attention could hear. "Abolish ICE" was a bad slogan. I haven't changed my mind about what needs to be done, but that's not the way to say it in a political campaign.

One more anecdote, on the subject of defunding the police—at the height of the controversy, I happened to notice a Facebook post by my Millennial nephew Gabriel, who is a working class hero who decided not to go to college but wangled himself a union apprenticeship as a pipe fitter instead, from which he has now graduated, and has turned to doing that stuff for a richly remunerative compensation, and shows up from time to time online as a white-boy troll, and he was complaining on this occasion, in the wake of George Floyd, about that slogan. I'm really pathological about Facebook, it fills me with an incomprehensible horror, and although I have an account and get notifications pretty much every day, I rarely respond to anything. But because it was Gabe, and because I had a sense of something I wanted to say, I did this time; telling him that the idea behind the slogan was a good one, though I thought the slogan itself was stupid and annoying, and bringing up the story of policing in Camden, NJ, which had dissolved the local police at a time when it wasn't just the brutality of the force that was a problem but also their insanely generous union contracts in the wake of the financial crisis, in 2011.

The municipality reconstituted the police as a county force, rehired most of the former officers into it, and put together a bunch of rules to transform it into a sophisticated, and gentle, "community" force:

Thomson announced that officers would no longer be judged on how many tickets they wrote or arrests they made but on relationships they developed in the community and whether citizens felt safe enough to sit on their front steps or allow their children to ride their bikes in the street.[16] Thomson told the New York Times in 2017 that "aggressive ticket writing" was a sign that officers weren't understanding the new department, saying "handing a $250 ticket to someone who is making $13,000 a year can be life altering."[19] On new recruits' first day, they knock on doors in the neighborhood they're assigned to and introduce themselves.[9]

The initial strategy was to have as many officers walking and biking the streets as possible to discourage drug traffickers; as citizens felt safer and began occupying public spaces again, a critical mass of well-intentioned citizens was sufficient to keep the drug traffickers away and police pulled back on their presence.[16] Thomson also adopted new policies on use-of-force[7] and "scoop and go", which instructs officers to load injured people into their cruisers to take them to the hospital if calling for an ambulance would cause a delay.[19] The use-of-force policy, which the department had drafted with help from New York University Law School’s Policing Project and which was supported by the New Jersey ACLU and the Fraternal Order of Police, was called by experts the "most progressive" such policy to date, according to the Washington Post in 2019.[23]  (Wikipedia)

So the interesting thing is Gabe knew all about this from some source or other and thought it was a fantastic idea. People who don't go to college aren't ignorant at all, if they're related to me, and possibly even if they aren't, and he was entirely sympathetic to and supportive of the program and its aims. He hated the "DEFUND THE POLICE" slogan with a passion, but he was enthusiastic about a program that was meant to defund the police (in the end, it didn't save Camden any money at all, as a matter of fact, on the contrary; that's just not the thing that's good about it—remaking the police is what needs to be done).

I don't know how far you can extend the moral of this story, because OK, Gabe isn't merely smart enough, but extremely smart, though he might irritably deny that, and reasonably self-confident. I don't think the story of Camden sways unregenerate racists, because they're unregenerate. What I think I want to say is that committing yourself to a single form of words as opposed to an idea is not a good thing to do.

My favorite, maybe, of all 20th-century music masterpieces, Darius Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a kind of enormous rondo on popular Brazilian samba and maxixe tunes of the time (Milhaud was in Brazil as the French ambassador's secretary for some incomprehensible reason) in which the theoretical aim is to explore all the possible results of playing in two or more different keys at once. This "cinéma-fantaisie" arrangement, apparently the composer's own, uses a solo violin to turn the piece into a kind of concerto, cadenza (by Arthur Honegger) and all, but I like it a lot. A more faithful treatment of the score (with trumpets, which seem to make a big difference) is here.

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